Irish-American Crime Films: Men of Boys Town (1941)

Men of Boys Town: A two-fisted priest fights for juvenile offenders.

Men of Boys Town: A two-fisted priest fights for juvenile offenders.

Men of Boys Town (1941)

Written by: James Kevin McGuinness
Directed by: Norman Taurog
Starring:   Spencer Tracy, Mickey Rooney, Bobs Watson
Summary: Embedded in this beat-by-beat retelling of the first Boys Town movie is a genuinely harrowing look at abusive reform schools.

“Men of Boys Town” is about as overstuffed a film as I have seen. Much of it is almost a plot-point-by-plot-point rehash of the original “Boys Town.” Father Flanagan’s colony of in-need youths suffers from financial troubles, a tough kid is humanized by the school, and a car accident sets the climax in motion, although this time it is a dog, and not cherubic actor Bobs Watson, who is run down.

And the script is thick with sentiment. The New York Times could not have been less charitable when they reviewed it, saying:

[The film is]an obvious and maudlin reassembly of cliches out of the cabinet marked Pathos, lacking completely the sincerity which did distinguish the first, and so frequently punctuated by close-ups of blubbering boys that one finally feels an embarrassed inclination to look away.

And yet, stuffed right in the middle of the film, book-ended by so much plot that it feels like an aside, is a look at a brutal boys reformatory that is utterly harrowing. There’s too much plot, really, for me to explain it fully. Suffice it to say that Mickey Rooney’s character, a former swaggering delinquent named Whitey, is adopted out-of-state and accidentally gets himself sent to the reformatory there. We already know about the particular reformatory, as the film starts with a boy named Ted remanded to the care of Boys Town. He was crippled by a guard at the reformatory, and murdered the guard in revenge.

There aren’t many scenes at the reformatory, but they are all of brutality, much of it rained down on Whitey’s head. He has turned into an honorable boy, and that’s a liability in this place, where standing up for another child will get you knocked unconscious. Worse still, Whitey witnesses a boy die in solitary and refuses to keep quiet about it, and so he finds himself likewise exiled to solitary, where, the film intimates, terrible things happen unwitnessed. White has been given another tiny sidekick in this film, a boy named Flip, played by Darryl Hickman with exaggerated gestures of bravado, slinging dime-store tough-guy lingo, and it’s mostly played for laughs. That is, until Flip ends up in the reformatory, at which point his bravado dies up and he weeps with terror. In a film of exaggerated sentiment, these scenes feel unforced and terrifying.

It resolves itself pretty quickly: Spencer Tracy, reprising his role as Father Flanagan, shows up and physically threatens the warden, and almost immediately the place is shut down. Unlike the original “Boys Town,” which at least borrowed from the real story of Father Flanagan, this one barely glances at history, making its story up whole cloth.

12-year-old murderer Herbert Niccolls.

12-year-old murderer Herbert Niccolls.

What the film does get right is Father Flanagan’s disgust with the juvenile reformatory system. In 1931, Flanagan fought to have a 12-year-old murderer in Washington named Herbert Niccolls remanded to Boys Town. Niccolls had shot a sheriff who had surprised him during a robbery, but Flanagan argued the boy never had a chance. “He went to the reformatory at the age of 9 and stayed there 15 months,” Flanagan told the press. “He’s no criminal; he’s simply like any other hungry, neglected boy.”

Martin paroled Niccolls in 1941, and the former child murderer eventually found work at the MGM movie studio as an accountant — the very studio that produced “Men of Boys Town” the year after Niccolls’ release.
Flanagan’s pleas were ignored and Niccolls was sentenced to life imprisonment — an unusually harsh punishment for a minor. Fortunately for Niccolls, a new governor was elected in Washington named Clarence Martin, and Martin took a personal interest in Niccolls, visiting him in his cell. Niccolls received unusual treatment for a prisoner — he wore street clothes instead of prison denims, ate with the guards instead of his fellow prisoners, and received homework from the school district. He excelled at his studies, receiving a high school diploma and took correspondence classes from Washington State College.

Martin paroled Niccolls in 1941, and the former child murderer eventually found work at the MGM movie studio as an accountant — the very studio that produced “Men of Boys Town” the year after Niccolls’ release. Niccolls lived to 1983 and was reportedly a model citizen, and its hard not to wonder if his 10 years in prison was necessary — with just the slightest amount of discipline and opportunity, he made a good life for himself, and he would have found that at Boys Town.

“Men of Boys Town” was a moderate financial success, but hasn’t left much of a legacy — even at Boys Town itself, where the film was shot, there is scarce mention of the film. There also isn’t much mention of Flanagan’s stance against reform schools, although there is brief mention of a tour he did of such school in Ireland in 1946, which Flanagan decried in no uncertain terms: “[A] scandal, un-Christlike, and wrong.” Perhaps this is because 1930s-style reform schools seem like a throwback to an earlier era, of boys in newsie caps threatening Italian store-owners with homemade Saturday night specials.

Of course, they never actually went away, although the phrase has become passe, replaced with “juvenile correctional institutions” and similarly sterile phrases. The legacy of abuse is still around too: In January of this year the Nampa, Idaho juvenile corrections center was rocked with allegations of sexual abuse, and newspapers reporting on the story pointed to statistics from national inmate surveys that show that juveniles suffer sexual abuse at the hands of staffers at almost three times the rate incarcerated adults do.

I don’t know if I believe the moment in “Men of Boys Town” when Spencer Tracy takes off his collar to threaten the warden of a juvenile facility. It seemed very out of character for Father Flanagan. But, gosh, it sometimes feel like somebody needs to be ready to put up their fists and fight for children, even those charged with serious crimes, and Flanagan has been gone a long time.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.