Noble Johnson: African American Cinema Pioneer

I have my own unique tickler system that tells me whom to write about every day. Today, when I saw “Noble Johnson” (1881-1978), I was like, “Surely I have already written about him?” But, no. I had written about Noble Sissle, and about J. Rosamond Johnson and also Charlie Johnson, Jack Johnson, Bunk Johnson and Robert Johnson. Close, right?

But Noble Johnson is just as distinguished in his own field. He was a character actor in cinema, notable for being one of the few African Americans in the field during the studio era. And he worked constantly.  Originally from Missouri, his family moved to Colorado Springs when he was a child. It was there that he met and befriended Lon Chaney when still a boy. Chaney broke into films in 1912; Johnson followed him into the industry three years later, appearing in the Lubin film Mr. Carlson of Arizona. He was an extra in D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) as a Babylonian soldier. Because of his large size 6’2″, 215 lbs, Johnson was often cast in key roles among supernumeraries (e.g., tribal chieftains and the like) in serials, horror movies and the like. Over the course of his career, he played not only Africans and African Americans, but Native Americans, Asians (ranging from Chinese to East Indians), Arabians, and Pacific Islanders. All stereotypes by the modern standard, of course.

In 1916, Johnson made what may have been his biggest historical mark in co-founding the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, the first American studio whose mission was to produce “race” films, i.e. pictures for African Americans. Johnson was the company’s President. In its seven year history the company produced several movies, including The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition (1916), Trooper of Company K (1917), The Law of Nature (1917), A Man’s Duty (1919), By Right of Duty (1921). The Heart of a Negro was in production when the company folded in 1923.

At the same time, Johnson was acting in major mainstream films, including The Leopard Woman (1920) with Louise Glaum; The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (1921) with Valentino; The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1922 — he played Friday); De Mille’s The Ten Commandments (1923); The Thief of Bagdad (1924)  with Douglas Fairbanks; Dante’s Inferno (1924); Buster Keaton’s The Navigator (1924) as the Cannibal Chief; Ben Hur (1925): Raymond Griffith’s Hands Up! (1926) as Sitting Bull; The King of Kings (1927); and Topsy and Eva (1927) with the Duncan Sisters. 

As the Island Chief in “King Kong”

During the sound era he worked just as much, appearing in such films as The Four Feathers (1929); The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (1929); Moby Dick (1930, as Queequeg, with John Barrymore as Ahab); East of Borneo (1931); Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) with Bela Lugosi; The Most Dangerous Game (1932); The Mummy (1932); King Kong (1933); Son of Kong (1933); Eddie Cantor’s Roman Scandals (1933) and Kid Millions (1934); She (1935) with Helen Gahagan; The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935); Dante’s Inferno (1935) with Spencer Tracy; Escape from Devil’s Island (1936); The Plainsman (1936) with Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur; Lost Horizon (1937); Wee Willie Winkie (1937) with Shirley Temple; DeMille’s Union Pacific (1939) with Barbara Stanwyck and Joel McCrea; John Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949); The Ghost Breakers (1940) with Bob HopeNorth West Mounted Police (1940); Road to Zanzibar (1941) with Hope and Crosby; The Jungle Book (1942); and The Plainsman and the Lady (1946); . His last film was the Roy Rogers picture North of the Great Divide (1950). This is just some of the more notable ones!

He was 69 years old when he retired; he would live to be 96.