Based on the real historical character, Boys Town tells the story of Father Flanagan and the shelter/school/community for homeless boys he established in Nebraska in 1917. Flanagan, played by Spencer Tracy in an academy-award winning performance, maintains there is “no such thing as a bad boy,” a credo tested to the limit by Whitey Marsh, kid brother and charge of an unrepentant gangster on death row, who virtually wills the boy to Father Flanagan.
Modern audiences may find this film a little implausible—how tough can a hooligan played by Mickey Rooney be?—and certainly sentimental. It may appear, especially from the perspective of our contemporary society, that Flanagan’s faith in the natural goodness of children is a little idealistic. Still, it's a faith that's good-hearted, deeply felt, and as a result, quite encouraging: former toughs and street kids of all ages learn unity in a place where they have only each other, government in a society where they decide the laws, and love in a home where they can see Father Flanagan labor and sacrifice for them. As an example of expert, old-fashioned Hollywood showmanship, this is a fantastic film, and one whose sincerity and social substance—produced in the context of the late Depression—provide unexpected value.