Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Lost Boundaries

I apologize for failing to notice that Lost Boundaries was on TCM this past Sunday night. I had intended to blog about it then, but on the day totally failed to notice it was on the schedule. The joys of working 6:00 AM to 2:30 PM. At any rate, the movie seems to have been released to DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive, so you can still catch it whenever you want, albeit at a higher price point than with a lot of movies.

After telling us at the beginning that what we are seeing is based on a true story, the action of the movie begins. Scott Carter (Mel Ferrer) is about to graduate from medical school around 1920 and marry his girlfriend Marcia (Beatrice Pearson). Interesting, all of his friends are black. That's because Scott and Marcia are both supposed to be light-skinned black people (although played by white actors; more on this later). In fact, they're light enough that they can "pass" for white, much like the daughter in both versions of Imitation of Life did.

They don't want to pass for white, however, and Scott tries to get a good job as a doctor. However, being black, he finds that a whole bunch of avenues are closed to him because of the racial prejudice that existed in America to a much more prevalent extent than today. Eventually, there's an opening for the town doctor in one of those small New Hampshire towns that dot the New England landscape, kind of like the one in Peyton Place or the one our heroine departs from at the beginning of Valley of the Dolls. There's only one small problem: in order to take the job, the Carters are going to have to pass themselves off as white, which pretty much means closing one chapter of their life.

Still, they make the difficult decision to do so, and move north to New Hampshire. The have a son and a daughter, and never tell the kids that the kids are legally black. Time passes, the son Howard (Richard Hylton) goes off to the University of New Hampshire and even makes friends with a black student, and everything seems good for the family. And then the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, sending the US into World War II. Now, World War II tore apart a lot of families' lives, but it was really going to have an effect on the Carters. Howard wants to enlist in the Navy, and Dad eventually agrees reluctantly to join the medical corps. But there's a problem. The military was still segregated during World War II; President Truman wouldn't desegregate it until a few years after the war. Howard of course tries to join a white outfit, but the Department of the Navy is having none of it for either him or Dad. Needless to say, Howard isn't particularly happy with suddenly finding out after 20 years that he is in fact legally black. And will the town still accept Dr. Carter?

Lost Boundaries is an interesting idea, especially since it's based on a true story. But it's also not without its problems. One is that you know exactly what side of the issue the movie is taking; there's not much subtle here. The other issue is casting a bunch of white actors in the parts of legally black people trying to pass themselves off as white. This, I think, is rather a complex issue. Of course, a lot of people are going to be anywhere from disappointed to outraged that the part of a main character who is black is not going to a black actor. However, the script specifically calls for the characters to be able to be viewed by the public (at least in the context of the movie characters) as white. People like Sidney Poitier (whose career hadn't begun yet) or Lena Horne were very talented. But I don't think there's any why they could have passed as white. There's also the further issue of whether the movie would have gotten a budget at all by casting a black person in such a role. After all, a lot of those Lena Horne (and other black musician) musical numbers were scripted such that they could be easily cut in the segregated South. Some movies get it badly wrong here, such as Pinky, where Jeanne Crain is just too unbelievable. (Supposedly Linda Darnell really wanted the part, and she would have been far less egregious as somebody trying to play black-passing-as-white.) The first version of Imitation of Life actually used a light-skinned black actress, Fredi Washington, to play the daughter, helped somewhat by lighting and film stock that I think lighten her skin tone even more. The later version has Susan Kohner, who had a Czech father and a Mexican (European-Mexican, I think) mother. Mel Ferrer looks like he could vaguely play one of those Mexicans of European heritage, so he's not too awful in terms of casting.

Whatever your opinion of the casting, Lost Boundaries is an interesting movie that deserves at least one viewing.

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