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Boys Town (1938)

MGM knew how to inspire audiences, as TCM fans are well aware. Eighty-five years ago, the studio did such a good job presenting a fictionalized history of Boys Town, the Nebraska home for underprivileged young men founded by Father Edward Flanagan, it not only motivated one young actor in the film to become a minister, but also briefly convinced audiences the facility was doing so well it didn’t need any more donations. Star Spencer Tracy had to issue a statement to generate support for the institution.

In the film, Flanagan (Tracy) sets out to found Boys Town after hearing the confession of a condemned killer who had grown up homeless and with no resources. He sets up a miniature city where the boys he takes in govern and police themselves. It’s an ideal situation until one particularly troubled youth (Mickey Rooney) shows up and starts bucking the system, jeopardizing Boys Town’s future.

When MGM began production on Boys Town, Tracy was Father Flanagan’s first choice to play him. But the actor hesitated, feeling unworthy to embody such a great man. After a meeting with Flanagan, however, he took on the role with his usual expertise and professionalism. His kindness to the boys during filming inspired child actor Bobs Watson to become a minister in his adult life. The performance brought Tracy a second consecutive Oscar for Best Actor (the first was for 1937’s Captains Courageous). He donated the statuette to Boys Town, where it is still on display today.

d. Norman Taurog, 93 minutes, 35mm

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Classics and Park Circus LLC