Today is Saturday, so I’m going to publish this week’s first 100+ New Code Films article. This is the second week in this series, which will last throughout 2021. I am enjoying the freedom which this series affords in contrast to last year’s 100 New Code Films. Instead of sticking tightly to the schedule of watching and reviewing only two new American Breen Era (1934-1954) films each week, I can watch and as many new movies as I want to while only having to review two! I am loving the chance to watch as many new Code films as possible.
Today’s topic is Men of Boys Town from 1941. This is the sequel to the Academy Award-winning Boys Town from 1938. We watched this film a couple of years ago, and we all loved it! At the time, Men of Boys Town wasn’t available on Amazon Prime Video. However, it has recently been added, so I added it to the watchlist. Reviews and comments from fellow writers told me that some held this drama to be even better than its predecessor! This afternoon, Rebekah wanted to watch Boys Town while we ate lunch. After watching that, we all felt like seeing the sequel. We bought this film on Prime Video and watched it with dinner.
At Boys Town, a Nebraska community/school run for and by homeless and wayward boys, life continues as usual. The earnest priest in charge is always trying to expand Boys Town so that he will have room for more boys. A few new buildings are in the process of being completed, which will allow for hundreds more to live there, but they have not yet raised the money to pay for them. The trouble-maker who once rocked Boys Town with his rebellious nature is now, after three years, a reformed citizen, the mayor, and the priest’s devoted assistant. He is also a radio buff and the editor the local newspaper. When the priest’s friend and business partner returns after a year’s vacation, he is horrified by Boys Town’s financial state. Meanwhile, the priest is still trying to help as many individual boys as he can. He travels 1000 miles to visit a boy accused of murdering a reform school guard. When the boy, who is bedridden because of a broken back, confesses to the priest that he shot him because of the abusive torment he and other boys as the school had received, he persuades the judge to commit the lad to Boys Town for rehabilitation. The priest hopes to make him walk again, but he can only do so if the boy will overcome his fear and mistrust of doctors enough to allow a competent physician to examine him. First, he must make the boy smile, a task he gives to the mayor. All their attempts fail until they bring a little dog into see the boy. The couple who own the dog have their hearts set on adopting a boy to replace their son, who died a few years earlier, and they choose the mayor. The boy and the priest are both devastated for him to leave, but he agrees since he thinks that it is what Father wants. However, the young man’s attempts to see a friend of the cripple at the reform school land him in more trouble than he would have thought possible.
This film stars Spencer Tracy, Mickey Rooney, and Bobs Watson. Supporting actors include Larry Nunn, Lee J. Cobb, Darryl Hickman, Henry O’Neill, and Mary Nash.
This film was directed by Norman Taurog. It was produced by John W. Considine Jr. The production company was MGM. The original screenplay was written by James Kevin McGuinness.
This is a perfect Code film. Like its predecessor, this movie is extremely inspiring. The first dealt with difficult issues, such as the inherent sinfulness of man, juvenile delinquency, moral accountability, murder, and life and death situations. The sequel goes even farther by dealing with child abuse, brutal violence against minors, and the cruelty as well as inefficacy of reform schools. Although it handles some very serious and rough topics, it handles them in a very Code-compliant way. You see just enough violence to know how horrible the situation at the reform school is, yet it is never disgusting, brutal, or distasteful. In fact, most of the violence is merely discussed, so it is never graphic. As in the first film, the faith is subtly implied as the root of Father Flanagan’s (Spencer Tracy) strength and success, but the Catholic religion is not explicitly promoted. Instead, common decency is the message. Mickey Rooney’s films at pre-war MGM really show the Code’s purpose, its many facets, and the results it produced. It made wonderfully clean, perfectly wholesome family films like The Andy Hardy series. It made lighthearted musicals like his “let’s put on a show” movies with Judy Garland. It made wonderfully Code-compliant adaptations of classic literature, like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Little Lord Fauntleroy. It also made dramatic movies about very controversial topics, like Men of Boys Town. Code films could be light, uplifting movies which were just entertaining, but they also could be brutally honest exposes which presented as realistic and harsh a message a modern R-rated film.
I highly recommend this film. It is far from an easy watch, but I loved it. The acting is superb, as you would expect from actors like Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney. It’s wonderful that so much of the original cast could be present in the sequel. Father Flanagan, Whitey Marsh (Mickey Rooney), little Pee Wee (Bobs Watson), and Mo (Sidney Miller) all reprise their roles, keeping perfect character continuity from the first one. There was only one part which was recast, that of Dave Morris, the shop keeper who first funded Father Flanagan’s boys’ home efforts and remains his friend and supporter for years. While he was played by Henry Hull in the 1938 film, Lee J. Cobb took over the role in the 1941 sequel. I think Henry Hull was busy in a Broadway play at the time, since his IMDb page recounts his doing a lot of stage work around that time. Although it’s unfortunate that there is that one disconnect between the two, Lee J. Cobb does a great job in the part. Spencer Tracy is just as wonderful in this movie as he was in the previous performance as Father Flanagan, which won him an Oscar. Mickey Rooney allows Whitey to grow in this one, showing that his three years at Boys Town has matured him from a rebellious troublemaker into an upstanding young man. He is eager to propagate Father Flanagan’s ideals, so he tries to help the other troubled boys he meets. This is one of Mickey Rooney’s finest, most dynamic performances. Whitey’s relationship with Father Flanagan is so touching. The cast also features many other remarkable young boys. Bobs Watson, now a noticeably older Pee Wee, is just as lovable as in the first one, and he gives a heart-wrenching crying scene when the times comes. Larry Nunn is a new edition to the cast, and his performance is deeply moving. As Ted, the boy whose back has been broken and heart has been hardened by abuse and neglect, Larry gives a heartbreaking performance. Little Darryl Hickman, a ten-year-old gangster who breaks out of reform school, is both hilarious and tragic, as his tough talk and criminal ways show how quickly young people can be hardened. This movie will bring tears to your eyes and a shudder to your heart at times, but it also has some beautifully uplifting and heartwarming moments. If you enjoyed Boys Town, you’ll love Men of Boys Town!
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