Boys Town

Overall I found Boys Town much less satisfactory — more dated and sappily moralizing — than Angels with Dirty Faces. In both movies, any sense of religious transcendence, faith, or sacrament — as represented by the priest — is trumped by the weight of the ethical. In Boys Town, this is made clear in the first scene. Spencer Tracy as Fr. Flanagan (the movie states at the outset that the story is based on that of a real priest) is called in to hear the confession of a convict about to be executed. But no confession is ever really heard, at least none that is shown on film. Instead, the convict issues an impassioned indictment of “the system” responsible for turning him into a hardened criminal and setting him on a path that has ended on death row. When the condemned man asks Fr. Flanagan if he is afraid of death, the answer remains steadfastly in the ethical sphere: “I’ve made mistakes, but I’ve always been sorry for them and I’ve tried to make up for it.” No mention of what one might hope a priest might reference in this context: God, Christ, grace, mercy, Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross, confession, absolution, last rites. The dramatic purpose of the scene is to launch Fr. Flanagan on his crusade to treat the root of the problem by saving boys from the evil system — hence “Boys Town” is born and flourishes Utopia-like … until Whitey Marsh (a young but nevertheless annoying Mickey Rooney) shows up. (Fr. Flanagan to Whitey late in the movie: “It was a sad, bad day when I brought you here.”) Spoiler alert: Whitey turns good in the end and is even elected mayor of Boys Town. Before that happens, however, Boys Town has developed into a sort of institutional Leave it to Beaver writ large, with a pinch of Catholic guilt and a couple of scenes that might set off one’s post-scandal alarms just a bit.

Overall grade: D+
Priest factor: C-

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  1. almostgotit says

    "priest factor." Now that's a new one.

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