"There isn't any such thing in the world as a bad boy."
Even people who haven't seen "Boys Town" know Spencer Tracy's line, in character as Father Edward Flanagan, as the credo of the real Boys Town, the institution renowned for its care of orphaned and troubled kids. The classic movie, released 75 years ago this week (on September 9, 1938), was a huge hit, a milestone in the careers of Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney, and an inspiration to wayward kids and those who would help them, all over the country.
As beloved as the movie has been for generations, there's still plenty you may not know about it -- how it almost didn't get released, how Tracy's Oscar victory almost turned into a publicity nightmare, and how the movie almost did more harm than good to the real Boys Town.
Read on for 25 true tales behind the making of "Boys Town."
1. Father Edward Flanagan founded the actual Boys Town orphanage in 1917 in Omaha, Nebraska. He famously ran the place as an autonomous village, with the boys electing their own government, making their own laws, and growing their own food.
2. By 1937, news of Father Flanagan's successes at Boys Town had reached Hollywood. MGM screenwriter Dore Schary visited and was impressed, especially by the fact that Boys Town was able to field a winning basketball team of players in tattered, hand-me-down uniforms.
3. The studio offered Father Flanagan $5,000 for the movie rights to his story. He declined but reconsidered after he read a draft of the screenplay he approved of. MGM also agreed to buy the boys new basketball uniforms.
4. Spencer Tracy, too, was initially reluctant to do the film, since he'd just played a priest in 1936's "San Francisco." Also, he wasn't really in good enough shape to work; MGM publicists were covering up his binge drinking. Eventually, he sobered up and signed on.
5. Director Norman Taurog had a reputation for getting good performances from kids and young-adult actors, thanks to his work on such hits as "Skippy" and "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer." The reputation did not necessarily mean that Taurog was a nice guy. He'd directed his nephew, Jackie Cooper, in "Skippy," and the boy claimed that his uncle got him to cry on camera by threatening to shoot his dog. In fact, Cooper told that story in his 1981 memoir "Please Don't Shoot My Dog," whose editors tried but failed to persuade Taurog to tell his side of the story.
6. The role of Whitey Marsh, the sharp-tongued young delinquent who proves to be the biggest challenge to Father Flanagan's credo, marked the first real dramatic part for 17-year-old Rooney; in fact, he was filming "Love Finds Andy Hardy" at virtually the same time.
7. "Boys Town" became one of the first Hollywood productions to shoot on the actual location of the events it depicted. The filmmakers spent 10 days in Omaha and used actual Boys Town kids as extras.
8. The shoot took place during an intensely hot Nebraska summer. Wax recordings of the film's sound melted and had to be re-recorded.
9. Before the shoot, Tracy spent a week following Father Flanagan around in order to learn his mannerisms and the way he interacted with the boys.
10. So many locals came by the set to gawk -- as many as 5,000 per day -- that Father Flanagan ended up spending most of the $5,000 rights fee repairing the wear and tear on the village grounds.
11. Having seen the finished picture, MGM chief Louis B. Mayer decided to shelve it, since its grim tale of poverty and crime was so different from the musicals and glamour productions the studio was known for. Tracy and Rooney secured a meeting with Mayer to change his mind. As Rooney recalled during a visit to Boys Town decades later, "Spence and I said, 'You've got to release "Boys Town" because our nation needs this.'" He quoted Mayer as having replied, "It will never sell. There's no sex. There's no songs." Rooney's retort: "It's a song of freedom. It's a song of rehabilitation. It's a song of youth, no matter what color or faith you are. It's about praying. It's about living a good life." He said Tracy simply nodded in agreement. Mayer relented, Rooney said, because "we didn't give him anyplace else to go." Mayer would ultimately call "Boys Town" his favorite MGM movie from his 25-year tenure running the studio.
12. Two days before its release, the film had its gala premiere in Omaha. Tracy, Rooney, and actress Maureen O'Sullivan were on hand. Some 30,000 locals filled the streets. Tracy was impressed by the size and enthusiasm of the crowd, remarking, " This thing makes a Hollywood premiere look like a dying hog." Inside the theater, a choir from Boys Town sang before the lights dimmed for the movie. After the screening, Tracy and Rooney appeared before the audience, as did Father Flanagan, to rousing applause. Rooney predicted that Tracy would win another Oscar.
13. "Boys Town" was one of the biggest hits of 1938, earning at least $2 million at the box office; Rooney later boasted that it had earned as much as $4.1 million. It had cost a reported $800,000 to make.
14. The success of the movie was almost the ruination of the actual Boys Town. Moviegoers assumed from the cash rolling in from ticket sales that the orphanage must have been on a sound financial footing. As a result, donations dried up, and the institution nearly had to close its doors. Fortunately, MGM ponied up another $250,000. Tracy made several public appeals, clarifying that Boys Town was not earning a percentage of the box office and that it still depended on the public's largesse.
15. "Boys Town" was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay (for Schary and John Meehan). It won two, for Best Writing, Original Story (a prize the Academy no longer gives out), awarded to Schary and Eleanore Griffin, and Best Actor, awarded to Tracy.
16. With his "Boys Town" Academy Award, Tracy became the first man to win back-to-back Best Actor Oscars, having won the previous year for "Captains Courageous." It was a feat that wouldn't be duplicated for more than half a century, until Tom Hanks won back-to-back Best Actor prizes for 1993's "Philadelphia" and 1994's "Forrest Gump." But Tracy wasn't the first performer to win two straight Oscars. Luise Rainer won Best Actress for 1936's "The Great Ziegfeld" and 1937's "The Good Earth." The only other stars to win back-to-back Oscars are Katharine Hepburn (Best Actress prizes for 1967's "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" and 1968's "The Lion in Winter") and Jason Robards (Best Supporting Actor for 1976's "All The President's Men" and 1977's "Julia").
17. In those days, the Academy routinely handed out special, non-competitive Oscars, especially to child actors and others who had accomplished unique achievements during the year. At the same ceremony that saw "Boys Town" win for Best Actor and Best Original Story, the Academy gave juvenile Oscars to Rooney and Deanna Durbin. The two teen stars were cited "for their significant contribution in bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth, and as juvenile players setting a high standard of ability and achievement." Having turned 18, Rooney was nominated for Best Actor as an adult the very next year for "Babes in Arms." He earned three more Oscar nominations over the next 40 years and received the honorary Oscar in 1984 for his 50-year film career.
18. Boys Town lore has it that Tracy self-effacingly gave all the credit for his Oscar-winning performance to Father Flanagan and even donated his Oscar statuette to the priest, but it didn't quite happen that way. Tracy did spend most of his acceptance speech praising Father Flanagan, but it was an overzealous MGM publicist, not Tracy himself, who announced that Tracy was giving his prize to the priest. Tracy himself had no such intentions, saying, "I earned the damn thing. I want it." The Academy quickly struck a deal with Tracy to send him a replacement statuette. Boys Town received Tracy's trophy, with the inscription: "To Father Flanagan, whose great humanity, kindly simplicity, and inspiring courage were strong enough to shine through my humble effort. Spencer Tracy." The statuette was put on permanent display at the Boys Town museum. An apocryphal story claims that Tracy's replacement Oscar had a misprint, that it was inscribed instead with the name of comic-strip sleuth Dick Tracy.
19. The film made Boys Town a tourist attraction, one that drew as many as 100,000 visitors a year during the early 1940s.
20. Tracy, Rooney, and Taurog reunited for a 1941 sequel, "Men of Boys Town," for which they paid the organization a rights fee of $100,000. It was a darker picture in which Father Flanagan and Whitey uncover abuses in a reform school. Critics didn't like it as much as the original, but it was a hit nonetheless.
21. Taurog directed several more movies with Rooney during the 1940s, including "A Yank at Eton," "Girl Crazy," and "Words and Music." In the '50s, he made half a dozen movies featuring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and two more with Lewis solo after the duo split. In the 1960s, he directed several beach party movies and nine Elvis Presley movie musicals, cementing his career-long reputation as a director who understood young people.
22. In 1950, Mayer was ousted from his post at MGM in a corporate power struggle. His replacement as production chief was Schary, who wanted to shift the studio away from glossy productions and musicals toward more socially relevant fare.
23.Bobs Watson, who played Pee Wee, was so inspired by Tracy's work during the shoot that he became a Methodist minister when he grew up.
24. Rooney is one of the last surviving actors who worked in the silent era. He's made films in ten consecutive decades, from the 1920s to the 2010s, most recently acting in a cameo in 2011's "The Muppets." He turns 93 on September 23.
25. Today, Boys Town has 11 locations nationwide and claims to touch the lives of 2 million kids each year.