Mickey Rooney and Men of Boys Town, 1941Turner Classic Movies ran a full day of Mickey Rooney films last week to honor his long career. I caught a few scenes from an Andy Hardy film, and watched some fun moments in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." I've seen many of these films before and I'm always impressed by the energy and honesty Rooney brought to all of his roles, both serious and slapstick.
Rooney reprises his role of Whitey Marsh, the tough kid who eventually comes around to Father Flanagan's (Spencer Tracy) idea that "there are no bad boys." Whitey turns a new leaf at Boys Town, winning Father Flanagan's respect and the friendship of his peers.
"Men of Boys Town" takes place a few years after the original. The home for boys is under financial pressure, and Father Flanagan is being asked to relinquish control to some well-heeled patrons. One of those patrons takes Whitey under their wing; Whitey then goes to live with the family, providing some comic scenes where the rough-and-tumble young man tries to keep up in his new world. He stumbles through a formal dance, pulling at the collar on his tux, and he struggles at golf, which he calls a sissy game. I think it's a little cruel that Whitey's new dad makes fun of Whitey as he struggles at the tough sport, but it's a sign of things to come.
When Whitey tries to help a young boy in trouble with a gang, Whitey ends up in jail; and his new family let's Whitey get sent back to a masochistic reform school. Whitey's new patron, it seems, doesn't agree with Father Flanagan's philosophy that there is no "bad boy." Some people are just born bad and can't be helped, he tells Whitey. Whitey refuses to agree - so Whitey gets sent off to reform school.
It's the scenes in the reform school that are the most striking. Boys are harshly, physically punished, forced to walk in lines like crabs, beaten by the guards, even isolated in solitary confinement. When another boy dies in his cell, Father Flanagan comes to investigate, and it's only through the Father's strong will that he gets past the bullying guards and cruel warden. These are great scenes, showing that all it takes to get past a bully is often just strength of character.
Father Flanagan finds Whitey and hears his story, and is proud that Whitey tried to help another boy; instead of being ashamed, the Father is proud; he would have been ashamed if Whitey hadn't tried to help. He then works to free Whitey and the other boy, and then to get the reform school system investigated.
The subplot eventually gets sorted out, Whitey's patrons give money to the school and his new dad turns a new leaf, learning something from Whitey about kindness and forgiveness. It's a very typical, if slightly cliched, ending, but expected with this genre. Again, what makes this film stand out are the scenes of the harsh reform school, and how Whitey tries desperately maintain his morals in such a terrible environment. It reminded me what a great actor Mickey Rooney was, and that there are still many of his films I have yet to enjoy!