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Landmark '49 Film About Family Passing for White Recalled

July 25, 1989|MARGARET LILLARD | The Associated Press

KEENE, N.H. — For 12 years, Dr. Albert Johnston and his wife had a secret--a secret they kept from friends, neighbors, even their children.

But in 1941, their secret came out--each was part black. The fair-skinned Johnstons had raised four children and built a life in Keene and Gorham, N.H., while passing as white.

The whole world knew their story 8 years later when it was presented, lightly fictionalized, in "Lost Boundaries," in which Mel Ferrer ("El Greco," "War and Peace") made his film debut.

The doctor is now dead, but his family and members of the movie's cast and crew reunited in Keene last week with a screening and small reception to celebrate a revolutionary film and friendships that withstood a revelation that was, in its time, shocking.

"That was the point of the story, the fact that something positive happened, that there wasn't any problem as a result of it," Albert Johnston Jr. recalled.

Albert Johnston, a Chicago native, and his blue-eyed wife, Thyra Baumann, born in New Orleans, had no thought of "passing" after their 1924 marriage when he was a premed student at the University of Chicago. But things changed when he tried to find work as an intern. Hospitals that accepted black interns were full, and others would not accept him because he was part black.

At last, Maine General Hospital in Portland accepted Johnston without asking his race. In 1929, the internship over, the family moved to Gorham, N.H., and Johnston went into successful private practice.

The family moved to Boston in 1937 so Johnston could study radiology at Harvard Medical School. He returned to Gorham a year later, moving to Keene in 1939. It was there, just before World War II, that the truth came out.

In 1941, he volunteered for the Navy and won a lieutenant commander's commission in July. But a few days later, a Navy intelligence officer visited the doctor and said, "We understand . . . you have colored blood in your veins."

"Who knows what blood any of us has in his veins?" Johnston replied.

About a month later, he was notified that his commission had been revoked because of an "inability to meet naval physical requirements." He then told his children about their background.

Despite the family's fears, townspeople's feelings were generally unchanged when the news spread, which surprised the Johnstons and many others.

"I would say 80% of the people didn't care, didn't make any difference. Why would it?" Albert Johnston Jr. said from Hawaii, where he and his parents moved in the 1960s.

"If you'd lived in New Hampshire all your life, knew all your friends . . . they're going to be surprised, they're going to be amazed, but they're still your friends. There were, of course, a certain small amount of people who were die-hards who would have always lived with a sense of bigotry."

In the movie, however, the family is roundly rejected once their secret is revealed.

It was Albert Johnston Jr., then a music theory student, who got the film started by telling the family story to producer Louis de Rochemont, who lived in Newington, Conn., at the time. The "March of Time" producer sent author W.L. White to write the family's story, which was printed in Reader's Digest in 1947.

De Rochemont, now dead, fought with MGM over suggested script changes and ended up financing the film himself. He shot it in New Hampshire and Maine seacoast towns.

When "Lost Boundaries" came out--premiering in Keene on July 24, 1949--it was banned in some cities but was lauded by Life and Newsweek magazines and the New York Times, in which critic Bosley Crowther said it had "extraordinary courage, understanding and dramatic power."

The movie won the prize for best script at the Cannes Film Festival.

"This was a very, very radical departure from any kind of fiction film anybody was making in the country," Ferrer said, noting its documentary style and controversial topic. "It was a picture which broke a tremendous number of shibboleths, and it established a new freedom in making films."

Albert Johnston Jr. said de Rochemont deliberately picked unknown white actors--Ferrer and the late Beatrice Pearson, who had been in just one film before "Lost Boundaries" and who abandoned her career a short time later.

Though some critics, film buffs and historians have criticized the movie for casting whites in the lead roles, as was done in such other movies at that time as "Show Boat" and "Pinky," the film did feature a few black actors, including Canada Lee and Leigh Whipper.

The movie has also been criticized for creating an unbelievable premise: that the couple are forced to leave their black community because other blacks reject their "whiteness." At that time, well before the slogan "black is beautiful" permeated black society, fair skin was more acceptable in the black community than dark skin.

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