By Louis J. Wasser.
In the late 1940s, a man from New Hampshire named Albert Johnston, Jr. wrote a letter to film documentarian Louis de Rochemont. Johnston, in his early 20s, alluded to the book Lost Boundaries written by William L. White about his father, the elder Albert Johnston, a physician. He suggested his father’s story might make for a poignant film, and that de Rochemont, “the father of the docudrama,” was the man to produce it. After all, he was the man who, for decades, presented unvarnished news to theater goers in the form of the monthly “March of Time” series. De Rochemont was a fiercely independent man hellbent on making “his films, his way.” After reading White’s book, and talking with the young Albert Johnston, Jr., he became convinced he had the material for an exciting film – material Hollywood could only distort, water down, and sentimentalize if he dared to enlist their assistance. Louis de Rochemont then mortgaged his house to finance what essentially became his film. He then hired actor Mel Ferrer for his first film, to portray Johnston.
Dr. Johnston was a light-skinned man of mixed race who was accepted, as a black man, to satisfy the annual quota of two blacks at the University of Chicago’s Rush Medical School. But finding a hospital for his residency became problematic in the 1920s and ’30s, when black doctors were frequently forbidden to lay hands on white patients.
Consequently, after a one-year internship in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Johnston accepted an offer as the town doctor in Keene, New Hampshire (re-named Keenham in the film) where he and his family would all pass for white. In the book, William L. White eloquently describes Keene as “a typical New England town with its two-hundred-year-old Congregational Church on the main square, its white spire high above the green elm leaves” (4). For a while, life was blissful for Dr. Johnston and his family.
But their fortunes quickly changed when the doctor applied for a Naval commission. When a government background check revealed Johnston was “part negro,” the Navy rescinded its offer. Fearful that the results would become public, Dr. Johnston and his wife decided to tell their children the truth about their racial heritage before they learned of the news from friends and neighbors. The actual events, as they unraveled throughout the course of the Johnstons’ lives, provide a natural invitation for the filmmakers to exploit dramatic license in Lost Boundaries. Louis DeRochement, his director Alfred L. Werker, and their stable of script writers make effective use of the tension of secrecy.
The Ferrer character (named Scott Carter in the film), though affable and fiercely committed to his work, reveals tinges of hesitancy as he attempts to keep a lid on his past. His wife Marcia, portrayed by Beatrice Pearson (best known for her work in the 1948 film noir, Force of Evil) tries to be the good wife by reassuring her husband, but her own nervousness is palpable. For she, too, is a light-skinned black who’s passing. As the narrative develops, it’s clear the folks in idyllic Keenham are due for a moral test.
In retrospect, it’s clear too that film audiences in a less sophisticated 1948 America were due for the same moral test as they watched Lost Boundaries. But the film would not – could not – offer its audiences the consolation of black stereotypes – a cheerful and obedient housekeeper like Hattie McDaniel as Mammy in Gone with the Wind, nor a Bill “Bojangles” Robinson joyfully tap-dancing up and down a set of stairs.
The film dramatically depicts too the effect of Dr. Carter’s admission on his children. His son, Howard (the film persona for Albert Johnston, Jr.) acts out by fleeing to Harlem and attempts to involve himself in criminal activity – as though trying to erase his status as a child of privilege and education. But a savvy black New York city policeman sees through young Howard’s personal turmoil, sits him down for a frank talk, and helps him come to terms with his true identity as a bi-racial youth with a promising future. The movie hints at his gifts for music (in real life, Albert Johnston, Jr. went on to study composing at the University of Southern California, and the movie uses one of his actual compositions when Howard sits down at the piano).
The daughter, Shelley (as Dr. Johnston’s real-life daughter Anne) undergoes her own identity dilemma, and declines her boyfriend’s invitation, which she’d previously accepted, to go with him to a high-school dance. As did her brother in Harlem, she suddenly dis-entitles herself to her youthful right to thrive and grow.
Louis de Rochemont, ever the documentarian, also enlivened the film with actual outdoor scenes of Harlem. Had he partnered with a major Hollywood studio on the making of the film in the nineteen-forties, he would undoubtedly have been forced to stick with a sound stage for budgetary reasons.
Although Lost Boundaries can, at times, be excessively melodramatic, the film deals with essential moral and legal questions about racial differences boldly and compassionately. It does so in a way unlike any previous American film that attempted to deal with the same questions. Thematically, the film is a tour de force.
When I interviewed one of Dr. Johnston’s remaining children, Paul Johnston of Buzzard’s Bay Massachusetts, I asked him, “If you could remake Lost Boundaries and change one element in the film, what would it be?”
I then listened to a conspicuous silence on the phone for about twenty seconds – after which Johnston replied “Nothing.”
And that’s as it should be. After all, a small white town in New Hampshire went against the American grain when the family’s secret became world news, and Albert Johnston remained the town doctor for twenty years. What’s more, Lost Boundaries won the 1949 Cannes Film Festival Award for Best Screenplay, and raised the bar for American filmmakers in the many years that followed every time they’d attempt to deal with race.
Lost Boundaries is available from Warner Archive.
Louis J. Wasser is a freelance essayist and critic specializing in film, and classical music. He’s written extensively for The Washington Post, Washington Jewish Week, Identity Theory, and other publications. He’s also a financial copywriter.