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This is not a joke, but it starts like one: two men walk into an office. They have come to pitch an idea to a Hollywood mogul, an idea for a blockbuster movie. Sort of. Their idea is a docu-drama on George Washington Carver.
Perhaps the idea doesn't strike you as a winning one. But this was no ordinary mogul. His name was Louis De Rochemont, and he was the Academy Award-winning documentarian responsible for the March of Time newsreel series. He'd segued that success into an unprecedented contract with MGM giving him creative freedom to make whatever projects he wished, on his own turf. As a New Hampshire native, his own turf meant that state -- and the projects he wished were ones rooted in reality. "The aim of any drama is to give the illusion of real things," he explained, "So why not use real things in the first place?" These were not idle words, either--he was prepared to put his money where his mouth was, and always had. At the age of twelve, he'd sent away to Popular Mechanics for the blueprints of a motion picture camera, and then built his own according to the plans. With that, he then shot some film around his hometown and sold it to theaters. This hobby found him one day shooting footage of a submarine launch in Portsmouth, which was purchased by a newsreel company. The delighted kid took his earnings and used it--get this--to go to a New York theater and see his film on the big screen. Mr. De Rochemont was an earnest fellow, and that made him an ideal producer for a Carver bio-pic.
So, he sat and listened to the pitch, unconvinced but polite enough to not kick these two equally earnest kids out of his office, like so many other movie people would have done. De Rochemont looked at the two boys in front of him, one black and one white, and asked, "I understand why you want this film made... but what about you?" The white boy, an aspiring composer named Albert Johnston, Jr., smiled at the older man's misapprehension. He explained that although many people mistake him for white, in fact he had been passing for years. Actually, he'd been passing his whole life, and only just learned the truth.
For contemporary readers, that term "passing" may cause some puzzlement. In the late 1940s, when this took place, however, it's another matter. It was a time of rigid racial segregation, when even "one drop of Negro blood" was enough to consign a person to a permanent second-class status. Of course, "one drop of Negro blood" is a biologically ridiculous notion. I said it wasn't a joke, but this part certainly is. There is no scientific way to distinguish one race from another--it isn't a biological difference, merely a cultural illusion. And as a cultural illusion, it is built entirely atop what people look like. There are people whose lineage would identify them as "black," but who do not look it. In the absence of some external proof of "Negro blood," then, it becomes a question of the honor system whether these straddlers would choose to opt into the second class life that their racist society demanded. Little wonder, then, that there were some who were willing to be accepted as white.
It was once reported that as many as eight million Americans were "passing" as white. This was a made-up statistic--no survey was ever conducted to determine such numbers. It was a dirty open secret of a racist society: African-Americans rankled at how certain members of their race lived a lie rather than work for the advancement of their fellow blacks; whites pretended not to know such a thing was possible, because admitting it was admitting the existence of biracial coupling. Light-skinned blacks didn't spring out of nowhere, they were descended from white parents somewhere along the line. Today we would call them multiracial, but that word did not exist then. Why have a word for something that was so taboo? The taboo was pointlessly cruel and biologically silly, but it had a purpose: if a single drop of Negro blood made you black and no amount of white heritage could make you white, then the one-sidedness of that formula would guarantee a future world that was entirely black. Cue the Public Enemy track "Fear of a Black Planet" here.
The other problem with "passers" was that they undermined every conceivable rationale for segregation. The racist laws of the time accepted the assumption that there was something fundamentally inferior about blacks. But, those that passed as white belied that. Absent the tell-tale skin pigmentation, nothing else about them was different. Passers were living proof that segregation made no sense. In the 1940s, with the integration of the armed services, challenges to segregation were coming from many quarters. The American public was beginning to debate their racial values--race relations were becoming a hot topic.
De Rochemont had no interest in the Carver film. But this biracial young man, and the larger social questions his very existence posed, was utterly fascinating. And you only just found out? De Rochemont asked him. The filmmaker urged the boy to write down his life story, as thoroughly as possible. Albert did, and it was a doozy. With De Rochemont's help, it was first published in 1947 in Reader's Digest as "Document of a New Hampshire Family" by William L. White. White then expanded it into a best-selling book.
White's account begins with Albert's father--Albert Sr.--and his wife Thyra. Both came from families that the law considered Negro but whose fair complexions allowed them to pass. Albert became increasingly uncomfortable with the lie, and wanted to embrace his identity as a black man--even if it meant slamming professional doors in his own face. He graduated from medical school in 1925 but was unable to find work as a black doctor. To pay the bills for his growing family (Thyra had just given birth to their first child) he worked as a train porter.
There was one hospital, though, that was hiring doctors--and whose application did not ask his race. They didn't ask, he didn't tell (I chose that wording carefully --the racial politics of Lost Boundaries  may strike modern audiences as hokey, but there are pronounced parallels to other civil rights battles still being raged).
Years passed, and the Johnstons prospered. They moved to Keene, New Hampshire, and occupied a place of professional and social esteem in their community. They never said a word about their racial background--not even to their children, who absorbed the same toxic prejudices as their white peers. One day, Albert Jr. came home spouting some racial epithet, and his father took him aside to explain that he literally didn't know what he was talking about. The revelation shook Albert Jr. A crisis of identity followed, and led, eventually, to his arrival in De Rochemont's office. Up until then, the family had maintained their secret. Albert Jr.'s story, if published, would blow their cover. The family agreed to face the consequences, and let the story proceed. The Johnstons would later tell the press that their magnanimous and tolerant neighbors never cared, that the Reader's Digest story and its subsequent adaptations had no adverse effect. The fact is, the town did convulse, and whispered slurs behind the family's back. Albert lost his practice, and eventually moved with Thyra to Hawaii, whose racial complexity made it a more hospitable place.
De Rochemont's hunger to turn the story into a film faced its own hurdles. MGM had granted him a degree of freedom, but when they got wind of what he was planning to do with that freedom, they yanked back on his leash. Studio executives said they would not pay for the film, because they already had a pair of dramas about "the Negro question" on the docket for 1949, and weren't sure how many such things Americans wanted to see. De Rochemont mortgaged his house to pay for Lost Boundaries (which he brought in for a tidy $642,000 budget). One advantage of producing it independently, De Rochemont now had true creative freedom to make it his way, without compromises.
For example, determined that real locations provide a lived-in authenticity that no studio set could ever recreate, he shot in and around Portsmouth (the same town where he first began his filmmaking career, all those years ago, with that fateful submarine launch). They shot in St. John's Church in the Seacost area and the stately antique "Sparhawk Mansion" in Kittery. Locals, both black and white, were recruited as extras. The local press feasted on the glamour of a real-life movie being made in their backyard. The production headquarters were centered in the historic Rockingham Hotel, whose management tried to segregate the black cast members from the whites. De Rochemont refused to back down--pointing out to the hotel owners that if they wanted his business, they had to take the whole team, regardless of color.
The top-billed cast were Mel Ferrer and Beatrice Pearson, as Mr. and Mrs. Scott Carter (the movie changed the names and locations of the story, while insisting at every possible opportunity that it was based on a true story). Neither actor was African-American. Ferrer has said that he occasionally faced resistance from casting directors who assumed from his features that he was passing as white; this was the rare instance where that problem worked to his advantage. Lost Boundaries marked Ferrer's screen debut.
One of Ferrer's more prominent African-American co-stars was Canada Lee, a distinguished Broadway actor who came to the film from a stage version of Richard Wright's Native Son. Lee had also starred alongside Sidney Poitier in the first film version of Cry, the Beloved Country (1952). Lee was so moved by the experience that he told the Portsmouth Herald that working on the film made him "believe again" in America. At the Portsmouth premiere of the film, Lee took the stage with five members of the Johnston family and, to booming applause, sang "My Country 'Tis of Thee" to the crowd. Where modern viewers may today see dated material in this movie, the cast at the time found it to be the razor's edge of social change.
De Rochemont hired Alfred Werker to direct. Werker was a mostly unremarkable journeyman with a curious habit of not completing movies in their entirety. Either he was brought in at the last minute to finish somebody else's film (such as Erich von Stroheim's Hello, Sister! ) or he was canned and his work handed over to somebody else (such as He Walked by Night , finished by Anthony Mann). True to form, he fell ill during production and De Rochemont finished the last week's worth of filming in Werker's place. That said, Werker's work in this film is stylish and thoughtful. A careful attention to visual detail lifts the film out of its budget level and takes it beyond melodrama. At times, the sensitive direction veers into film noir territory, keeping a layer of unease over the middle stretch of the story--a reminder of the threat under which the family lived. Among Werker's clever touches is an opening sequence, of the Carters' medical school graduation and immediate wedding, that subtly reveals the couple's racial identity slowly, and visually. The story could easily have become talky and pedantic, but in Werker's hands remains lively and cinematic.
Some of that credit must surely go to screenwriters Eugene Ling and Virginia Shaler, working from a story treatment by Charles Palmer. Their work won the Best Screenplay Award at the 1949 Cannes Festival. The screenplay was also nominated by the Writer's Guild of America for a special prize for "Dealing Most Ably with Problems of the American Scene." Their initial draft was titled The White Piano--the metaphor of ebony and ivory did not originate with Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney. The White Piano refers to the son's burgeoning career as a jazz musician--and the real-life Albert Jr. composed some of the music for the film, in a nifty fact/fiction recursion. By the time the finished movie reached theaters, its title had reverted back to Lost Boundaries, the title of White's book.
The movie adaptation alters some of the details of the original family's life, notably the circumstances under which they are exposed. The Johnstons successfully passed until the publication of the story, but the filmmakers worried that having the movie involve the writing of its own plot (and introducing the film's own producer as a character in the story) would be one fact/fiction recursion too many, and so decided to expose the Carters in a different way. The real-life Johnston had taken a Naval commission that was rescinded when the Navy figured out he wasn't white; he returned home without revealing to anyone else the reason for his dismissal. The film turns this incident into the key turning point of the story.
The writers conclude Lost Boundaries with the Carters' daughter, once the most virulent racist in the family, walking out of an otherwise celebratory finale in the town church. In a note attached to the original screenplay, on file with the Motion Picture Association of America's Barbara Herrick Library, Palmer explained they wanted such an ambiguous ending because they didn't want "any peaches-and-cream feeling of a completely happy ending on a problem which is still unsolved generally."
As a sign of the unresolved nature of the problem, the picture immediately ran into censor problems in the South. Atlanta's censor Christine Smith (and isn't her family proud that her name is still known for this, sixty-some years later?) decreed that the movie would "adversely affect the peace, health, morals and good order of the city." Memphis' censor Lloyd T. Binford (who has also let his name join a dishonor roll for all posterity) banned it on the grounds that "in passing as white, the Negro doctor in the film slurred his own race by proving himself an imposter and a liar." Perhaps more accurately reflecting his concern, Binford told the press that the film "deals with social equality between whites and Negroes in a way that is not practiced in the South."
De Rochemont sued the two cities, and relentlessly pursued his case through the courts until he won; the Supreme Court declined to hear the censors' appeal, but even with his victory he was unable to force the white theater owners in the South to screen the movie. Thanks in no small part to the publicity generated by the controversy, the movie performed spectacularly in the North--with long lines and sold-out crowds in New York.
It is easy to see what made the Southern censors so jittery. The story is problematic enough, if you wish to insist on the inferiority of an entire group of people. But it is the images that have the most subversive power. American cinema had maintained its own segregation. Black actors had no place in Hollywood films--instead, movies with all-black casts were manufactured for showings at all-black theaters. Here was a movie of considerable production value and craft, with white and black actors treated equally. There is a scene in which a black college student marvels at how he is treated like an ordinary person by the Carters, whom he assumes are white. He notes that this never happens. It is a small thing for him--the simple act of being offered a beer by a gracious host--that makes him think the world can change. The movie is full of such small moments, each one unprecedented on the screen and unusual sights for 1949 audiences. If the drama seems old-fashioned to today's eyes, then we should be grateful.
Producer: Louis De Rochemont, Borden Mace, Lothar Wolff
Director: Alfred L. Werker
Screenplay: Furlaud de Kay, Eugene Ling, Charles Palmer, Virginia Shaler, William L. White
Cinematography: William Miller
Film Editing: Dave Kummins
Art Direction: Herbert Andrews
Music: Louis Applebaum, Carleton Carpenter, Albert Johnston, Jr., Herbert Taylor
Cast: Beatrice Pearson (Marcia Carter), Mel Ferrer (Scott Carter), Richard Hylton (Howard Carter), Susan Douglas Rubes (Shelly Carter), Canada Lee (Lt. Thompson), Robert A. Dunn (Rev. John Taylor).
BW-100m. Closed captioning.
by David Kalat
David Crary, "Decades after segregation's demise, passing for white remains a resonant topic," Associated Press, October 31, 2003.
Amanda Perry, "It was about time people knew," Concord Monitor, December 28, 2004.
J. Dennis Robinson, "The Making of Lost Boundaries," SeacoastNH.com, 1997.
AFI Catalog of Feature Films.
"Movie of the Week: Lost Boundaries--Film tells real-life story of Negroes 'passing' as whites," Life, July 4 1949.
Lost Boundaries original press kit, 1949.