Tag Archives: Jimmy Butler

Boys Town (1938, Norman Taurog)

I can’t figure out–past being an inspiring melodrama–if the filmmakers were trying for anything with Boys Town. The question of its success as that inspiring melodrama is easily answered… it fails. The first act of the film deals with Spencer Tracy trying to get Boys Town, starting just as a home, started. It works pretty well, especially since there’s the heavily comedic interplay between Tracy and grudging benefactor Henry Hull. The Tracy and Hull relationship keeps up throughout the movie, which is nice, since Hull’s occasional presence in the late second act makes a lot of difference.

The problems start with the arrival of Mickey Rooney. It isn’t just Rooney, whose performance is affected and exaggerated (at times, it seems like he inspired Jack Nicholson’s Joker performance), but the present action’s lapse as well. An indeterminate period of time passes from the first act to the second and after the public service tour of Boys Town, the movie centers itself entirely around Rooney. Oh, there are some scenes with Tracy in there, worrying about the finances (which would have made a far more interesting story), but mostly Tracy’s just around to try to reform Rooney.

There’s also a significant problem with neon foreshadowing. When Edward Norris shows up what ought to be a brief presence, it’s very clear he’ll be important later on, so there’s nothing to do but wait for him to come back (and he does in an exceptionally contrived manner). Or precious Boys Town mascot Bobs Watson… he’s destined, from his second or third scene, to end up in a hospital bed for something.

A lot of the cheap storytelling undoes some fine acting. Tracy’s excellent, of course, though after a while, there’s nothing for him to do. Norris is good in his part and a number of the kids are good, particularly Frankie Thomas and Sidney Miller. There are no credited female performers (though some nuns eventually show up–another of the movie’s problems, establishing just how Boys Town actually runs) and their absence is felt.

Norman Taurog brings little in way of direction, but it doesn’t matter if he did, since editing miscreant Elmo Veron cut the film. Veron does an awful job, one so bad–even given Boys Town‘s other problems with artifice–he brings the production down a notch.

At some point in the film’s production timeline, it might have been a good idea (unless it was always just supposed to be a vehicle for Rooney) in addition to a well-intentioned one. But as it is, Boys Town is a failure. It misses telling the story it should and it doesn’t do a good job of telling the one it has (and shouldn’t bother telling).

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Norman Taurog; screenplay by John Meehan and Dore Schary, from a story by Schary and Eleanore Griffin; director of photography, Sidney Wagner; edited by Elmo Veron; music by Edward Ward; produced by John W. Considine Jr.; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Spencer Tracy (Father Flanagan), Mickey Rooney (Whitey Marsh), Henry Hull (Dave Morris), Leslie Fenton (Dan Farrow), Gene Reynolds (Tony Ponessa), Edward Norris (Joe Marsh), Addison Richards (The Judge), Minor Watson (The Bishop), Jonathan Hale (John Hargraves), Bobs Watson (Pee Wee), Martin Spellman (Skinny), Mickey Rentschler (Tommy Anderson), Frankie Thomas (Freddie Fuller), Jimmy Butler (Paul Ferguson), Sidney Miller (Mo Kahn), Robert Emmett Keane (Burton) and Victor Kilian (The Sheriff).


RELATED

Advertisements

Manhattan Melodrama (1934, W.S. Van Dyke)

It’s funny how obvious writers’ contributions can be in certain films. For instance, Joseph L. Mankiewicz very likely wrote some of the best scenes in Manhattan Melodrama and Oliver H.P. Garrett wrote some of the worst. The clue is the dialogue. Mankiewicz has distinctive dialogue, even in a film relatively early in his career, and it’s very good dialogue.

Unfortunately, uneven writing isn’t the only problem with Manhattan Melodrama. Running ninety minutes and covering thirty years, it plays like a summary of a longer film. The characters exist only in their scenes, never in between. Myrna Loy’s got a particularly troublesome role in that regard, because her character rarely makes sense for longer than ten minutes at a time. She’s good in some of her scenes and a little lost in the others, the fault clearly resting on the script. Her character is constantly yo-yoing between, she thinks, Clark Gable and William Powell. Except, rather specifically, Gable informs her she is not. But the script keeps it up, because without it and with the rapid pace, there’s not enough… pardon the term… melodrama.

Gable gives a fantastic performance, a great leading man performance. He’s amazing in every scene, bringing both a sense of humor and sadness to the film.

Nat Pendleton and Isabel Jewell help with the humor when Gable’s being sad and their comedic scenes–along with some of the romantic scenes between Powell and Loy–are when Van Dyke’s doing his best work in the film. His worst work is when he’s being melodramatic and, oddly, a little artistic. Way too artistic for him. There’s a clear divide in the film–the good scenes sound like Mankiewicz and have good direction, the bad scenes don’t sound like Mankiewicz and have poor direction. It’s just not Van Dyke’s kind of film–the ninety minutes sounds right and I can even understand some of the lack of coverage (Van Dyke shot notoriously fast)–but Manhattan Melodrama occasionally feels like The Godfather in terms of its potential and it doesn’t (or couldn’t) even acknowledge them.

It’s clearest at the end, when Gable and Powell shake hands, when it’s perfectly honest–even in this film–they need to hug. Well, it was 1934 and they couldn’t hug and that reality is probably what makes Manhattan Melodrama a doomed effort.

The film does feature some of Powell’s best acting. I’m not familiar enough with his work outside the Thin Man series and a handful of other films–all comedies–but he had a very definite ability as a dramatic actor. So, of course, most of his more important scenes are the ones poorly written. Also, the film ends abruptly, resolving itself in the alloted time (with a really, really unfortunate scene).

I’d seen Manhattan Melodrama before and I remember it being a disappointment, but certainly not as disappointing as it turned out this time. However, Gable’s performance (and Powell’s too, but not in the showy, movie star way) is incredible.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by W.S. Van Dyke; screenplay by Oliver H.P. Garrett and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, based on a story by Arthur Caeser; director of photography, James Wong Howe; edited by Ben Lewis; produced by David O. Selznick; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Clark Gable (Blackie), William Powell (Jim), Myrna Loy (Eleanor Packer), Leo Carrillo (Father Joe), Nat Pendleton (Spud), George Sidney (Poppa Rosen), Isabel Jewell (Annabelle), Muriel Evans (Tootsie Malone), Thomas E. Jackson (Snow), Jimmy Butler (Jim as a boy) and Mickey Rooney (Blackie as a boy).


RELATED