Boys Town and Men Of Boys Town — Directed by Norman Taurog. A Catholic priest in establishing a boarding school for delinquents in the middle of Nebraska comes up against his financial and personal nemeses. 96 minutes Black and White 1938.
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The male movie stars of the 1930s were more beautiful than the female stars, and also more homely, and there is a good reason for it: the Great Depression. Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney wore Common Man faces and had the common touch. The very plebian Irish mug of Spencer Tracey was Metros answer to the trend, and one wonders what Boys Town would have been like made at its obvious place, Warner Brothers, home of the gangster film. For Boys town is about proto-gangsters whom a well meaning Catholic Priest Father Flanagan took under his wing and for them established a series of farms cum schools which prosper and protect young males to this day, irrespective of race, religion, or ancestry. Warners had some tough crooks, but here the JDs are turned into gutter roses by a shoulder pat. They are played by group of Hollywood child actors so vicious in their technique that they can burst into tears at the drop of clapper. Never have so many cried so much for so few reels. They should have put glycerin on the camera lens and have done with it. Perfectly cast as a solid priest, Spencer Tracy won his second Oscar in a row, and you can see why. Tracy never oversteps the mark by emotionalizing his ideals or sentimentalizing the trites he has to utter. Fascinating to watch, he is an actor who has carefully compartmentalized himself and gives everything short of the mawkish. His authority derives from the fact that his body is well grounded, and his performance depends upon his responsiveness, rather than his aggressiveness, such that we somehow believe it when others get their Irish up and all he has to do is repeat a request three times in a row for opponents to flutter to the ground as wild leaves before the mighty blast of October. Both movies are on one disc and both were made on the campus of Boys Town and both are worth seeing. Not least for the performance of Mickey Rooney as his enemy in the first and his ally in the second. Rooney has two qualities, one, confidence, and two, a quality so rare that few great artists possess it – Eddie Murphy, Bugs Bunny, Johann Sebastian Bach – drive. So potent is Rooney as a screen presence that for the second film his role of brat gangster must be divided in two. The older he got and the more his status as a star diminished, the greater the actor Rooney became. He and Olivia de Havilland are the only surviving movie stars of the 1930s, she the ideal Hermia in Max Reinhardt’s A Mid Summer Nights’ Dream, and he, “Oh what fools these mortals be!” naked in a tree, the Puck of Pucks.