A half century after its release in 1949, Louis de Rochemont's "Lost Boundaries" is still a powerful and disturbing film about race, discrimination and living in NH.
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Filmed in NH
People in Portsmouth still talk about the day Academy Award-winning film producer Louis de Rochemont broke the color barrier here. The producer was white, with New England ancestry dating to the 1680s. Many in the cast of his 1949 ground-breaking film, including powerful actor Canada Lee, were black -- yet the lead roles were played by whites.
Brazenly anti-Hollywood, de Rochemont was determined to prove that true life stories and location shooting were ultimately more realistic that sound stage work. He cast most of his actors from nearby Broadway. Mel Ferrer, today a veteran of 75 films, made his first film appearance as a light-skinned black doctor. His wife was played by Beatrice Pearson. Their off-camera personalities were set on the first day of shooting when Pearson arrived late. She was described as "strong willed" and she "indulged in a flare of temperament" over her make-up, according to the local newspaper. Ferrer, on the other hand was "calm, agreeable -- and on time."
Black actor Canada Lee arrived fresh from a Broadway production of Richard Wright's "Native Son." He was already known for his role in the 1946 film version of "Cry the Beloved Country, " the first major film to take on the issue of Apartheid.
The producer selected the historic Rockingham Hotel, built by brewing tycoon Frank Jones in Portsmouth, as his base of operations for the film. When hotel staff insisted on segregating black cast members, de Rochemont confronted the owner and threatened to take his business elsewhere. Economics prevailed over prejudice, and the integrated cast was welcomed. (Note: Ironically, de Rochemont and his wife Virginia, a scriptwriter, eventually took up residence in the Rockingham after selling their Newington home and she lived there until her death in 1996.)
After decades of presenting news to millions of theater-goers in his monthly March of Time series, de Rochemont had finally come home to Newington, NH to make the kind of movies he had long dreamed of. At the top of his list of projects was the story of a light-skinned black family that had "passed" as whites in rural NH. The story, which had appeared in Reader's Digest, went to the heart of segregated America where even a small percentage of "Negro blood" was legal grounds for "separate but equal" treatment. De Rochemont wanted true stories that would sell movie tickets and did not shy away from reality; he seemed, instead, to court controversy. "Lost Boundaries," adapted from the book by William L. White, became the best known of a new genre de Rochemont movies that he called "nonfiction film."
Rejecting the typical sound stage, familiar with shooting newsreels on-location, de Rochemont took to the streets of New Hampshire. Though set in the fictional town of Keenham, much of the film was shot in the Seacoast area: St. John's Church and the Rockingham Hotel in Portsmouth, an historic house in Kittery, the Isles of Shoals, even Calef's Country Store in Barrington. Locals, black and white, were recruited as movie extras.
Jeannette Mitchell recalls how the producer rented her entire 19-room colonial home for six weeks. Always looking to equal Hollywood with real life locations, de Rochemont used the interior of the "Sparhawk Mansion" in Kittery Point, Maine as the doctor's home in Keenham. The 200 year old historic house was originally a gift from Sir William Pepperell to his daughter. The fine wooden detailing inside was made of New England lumber, shipped to England, fashioned and returned in the 1700s. De Rochemont was looking for a house with a giant ballroom for filming. The mansion, sadly, was torn down three years later in 1952, its grand rooms surviving only on celluloid.
Jeanette Mitchell's husband Horace played a small part in the film and they stayed with the cast and crew at the Rockingham Hotel. "You could order anything you wanted at the Rockingham," she recalls.
"It was all rather exciting, " Mitchell says nearly a half century later. "We went over nearly every day. Louis had a bus to take people back and forth."
"My husband got pretty chummy with Mel Ferrer. We had a big attic and he used to love to go through the old trunks up there."
The local paper reported details of the shooting in detail, including the fact that floorboards of the Sparhawk Mansion creaked when the actors walked. On one occasion the filmmaker's begged the lighthouse keeper not to sound the foghorn at the Whaleback Lighthouse. "Bud, that'd take an act of Congress!" the lighthouse keeper replied.
According to the Portsmouth Herald, a 1923 auto was located for a key early scene and stored in a Newington garage which promptly burned down destroying the antique vehicle. But de Rochemont persevered, and after two months of production, about 1,000 locals had been included in the film.
According to an interview with de Rochemont just after the final location shooting in Kennebunkport, Maine in April 1949, the producer spent $642,000 which was 7% over the estimated film budget. Over 200,000 feet of film was then edited down to 9,000 feet. When film director Alfred Werker fell ill, de Rochemont stepped in to direct the last 10 days of shooting.
NH World Premiere,
Portsmouth's first-ever world premier brought 3,100 viewers to the Colonial and Olympia theaters to see four showings of de Rochemont's film on June 22, 1949. The Portsmouth Herald reported that a packed audience had to "choke back the emotions aroused by the bold story." De Rochemont was presented with a gift from the city of Portsmouth and he, in turn, introduced speaker Edward Everett Hornton. Boxer-turned-actor Canada Lee, who played a small but powerful part as a Harlem policeman, said de Rochemont's film had made him "believe again" in America. In a poignant moment, Lee recited the chorus to the song "My Country ‘Tis of Thee." The five members of the Johnston family, on whom the story was based, appeared briefly on stage to echoing applause.
Despite its moralizing, melodrama, and current political incorrectness, "Lost Boundaries" is a worthy sidebar to a history of racial prejudice in America. Though praised at the Cannes festival, the film was quickly banned in Atlanta and Memphis. De Rochemont countered the ban by threatening court action against state censors. He revealed a plan, if banned, to buy TV time in order to broadcast the film to an estimated 25,000 families in the two states that owned televisions. If that did not work, de Rochemont announced, he would personally travel the states showing the film to small groups of people.
The ban only made Lost Boundaries one of the year's top films.It survives today, newly released on video, as an earnest attempt by an outsider to tell the inside story of racial prejudice in America following Word War II. To de Rochemont's credit, flawed as it may be, it is a story Hollywood would never have dared tell.
Article by J. Dennis Robinson
The True Story of
Louis de Rochemont's story was suggested by the life of black physician, Dr. Albert C. Johnston who graduated from Rush Medical College in Chicago. When it was time for Johnston's internship, he was turned away at the nearby Chicago Presbyterian Hospital. Rush Medical College advised him that internship at one of the South's Negro hospitals was unacceptable to fulfill his course of studies. Johnston applied to most of the more liberal colleges in the country and received an invitation to Maine General Hospital in Portland. They didn't inquire about race, he didn't tell. He was accepted and did his internship there. Completing his internship, Johnston learned of the death of a small town general practitioner in Gorham, NH. Johnson took over his practice. Later he practiced in Keene, where he moved his wife Thyra Baumann Johnston and their children Albert Jr., Donald, Anne and Paul. In 1947, Johnston's story was published in a book called "Lost Boundaries" by William L. White.
This section reprinted with permission
RELATED SecoastNH.com LINKS:
THE LOST BOUNDARIES
In 1989 NH Public Television and NH Crossroads hosted "Home to Keene," a documentary about the Johnston family of Keene on whom the film and book "Lost Boundaries" are loosely based. The documentary was directed by Larry Gilmore, currently of Acadia Films in Kittery, ME.
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THYRA JOHNSTON DIES, 1995
REVIEWS AND NOTES
Cannes Film Festival, 1949, Best Script Award
The New York Times 10 best films list 1949
Portsmouth Herald, August 1949
Portsmouth Herald. Sept. 22, 1949
USA Today/Film Review
Chicago Reader/Dave Kehr
NH Sunday News, Nov. 25, 1995
Research by J. Dennis Robinson
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