The most complete plot summary of Louis de Rochemont's groundbreaking 1949 docu--drama on race in a small NH town
Lost Boundaries (1949)
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A light-skinned African-American doctor and his family pass for white in the fictional town of Keenham, NH. After 20 years, the doctor's secret is revealed when he is rejected for service in the Navy in 1942. Based loosely on a true story by William L. White that appeared as a book and in Reader's Digest.
The Doctor Graduates
The setting flashes back to the Chase Medical School in Chicago in 1923 where Scott Carter is graduating. At the ceremony Charles Frederick Howard, a distinguished African-American doctor, receives an honorary degree. An hour later Scott and Marcia are married. At the wedding reception Dr. Howard offers Scott an internship in Georgia. In conversation, Scott's college friend Jesse, a dark skinned doctor, notes that he may have to work as a Pullman porter until he gets one of the few internships available in a black hospital.
In Georgia, Scott arrives at a crowded clinic. The nurses on duty are surprised by the apparently white intern. Placed, he says, in a most embarrassing position, the hospital director tells Scott that the hospital board of directors has decided to give preference to "southern" applicants. Confused at being rejected as too light-skinned, Scott returns home to tell Marcia the bad news. She lovingly encourages him to continue searching for another job.
At a family dinner back in Boston, Marcia's light-skinned father notes that his daughter has never been "identified" as colored. "I won't have my daughter seen in the company of Negroes," he insists. His family has thrived in white society, he says, and suggests Scott and Marcia should also live as whites. Even among his own family members, Scott is encouraged to pose as white. Instead, Scott prefers to make his applications for internship as a Negro doctor, and the hospital rejection letters pour in.
On to Portsmouth
While interning at Portsmouth, Scott takes an emergency call on the Isles of Shoals. Amid dramatic waves and melodramatic music he is whisked ten miles off the mainland on a Coast Guard boat. Arriving at White Island lighthouse, he discovers a sport fisherman who has collapsed of a penetrating duodenal ulcer. With no time to spare, Scott is forced to operate. The patient recovers and turns out to be Dr. Walter Bracket, director of a prestigious clinic. Scott operates through the night.
Impressed by Scott's skill, the recovering Dr. Bracket offers him the position of town doctor in Keenham replacing Bracket's father who recently died after 50 years there. The job comes with a stately furnished colonial home built in 1760 and a thriving local practice. Scott turns down the offer because he wants to go where he can practice medicine as a Negro. Dr. Bracket convinces him to "be practical" and try out the job.
Visiting Boston, Marcia and her mother are worrying about the young couple's financial future after Scott's internship. They wonder aloud if their baby will be born white or black. The scene switches to the hospital where Marcia and Scott are presented with a light skinned baby boy.
Keenham's Country Doctor
Scott quickly earns the trust and respect of the community "up Keenham way." He saves a boy who nearly drowns and pitches in during a town crises. The town rewards him with Old Doc Bracket's number 519 on his post office box, phone and license place. "Folks have decided you'll do doc," says a local resident. "You're here to stay."
Nearly two decades pass. By 1942, when war breaks out, the Carters are pillars of the community. Marcia chairs the Red Cross. Their son Howard Carter is a promising music student at the University of New Hampshire. Daughter Shelly is a popular high school student. Neither the townspeople, nor the children are aware of the Carters' African-American heritage. But Scott makes weekly secret visits to Boston where he and his friend Jesse have built the Charles Howard Clinic in a black neighborhood to honor their college mentor. In one scene Scott rebukes a white nurse who refuses to utilize blood drawn from a black man.
Discrimination in Keenham
At a party in the local parish house, Howard plays piano while Arthur sings with true style. The crowd is enchanted by their performance and the boys are called the local Gilbert and Sullivan, but bits of patronizing and bigoted conversation are heard from a few parishioners. "No one with any background invites darkies into their home," says a woman with a southern accent. Later, talking privately in the Carter library, Arthur tells Howard that his father is "different" from other whites since he makes him feel very comfortable in Keenham.
In a dual announcement, Howard and Scott reveal that each has enlisted in the Navy. But after being sworn in and sporting his new Navy uniform, Scott's commission as a naval officer is suddenly revoked for "failure to meet physical conditions." His African-American heritage has been discovered. Even as Scott is telling Marcia the shocking news, his Keenham house is filled with well wishers. A band plays "Anchors Away." Unaware of his news, the townspeople tell Scott that he will always be welcome in Keenham.
A Son's Journey
Scott turns up the next morning sleeping on the couch at Jesse's Boston clinic. His friend tells him that it was his duty to inform his children of their heritage. Scott considers leaving town, but hopes, instead, that the people of Keenham will take him back. His friend warns him "Your career in Keenham. They don't have Negro doctors in New Hampshire."
Son Howard, meanwhile, has run off on his own. He wanders the streets of Harlem to the strains of jazz music. He rents a room in cheap boarding house and wrestles with the revelation that he is African American.
The people of Keenham whisper among themselves about the Carters. By a waterfall Shelly's boyfriend struggles to confront her with the "awful rumor" flying through town. "Aren't you going to do something about it?" he asks. Shelly confesses that the rumor is the truth. Her boyfriend is not upset and fears, rather, that Shelly may leave town or not attend the school dance with him.
It's five days later. Howard has not returned home. Walking through a ghetto neighborhood, he hears screams and rushes to confront a man with a gun who is committing a crime in a tenement building. The son struggles with the black man, the gun goes off and the robber flees. The police arrest Howard who, depressed and confused, is befriended by a black policeman. "I came here to find out what it's like to be a Negro," Howard explains. "In five days?" the policeman asks. "I'm neither white nor black. I'm both," says Howard. The officer lectures Howard with a passionate speech about race and prejudice. Art Cooper arrives at the police station to collect his college friend.
They return home and are tearfully met by mother. Shelly enters the room, embraces her brother, then tentatively, her father. Shelly apologies. "I still feel like me, " she says, "but everything is so different."
Church bells ring in the small NH town as the Carter family approach the stark white church in Keenham. They walk warily in and down the center aisle, then move to the family pew. The minister is sermonizing that "All men are brothers, one to another." The minister notes that the Navy has just ended its policy of exclusion based on race. He notes that similar, but small rays of hope are being seen in the battle against prejudice.
"We in Keenham have an opportunity today to cause another such candle to shine into the shadows," the minister announces "I am my brother's keeper."
The congregation sings a poignantly appropriate hymn, #519, in honor of the doctor. Shelly rises and walks through the all white congregation as they sing. Men of the congregation ring the church bells together. The town accepts the Carter family. A road sign shows directions to Keenham and to the White Mountains as the narrator supplies the epilogue. The story is "a drama of true life," he says. Scott Carter is still the doctor in a small New Hampshire town.
By J. Dennis Robinson
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Scott Carter Mel Ferrer
Director Alfred Werker
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