Thursday, June 25, 2015

Noble Johnson African-American Pioneer Actor:

Noble Johnson the Pioneer African-American Actor is buried five minutes from my home. He is just up the street from my Senior's community of "Friendly Valley" in another valley called "Eternal", His resting place is located in Newhall, California on Sierra Highway off of the 14 Freeway, Noble Johnson rests within the "Garden of Peace" in plot A-270.

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The question is do you recognize his name?

Probably not, but if I said he portrayed the Chief of the natives of Skull Island in Merian C. Cooper's 1933 "King Kong". You would immediately recognize that character.

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Noble Johnson the man and actor was anything, but that Chief spouting Hollywood Native Jibberish about turning Fay Wray into the Bride of Kong. This is the story of one of the finest early African-American actors in the motion picture industry. Who appeared in 145 films, wrote two early screen plays and produced one feature film among other accomplishments.

Noble Mark Johnson was born in Marshall, Missouri on April 18, 1881. Early in his childhood the family moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado. The move itself wasn't important in the scheme of things, but it was while in school that he met another young man two years his junior. The other boy had been born the same month as Noble, but on April 1, 1883. His parents were both deaf and his name was Lon Chaney. The two would re-meet in Hollywood later in their lives, but one has to wonder if either boy had any inkling of their futures and what "dreams" they might have discussed in and around Colorado Springs.

I could not locate any information on Noble Johnson's childhood other than the comments about Lon Chaney. His education, his employment, his life before he entered the movies remains partly a mystery. Although I know from other sources I found that he had a brother named George.Who would attend Hampton University a well known black college in Virginia. So it is probable that Nobel also had received, or at least started higher education after high school.

Here is a description of Nobel Johnson from the website "The African American Registry" which is a non-profit organization:
Johnson was an impressive looking individual at 6'2" and 215 pounds and one of the most handsome Black actors of the silent era. He appeared in a number of films, in serials, Westerns and adventure movies. He was cast in Black roles obviously, but he would also play other exotic character parts, such as Indians, Latinos and Arabians. In these roles Johnson has a self-control and dignified stature that gave power and substance to his screen persona. At the very beginning of his screen career, in 1916, he was a supporting actor.
Let us start by looking at Noble Mark Johnson actor and producer during the period described by "The African American Registry"

On April 8, 1915 the first known motion picture with Noble Johnson "Mr. Carlson of Arizona" came out. It was a short and ran twenty minutes. Which was typical film making of the period, but as to what the film was about I could find no reference. The total cast including producer/writer/star Romaine Fielding was five. Johnson would make three more shorts that year for Fielding.

There is some misinformation on the IMDb website pertaining to the last of the short's Johnson made for Fielding "A Western Governor's Humanity" released November 3, 1915 at a running time of 30 minutes. Although Noble Johnson's age is listed correctly as 34 in the review by "The Novelist, London, England". This person incorrectly states this fourth film as Johnson's first screen appearance. As with the other Fielding shorts I could find no images to see how Johnson looked, or descriptions of the parts he was playing which at the time might not have been African-American, but actually white roles.

Due to the nature of the film stock used during the early silent film era. It was possible and happened frequently were an African-American actor would play a white role. The Orthochromatic properties of the black and white film stock was overly sensitive to blue and greens which caused an African-American's skin color to wash out and they would appear white. Which was one of the reasons "black face" make-up was used on some African-American actors that were playing Negro parts..

Johnson followed the Fielding films with the role of a Babylonian soldier in D.W. Griffith's 1916 masterpiece "Intolerance". Also in 1916 he co-starred with Claire McDowell as "The Islander" in the film "The Lady from the Sea". The running time was 10 minutes. A 50 minute movie followed "Kinkaid, Gambler" and it appears Noble Johnson played his first non-African-American role as Romero Valdez. The movie appears to have been a mystery as the leading lady Ruth Stonehouse played a detective. The motionpicture was made at Universal Studios and the following year according to the book "The Silent Feminists: America's First Women Directors" by Anthony Slide, Stonehouse became one of the first female directors at the studio.

Noble Johnson's next part was in the big budgeted Universal Studio's production of Jules Verne's classic "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea",  but again his part was so small that the character is not even  listed.

It was either 1915, or 1916 (the year varies depending upon the article). When Noble Mark Johnson founded "The Lincoln Motion Picture Company". The first all-black motion picture business with the goal to fight racial stereotypes by showing Black Americans as they really were.

Above is the only picture I could locate of "The Lincoln Motion Picture Company". Noble Johnson stands over the others in the middle of the picture.

Also working at the studio was his brother George, I believe that is him on the far left, as this small article from the website OAC (Online Archives California)  tells us:
George Perry Johnson (1885-1977) was a writer, producer, and distributor for the Lincoln Motion Picture Company (1916-23). After the company closed, he established and ran the Pacific Coast News Bureau for the dissemination of Negro news of national importance (1923-27). He started the Negro in film collection about the time he started working for Lincoln. The collection consists of newspaper clippings, photographs, publicity material, posters, correspondence, and business records related to early Black film companies, Black films, films with Black casts, and Black musicians, sports figures and entertainers.
"The Lincoln Motion Picture Studio" would make the first of what would be called "Race Movies" aimed toward "Colored" audiences."Race Movies" would be the norm in all parts of the United States between 1915 and 1950. As a boy in Los Angeles in the early 1950's I have memories of seeing racially segregated movie theaters after 1950.

The first film  from Noble Johnson's motion picture company was "The Realization of a Negro's Ambition". The plot is described on Wikipedia as:
A junior Negro oil engineer rescues a white woman and earns the chance to succeed in the oil business.
 I could find no stills on this important, but lost picture.

Below is a photograph of  Noble Johnson in  "A Trooper of Troop K", This was another short that ran thirty minutes and was released in January of 1917. I could find no name for Johnson's character, but the film apparently was a tribute to the  'Buffalo Soldier" and is described on IMDb as:
A black U.S. Army cavalry unit in the early 1900s mounts an expedition against the forces of a renegade Mexican general along the Texas-Mexico border, leading to a full-scale battle.

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Noble Johnson was the President of his film company and supported it by his acting work in mainstream productions. However, before the company closed in 1923 Johnson had left it to work solely upon that acting career. It was also at this time that he started playing Native American's and other Foreign nationalities besides Hispanics.

Going back to his boyhood and adult friendship with Lon Chaney. Chaney had a great publicity man in Irving Thalberg who created the tag line "The Man of a Thousand Faces". Lon made 162 films in his career as a leading man. Nobel Johnson made 17 less and didn't have a great publicist. Otherwise with his performances as a character actor. He could have used the same phrase created by Thalberg.

Eleven films followed "Trooper of Troop K". In those Noble Johnson played roles of varying size. One such small part was that of "Conquest" one of "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" in the 1921 Rudolph Valentino motion picture. Unfortunately, once more, there are no photos of that role, or any of his other appearances during this period.

In 1922 Noble Johnson was cast as "Friday" in the Eighteen Chapter Serial from  Universal Pictures "The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe", The only photos I could locate were a couple of the actor who played Crusoe. Although the entire series is available on DVD from Amazon for $70.

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Another six films later and Johnston appeared as "The Bronze Man" during the prologue to Cecil B. DeMille's 1923 silent "The Ten Commandments", but also as Pharaoh's Charioteer in the race toward the Red Sea.

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As with many of his films prior to "The Ten Commandments" the classic silent was followed by motion pictures we only know the names of and perhaps the casts. In some cases the parts Nobel Johnson played are unknown and only his name is indicated and of course photos do not exist.

However starting in 1924 with Douglas Fairbanks' "The Thief of Bagdad" we start to get a better photographic record of the work and many looks of Afro-American Actor Noble Johnson. In this grand fantasy Johnson played the Prince of the Indies one of the suitors of the Princess. His character steals a magic crystal ball that can see what is happening to other people.

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Three films after this classic of the silent screen, We see another look at Noble Johnson whipping a captive women in the 1924 silent  "Dante's Inferno". A one scene sequence, but powerful.

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This would be followed by a larger Native American role in the 1926 film "Hands Up" playing the part of Chief Sitting Bull. Johnson is on the far right in Sioux Indian dress.


He would reprise the role of Sitting Bull in "The Flaming Frontier", but no pictures could be found. Although there is an excellent drawing on the actor on one of the movie's posters.

According to IMDb "The Flaming Frontier" tells the story of:
Bob Langdon, a young Pony Express rider, is given an appointment to West Point, but is forced to leave the academy as the result of political intrigue stirred up by enemies of his friend, General George A. Custer. Bob returns to the west and is made a scout for Custer's 7th Cavalry. At the Battle of Little Big Horn, Custer sends Bob with a message for aid, and Bob becomes the only survivor of the battle.

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The following year started with four roles including once more as a Charioteer for Cecil B. DeMille in his "King of Kings". Obviously Nobel Johnson must have been very good with the horses and control of the chariot in DeMille's "The Ten Commandments" and was called back. No photo of that picture exists. Although several websites misstate the above photos as being from the "King of Kings" and not the former.

We know come to a film that by any standard today is racist and find Noble Johnson playing the part of Uncle Tom in the "Duncan Sisters" motion picture "Topsy and Eva". The motion picture is based upon their very successful and famous stage play of the period. The sisters were Rosetta and Vivian Duncan and popular Vaudeville stars.

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Below is Noble Johnson in the role of Uncle Tom and notice as I mentioned above that he is wearing minimal Black Face make-up to accent his Negro looks for the camera to avoid the "wash out" effects of the film stock.

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The following is a YouTube video of the first part of  "Topsy and Eva". Once more it shows the stereo typical racial version of African Americans and I therefore forewarn by reader.

Several more roles and Nobel Johnson was in the film "Yellow Contraband". Here is a link to a short review of the movie in the New York Times at the time it was released.

Although his name is not mentioned. It would be interesting to have had a photo of Noble Johnson playing the Chinese character of Li Wong Foo/ He was billed third in this forgotten motion picture. The production was followed with another small role in the motion picture "Noah's Ark" and fourth billing in "Sal of Singapore". As this newspaper ad indicates it was Phyllis Haver the original "Roxie Hart" in the play "Chicago" that was the attraction for audiences as Sal.

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Noble Johnson's next role was "Pueblo Jim" in the Richard Dix film "Redskin", "Redskin" was completely filmed in two strip technicolor and was another early attempt at 70mm widescreen. The process used was called "Magnascope". This was a very important film and Johnson was billed fifth as one of the trouble making Indians the Dix character is up against.

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Released in June of 1929 "The Four Feathers" was one of the last of the major silent films made.The motion picture starred Richard Arlen ("Wings") and William Powell (the future "Thin Man"). Noble Johnson played an Arab character named Ahmed. Of more interest were two other names associated with this Paramount motion picture. The film was directed by Merian C. Cooper and it starred Fay Wray.

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Fay Wray and Richard Arlen above.

Once more Nobel Johnson would play a Chinese character as Li Po in the 1929 early talkie film "The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu" starring Warner Oland. Unlike a lot of other silent film actors Noble Johnson made the transition to sound without difficulty. "The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu" was followed in 1930 by "Moby Dick" starring John Barrymore as Captain Ahab. Noble Johnson played Queequeg.

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"Moby Dick" is considered lost, but I found a few "found" scenes put together for an 11 minute video. It quality and size ratio is not perfect, but you get to see Johnson as Queequg about 8 minutes into it.

Here's the link:

Five more movies like many of Nobel Johnson's considered "lost" and we come to a film starring Bela Lugosi 1932's "Murders in the Rue Morgue". Johnson has a fairly large role playing "Janos the Black One". He is on the right in both pictures below.

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For a laugh is this still with added caption from 1932's "Murders in the Rue Morgue" with Bela and Noble.

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On September 16, 1932 a classic adventure film was released by RKO Pictures. The film reunited Noble Johnson with producer Merian C. Cooper and actress Fay Wray for the first time. Along with introducing him to Cooper's partner and film director Ernest B. Schoedsack and actor Robert Armstrong. "The Most Dangerous Game" co-starred actors Leslie Banks and Joel McCrea. Nobel Johnson received fifth billing as Ivan.

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This is a great film and here's a link to it.

How can you follow "The Most Dangerous Game"? How about appearing with "Karloff the Uncanny" in the original 1932 "The Mummy"?

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After "The Mummy" there was something called "Nagana" were Johnson was the head boatman. The story was about a doctor played by Melvyn Douglas searching for the cure for the film's title which is a sleeping sickness from the bite of the tsetse fly. No photos of course could be found.

We now come to the third meeting of Noble Johnson with Merian C. Cooper and Fay Wray. Which also happened to be his second meeting with director Ernest B. Schoedsack and actor Robert Armstrong.

At this point Noble Mark Johnson had appeared in 91 of his 145 total screen credits. He had started his own motion picture company, produced one film and written others. Yet, all of those accomplishments and all future one's would be overlooked and go unknown to most viewers of motion pictures except for what was next for the Actor.

Probably the most famous dialogue spoken by any character actor in a motion picture comes from Nobel Johnson as he recites in perfect Hollywood Jibberish:


Which according to the website: "Language Log"

Had this script translation for the censors monitoring the "Production Code".

"The Women of Gold! Kong's Gift! A Gift for Kong!" An so Fay Wray as Ann Darrow had her fate sealed.

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Noble Johnson's performance in the role that script describes simply as the "Native Chief" could have ended up a typical stereo typed native seen in many Tarzan and other films of the period. Instead he decided to give us a dignified performance perhaps thinking about his own African Heritage. Which would have been likely seeing he attempted to change perceptions with his motion picture studio's releases. As a result the viewer has a Native leader equal to and at times superior to both Carl Denham and Captain Englehorn. In fact on his own territory of Skull Island you can see why he is the Chief, Johnson relates to the audience both cunning and menace when dealing with the invaders as he plots the abduction of Ann Darrow with his Witch Doctor.

At this point in his career Noble Johnson was now part of what has been described as the Cooper/Schoedsack inner circle. Another member of that circle was Steve Clemente (Esteban Clemento Morro) who had played the Witch Doctor and also appeared in "The Most Dangerous Game". Being part of that inner circle would lead to three more films and many good contacts.

Two small parts followed "King Kong". The first, what else, was a "Native Chief" in Paramount's "White Women" starring Carol Lombard and Charles Laughton. The other film was  "Roman Scandals" starring Comedian/Singer Eddie Cantor featuring the Goldwyn Girls. Noble Johnson played "A Torturer".As an aside two of the uncredited "Goldwyn Girls" were named Lucille Ball and Paulette Goddard. Johnson and Goddard would meet again.

Noble Johnson found a touch of deja vu as he met Robert Armstrong with Helen Mack and no Fay Wray in "The Son of Kong".

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Another four films including playing a different type of Indian, being a native of India called Ram Singh in "Lives of a Bengal Lancer" starring Gary Cooper and Franchot Tone. Then came another motion picture from producer Merian C. Cooper based upon H. Rider Haggard's 1886 novel "She".

The film starred Helen Gahagan as "She Who Must Be Obeyed" and a very young Randolph Scott as Leo Vincey/ "She's" reincarnated lost love John Vincey of this 500 year old women. "She" has found a means of staying young forever in "The Flame of Life". "She" lives in the Kingdom of Kor and around this advanced civilization are savages called the Amahagger which Nobel Johnson plays their leader in a large role.

I must do this aside. Please note the costume Helen Gahagan wears in this scene from the 1935 motion picture and compare it to Disney's evil Queen in 'Snow White" from 1939. Walt Disney admitted it was his inspiration.

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Five more films and Noble Johnson was once more a Native American in 1936's "The Plainsman" starring Gary Cooper as Wild Bill Hickok and Jean Arthur as Calamity Jane.

The film was followed with the part of the leader of the Porters on the return trip from Shangri-la in Frank Capra's "Lost Horizon", Then Noble Johnson was a Sikh policeman in the Shirley Temple film "Wee Willie Winkie" directed by Merian C. Cooper's friend director John Ford.

Three films later found Nobel Johnson in "Hawk of the Wilderness" a 12 Chapter Republic Serial starring Herman Brix (Bruce Bennet) as a young man who is a survivor of a ship wreck in the Arctic circle. His father was looking for what he believed was the ancestral home of Native Americans. The only survivors of the ship wreck are a young boy eventually played by Brix and his servant Mokuyi who raises him on an island. Playing Mokuyi was Johnson. Here are two stills with him in the part.

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Some of the actors next seven roles included playing Native American's in Cecil B. DeMille's "Union Pacific", John Ford's "Drums Along the Mohawk" and the John Wayne motion picture "Allegheny Upraising". Noble Johnson also played a Mexican General in the classic Paul Muni and Betty Davis film "Juarez".

Then he met now major star Paulette Goddard once more and he co-star Bob Hope. Noble Johnson played the Zombie in 1940's "The Ghost Breakers".

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Noble Johnson's next films of course included playing Native Americans and a Native Chief. The films included Cecil B. DeMille's "The Northwest Mounted Police" that starred both Paulette Goddard and Gary Cooper. Another meeting with Bob Hope and now Bing Crosby in "The Road to Zansibar".Along with a 1943 comedy Western "Shut My Big Mouth" where for the third time he the great Sioux Chief Sitting Bull.

It's very hard to see, but in the lower left hand corner of this lobby card from  "The Ranger and the Lady" playing "The Henchman" and standing between Roy Rodgers and Gabby Hayes is Noble Johnson.

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On February 27, 1942 found Nobel Mark Johnson playing "Native Chief Elan" opposite Lionel Atwill as "The Mad Doctor of Market Street".

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On April 3, 1942 the Korda Brother's released "The Jungle Book" starring Sabu based upon the Rudyard Kipling novel. In the film Nobel Johnson was cast as simply "Sikh".

Playing Native Americans rather than African Americans was getting to be the norm for Noble Johnson. Here is a scene from the Henry Hathaway's 1942 motion picture "Ten Gentlemen from  West Point" in which he played the Shawnee Chief Tecumseh. I have added a drawing of the chief for comparison of the costume and his look.

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June 10, 1942 saw the release of  a World War Two motion picture 'Danger in the Pacific" about a group of three Americans sent to stop "The Enemy" on a Pacific Island. Noble Johnson played the "Native Chief".

From  1942 through 1948 Noble Johnson appeared in 12 motion pictures, but scenes of the actor and in some cases the movies themselves are unknown. The roles had such colorful names as:

Charlie the Indian, Abdel Rahman, Wassao, Tall Ottawa shot at Gilded Beaver and Chief Black Eagle. As I stated African American actor Nobel Mark Johnson was known more for his Native American roles than for his own race.

On July 22, 1949 RKO released the second of what would be known as director John Ford's Calvary Trilogy. The motion picture was "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon" and Noble Johnson played what was probably his most iconic Native American and most recognized. Although his name was not. The character was Warrior Chief Red Shirt. Who attempts to stop the peace conference between John Wayne's Nathan Brittles and Pony-that-Walks. It is a classic memorable scene. Once again Johnson was part of that inner circle as the film was produced by Argosy Pictures owned by Merian C. Cooper and his friend John Ford.

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"She Wore A Yellow Ribbon" would be followed by Noble Johnson's final two films as an actor. They were both forgettable. Both films were from 1950 and the first was "Rock Island Trail" starring Forrest Tucker were he played "Bent Creek". While the second starred Roy Rodgers and in second billing his horse "Trigger" and was titled "North of the Great Divide". Johnson played Nagura, Oseka Chief.

It was time for retirement and during the later part of 1950 Noble Mark Johnson left the motion picture business to enjoy his remaining years. He moved to Yucaipa in San Bernardino County in Southern California. On January 9, 1978 he passed away.

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