Spencer Tracy gets top billing in Frank Borzage’s 1932 depression-era drama as Jack Doray, a hardware store owner with the wise-guy manner of a mug and the high-society lifestyle of an industry magnate, but Young America is really about an orphan named Art (Tommy Conlon). Art is a hard-luck saint among the kids of neighborhood, a good boy with bad judgment, and Conlon, a child actor in his first major role, plays him with the spunky spark of a well-meaning kid with a quick temper, a can-do attitude, and a weakness for taking unattended cars on impromptu joy rides.
Based on a play by John Frederick Ballard, Young America is a script built on clichés and contrivances to give us a kid whose generosity of spirit and loyalty to defenseless friends, notably skinny little creative genius Nutty Beamish (Raymond Borzage, no relation to the director), constantly lands him in trouble. “This boy has the reputation of being the worst boy in town,” says the old Irish cop of his neighborhood to juvenile court Judge Blake (Ralph Bellamy), one of those paternal authority figures who mixes compassion with tough love. Art gets his compassion, but it only gets him so far when his latest “good deed” gets him arrested for robbing Jack Doray’s pharmacy (to get medicine for Nutty’s sweet but frail grandmother, of course).
Frank Borzage makes good use of Tracy, who was a busy actor for the Fox Film Corporation in the early 1930s but not yet a major movie star. His Jack is both a street-smart businessman and an arrogant high-society gent whose time is too valuable to waste on a minor legal manner that drags him into juvenile court.