Noble Johnson (April 18, 1881 – January 9, 1978) was an African-American actor and film producer. He was one of the first black actors in Hollywood to achieve any meaningful level of fame and successfully navigated the transition from silent movies to talkies.
Born in Marshall, Missouri 18th April 1881, Noble was a boyhood friend of Lon Chaney Sr and both became well-known for their ability to immerse themselves into roles, playing a wide variety of characters, often ‘bit-parts’ who still made a big impression. One of three brothers (he, Virgil and George, as well as a sister, Iris) , the Johnsons were a well-known black family in the city and their father was an expert horse-trainer. A 1967 interview with George revealed that he and Virgil both attended school with Chaney and he was known by all the family members during the period they lived in Colorado Springs. Noble Johnson left school at 15 and travelled with his father riding horses until 1898 when he became a cowboy and had a succession of jobs in ranching, horse training, and later in mining in 1909, as well as finding time to be a boxer and an athlete.
Noble Johnson became the first major black actor, and though achieving fame, inevitably found himself often cruelly typecast. His imposing 6’2″ frame and comparatively light-coloured skin meant that he appeared as innumerable tribal characters, servants, Russians, Indians, Mexicans, Polynesians, monsters, Arab Princes, Native Americans and the Devil himself! Over the course of approximately 50 films for Universal, he appeared as a negro in only around 3 of them. This chameleon-like ability was aided by the quality of early film-stock and make-up, whilst his skills as a horseman enabled him to take roles which almost certainly would otherwise have been given to a white man.
Early successful silent appearances included the Rudolph Valentino break-out smash war epic, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921 – he is the rider of the horse, Conquest) and as The Bronze Man in Cecil B. DeMille’s first Biblical colossus, The Ten Commandments (1923) – it is interesting to note that though here he is the only black actor in the cast, the 1956 remake featured over 100. Johnson demonstrated another of his talents in the film, developing a gold paint in which he was entirely covered, the chemistry of which enabled him to survive the suffocation which would ordinarily strike down anyone attempting to be clad in this manner for up to 19 hours. Johnson also appeared as the Indian Prince in Douglas Fairbanks’ swashbuckling, The Thief of Baghdad (1924) and Pre-Code sensation, Dante’s Inferno (also 1924), which featured completely nude actresses and scenes so dazzling they were reused in the 1935 remake, and nearly 60 years later in Ken Russell’s Altered States. A sign of the times is that although playing the somewhat critical part of The Devil, Johnson appeared uncredited. Johnson also appeared in a minor role alongside his friend, Chaney, in Tod Browning’s 1928 film, West of Zanzibar.
By the time he had made the leap to talkies, the roles, though perhaps more developed, still focused more on Johnson’s appearance than his talent – interestingly, his appearance in The Mysterious Dr Fu Manchu (1929) was alongside another actor who struggled to escape typecasting, Warner Oland, best known as his many appearances as Charlie Chan and also the cause of everyone’s problems in 1935’s Werewolf of London. Further indignity followed when he starred as ‘Janos the Black One’ in the first film adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue; like many Poe-based films, the plot skirts timidly around the source material,
Four films that followed helped elevate Johnson to more significant roles in the industry and to the attention of horror film lovers; The Most Dangerous Game (1932), The Mummy (1932), King Kong and Son of Kong (both 1933). As the sinister Cossack, Ivan, in the seminal The Most Dangerous Game, he was subject to something which may now seem extraordinary – he was ‘whited-up’ – naturally the opposite of being blacked-up. Appearing opposite Karloff in The Mummy he played the elegant Nubian, by turns, obedient and merciless. In both Kongs, Johnson appeared a the Tribal Leader of Skull Island – fun, iconic but let’s face it, hardly a progression morally or otherwise. He played The Zombie in the Bob Hope horror-comedy The Ghost Breakers in 1940.
Johnson essentially drew a veil over his career in 1950, shortly after appearing alongside John Wayne in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon as Chief Red Shirt, though he popped up in the 1966 TV movie, Lost Island of Kioga… as a hostile Indian. Truly, we had come no further. Johnson also helped to found the first Black-American film company, the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, in existence until 1921. He died at the grand old age of 96 in 1978.
Daz Lawrence, moviesandmania
With thanks to J.D. Bandy for his invaluable contribution.