The film was written by Dore Schary, Eleanore Griffin and John Meehan, and was directed by Norman Taurog.
Legendary MGM Studio head Louis B. Mayer, who was a Belorussian-Canadian-American Jew known for his respect for the Catholic Church, later called this his favorite film of his tenure at MGM.
Although the story is largely fictional, it is based upon a real man and a real place. Boys Town is a community outside of Omaha, Nebraska. In 1943 Boys Town adopted as its image and logo a sculpture of a boy carrying a younger boy on his back, captioned "He ain't heavy, Father ...you should see my sister." In 1941, MGM made a sequel, Men of Boys Town, with Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney reprising their roles from the earlier film.
A convicted murderer asks to make his confession on the day of his execution. He is visited by an old friend, Father Flanagan (Spencer Tracy) who runs a home for indigent men in Omaha, Nebraska. When the prison officials suggest that the condemned man owes the state a debt, Father Flanagan witnesses the condemned man's diatribe to prison officials and a reporter that describes his awful plight as a homeless and friendless boy who was a ward in state institutions. After the convicted man asks the officials to leave, Father Flanagan provides some comfort and wisdom. On the train back to Omaha, Father Flanagan is transformed in his humanitarian mission by revelations (echoed in the words) imparted by the condemned man's litany of hardships experienced as a child without friends or family as a ward of the state.
Father Flanagan believes there is no such thing as a bad boy and spends his life attempting to prove it. He battles indifference, the legal system, and often even the boys, to build a sanctuary that he calls Boys Town. The boys have their own government, make their own rules, and dish out their own punishment. One boy, Whitey Marsh (Mickey Rooney), is as much as anyone can handle. Whitey's older brother, in prison for murder, asks Father Flanagan to take Whitey — a poolroom shark and tough talking hoodlum — to Boys Town. Whitey's older brother escapes custody during transfer to federal prison. Whitey stays, though, and runs for mayor of Boys Town, determined to win with his "don't be a sucker" campaign slogan.
When the boys instead elect handicapped Tony Ponessa (Gene Reynolds) and reject Whitey's shoddy campaigning, Whitey decides to leave. Only little Pee Wee (Bobs Watson), the Boys Town mascot, catches up with him and pulls on his sleeve, pleading, “We’re going to be pals, ain’t we?” Whitey, nearly in tears refuses and pushes the child to the ground and tells him to go back. He then storms across the highway, and Pee Wee, caught in the tail wind, is too upset about his hero to think about oncoming traffic. When Pee Wee begins to cry, he is hit by a car, Whitey leaves, feeling guilty and hurt. He accidentally comes upon a bank robbery in Omaha and runs into Joe, who mistakenly shoots him in the leg. Joe takes Whitey to a church and calls Flanagan anonymously, after which Whitey is taken back to Boys Town. The sheriff comes to get Whitey, but Flanagan offers to take full responsibility for the boy. Whitey refuses to tell Flanagan about the robbery, because he has promised not to inform on Joe, but when he realizes that his silence could result in the end of Boys Town, he goes to Joe's hideout. Joe, realizing with Whitey that Boys Town is more important than themselves, releases his brother from his promise. His cohorts want to kill Whitey, but Joe protects him until Flanagan and the boys arrive at their hideout. The criminals are recaptured and Boys Town's reward is a flood of donations. A now committed Whitey is elected the new mayor of Boys Town by acclamation and Dave resigns himself to go into more debt as Flanagan tells him of his new ideas for expanding the facility.
The film was a hit and earned MGM over $2 million in profit.
In February 1939, when he accepted his Oscar for the role, Spencer Tracy responded graciously by spending all of his acceptance speech talking about Father Flanagan. "If you have seen him through me, then I thank you." An overzealous MGM publicity representative announced that Tracy was donating his Oscar to Flanagan without confirming it with Tracy. Tracy's response was: "I earned the ... thing. I want it." The Academy hastily struck another inscription, Tracy kept his statuette, and Boys Town got one, too. It read: "To Father Flanagan, whose great humanity, kindly simplicity, and inspiring courage were strong enough to shine through my humble effort. Spencer Tracy."
According to the IMDB trivia page, there's an alternative version of the Spencer Tracy Oscar story. "The day after Spencer Tracy won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in this film, an MGM publicist released a statement — without consulting Tracy first — that the actor would donate his Oscar to the real Boys Town in Nebraska. Tracy agreed to make the donation if the Academy would send him a replacement Oscar. When the replacement arrived, the engraving on the award read: "Best Actor — Dick Tracy.""
According to MGM records the film earned $2,828,000 in the United States and Canada and $1,230,000 elsewhere resulting in a profit of $2,112,000.
Boys Town was released on VHS by MGM on March 29, 1993 and re-released on VHS on March 7, 2000. On November 8, 2005, it was released on DVD as a part of the "Warner Brothers Classic Holiday Collection", a 3-DVD set which also contains Christmas in Connecticut and the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol, and as an individual disc. The DVD release also includes the 1941 sequel Men of Boys Town as an extra feature.
Released in April 1941, Men of Boys Town takes a darker tone to the plight of homeless and troubled youth. Tracy and Rooney reprise their characters as Father Flanagan and Whitey Marsh as they expose the conditions in a boys reform school. This movie was released on VHS on December 23, 1993, but is now available only as an extra feature on Boys Town's DVD.
In the Northern Exposure television series 1991 episode "The Big Kiss", orphan Ed Chigliak watches Boys Town and is inspired to find out who his real parents are. He mentions the film reference to several other characters.
Newt Gingrich, the Speaker of the House of Representatives in 1994, referenced the film to argue that philanthropists would be able to help those affected by government cuts.