Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Movie Review: Boys Town

Boys Town (1938) 
directed by Norman Taurog, starring Spencer Tracy, Mickey Rooney

(Note: Review requested by Silver Screenings during my Reader's Choice Event. You have my humblest apologies for its lateness.)

Father Flanagan (Spencer Tracy) has always been a friend to children in need, giving comfort to the guilty and succor to the innocent. And all his experiences have driven him to a single conclusion: There is no such thing as a bad boy. Such talk goes against the grain for the prison wardens and business owners that have to contend with the roving gangs that tear up the slum streets. His friend, Dave Morris (Henry Hull) thinks he's a deluded fool. But after hearing one death-row confession too many, Flanagan is convinced that the only way to save these boys is to give them a proper home, away from reform schools and gangs. He talks the reluctant Morris into financing him and opens up Boys Town.

After many hardship and sacrifices, Flanagan and Morris succeed in building up Boys Town into a genuine refuge for boys in need.  Everyone is clamoring for Flanagan to take their boy in hand; some boys walk miles and miles to be admitted. But there's one boy who swears he'll never fall for that phony racket, a boy who just might turn out to be the first failure of Boys Town. That boy is Whitey Marsh (Mickey Rooney), a fast-talking delinquent who only wants to cut out and join his gangster older brother Joe (Edward Norris). Father Flanagan and all the boys under his care will find out if tough talk and tough love will be enough to straighten out Whitey before he drags the whole community down with him.

Spencer Tracy is the perfect rebuttal to that old chestnut about never working with children or animals. Because not only did he win back-to-back Best Actor Oscars in 1937 and 1938, he won it for playing the exact same role: a virtuous, plain-spoken mentor who manages to win over a bratty boy, turning him into an honorable and good-hearted young man. Both movies featured popular child actors (Freddie Bartholomew and Mickey Rooney, respectively). Both movies belong to that slick, familiar, wears-its-corn-on-its-sleeve MGM style. And yet, I find one distinct and undeniable difference between Captains Courageous and Boys Town, one that completely divided my reactions to the two films.  

Captains Courageous was fun. It was a fun coming-of-age adventure story with a great child actor to carry it (yeah, I like Freddie Bartholomew) and no big ambitions beyond that. Boys Town, however, is not fun. It is nothing less than a hymn of praise to a saint of a man who hems and haws and waits for his problems to just melt away. Delinquent boys flock to his side and he wins over everyone while barely seeming to lift a finger (I have to wonder what the real Father Flanagan thought of his portrayal here). 

Now the sugar-frosted approach is not too surprising, given the era and the studio. But Boys Town gives me the nagging feeling that it wants to be fun, too. It wants to be the perfect little angel sitting at the front of the class and lecturing you on the true meaning of Christmas, but it also wants to be the irresistible class cut-up making faces in the corner. 

 So what we end up with is a movie that begins with Father Flanagan's noble quest to give boys an alternative to the streets or reforms school. But instead of showing us how he built Boys Town, it skips ahead several years and the place is already an amazing success. The movie stops being about Flanagan and shifts to the story of Mickey Rooney's character Whitey Marsh, apparently the only boy who ever rebelled against Boys Town. From there, the movie follows the comic hijinks of Whitey, who gets into one scrape after another, including class elections, cow milking, and blackface (errr). But then the movie shifts gears yet again and suddenly Whitey gets mixed up in a gangster plot that feels like it was airlifted over from Warner Brothers. Hell, there's even a scene where Father Flanagan and his boys march over to the gangsters' hideout, armed with bats and looking like a genuine lynch mob. I won't be giving much away by telling you the movie has a happy ending, but I was genuinely shocked that a movie with this much plot and this many tonal shifts could wind up feeling so averse to conflict, so afraid to really examine its hero and his lifework.

Maybe my perspective on Boys Town is hopelessly tied to my own life. You see, my mom was an elementary school principal. And when I was a kid, I would ask her about her day. This meant that I got to hear all the stories about every problem kid in our district and beyond. I got to hear about the nine-year-old whose mental problems could drive him into an uncontrollable frenzy of rage, enough so that even a team of paramedics couldn't restrain him without a straight-jacket. I got to hear about the twin girls who got placed in a loving foster home, only to be separated when one girl tried to beat her sleeping sister with a bat. This same sister was put under medication. When a different foster situation tried to take her off the drugs, she promptly tried to burn her school down. Another kid was reasonably bright and liked to please but if he saw a kid who'd fallen down, he would be compelled to run over and jump up and down on their head. Now don't get me wrong, I got to hear all the great, inspiring stories too. All the cute things kids say. But I can't get with a movie that tries to tell me helping troubled children is easy.

It's a shame really, because I think Boys Town does have an interesting story to tell. Father Flanagan was a real person and his goals were admirable. Boys Town still stands today. It's downright maddening to see that potential squandered. 

In a weird way, the movie actually seems to be on surer ground with Mickey Rooney's character than Spencer Tracy's, even if Rooney acts more like a runaway game show host than he does a real kid. The movie is far more interested in showcasing his antics. It's like the creators started out with good intentions but said to themselves, "Slums? Misery? The root of criminal behavior? To hell with it, let's stick to what we know! Letting a child actor steal all the scenes!"

My pet theory on Spencer Tracy is that he was much, much more interesting when his movies acknowledged he was kind of a bastard. Give me the cocky, fast-talking Tracy of the pre-Code era over the upright, honest Tracy of later flicks. I wish MGM hadn't decided to make Tracy the moralizing voice of so many movies because it really works against him as an actor.

His Oscar-winning performance in Boys Town is a complete turnaround from his more self-conscious turn as the Portuguese sailor in Captains Courageous. He's very underplayed here, very smooth. Many of his scenes have him just listening while a louder, more obviously troubled character pours out their heart to him, and Tracy is always an active listener. He never tries to wrest the scene away, but he makes it very clear what Flanagan is thinking and feeling. The movie sets Tracy's dial to "patience and kindness" so many times, it's impressive he manages to bring any reality to it at all.

However, I have a confession to make. I was kind of glad when the movie switched from Spencer Tracy to Mickey Rooney. Because Rooney, despite giving a performance with more bells and whistles than a hundred Christmas concerts, is way more fun to watch.

It may be bizarre, but it's oddly enjoyable to watch a bow-tied Rooney strutting across the grounds with a walk that's half barnyard rooster, half used-car salesman. It's fun to watch him tent his fingers together like a plotting supervillian when he decides to upset the boys' election. His conversion to good is less fun, but Rooney does manages to dig up some genuine feeling here and there. The brotherly relationship he develops with Pee-Wee, the adored baby kid of the school, actually succeeds in feeling fairly genuine and Rooney has good chemistry with little Bobs Watson.* 

But overall, you know what Rooney's performance reminded me of? Christian Slater's Jack Nicholson impersonation in Heathers. I'm dead serious. Every nasally, fast-talking, sneering line he says? It's all delivered in the exact same tone that Slater used. Hell, I could just imagine Mickey Rooney saying the line, "Football season is over, Veronica. Kurt and Ram had nothing left to offer the school except date rapes and AIDS jokes." And now that I've imagined that, I'm going to go on to imagine an alternate universe where I could cast young Mickey Rooney as the wisecracking psychotic killer running rampant through a high school. I want that movie.

Boys Town gives us a perfect summary of the difference between Tracy and Rooney in this film in the scene where Father Flanagan arrives at Boys Town on Christmas, lugging a heavy bag. "What is it?" the boys demand. Tracy hesitates before answering. "It's good cornmeal mush, not a tummy ache in the carload." The boys are outraged. "If I was home, my old man would wallop me, but we'd have turkey Christmas," one of them says. And that's just the way I feel here. Tracy's acting here is good cornmeal mush. It's straight and simple and perfectly unobjectionable, but there's just not much flavor. Rooney is an overcooked Christmas turkey. He may be overflowing with fats and juices and stuffed with more than you need, but dammit, at least he's giving you something resembling a meal. I can't honestly call it a good performance but without it, all of Tracy's sincerity would just turn to sand in your mouth. 

The best performance in the movie is actually given by Henry Hull. He plays Flanagan's reluctant, beleaguered business partner. And by partner, I mean the guy who funds everything and handles the business aspect and all the practicalities while the other guy just smiles and asks him to find a solution. Really, Hull is the true hero of this movie. But he also manages the trick of giving a performance that balances the movie's comedy and its drama. He's tearing his hair out at Tracy's nonchalance, but he's genuinely moved to see the positive results. He's like the bridge between Rooney and Tracy's different approaches. I enjoyed him in every scene and I was always sorry to see him go.
I haven't given much space here to the movie's director Norman Taurog, but frankly, I have no kind words for him. His direction here is pure hack-work, plain and simple. The film opens with a stark scene of a prisoner on death row, begging for some understanding and decency in his last moments. Imagine the angles a good director could bring to such a scene, the lighting, the close-ups. Instead, Taurog just stages and shoots it like a play, with the other actors standing around awkwardly as the prisoner physically moves to each of them in turn to plead his case. There's another scene later where Rooney breaks down emotionally in a chapel, giving way to doubt and pain at last. This could have been deeply profound. But Taurog just lets the actors get into position and flail around, keeping everything in a standard medium shot. I can't think of a single visually interesting shot in this movie. Taurog leaves everything to the actors.

So, with all that said, am I panning this movie? I can't quite bring myself to do that. It's not really bad and in parts, it can be quite entertaining. It's just that those parts never fit together into an emotionally coherent whole. It's like the movie is actively fighting against itself, wanting to praise its hero but deliberately ignoring him. It wants to argue for social justice, but doesn't want to live in the real world. I think the children and founder of Boys Town deserved something more honest than this.

Favorite Quote:

"Can't you stop that singing?"

"It's his turn next. You confess. He sings."

Favorite Scene:

 I'm especially partial to an early scene with Spencer Tracy and Henry Hull arguing over money. Tracy tries to pawn his watch for a hundred dollars and Hull, with just the right touch of irritation and humor in his voice, shows him his watch collection. "You can have any one of those for sixty-five cents--and any one of them is better than yours!" Tracy keeps trying, even pulling out a kid's puzzle and passing it off to Hull. Hull stares back in disbelief. "This is a ten-cent toy!" Tracy beams. "Yeah, you can have a lot of fun with it!" "Not a hundred dollars worth I can't!" And yet Tracy keeps working at him, still smiling, still sincere and you can see Hull slowly come around, even though he's snapping angrily at Tracy the whole time.

Final Six Words:

Plate of wholesomeness, served room temperature

*Incidentally, I made fun of Watson back in my Dodge City review--but I feel a little guilty for it now. It wasn't his fault that shedding copious tears was his trademark. And apparently he had such a good experience acting with Tracy in Boys Town that it inspired him to become a real minister. Good for Pee-Wee!


  1. What a relief to find someone as convinced as I am that Mickey Rooney was a far more unhinged actor than even his most vigorous performances indicate. I also noticed how close to psychosis his performance is here—well, some sort of hyper-realized version of Cagney's tap-dancer/gangster split/melded personality. And while I think Tracy turns some dangerous curves in his later movies, I agree that Rooney steals the show here—and that Henry Hull is pretty remarkable, given his character.

    But again: What a brave new world that has such people as Rooney in it!

    1. What a nice comment! Your comparison to Cagney is one that didn't occur to me while watching but it does make a lot of sense. Rooney did do a fair number of film noirs later in his career (I really need to check them out) so clearly filmmakers caught onto that dark streak of madness running under the frenetic charm.

      I'm not quite sure what you mean by "dangerous curves" in Tracy's case, or whether you approve of these curves or not, but I'd love to hear you elaborate, if you happen to come back.

      And nice to hear you throw some love in Hull's direction. He takes an implausible solution to all Tracy's problems and makes him a plausible, generous human being.