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So, many of these duels look like a match made in a hat. Then, every once in a while, one of these looks intentional. Today’s is by far the most fitting match-up we’re going to see for a while.

In fact, it’s so fitting, it’s almost too easy. So, here we go…


#42. Spencer Tracy in Boys Town vs. James Cagney in The Public Enemy


The 1938 film Boys Town follows a priest, Father Flanagan (Tracy), in his relentless quest to reform juvenile delinquents. It’s based on a true story, with plenty of fictionalization thrown in. The main chunk of the story is Flanagan’s work with young Mickey Rooney.

Cagney plays Tom Powers, a young street tough who gradually works his way up the hierarchy of the criminal underworld as well as brutality of crime. Ultimately, there’s a “crime doesn’t pay” ending with Cagney getting shot up during a gang war.

James Cagney looking only slightly more masculine than Jean Harlow

So, you see why I said this one was too easy. Flanagan doesn’t bother much with adults and if he’d shown up in the first fifteen minutes of The Public Enemy, it wouldn’t have made it to thirty. Not as a hard-bitten crime story, anyway. Then, if Cagney had shown up in Boys Town, he just would’ve been a more badass version of Mickey Rooney (not exactly an accomplishment, but still). By the rules of both movie worlds this fight is over before it starts. Which, on the one hand is a bit anti-climactic, on the other, it’s a testament to a simpler storytelling style, designed for a much more complex time in our history. (Yes, people, the 30s were harder than the days of now and people wanted some straight-forward stories to pass the evening.)


WINNER: Father Flanagan


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