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Before Father Flanagan started Boystown and after MGM gave his life the
Class-A MGM treatment in two films starring Spencer Tracy, Father Peter
Dunne of St. Louis had a similar smaller scale operation. And RKO a
much smaller studio did a film about his work with homeless male youth
and got Pat O'Brien to play the title role.
The real Father Peter Dunne in 1905 took in three homeless newsboys he found living in a box in St. Louis as it is shown in the film. That was the start of a home he created which serviced now several generations. The home is still being run, but not in the St. Louis metropolitan area any longer.
Dunne's problems are just like what Father Flanagan had to deal with and O'Brien with the Irish charm working on all cylinders solves nearly all of them during the course of the film. One major difference between this film and Boystown is that where Spencer Tracy took his charges out of the city and created his own town so to speak, Dunne's group is still in the city, the kids are still selling newspapers and dealing with big city life.
Pat O'Brien was Hollywood's quintessential Irishman. His best roles were as fast talking promoter types whatever their profession (Knute Rockne) or when he played priests (Angels With Dirty Faces, The Fighting 69th)quiet, reflective, wise and strong. He doesn't break any new ground with Father Dunne, but it's the O'Brien we've come to expect and I suspect wouldn't be happy to see him as anything else.
Pat O'Brien also has a Mickey Rooney like character in this film. Here the part is played by Darryl Hickman in probably the best role he had in his juvenile career. Unlike Rooney in Boystown, Hickman comes to a tragic end, so unlike Tracy, O'Brien couldn't save all the kids in his charge.
Good supporting cast and the best performances their come from Charles Kemper as O'Brien's put upon brother-in-law and Arthur Shields as an irascible wealthy donor to O'Brien's cause. He's an Ulster man and always lets Father Dunne know it. In real life Shields and his brother Barry Fitzgerald were just that.
How times have changed. Could Fighting Father Dunne or Boystown be made today? I don't know how the public would take a couple of priests starting a home for wayward teenage boys now.
PAT O'BRIEN has all the Irish charm and blarney to play a priest who
can fast talk his way out of any situation with consummate ease--and
it's the sort of role he could have played in his sleep by the time he
made FIGHTING FATHER DUNNE.
The storyline sounds like a recap of BOY'S TOWN--without the extra punch supplied by an above ordinary script--so the film plugs along without much steam, folksy but predictable and full of stereotyped child actors playing newspaper boys. DARRYL HICKMAN is the most prominent among them but can't do too much with his role as the most troublesome one who can't be reformed by the good intentions of Father Dunne.
It's a strictly minor entry in O'Brien's career which was starting to go on the skids in the late '40s and played the lower half of a double bill when released in 1948 without much notice from critics or the public.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This film will remind you of "Boy's Town" with Spencer Tracy...on a
tight budget. When you begin watching, you may feel as I did that this
movie feels very late-1930-ish...but it was made in 1948.
This is the somewhat true biopic of Father Peter Dunne, who built a home for the poor boys who sold newspapers on the streets of St. Louis around the turn of the century.
The first half of the film is rather mundane, until along comes newsboy Darryl Hickman. I have long thought that Hickman was to serious acting what Mickey Rooney was to musicals and comedy (although Rooney also did some dramatic roles). Hickman was, for my money, one of the very best child actors of the era. Unfortunately, in his young adult years his looks were a bit strong and his career faded, though he remained in show business in both movies and on television. Here his role is particularly well-played, and he really is the highlight of the film, and really steals the latter half of the movie. But, unlike the boys in "Boys' Town", Hickman comes to a sad end here...and he handles it so well.
The "star" of the film is Pat O'Brien, as the priest. I long ago came to the conclusion that O'Brien was not an actor...he just played one. All his roles seem the same. But, it worked because he was pleasant on screen, and "we" liked him. He does okay here...just nothing to brag on.
As I mentioned earlier, this was far from a big budget film, though it portrayed the setting quite well. The script is decent, but far from stellar, and drags in the early portion of the film.
The film is worth watching for Hickman's performance alone.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Pat O'Brien, a Warner Brothers contract player for years, had long left that studio when he made this film for RKO Studios in 1948. It was a role that O'Brien could do in his sleep for he had played countless Catholic priests in the past. This movie, based on the career of real-life character Father Peter Dunne, is a minor-league version of the highly-acclaimed "Boys Town" made a decade or so earlier. Dunne started an orphanage for homeless youths (mainly newspaper boys) in St. Louis near the turn of the last century in 1905. That kind of plot could never be made today considering all the trouble the Catholic Church has had in recent years with molestation scandals. In 1948, however, no one would ever question the intentions of the no-nonsense Father Dunne as played by the sturdy O'Brien. Along for the ride in this film are the great character actors, Una O'Connor and Arthur Shields. It almost sounds like a St. Patrick's Day celebration with this group of Irish folks. Dwayne Hickman, in his early teens, plays Dunne's main juvenile delinquent orphan and, unlike Mickey Rooney in "Boys Town," his end is tragic. This film was made "on the cheap," even for RKO standards, but the players make it effective entertainment. O'Brien, Shields, and the young Hickman were all first-rate actors and their performances carry the film. "Fighting Father Dunne" didn't win any awards and is hardly remembered at all today. That's too bad because it's a fine film with a heartfelt message that can still resonate with modern-day audiences.
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