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​The Story Behind the Movie

​​​​By 1937, word of Father Flanagan’s success with young boys stretched across the country, and soon reached the ears of movie producers in Hollywood. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer wrote to Boys Town, saying the motion picture corporation would donate $5,000 to make a movie about the Home. Father Flanagan, at first, rejected the deal, but agreed after seeing a script he liked.

spencer.jpgSpencer Tracy signed on to play the priest, and Mickey Rooney played rogue youngster, Whitey Marsh. Both men were at the peaks of their careers. Tracy spent weeks with Father Flanagan, studying his mannerisms so he could properly portray the priest. For 12 days, film crews shot in the oppressive June heat at several locations on the campus just outside of Omaha, Nebraska. Every day, fans from the city came by the hundreds to watch the excitement unfold. Many climbed trees and even trampled flowerbeds hoping to get a glimpse of the stars.

Rooney and Tracy spent many moments off-camera talking and playing with the youth of Boys Town, who had roles as extras in the film. Father Flanagan also spent hours on the set watching production and talking with the director and actors. The entire campus was abuzz with activity and anticipation.

Back in Hollywood, MGM President Louis B. Mayer shelved the film for several months, convinced it would not be popular. “It will never sell, there’s no sex,” said Mayer. Calling a special meeting with the movie mogul, Rooney and Spencer convinced Mayer to release the film, and the movie’s popularity proved him wrong. It broke box office records with sold-out showings, establishing “ Boys Town ” as one of the most successful films of 1938. It also won two Academy Awards. One Oscar went to Spencer Tracy for his Best-Actor Performance portraying Father Flanagan. Tracy later gave the award to Boys Town, and today the statue, along with other photos and memorabilia from the film are on display in the Boys Town Hall of History.

The movie experience also left a deep impression on one of the smallest members of the “Boys Town” cast. Bobs Watson, the nine-year-old boy who played the pint-sized Pee Wee, was so impressed by what he had seen at Boys Town, that he dropped acting at a fairly young age and became a Methodist minister. Watson said Father Flanagan inspired him to join the clergy.

The world premiere of “Boys Town” was held in Omaha, Nebraska, at the Omaha Theater on September 7, 1938. An estimated crowd of 30,000 lined the streets and crowded the train station for the arrival of Hollywood’s biggest stars.


There was one flat note to the success for the “Boys Town” movie. The public thought Father Flanagan reaped in great amounts of money for the film, and donations dropped so drastically the Home nearly had to close its doors. After talking with MGM, the studio donated an additional $250,000 from the movie proceeds to build a dormitory at Boys Town. Spencer Tracy issued a statement clarifying the meager Boys Town gain and asked the public to keep contributing.

MGM also agreed to pay Boys Town $100,000 to make a sequel. All the same stars returned for “ Men of Boys Town,” and Lee J. Cobb was added to the cast. Once again, boys from the Village were used as extras, but this movie wasn’t as well received as the original “Boys Town.”

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