Boys Town (film)

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Boys Town
Boys town.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Norman Taurog
Produced by John W. Considine Jr.
Written by Dore Schary
Eleanore Griffin
John Meehan
Starring Spencer Tracy
Mickey Rooney
Henry Hull
Music by Edward Ward
Cinematography Sidney Wagner
Edited by Elmo Veron
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release dates
  • September 9, 1938 (1938-09-09)
Running time
96 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $772,000[1]
Box office $4,058,000[1]

Boys Town is a 1938 biographical drama film based on Father Edward J. Flanagan's work with a group of underprivileged and delinquent boys in a home that he founded and named "Boys Town". It stars Spencer Tracy as Father Edward J. Flanagan, and Mickey Rooney with Henry Hull, Leslie Fenton, and Gene Reynolds

The film was written by Dore Schary, Eleanore Griffin and John Meehan, and was directed by Norman Taurog.

Legendary MGM Studio head Louis B. Mayer, who was a Ukrainian-American Jew known for his respect for the Catholic Church, later called this his favorite film of his tenure at MGM.[2][3]

Although the story is largely fictional, it is based upon a real man and a real place. Boys Town is a community outside of Omaha, Nebraska.[2] In 1943 Boys Town adopted as its image and logo a sculpture of a boy carrying a younger boy on his back, captioned "He ain't heavy, Father ... he's my brother." In 1941, MGM made a sequel, Men of Boys Town, with Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney reprising their roles from the earlier film.


Spencer Tracy (center) as Father Flanagan in Boys Town

A convicted murderer asks to make his confession on the day of his execution. He is visited by an old friend, Father Flanagan (Spencer Tracy) who runs a home for indigent men in Omaha, Nebraska. When the prison officials suggest that the condemned man owes the state a debt, Father Flanagan witnesses the condemned man's diatribe to prison officials and a reporter that describes his awful plight as a homeless and friendless boy who was a ward in state institutions. After the convicted man asks the officials to leave, Father Flanagan provides some comfort and wisdom. On the train back to Omaha, Father Flanagan is transformed in his humanitarian mission by revelations (echoed in the words) imparted by the condemned man's litany of hardships experienced as a child without friends or family as a ward of the state.

Father Flanagan believes there is no such thing as a bad boy and spends his life attempting to prove it. He battles indifference, the legal system, and often the boys themselves, to build a sanctuary which he calls Boys Town. The boys have their own government, make their own rules, and dish out their own punishment. One boy, Whitey Marsh (Mickey Rooney) is as much as anyone can handle. Whitey's older brother, in prison for murder, asks Father Flanagan to take Whitey (himself a poolroom shark and tough talking hoodlum) to Boys Town. Whitey's older brother escapes custody during transfer to federal prison. After thinking he has caused the death of a younger boy, Whitey leaves the un-fenced Boys Town and wanders the streets of town. Whitey is accused of bank robbery and murder on circumstantial evidence. Popular sentiment (stirred by sensationalized media reports headed by an unsympathetic newspaper owner) turns against Boys Town, and it seems likely the home will be permanently closed. Whitey joins his brother, but Father Flanagan rescues Whitey and helps capture the gang in the act of robbery. Whitey and Father Flanagan return to Boys Town.[2]



The film was a massive hit and earned MGM over $2 million in profit.[4]


Award Result Winner
Outstanding Production Nominated Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (John W. Considine, Jr, Producer)
Winner was Frank Capra (Columbia) - You Can't Take It With You
Best Director Nominated Norman Taurog
Winner was Frank Capra - You Can't Take It With You
Best Actor Won Spencer Tracy
Best Writing, Screenplay Nominated John Meehan and Dore Schary
Winner was Ian Dalrymple, Cecil Arthur Lewis, W. P. Lipscomb, George Bernard Shaw - Pygmalion
Best Writing, Original Story Won Eleanore Griffin and Dore Schary

In February 1939, when he accepted his Oscar for the role, Spencer Tracy responded graciously by spending all of his acceptance speech talking about Father Flanagan. "If you have seen him through me, then I thank you." An overzealous MGM publicity representative announced that Tracy was donating his Oscar to Flanagan without confirming it with Tracy. Tracy's response was: "I earned the...thing. I want it." The Academy hastily struck another inscription, Tracy kept his statuette, and Boys Town got one, too. It read: "To Father Flanagan, whose great humanity, kindly simplicity, and inspiring courage were strong enough to shine through my humble effort. Spencer Tracy."[5]

According to the IMDB trivia page, there's an alternative version of the Spencer Tracy Oscar story. "The day after Spencer Tracy won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in this film, an MGM publicist released a statement - without consulting Tracy first - that the actor would donate his Oscar to the real Boys Town in Nebraska. Tracy agreed to make the donation if the Academy would send him a replacement Oscar. When the replacement arrived, the engraving on the award read: "Best Actor - Dick Tracy.""[6]

Box office

According to MGM records the film earned $2,828,000 in the US and Canada and $1,230,000 elsewhere resulting in a profit of $2,112,000.[1]

Home video releases

Boys Town was released on VHS by MGM on March 29, 1993 and re-released on VHS on March 7, 2000. On November 8, 2005, it was released on DVD as a part of the "Warner Brothers Classic Holiday Collection", a 3-DVD set which also contains Christmas in Connecticut and the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol, and as an individual disc. The DVD release also includes the 1941 sequel Men of Boys Town as an extra feature.


Main article: Men of Boys Town

Released in April 1941, Men of Boys Town takes a darker tone to the plight of homeless and troubled youth. Tracy and Rooney reprise their characters as Father Flanagan and Whitey Marsh as they expose the conditions in a boys reform school. This movie was released on VHS on December 23, 1993, but is now available only as an extra feature on Boys Town's DVD.

Popular culture

In the Northern Exposure television series 1991 episode "The Big Kiss", orphan Ed Chigliak watches Boys Town and is inspired to find out who his real parents are. He mentions the film reference to several other characters.

Newt Gingrich, the Speaker of the House of Representatives in 1994, referenced the film to argue that philanthropists would be able to help those effected by government cuts.[7]


  1. ^ a b c The Eddie Mannix Ledger, Los Angeles: Margaret Herrick Library, Center for Motion Picture Study .
  2. ^ a b c Clooney, Nick (November 2002). The Movies That Changed Us: Reflections on the Screen. New York: Atria Books, a trademark of Simon & Schuster. p. 205. ISBN 0-7434-1043-2. 
  3. ^ "The Religious Affiliation of Movie Producer Louis B. Mayer". 
  4. ^ James Curtis, Spencer Tracy: A Biography, Alfred Knopf, 2011 p370
  5. ^ Clooney, p. 212-213
  6. ^
  7. ^ "Eleanore Griffin, 91; Screenwriter Shared 'Boys Town' Oscar". The New York Times. 1995-07-30. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2016-03-22. 

External links