Lost Boundaries (1949): Werker’s Interracial Melodrama, with Mel Ferrer (in First Starring Role)

Alfred L. Werker directed Lost Boundaries, an interracial drama featuring Beatrice Pearson, Mel Ferrer (in his first starring role), and Susan Douglas Rubeš.

The film is based on William Lindsay White’s story, a nonfiction account of Dr. Albert C. Johnston and his family, who passed for white while living in New England in the 1930s and 1940s.

The film won the 1949 Cannes Film Festival Award for Best Screenplay.

Except for the blacks playing supporting role, white actors were largely cast in the film.

Even so, the movie became controversial and was banned in Atlanta, Georgia and Memphis, Tennessee, among other places.

In 1922, Scott Mason Carter graduates from Chase Medical School in Chicago and marries Marcia. Light-skinned enough to be mistaken for white, Scott lands internship, but his fellow graduate, the dark-skinned Jesse Pridham, might have to work as Pullman porter until an opening in a black hospital.

When Scott goes to Georgia, the black hospital director tells him that the board of directors has decided to give preference to Southern applicants and rescinds the job offer. The couple live in Boston with Marcia’s parents, who have been passing as white.

Scott’s rejections continue until he quits his job making shoes, and masquerades as white for internship in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Scott responds to an emergency at an isolated lighthouse, where he has to operate immediately on a sport fisherman who is bleeding to death. His patient turns out to be Dr. Walter Bracket, the well-known director of local clinic. Impressed, Dr. Bracket offers Scott a position as the doctor of Keenham (a fictionalized version of Keene, New Hampshire), replacing Bracket’s recently deceased father.

But Scott declines, explaining that he is a Negro. Dr. Bracket, though he admits he would not have made the offer had he known, recommends Scott take the job without revealing his race. With his wife pregnant, Scott reluctantly agrees. Scott and Marcia are relieved when their newborn son appears as white as they do.

Scott slowly gains the trust and respect of the residents. By 1942, when the United States enters World War II, the Carters are pillars of the community, their son Howard attends the University of New Hampshire, while daughter Shelly is in high school. Scott goes to Boston once a week to work at the Charles Howard Clinic, which Jesse Pridham and he established for patients of all races.

The Carters have kept their secret even from their own children. When Howard invites a black classmate, Arthur Cooper, to visit, Shelly worries aloud what her friends will think about a “coon” staying in their home. Scott sternly orders her never to use that word again. When Arthur goes to a party with Howard, some guests make bigoted remarks behind his back.

Upon return to Keenham, Howard and his father attend their regular Sunday church service, in which the minister preaches a sermon of tolerance, noting that the Navy has just ended its racist policy.

The narrator announces that Scott Carter has remained the doctor of a small New Hampshire town.

Cast

Beatrice Pearson as Marcia Carter
Mel Ferrer as Scott Carter
Susan Douglas as Shelly Carter
Rev. Robert A. Dunn as Rev. John Taylor
Richard Hylton as Howard Carter
Grace Coppin as Mrs. Mitchell
Seth Arnold as Clint Adams
Parker Fennelly as Alvin Tupper
William Greaves as Arthur Cooper
Leigh Whipper as Janitor
Maurice Ellis as Dr. Cashman
Edwin Cooper as Baggage man
Carleton Carpenter as Andy
Wendell Holmes as Morris Mitchell
Ralph Riggs as Loren Tucker
Rai Saunders as Jesse Pridham