Lost Boundaries

How a UNH student inspired one of America’s first “race films” and why we’re still talking about it
A Johnston 85 High Res Rt

A Johnston family portrait. From left to right, standing: Albert Sr. and Albert Jr. From left to right, seated: Thyra, Paul, Ann and Donald.

Albert Johnston Jr. was 16 when he found out he was Black. His fair-skinned African American parents had been “passing” as white, they told him, since moving from Chicago to rural Gorham, New Hampshire, and later to Keene. His father had been the town’s country doctor with 2,500 white patients. He was an active member of the school board, the Masons and the Rotary. His mother Thyra was a two-time president of the Gorham Women’s Club and active in the Congregational Church.

Born in 1925, growing up skiing the White Mountains, Albert had only a single Black acquaintance in high school. In an era of widespread racial segregation and discrimination, he felt a seismic shift as he adapted from a dark-skinned Caucasian to a light-skinned Negro. Formerly gregarious, he drew inward. He attended and then dropped out of Dartmouth College. He enlisted and left the Navy, talked of suicide, battled with his parents, and spent time in a psychiatric ward.

Then Albert took a road trip. Decades before Ken Kesey and “Easy Rider,” with only a few dollars in their pockets, Albert and an old school chum named Walt hitch-hiked and hopped freight trains from New Hampshire to California. For Albert, it was a spiritual journey into the homes of his long-lost African American relatives and into the roots of Black culture. For Walt, who was white, it was a great adventure with a good friend. After odd jobs, a love affair and a stint at the University of California in Los Angeles, Albert found his way home. Renewed and focused, he enrolled in the well-regarded music program at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. And there in a UNH college lounge in front of 20 fellow students, Albert (Class of ’49) finally laid his burden down. During a seminar on the “race problem” in America, the topic turned to “cross-bred” people. He could offer some insight on that topic, Albert told his classmates, because he, himself, was a Negro. The room got very still, he later recalled, like the sudden silence after the climax of a concerto.

“Why not tell everybody?” Albert said. “Why carry a lie around all your life?”

Enter the Maverick Movie Mogul

The Johnston family secret was about to explode, first into the pages of Reader’s Digest magazine, and then as a controversial book and feature film called “Lost Boundaries.” Lawrence Benaquist, an emeritus professor of Keene State College, is an expert on America’s first “race film” that was shot on location in New Hampshire and Maine. Benaquist remained in touch with Albert “Buck” Johnston Jr. who lived in Hawaii until his death in 2014. Benaquist says that while attending UNH, Albert began to embrace his African-American roots and befriended other Black students. When the group heard that an Academy Award-winning film producer lived only a few miles from the Durham campus, they arranged a field trip to meet him. Things would never be the same for the Johnston family.

Louis de Rochemont was at the peak of his game and fame when the UNH contingent drove to the nearby town of Newington. They pulled up the circular driveway of the film producer’s grand home settled on acres of farmland near the fast-flowing Piscataqua River. The creator of the “March of Time” newsreel series was already a legend. His monthly 20-minute documentaries had shaped the minds of millions of Americans who packed movie theaters in the 1930s and 1940s.

Born in 1899, in an era before radio and television, de Rochemont was shooting and selling newsreel footage to movie houses by the time he was 12 years old. He began his career using a crude hand-cranked box camera that he built himself from the instructions in Popular Mechanics magazine. In the Navy after World War I, he shot footage all around the globe. He was the first cameraman present at the opening of the ancient burial tomb of King Tutankhamen in Egypt. Hired by the top news services, de Rochemont scooped the competition with footage of explorers en route to the Arctic, documented bloody riots in India, and introduced Americans to a rising German dictator named Adolph Hitler.

In his first foray into feature-length movies for Time  Inc. in 1940, de Rochemont created “The Ramparts We Watch,” a strange hybrid of documentary and drama that was a forerunner of his films like “Lost Boundaries.” The modern television docudrama “ripped from the headlines” owes much to this media pioneer.

Using real people instead of actors, “Ramparts” focused on the political isolationism of a real Connecticut town in the years leading up to World War I. But the movie was really a call to arms for Americans to join their European allies in the war against Hitler. A New York Times critic praised the serious-
minded film as “tough to chew” compared to the “frivolous fare” running in the cinema at the time. De Rochemont wanted to switch Americans “from a diet of cream-puffs to hardtack,” the Times declared.

De Rochemont was arguably the most influential media figure of his era. President Franklin Roosevelt, a fan of the “March of Time” series, was so anxious to see “Ramparts” that he asked de Rochemont and Time publisher Henry R. Luce and their spouses to screen the film privately at the White House. How greatly the film influenced the president or the public to enter World War II is unknown. It certainly impressed officials at the University of New Hampshire. In 1944, UNH presented de Rochemont with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree. The honor specifically cited de Rochemont’s work on “March of Time” and “The   Ramparts We Watch,” praising the films that “helped awaken America to her peril and to prepare her materially and spiritually for the ordeal of war and the ultimate triumph of the democratic ideal.”

But by the end of the Great War, de Rochemont was ready to move on. Newsreels, he claimed, were “stuck in the mud.” The naked news did not tell viewers why something happened, he complained, or what the consequences were. By recreating and dramatizing actual events — a genre de Rochemont called “nonfiction film” — he promised to make reality more real. According to a 1949 feature in Reader’s Digest, de Rochemont “was the first to marry the factual impact of the newsreel with the narrative perspective of Hollywood.” The more authentic the scene, the producer insisted, the more effective the illusion, and thus the more believable the drama — and thus its impact on viewers. De Rochemont was not opposed to recreating key historic moments using actors, a practice his critics called “fakery in the service of realism.” His influence on movies and television today cannot be overstated, and yet his name is scarcely a footnote in film history.

The Meeting at Blueberry Banke

The formula worked. By shooting in documentary style on actual locations instead of costly movie sets and by using amateurs in small parts instead of movie stars, de Rochemont turned real stories into box office hits. During the years that Albert Johnston Jr. was finding his roots and attending UNH, de Rochemont produced three rapid-fire hits in his own unique style. “The House on 92nd Street” (1945) was about a double agent working for the FBI who posed as a Nazi spy. Shot mostly in New York City, the film included a cameo appearance by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Another spy thriller, “13 Rue Madeleine” (1947) starred James Cagney as an unstoppable American “G-man.” “Boomerang” (1947), directed by Elia Kazan, one of Hollywood and Broadway’s most important figures, told the true story of a vagrant wrongly accused of murdering a priest in a small New England town.

Albert Sr At Age 16 In Chicago 1916 Large

Albert Sr., shown here when he was a Chicago teenager. He went on to be a doctor, graduating with honors from the University of Chicago Medical School, and studied radiology at Harvard. He was such a respected figure that, in the 10 years that he practiced in Gorham, he headed the school board, was a selectman, was president of the county medical society and became chairman of the local Republican Party. Although he was listed on his birth certificate as white, according to his son Albert Jr., Dr. Johnston was part Black, as well as part Indian. He was Black enough to be one of two Black students admitted to his medical class under a racial quota. But after graduation he could not find a job at one of the few hospitals that accepted Black interns.

So, by the time Albert Johnston Jr. and his friends found themselves in Louis de Rochemont’s private study at the estate he called “Blueberry Banke,” they were in the presence of a powerful man, New Hampshire’s version of Cecil B. DeMille. He was also physically imposing and renowned for his mercurial moods, fierce loyalty, hard drinking and boundless curiosity. Reader’s Digest described him this way: “A massive six-footer with a shock of disorderly brown hair and the haggard look of an overworked city editor, he fairly explodes with impatient energy.”

“Sleep and rest don’t figure in his schedule,” the Digest reporter added. The quirky perfectionist producer was known to go four days and nights on a project without a break. “He turns every job into a major adventure and all the time he talks your ear off about some new enthusiasm,” the Digest noted.

According to film historian Larry Benaquist, the young Black UNH students found de Rochemont seated in his sunny wood-paneled office, the walls lined with bookshelves.

“What can I do for you fellas?” de Rochemont reportedly asked.

“We know you make films about famous Americans,” Albert boldly told the producer. “There’s been all these movies about famous White Americans, like Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Alva Edison. Why don’t you think about making films about famous Black people like George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington?”

De Rochemont was intrigued. Forever in search of bankable ideas for his films, he was fiercely patriotic. He was also a progressive thinker with an urge to shape public opinion in postwar America. In fact, he had just completed a $3 million project with National Geographic, shooting 36 short educational films in 36 countries to be seen by grammar school students across the United States.

“What we are trying to prove,” the producer said about his educational films in 1949, “is that people who live differently than we do are not freaks; that igloos are as natural in the Arctic, for instance, as skyscrapers are in New York City.”

“Have I got a story for you!”

“Well, I can understand why these fellas are asking this question,” the producer said, turning to Albert. “But I don’t understand why you are because you’re white — aren’t you?”

On hearing Albert’s story, legend says, de Rochemont immediately picked up his phone and called Hollywood studio executive Darryl F. Zanuck. “I have a great story idea for you, Darryl,” de Rochemont said. But Zanuck, coincidentally, was at that very moment struggling to produce his own movie about racial passing. In Zanuck’s film “Pinky” (1949) a light-skinned “mulatto” woman who, after passing as a white nurse in the North, decides to return home to the South and run a school for Black children.

Like de Rochemont, Zanuck was a social reformer who believed that movies could have a powerful impact on postwar American attitudes. “We [filmmakers] must play our part in the solution of the problems that torture the world,” Zanuck said at a congressional hearing in 1943. Four years later in 1947, Zanuck won an Oscar for “Gentleman’s Agreement,” a movie in which Gregory Peck played a journalist who “passes” as Jewish to root out anti-Semites. Jewish director Elia Kazan, who had just completed “Gentleman’s Agreement” for Zanuck and “Boomerang” for de Rochemont, was about to start work on “Pinky.” One risky race film was enough for Zanuck, who turned down de Rochemont’s suggestion.

“I’ve got an arrangement with the Reader’s Digest,” de Rochemont then told Albert and his friends. “I can feed them stories. Then, a year later, I have the rights to make a movie of it if I want to.”

De Rochemont also had the legal right to extract material for the cinema from 10,000 articles that had previously appeared in Reader’s Digest monthly magazine. The pressure was on. Albert hitchhiked home to Keene to confront his parents. They stayed up all night debating whether to go public with their family secret. After 12 years posing as a white country doctor, Albert Johnston Sr. was dead set against the idea, but his wife Thyra was weary of the deception.

“It was my decision,” Thyra told Professor Larry Benaquist many years later. “We were tired of hiding. It was time to tell our story.”

Albert wrote down the Johnston family story and got his parents to sign off on it. Reader’s Digest assigned the piece to William Lindsay White, who had recently taken over his father’s Kansas newspaper The Emporia Gazette. Like de Rochemont, White was a fiercely independent character. His 1942 book, “They Were Expendable,” about a heroic torpedo boat squadron, had recently become a smash hit movie starring John Wayne. White’s article about the Johnstons appeared in the December 1947 issue of Reader’s Digest. It loosed a flood of letters across racial lines praising the family for having the courage to speak out. It was followed by a slim 92-page hardcover edition of “Lost Boundaries,” centered primarily on Albert’s journey to find himself as “a Negro in a White-man’s world.”

Bloodlines and Boundary Lines

True to his word, de Rochemont began filming his version of “Lost Boundaries” soon after it appeared in print. Despite a much-publicized five-picture deal with MGM to produce anything he chose, his Hollywood backers were not interested in a film about race relations. So, the producer mortgaged his Blueberry Banke house toward a $664,000 production budget (another source says it was under $500,000). After decades of globetrotting with “March of Time,” de Rochemont wanted to stick close to his seacoast New Hampshire home. His next two feature films about a wildcat factory strike (“Whistle at Eaton Falls”) and stolen plans for an atomic bomb (“Walk East on Beacon Street”) were also shot locally.

His decision to use white actors to play the Johnstons, renamed the Carters in the film, drew fire from some reviewers, including Ralph Ellison, author of  “The Invisible Man.” Actress Tallulah Bankhead called de Rochemont’s decision “a setback for all the things liberals are fighting for.” Darryl Zanuck also angered critics for hiring a white actress to play the fair-skinned Negro lead in “Pinky.” But it was “Lost Boundaries” director Alfred Werker who enraged Black movie critics when he explained that there were no qualified light-skinned Black actors available who “could depict Negroes as fully realized citizens.” To achieve wide box-office appeal, therefore, both films relied on white actors in key roles playing Black people who were passing as white.

In adapting “Lost Boundaries” (originally named “The White Piano”) to the screen, de Rochemont shifted the focus of the story away from young Albert’s quest to discover his African roots. Instead, the producer turned the spotlight onto the lives of the fictional Dr. and Mrs. Carter. The real Dr. Johnston, like his movie counterpart, was rejected for a commission in the U.S. Navy due to his “Negro blood” ancestry. The producer was drawn to the box-office appeal of the Johnstons’ “terrible secret.” Having released two successful spy thrillers, de Rochemont saw his subjects as Negroes living “under cover” in a “normal” white community. The poster for “Lost Boundaries” shows a character based on Albert Jr. (with actor Richard Hylton as Scott Carter) staring in horror at his own hands. The headline reads: “They lived with a strange dark secret for twenty tormenting years!”

While the concept of “passing” may appear offensive, politically incorrect, or merely silly today, de Rochemont has earned his footnote in African American history. He was the first to announce that a film based on race was in production. In “Harm’s Way,” a powerful film about discrimination in the Army, Zanuck’s “Pinky,” and three other movies tackling “the Negro problem” all followed in theaters in 1949 and 1950. Hollywood was “coming of age,” according to de Rochemont, by tackling important social issues.

Investors hoped that white audiences would buy tickets to films with provocative topics. Meanwhile, racism was rampant in postwar America and segregation of public facilities had been deemed legal by the Supreme Court since 1896. That ruling would not be struck down until 1954. It would take another decade before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination against racial minorities.

Mel Ferrer, a writer, dancer and director, made a risky but heartfelt career move when he chose to portray Dr. Carter in “Lost Boundaries.” Ferrer ignored his agent’s warning that the film was “incendiary.” Of Cuban and Irish descent, Ferrer told Negro Digest in 1951 that he was one-sixteenth Negro, “but it doesn’t show.” Beatrice Pearson played his wife. Both actors were best known for their work on the Broadway stage.

Ferrer was passionate about his role and, decades later, still called it “the best picture I was ever in as an actor.” But he balked at an early revision of the script where his character apologized for passing as white. Ferrer insisted that Dr. Carter should stand firm and say “the same blood courses through
my body as does yours.”

In the film, when Dr. Carter instructed a nurse to mix the blood drawn from an African American man with the blood bank from white donors, she drops the vial, splattering the floor, rather than follow orders. The spilled blood was real. Thyra Johnston later told Benaquist that the blood belonged to a Black chauffeur who became manager of the cinema in Keene.

The spilled blood was also a poignant symbol in a nation built on African slavery. The Albert Johnston story posed the question:  Who is Black? Under what was known as the “one drop rule,” anyone with a single African ancestor — that is, anyone with a single drop of African blood — was then considered Black. The one-drop concept of white supremacy had evolved in the segregated South as a means to identify, control and sell enslaved people. Uniquely American, the one-drop concept of racial identity had been assimilated into popular culture even in the North.

Thyra Johnson Retouch

At right: Thyra Johnston, a blue-eyed, fair-skinned New Hampshire homemaker, was born in New Orleans, grew up in Boston, and married her husband when he was a medical student. She was a mother of four, and a civic and social leader, whose well-appointed home in exclusive Prospect Hill was the scene of the annual Christmas social of the Congregational Church. In a society of such perverse attitudes that Black “blood” was simultaneously scorned and regarded as so powerful that the tiniest trace was considered the defining racial characteristic, she was born one-eighth Black, enough to qualify her as “Negro” on her birth certificate.

Miscegenation, the mixing of races through marriage or sexual contact, was still illegal in 29 out of 48 states when “Lost Boundaries” appeared in theaters. As the postwar baby boom began, Americans were unsure how to react to a growing number of mulatto or mixed-race children that sociologists referred to as “racially indeterminate” citizens. Scientists estimate that, in today’s multiethnic society, nearly one-third of whites in the country have some African genes, while more than half of all American Blacks have at least one European ancestor. No such genetic model existed for young Albert however. Growing up in New Hampshire, among the whitest American states, he was told that his brown eyes and dark curly hair were due to his German ancestry. Doctors at Maine General Hospital, where Albert Sr. first worked, believed that their colleague was either “a Filipino, or maybe a Hawaiian, or a Jew.” By not insisting that the doctor declare his race, the Maine hospital effectively employed a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

“Lost Boundaries” and other artistic works about “passing” from the 1930s to the 1950s purposely blurred the color line. This tactic, de Rochemont believed, might help white Americans turn away from outmoded “separate but equal” legislation toward full Civil Rights for people of color. But even as de Rochemont’s fictionalized version of the Johnston family advocated for equal rights, it perpetuated racial stereotypes. The Carters were seen as “exceptional” Negroes who fled their ethnic origins to earn their place in white society. In the film, Dr. Carter moved to New Hampshire because he was too light-skinned to work in a southern Black hospital, thus implying a family trapped between two race-obsessed worlds. Once exposed, the Carter family was initially rejected by the fictional Yankee community of Keenham. But in reality, most citizens of Keene were unruffled by the supposedly “shocking” revelation that their doctor was of African ancestry. “Whatever Dr. Johnson is,” a white woman from Keene told Ebony magazine, “he’s a very nice man.”

Made in New England

Louis de Rochemont’s most egregious departure from the real story of Albert Jr. comes toward the end of the film. Instead of a lengthy cross-country exploration of African-American life with a buddy, the fictional Howard Carter spends five dark days alone roaming the slums of Harlem. While Albert’s real relatives were a mix of blue-collar workers and middle-class professionals, de Rochemont inserted harsh documentary-style footage of poor, unemployed and destitute urban Blacks to drive home the contrast between cultures. (In fact, the Harlem scene was shot in Boston and Portsmouth using local Black actors.) Arrested in the movie as a suspect in a gunfight, Howard is befriended by a kindly Black policeman played by veteran boxer-turned-actor Canada Lee.

“Whether they’re white or Black, people are pretty much the same,” Lt. Joe Thompson tells the despondent Howard Carter in the film.

“Except me,” Howard says. “I’m neither white nor Black, I’m both.”

“It’s not much like New Hampshire here, is it?” Lt. Thompson says of inner-city New York. “Your father was only trying to buy you and your sister a happy childhood, as free as possible from fear and prejudice and hatred.”

As many as 350 UNH students were used as extras in the film. New Hampshire residents may also recognize scenes shot at the Isles of Shoals, Whaleback Light in Kittery, Maine, and Nubble Light in York, Maine, at churches in Kennebunkport and Portsmouth, at a dam in Durham, and at Calef’s Country Store in Barrington. The rambling Colonial Sparhawk Mansion in Kittery Point, Maine, site of the fictional Carter family home in Keenham, was torn down three years later.

While de Rochemont’s bleak picture of Black American culture soured many critics in the Negro press, his decision to employ Canada Lee, even in a minor role, earned kudos for “Lost Boundaries.” As the star of Orson Welles’ theatrical production of “Native Son,” Lee was riding high in the early 1940s. The New York Times called him “the greatest Negro actor of his era and one of the finest actors in the country.” Lee was renting an expensive New York apartment near Carnegie Hall, visiting jazz clubs, and partying with celebrities like Burt Lancaster and Langston Hughes. But according to his biographer, Mona Z. Smith, Lee was forever outspending his income. So, he gratefully accepted a $750 per diem offer for the cameo appearance in “Lost Boundaries.”

While the cast included many Black actors and extras from the Boston area, the budget-minded producer was criticized for paying them less than whites, as little as five dollars per day.

But as historian Valerie Cunningham relates, de Rochemont earned his spot on the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail when he stood up to the owner of the Rockingham Hotel in the summer of 1948. The producer had designated the historic downtown hotel as his base of operations for the film. But owner James Barker Smith was running an “exclusive” or “restricted” hotel. According to the book “Black Portsmouth” by Cunningham and co-author Mark Sammons, “Black cast members needing to meet with the director, attend meetings, or have meals were not welcome.” Flexing his financial muscle, the producer informed hotelier Smith that he could either accommodate the entire film cast and crew equally, or the filmmaker would move his entire operation elsewhere. De Rochemont “broke down one barrier in one restaurant in one town,” Cunningham wrote.

Seeking equality is a painstaking process. In 1964, Cunningham adds, soon after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the same hotel owner refused to seat African Americans at his Wentworth by the Sea resort in New Castle. UNH English professor Hugh Potter and his wife Jean were among a group of activists who again took on Mr. Smith. Despite the newly passed legislation, the hotel barred Jane and Emerson Reed, a Black couple from Portsmouth, from entering the hotel dining room. After a bitter two-hour discussion, threatened with legal action, the hotel owner finally relented. But equality arrives inch by inch. America would have to wait almost two decades to see the late Sidney Poitier face off against Spencer Tracy on interracial marriage in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967). Still, “Lost Boundaries” was a milestone in its depiction of Blacks as average citizens in opposition to their harsh Hollywood stereotypes simply as servants, entertainers or slaves. Worse yet, African Americans in film were largely absent. Despite its flaws, “Lost Boundaries” received “cautious praise” even from the Negro press.

Portsmouth’s first-ever world film premiere drew 3,100 viewers on June 22, 1949. Enthusiastic viewers packed four showings of “Lost Boundaries” at the downtown Colonial and Olympia theaters. The Portsmouth Herald reported that the audience had to “choke back the emotions aroused by the bold story.”

Canada Lee made the trip from New York just in time for the Portsmouth opening. Unlike the subjects of the film, passing for white and guarding their secret, dark-skinned Lee had always been outspoken in the fight for Negro equality and for the rights of any disenfranchised citizen. His activism came at a great price. Accused of being a communist subversive, Lee struck back. That very day, as he stood in the back of the Portsmouth theater, his strongly worded letter of denial, demanding respect and freedom, had appeared in a number of newspapers. Lee had made an enemy of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, and would soon find himself on the dreaded blacklist of untouchable actors. Lee would play one more major film role with Sidney Poitier in “Cry the Beloved Country” before he died of a heart attack in 1952. His name and fame would be all but expunged from the public record.

As  he watched “Lost Boundaries” for the first time in Portsmouth, Lee found himself warming to the controversial film. It made him proud, he later revealed. Then the lights went up, he heard his name announced, and the burly man in the dark suit walked slowly onstage to thunderous applause.

“It’s about America,” Lee said of the film, “our America, that I read about in books when I was a boy — but was not so for me. You see a picture like this, and hear all the applause coming from you people for what it’s trying to do,” Lee said, “and you begin to believe again.”

In an emotional moment, Lee spontaneously recited the lyrics to “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” with the audience. Then he disappeared from the stage as Albert Jr. and the other members of the Johnston family made a brief appearance. Again, the crowd erupted into applause.

Selected Short Subjects

De Rochemont made his investment back on “Lost Boundaries,” according to Benaquist, and a healthy profit to boot. He proved that Albert Jr.’s timely story of racial passing had box-office appeal. The movie “packs a punch” The Wall Street Journal announced. Time, Newsweek, Life and other national magazines praised de Rochemont’s realistic touch. The movie was banned in some southern states. The Atlanta censor board blocked “Lost Boundaries,” fearing it would “adversely affect the peace, health, morals and good order of the city.”

Ramparts We Watch 1940 Still

A still from “The Ramparts We Watch,” which used a new way of storytelling: a hybrid of documentary and drama. The film used no professional actors, instead relying on residents of the town of New London, Connecticut, where most of the filming took place. The movie was the prototype for “Lost Boundaries.” movie still by Frank J. Calabria

De Rochemont took advanced action in Georgia by filing a lawsuit to prevent another statewide ban on the film. In an unprecedented legal action, the producer claimed the censors could not deprive him of his constitutional rights without due process of law. If he could not get “Lost Boundaries” into the cinemas in the South, the producer told the Portsmouth Herald, then he would buy time on local stations and air it on television.

Three years after the release of “Lost Boundaries,” Dr. Johnston was fired from his job as a radiologist at Keene Community Hospital. The president of the hospital board told reporters “racial prejudice was not the reason for the dismissal,” but the doctor believed otherwise. “They have been picking on me ever since my story came out,” he told the press. “In spite of all that I have accomplished as a white man, I have, more or less, an empty life.” The Johnston family abandoned New Hampshire in 1966 and moved permanently to Honolulu, Hawaii. Dr. Johnston died in 1988 and Thyra Johnston in 1995. One of Albert Jr.’s original songs had been used in “Lost Boundaries,” and he became a successful composer.

Ever mercurial and independent, de Rochemont continued to build a body of work that defies categorization. His 1953 biopic of 16th-century religious iconoclast Martin Luther was nominated for two Academy Awards. Hired by the CIA, de Rochemont then produced a cartoon version of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” (1954), a doomsday fable about totalitarianism. Next came “Cinerama Holiday” (1955) a travelog following two real-life couples around the globe. Shot simultaneously with three cameras, the movie was projected on a 165-degree wraparound screen. It was de Rochemont who introduced American audiences to an actor named Warren Beatty playing a gigolo in the film version of “The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone” (1965) based on a novel by Tennessee Williams. And the curious list continued until the “March of Time” creator passed away in 1978.

Forty years after the release of “Lost Boundaries,” Keene State College invited surviving cast and crew members to a reunion screening. Over 1,100 people showed up from as far away as Paris. Lead actor Mel Ferrer, de Rochemont’s daughter Virginia, and surviving members of the Johnston family were among the honored guests.

“I had been using the film in my college classes for years,” says Benaquist, who organized the anniversary event. “But the reunion went beyond anything we expected. This film really has great status among scholars. De Rochemont’s approach to filmmaking truly hadn’t been done before, and I think had a huge effect on Hollywood.”

Since then, Benaquist has obtained a treasure trove of artifacts from the Johnston family and an archive of over 100 rare original films from the de Rochemont collection. He has cataloged the collection and continues to conserve the endangered film stocks before they are lost to history. “Lost Boundaries” is currently part of the Warner Brothers Archive Collection where modern viewers have rated it four out of five stars.

Time marches on. Once nestled among trees and lush gardens, the de Rochemont Colonial home in Newington is now surrounded by malls, a power plant, and hulking corporate offices. Blueberry Banke is now the offices of a healthcare facility. But the wood-paneled room where the movie mogul met the college student looks much as it did when Albert Johnston Jr. arrived in 1947 with a story to tell. That rare tale of race in rural New Hampshire still echoes, now and then, from the archives of American film.

Categories: Music & Movies, People