KEENE, N.H. -- Forty years ago this city learned a secret: One of its leading citizens fell into a no man's land outside the boundaries. In the segregated America of the 1930s the lines between the races were drawn hard and fast, and Albert Johnston, a physician who lived as white, was, the records said, one-sixth black. Eventually, Johnston risked his career by telling his story in the book and movie, "Lost Boundaries." The town didn't rise up; the doctor continued a successful practice. But it was a story tinged with sadness, a story of an ambitious doctor who was spurned by his country. Johnston himself died a year ago. But yesterday, four generations of the Johnston family gathered with the actors and others who had worked on "Lost Boundaries" to celebrate a breakthrough film -- one of the 10 best of 1949 -- that until last night's sold-out showing had all but vanished from sight. The movie was last shown in Keene 40 years ago to the day. "It was a very positive movie. It's a beautiful story," says Albert Jr., the eldest of the physician's four children. "This was a very radical departure from any kind of fiction film anybody was making in the country," says actor Mel Ferrer of his first film. "{It} established a new freedom in making films." Johnston's life and destiny turned on a fraction -- a fraction of inheritance, a fraction of acceptance. And, in the end, it turned on a fraction of his American Dream. Albert Johnston was one of two blacks who were accepted each year to fulfill the quota at the University of Chicago's Rush Medical School. But finding a hospital for his residency was difficult; in the 1920s and '30s, black doctors were often prohibited from treating whites. At last a hospital in Portland, Maine, accepted him, and did not inquire about his race. After his residency, he was recommended for a practice in the small town of Gorham, in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. When you spoke of prejudice in all-white Gorham, it was between the Protestants and the Catholic French Canadians. Gorham welcomed its new doctor in 1929, and in the 10 years he practiced there, Johnston headed the school board, served as a selectman, was president of the county medical society and coached basketball. As chairman of the local Republican Party, he was a power to be reckoned with. The family passed muster with the local Congregational Church, and hosted the Christmas social at their home. The Johnston house was in the town's rich Prospect Hill section. "The citizens wanted to be sure they had only the 'best' people living there -- no Jews or Catholics, for example -- so they sold to us at a ridiculous price!" he told Ebony magazine years later. "They seemed to think that since we were Protestant and white, we were just right." In truth, Johnston's wife, the former Thyra Baumann -- one-eighth black -- was Catholic. After being certified in radiology, Johnston sold his practice and moved to Keene. He could have continued on in Keene as he had in Gorham and become one of the small city's "leading citizens," as they used to say. But war appeared likely and Johnston wanted to serve his country. Even before Pearl Harbor, the Navy was desperate for people practicing his specialty. There were only 2,500 certified radiologists in the country, and many were old or essential to their community. The Navy wrote twice to Johnston, asking him to volunteer. Finally he did, knowing well that an investigation could scuttle his entire career. He passed the physical and was commissioned with the rank of lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserve. But the Navy was segregated. There were no black officers; blacks served as mess attendants. And a Navy investigation discovered that at the University of Chicago, Johnston had belonged to Kappa Alpha Psi, a black fraternity. A Navy investigator was sent to Keene with one question: "We understand that, even though you are registered as white, you have colored blood in your veins?" "Who knows what blood any of us has in his veins?" replied Johnston. That was the end of the interview. Three weeks later the Navy rescinded his commission, citing an "inability to meet Naval physical requirements." He was overweight and an inch and a half too short. He lost the weight and applied again, but his height was "still a disqualifying defect." After that, Johnston tried everything to serve his country. He wrote the War Department. He tried the Army, which said: "We have more applicants of your type than we have position vacancies." He tried to get an appointment with the "colored troops." He had influential friends push his case. No one would have him. Shortly after the Navy had rescinded the commission, his son came home from prep school, happily talking about his friends, including one who was "a good guy even if he is colored." That angered his father, and as Albert Jr. sat taking a bath for a date that night, his father came to the bathroom door and told him to turn off the water. "Do you know something, boy? Well, you're colored." He was 16. "I grew up as a boy not knowing my identity," says the 63-year-old Albert, a retired department store buyer and composer. "When I was a little boy, some people would say, 'Gee, if you could be anything in the United States, what would you like to be?' I said I'd like to be president. I could say that. But a little black child couldn't do it." Albert Jr. didn't know where the boundaries lay. "I don't know if I belong to any race or not," he said three decades ago. "In my mind I don't. But I guess people just like to pigeon hole you." At Dartmouth, he felt like an outsider. He dropped out, went to a psychiatrist, and eventually enlisted in the Navy as white -- refusing a position as a radio operator in case they might send him South. Left scrubbing decks, he became depressed, jittery -- "the whole bottom seemed to fall out of my stomach," he said. He was discharged. Young Albert drifted through jobs. His father was angry with his once promising son. He wanted to have Albert committed to a veterans hospital. Finally Albert took off with a friend, hitchhiking across America to visit relatives in Cleveland, Chicago and Los Angeles. At his aunt's house in Los Angeles, he met black doctors, lawyers, movie actors -- people who had money. "It was a whole different world I was not aware of," he says. "I was like a white boy. I did not know that all these people lived so well. All I'd ever heard of was all the bad things you usually hear in association with Negroes." The trip settled Albert down. Back home, he enrolled at the University of New Hampshire. With the college's other black male student, he attended a conference of sociology students. The conference produced several resolutions; one was to produce films honoring black Americans who had "made a contribution." "When you went to a movie, you either saw a shoeshine boy, a jazz musician, a cotton picker, or Aunt Jemima or somebody's maid. We wanted to eliminate that stereotype," says Albert Jr. "So we thought of George Washington Carver." Through their dean, Albert and the other black student arranged to bring their idea to the movie producer Louis de Rochemont, who lived nearby. De Rochemont politely listened to the students talking about George Washington Carver. De Rochemont understood, recalled Albert, "why the other student was interested in this, being obviously black, and he said, 'Mr. Johnston, how come you're interested in this? Are you studying sociology too?' I said, 'Well, I didn't know that I was black until about two years ago.' He says, 'Is that right?' And I told him the whole story. And he asked me to go home and write an eight-page synopsis of that, and would my family be willing to grant rights to make a motion picture. When I called my father at home, he thought maybe I'd been out on a beer bust or something -- he didn't understand what was happening." De Rochemont then called in William L. White to do the story for Reader's Digest. ("Twenty pages that shocked the world," it said in the movie ads.) Published in 1947, "Lost Boundaries" became a bestseller, a "masterpiece of insight, intelligence and unsentimental compassion," the New Republic said. Today, "Lost Boundaries" is out of print. The film was produced independently; Hollywood wouldn't back de Rochemont on such a risky topic, so he mortgaged his house to help pay for it. Mel Ferrer's booking agent warned him not to take the part because it could jeopardize his career. After the film came out, Ferrer, who is white, was accused of "passing." De Rochemont had won an Oscar in 1936 for his "March of Time" newsreels. He took a documentary approach with "Lost Boundaries." He shot it in his hometown of Portsmouth, using as many authentic Yankees as he could round up, including his minister, who had a large role playing a minister. It was filmed in eight weeks for less than $600,000 -- a third, he said, of what the studios would have spent. The movie itself uses a voice-over narrator to tell how the town of Keenham (based on Keene and Gorham) comes to like its new doctor. After he is rejected by the Navy, the news is whispered around town. In one scene, the doctor's daughter runs into her boyfriend. There's an "awful rumor," he says. "They were saying you folks are colored." "Are they saying bad things about us?" she replies. In the end, at their minister's urging, the town stands by its doctor. The first time the film was shown in New York, the audience sat in stunned silence once the lights came on. The New York Times and Time magazine chose it as one of the 10 best films of 1949, and it was chosen as the best script at the Cannes film festival. "Lost Boundaries" was banned in Atlanta by the censor employed by the city government, Christine Smith. In Smith's view, the film "contained inferences throughout which created preachments against long-standing customs that also were part of the laws of the south," reported the Atlanta Constitution. Northerners, Smith said, would not understand. They overlook "the fact that segregation is a matter of law in the south -- not just a matter of prejudice." De Rochemont took the censor to court. "That banning was good. Everybody wanted to see it after that," says Albert. "Lost Boundaries" played in Miami, San Antonio and 25 other smaller Southern cities. It enjoyed a long run in Los Angeles, and played for six months at the Astor Theater on Broadway. Mel Ferrer says President Truman's decision to desegregate the armed forces was speeded by viewing the film. "Lost Boundaries" was a "a real breakthrough," says Donald Bogle, author of a history of blacks in films. "The black characters you see in 'Lost Boundaries,' it's not the old-style Stepin Fetchit figure. These people do not speak with heavy dialects, they are not shuffling. They are composed, dignified, educated people who have a problem in America because of American discrimination and bigotry." In Keene, people had lined up around the block to see the film, and except for a few residents, they stood by their doctor. "I feel as if as a great burden has been lifted from my shoulders," Johnston said at the time of the movie's release. Look magazine reported it this way: "The Johnstons ... last spring let the world know they were Negroes. The reaction? There was none." This was news in 1949. Two years earlier, Sinclair Lewis had published "Kingsblood Royal," a best-selling novel about a situation similar to the Johnstons': a successful businessman, in midlife, reveals he is black. But in the novel, his friends turn on him and his home is destroyed by an angry mob. Johnston was proud of the people of Keene. "They are strong and unyielding like the granite foothills surrounding our little city. They respect human rights and are willing to give a man a break regardless of his color. Maybe the world outside feels like we live here like flowers in a florist hothouse, but this is not the truth. We are a part of Keene, part of the pulse and the soul of this city. ..." But it was not an entirely happy picture. Four years after the film, he lost his position with the hospital, for reasons that may have had to do with race. And while the family is always positive about Keene (Johnston's daughter Anne was voted most popular girl in her high school class) they acknowledge that it was easy for Keene to face what was then called the "Negro problem": At the start of the 1940s, there was only one other black family in town. "We never once intended to pass over as white," says 85-year-old Thyra Johnston. "It just happened accidentally." But she adds, "I think if he had gotten into the Navy, I don't think he would have ever told the children. I used to say to him, 'What do we do when the kids grow up? We have to tell them sometime.' And he said, 'Let's just saw wood, say nothing and see what happens.' " (Johnston's widow was here for the reunion, as were two sons, Albert Jr. and Paul; daughter Anne; Susan Douglas, who played the daughter in the film; Carleton Carpenter, who played the boyfriend; William Greaves, who played a friend; members of the de Rochemont family; and a number of Johnston grandchildren.) "Americans in general do not want to do anything about race prejudice. They have been pampering their nasty little prejudices for years," Johnston told Ebony in the early 1950s. At medical conventions he would have to endure Southern doctors telling him that as a Northerner he had no idea what Negroes were like, that they "don't have the brains, or any sense of moral values like you and I have." "I have to sit there silent and take it -- feeling like a traitor," Johnston said in the book. He couldn't have achieved as much as he had if he had not "passed," he said, and yet now his achievement seemed hollow. "Whatever I do, my race gets no credit." "I guess I've become morose," he said in the William White book. He quit the Rotary and the Masons, stopped making new friends at the hospital. He was offered impressive positions: an association with the head radiologist at Wayne University in Detroit, and a post at a large black college in the South. But in Detroit there were race riots and Johnston felt he would have to "pass" to have a successful practice. As for the South, he said, it would take him five years just to learn how to live in a Jim Crow society. There were still boundaries. He stayed in Keene. And he explained his life by a way of a story: Once there was a woman who taught piano. Ever since she had been a girl, she dreamed of owning a concert grand, white with gold legs. She spent many years giving lessons, listening for hours a day to badly played music. At last she got herself that grand piano, but it was just another piano, even with the gold legs. It didn't sound anything like the piano in her dream. "I have more or less an empty life," he said in the book. "Sometimes it all seems as disappointing as that white piano with the gold legs." Johnston and his family moved to Hawaii in 1966, where again he was a successful radiologist and active in the community. He was 87 when he died there last year, and he was buried in Keene. This year, six months after Johnston's death, a letter arrived at his house in Hawaii: "Dear Dr. Johnston, "Why should you be interested in the Air Force Medical Service? ... "Find out more about how the Air Force Medical Corps can help you achieve your professional and personal goals. Return the enclosed card, or call today." A computer-generated form letter, perhaps, but 45 years ago such a letter would have been as magnificent as a white concert grand piano with gold legs.