Lost Boundaries (1949)


(director: Alfred L. Werker; screenwriters: from a Reader’s Digest story by William L. White/Furlaud de Kay/Eugene Ling/Charles Palmer/Virginia Shaler; cinematographer: William J. Miller; editor: Dave Kummins; music: Louis Applebuam; cast: Beatrice Pearson (Marcia Carter), Mel Ferrer (Scott Carter), Richard Hylton (Howard Carter), Susan Douglas Rubes (Shelly Carter), Canada Lee (Lt. Thompson), Rev. Robert A. Dunn (Rev. John Taylor), Maurice Ellis (Dr. Cashman), Emory Richardson (Dr. Charles Frederick Howard), Morton Stevens (Dr. Walter Brackett); Runtime: 99; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Louis de Rochemont/Borden Mace/Lothar Wolff; Warner Brothers; 1949)
“Daring for its time, when viewed today it seems tame.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A race relations picture set in the 1920s in New England that is about racial tolerance and opportunities for blacks, but ironically has white actors playing light-skinned African Americans. It’s the beginning of the cycle of “I Passed for White” melodramas that reached their peak in the 1950s. Daring for its time, when viewed today it seems tame. But what it does do an excellent job in is depicting the pervasive racism in America. It’s based on a true story which William L. White wrote for Reader’s Digest. The sensitive liberal script is turned in by Virginia Shaler and Eugene Ling, and it’s sincerely directed by Alfred L. Werker (“The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes”). The white actors passing for black are Mel Ferrer and Beatrice Pearson, both in their film debuts.

The film opens as light-skinned Negro Scott Carter (Mel Ferrer) graduates at the top of his class in 1922 from the Chase Medical School outside Chicago and that afternoon weds light-skinned Negro Marcia Mitchell (Beatrice Pearson). Scott accepts an internship at a Negro hospital in Georgia that was arranged by Dr. Charles Frederick Howard, a respected Negro physician. But the hospital administrator wants the position only open for dark-skinned blacks because it’s so difficult for blacks to get positions, that he rejects Scott telling him he can only accept Southern applicants. The couple return to Brookline, Massachussetts, to live with her parents who pass for white in the community and don’t want it any other way. With no job opportunities for blacks in their area, Scott agrees to pass for white and accepts an internship at a white hospital. While taking the place of another doctor, he performs an emergency operation on a New England doctor named Walter Brackett (Morton Stevens) who has a bleeding ulcer. The grateful patient offers Scott his father’s family practice in the small town of Keenham, New Hampshire, because of his father’s recent death, even after he’s told that Scott is a Negro. Brackett advises him to pass for white until he builds up a good reputation. The couple reside in the stately old Brackett mansion and are soon accepted fully into the upscale all-white community, where they raise their son Howard (Richard Hylton) and daughter Shelley (Susan Douglas) as whites. During the Second World War Howard enlists in the service and Scott volunteers his medical services to the Navy and is commissioned as a lieutenant-commander. The town plans to send him off with a farewell parade, and they tell him they are only loaning him to the government and expect him back after he serves his duty. But Scott is visited by a Navy Intelligence officer, who gets him to admit he’s a Negro. Since the Navy at the time didn’t accept blacks, his commission is revoked because of physical reasons. The town soon finds out the real reason and the bigots want him booted out of their town. The children who never knew are in a state of shock, as Howard breaks off from his white girlfriend and runs away to Harlem to learn what it means to be black and Shelley also breaks up with her white boyfriend. Meanwhile Scott stays in the Howard Clinic, a black hospital he founded in Boston. When he’s reunited with his recalcitrant son they return to Keenham and attend a Sunday church service, where the Reverend John Taylor (Rev. Robert A. Dunn, an Episcopal clergyman of Ports-mouth, N. H.) preaches against racial prejudice and encourages the Carters to stay in Keenham. Soon an announcement is made that the U. S. government extends commissions in the Navy to all men, regardless of color or creed. Shelley, who grew up hating blacks, walks out of the church alone.

It was difficult to swallow whole that cheery ending that all is well in Mudsville again after one sermon. But at least the film did present real racial issues that affected even the educated blacks at the time, and it points out that the bigotry takes place in liberal New England and is not restricted only to the segregated South.