Not Rated. Running time: 1 hour 39 min.
Our content rating (1-10): V 0; L 1; S/N 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
…And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth…
Once to every man and nation, Comes the moment to decide.
In the strife of truth with falsehood, For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah, Offering each the bloom or blight,
And that choice goes by forever ‘Twixt that darkness and that light.
James Russell Lowell
Philip Roth’s novel and the film made from it, The Human Stain, were both very much on my mind when I came across at a Hollywood Video store the video of this 1949 film about a “Negro” man and his wife who pass for white for twenty years. Seeing that its producer also was the producer for Martin Luther, I felt that I was led to this discovery, and so purchased it. Turns out this is a good film, based on “a true story” from Reader’s Digest. Made in the same year as the other film exploring the same theme, Pinky, Lost Boundaries is not as well known, possibly because the former boasts a better-known director (Elia Kazan) than Alfred L. Werker and a far more star-studded cast (Jeanne Crain, Ethel Barrymore, Ethel Waters and William Lundigan. The star of Lost Boundaries was the debut film of an actor who would go on to renown, Mel Ferrer. Like Jeanne Craine, Ferrer was a white playing a Negro, standard Hollywood procedure, even for major Asian roles, as in The Good Earth or Shangri La.
Scott Carter (Mel Ferrer), married to Marcia Carter (Beatrice Pearson) has great hopes for his career when he graduates from medical school in the 1920s. Both he and Marcia are light-skinned African Americans. When Scott is sent by his mentor to a black hospital in the South to serve his internship, he faces a reverse discrimination when the black nurse thinks that he is white and pointedly ignore him at first. She reluctantly calls the hospital administrator who tells Scott that he is not suitable for the position—he is too white. So it’s back to Marcia’s parents in Massachusetts, where Scott sends off application after application, but to no avail. He resists his best friend’s advice to omit mention of his race and pass for white, but when Marcia announces that she is pregnant, Scott in desperation follows the advice and is accepted as an intern at Portsmouth Hospital.
He saves the life of Dr. Bracket with an emergency operation, when the doctor became ill on an island and too ill to be moved. The grateful doctor offers him the opportunity to take a position at the clinic he oversees in Keenham, New Hampshire. When Scott refuses, telling him why, Dr. Bracket gives him the same advice as his black friend—tell no one and go ahead with the job.
Keenham is one of those postcard New England towns with a main street, stately houses, and a white, tall steeple church. The rector of the church Rev. John Taylor (Rev Robert A. Dunn) and his wife are the first callers on the Carters, becoming his first friends and supporters. The townspeople hold back, until after many beyond the call of duty events, Dr. Carter is welcomed into their hearts, becoming at last “our doctor.” This is made vividly clear when several friends meet him at the post office and present him with the key of a box that had been that of their former doctor, No. 519.
Years pass, and the Carters’ two children, Howard (Richard Hylton) and Shelly (Susan Douglas Rubes) become college and high school students respectively. Shelly shows that she has absorbed the latent racism of her peers when she voices her disappointment that brother Howard’s best friend he has brought home from college is African American. She is taken aback by the vehemence of her father’s rebuke. How she and her brother, as well as the townspeople, discover the background of Scott and Marcia makes for dramatic viewing. Despite the somewhat melodramatic soundtrack music, prevalent in films of that period, this film holds up well and offers plenty of grist for a discussion of where we have come from in the matter of race and racism. It would be a good one to pair with a modern film set in almost the same period, Far from Heaven.
The following contains a couple of spoilers, so stop here if you want to see the film with no hint of its outcome:
Dr. Scott Carter, unlike Coleman Silk in The Human Stain, does not break all his ties with his past. We are not shown how he kept in touch with his darker skinned family while keeping his son and daughter ignorant of their heritage, but we do see him go into Boston on a regular basis. He is a partner with his best friend and college roommate in a clinic serving the poor, and it is here that he offers treatment for a day, after which he returns to Keenham.
Two memorable moments of grace: Andy (Carleton Carpenter), Shelly’s high school boyfriend with whom she had planned to go to the prom, seeks Shelly out, telling her that she must set right the terrible rumor about her parents being “colored.” Shelly confesses that it is true. He tells her their prom plans are still on. She turns away saying that it would not work, but thanking him for saying it.
The other occurs at church. Rev. Taylor, who is in several scenes, is not the wimpy nor pompous minister of the typical Hollywood film, but (played by a real minister) is portrayed as a learned and kindly pastor to whom someone like Scott can turn during a time of duress. In the final scene in church the Carters, including Howard in a navy uniform (it is now WW 2 and he has joined up) and Shelly, take their usual pew near the front, ignoring the not so friendly stares from some of the people (one person had snubbed Scott on the way to church). Rev. Taylor preaches about tolerance without actually mentioning the Carters by name, but leaving no doubt as to where the church’s members’ sympathy should lie if they are to call themselves Christian. At the conclusion of the service he announces a hymn change. They are to turn to Hymn #519 (remember the number of the post office box?). It is the hymn based on James Russell Lowell’s great poem protesting the Mexican War and the pro-slavery policy underlying it, “Once to Every Man and Nation” (now sadly omitted from many modern hymnals because of the misguided opinion that its sexist language cannot be updated.) It is a beautiful moment as the congregation stands and sings two of its three verses. If you use the film with a group, bring an older hymnal and at the conclusion of the session read or sing the three powerful verses that still convey an urgent and powerful challenge to stand up and be counted in the struggle for justice. (Note that you can hear and see the hymn sung on YouTube.)