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January 25, 2008

Boys Town

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Norman Taurog - 1938
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

Almost a week to go with Edward Copeland's Best Actor Survey and I finally realized that there are about ten Oscar winning performances I have yet to see. There are too many nominees to catch up on as well. Of the winners, I finally saw Save the Tiger, the most recent of the unseen films. What is really amazing is that I actually worked in the theater that showed this film, the Greenwich Theater in New York City, and never bothered to sit down to watch the whole film. I also caught Gregory Peck's nominated performance in Twelve O'Clock High, a film I had promised myself that I would see since 1975 when I saw an excerpt at Telluride for the Henry King tribute. There will still be gaps - I will have to take the Academy at their word that Paul Lukas's performance in Watch on the Rhine was better than Humphrey Bogart's in Casablanca, or that Dan Dailey was a worthy competitor to Lew Ayres, Montgomery Clift, Laurence Olivier and even Clifton Webb.

While I like Spencer Tracy, I'm not convinced that his was the best performance of 1938. While I haven't seen Charles Boyer in Algiers, I have seen the other three nominees. Beaten by the cinematic Father Flanagan were James Cagney in Angels with Dirty Faces, Robert Donat in The Citadel and Leslie Howard in Pygmalion. Cagney and Donat would get their Oscars, and Rex Harrison would win for the musical version of Howard's role. Of the nominees, my own preference is Donat who has the advantage of being in a film directed by King Vidor, and even better, has Rosalind Russell as his leading lady.

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Father Edward Flanagan was a role Tracy played twice, starring in the sequel Men of Boys Town. Tracy was first nominated as the priest, Father Mullin, in the much more entertaining San Francisco made two years earlier. For a few years, playing a priest would merit an Oscar nomination, Gregory Peck in Keys of the Kingdom, if not an actual Oscar, like Bing Crosby's for Going My Way.

For a film biography, about the only things factual about Boys Town are that there was a Father Flanagan and there is a Boys Town in Omaha, Nebraska. No effort was made to establish any sense of when Flanagan first established his home for boys (1917). The passage of time is vaguely indicated by the graying of Tracy's hair near the end of the film.

Even though Tracy won the Oscar, it's Mickey Rooney's performance as bad boy Whitey Marsh that makes Boys Town watchable. It's a foregone conclusion that the little punk will clean up his act and get into the good graces of Father Flanagan, but it's still fun watching him play the wise guy to Tracy's idealistic priest. Rooney would go on to earn Oscar nominations in future films, although it was in some of the less heralded films that would make the best use of Rooney's brash energy. Boys Town was beloved by the Academy seventy years ago, one of ten (!) films nominated for Best Picture of 1938. While Father Flanagan was famous for his belief that there was no such thing as a bad boy, Boys Town is a reminder that some films accorded classic status are not always that good.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at January 25, 2008 12:08 AM