Father Flanagan visits a convict in jail who is sentenced to a death penalty. Before his execution, the man blames the state for not being there to help him when he was an orphan and had to become a criminal to survive. This deeply affects Flanagan who decides to found an orphanage for juvenile delinquents, named "Boys Town". He gets a mortgage and establishes a place that takes care of 200 children, hoping to correct them all so that they can leave as honest citizens when they turn 18. However, a new kid, the 14-year old Whitey Marsh, strains the community by rudely acting exclusive. When a kid, Pee Wee, is injured by a car for trying to prevent him from leaving "Boys Town", Whitey feels remorse. He meets his criminal brother, Joe, who robs a bank. In order to escape being charged himself, Whitey tries to beg Joe to give himself in. Flanagan and the boys storm the hideout and arrest Joe. Whitey returns to "Boys Town" and gets elected as the president there.
"Boys Town" stayed remembered for securing Spencer Tracy his second Oscar for best actor, after "Captains Courageous" from the year before, making him the first actor in history to win that award twice in a row. Peculiarly, both films share the same theme: a problematic kid who is reformed thanks to a wise mentor. It is basically a tale as old as time — a heartless person undergoes a colossal change and finds his humanity at the end — yet still works here thanks to the classic style from the "Golden age of Hollywood" where characters and emotions were the highlight, not various technical gimmicks. Unobtrusive, unassuming, honest, touching and remarkably effective despite its conventional narrative, "Boys Town" is a prime example of a movie with class from that era, a one that also contemplates about some problems in society at the same time, without being preachy: the opening is remarkable for clearly establishing why Father Flanagan decided to form the eponymous orphanage after he hears how a convict, sentenced to death, had no other means to survive as an orphan kid than to turn to crime. This hit the nerve of the viewers, who were still recovering from the poverty of the "Great Depression" just a few years before.
Upon seeing so many angry, aimless orphaned kids on the streets who fight and destroy private property, Father Flanagan decides to save them from such social determinism, claiming "These boys were cheated on for a chance to live a decent life" and this makes for an engaged storyline. He is a truly fascinating character, noble, dignified, yet also complex and practical, while Tracy plays him wonderfully and compassionately. Mickey Rooney almost surpasses him, however, in the fantastic role of the tough, problematic kid Whitey. One of the funniest moments in the film arrives when Whitey is reluctantly brought to Boys Town and is annoyed by the innocent, naive 8-year old mascot of the refuge, Pee Wee, who constantly follows him. Pee Wee is carried at one point by another kid 'piggyback' style, and then turns and asks: "Why don't you carry me, Whitey?" who replies sarcastically: "No, I might drop you!" Rooney gives a 'tour-de-force' performance, and even though he was praised by the critics, he was not nominated for any award for this film. The highlight of the film is definitely the dialogue between Flanagan and a wounded Whitey near the end, which displays some pure humanity and emotions rarely seen in modern cinema: "I've always said that there is no such thing as a 'bad boy' in this world. You're the only boy in all these years who never had a heart somewhere, I could not reach somehow, sometime." It is a beautiful moment, a sequence with an aura, a one that amends all complaints and elevates it to heights for a brief moment despite some previous omissions.