Noble Johnson (Image Source)
A few months back, I shared the story of Madame Sul-Te-Wan, the Black actress who got her big Hollywood start in “The Birth of a Nation” in 1915. Madame was one of the few actors in the film playing Black characters who were actually Black; the main characters of color were actually White actors in blackface.
Today, I want to talk about Noble Johnson, another Black actor who starred in films at the same time and enjoyed a long, successful career in Hollywood. Interestingly (although not surprisingly), Johnson was able to skirt the race issue by playing characters who were not Black. In a reverse of the “Birth” White actors, Noble gained fame and film credits, and became part of Hollywood history.
He had been born in Marshall, Missouri, in 1881, the son of a black father, Perry Johnson, and, so he said, a white mother, Georgia Reed. The couple had four children: Virgel, Noble Mark, Iris, and George. Two days after George’s birth, in 1885, in Colorado Springs, twenty-four-year-old Georgia Reed Johnson died from complications related to the birth.
At the public schools in Colorado Springs, Virgel and Noble struck up a friendship with a scruffy, rugged white kid with whom Noble often went riding. Years later, that kid, Lon Chaney, would become one of Hollywood’s biggest silent-screen stars. Restless and adventurous, the teenage Noble dropped out of school and wandered from one job to another, from one part of the country to another. At first, he spent two summers working the racing circuits with his father, who taught the boy everything about the training, handling, breeding, and racing of horses. Noble loved the animals. He loved the outdoors, too.
The next summer, Noble and another young man headed for cattle territory. He found a job with the Sanborn and Kaiser Company of Jefferson, Colorado, one of the country’s largest cattle ranchers. That winter, he returned to Colorado Springs. During his free hours, he boxed, wrestled, and performed athletic stunts with other boys. By now, he had grown taller—he would stand six feet two inches—and more muscular. Again, he left for cattle country, working at ranches from Colorado to Wyoming, enjoying the rough-and-tumble camaraderie of this man’s world. Yet the teenager also prided himself on his own self-sufficiency and valued solitude. In the winter of 1903, he spent four months camping out in the mountains where the temperature dropped to fifty-five degrees below zero and the snow was sometimes five feet deep.
Johnson in “The Most Dangerous Game”. (Image Source)
After a stint as a boxer in New York, he was in Los Angeles by 1910, and from there, up to Portland. He had made his way back to Colorado Springs in 1914 where his life would take a fortuitous turn.
In June 1914, all that folks in the area could talk about was the Lubin Manufacturing Company of Philadelphia, which had come to Colorado to shoot scenes for an eight-reel motion picture called Eagle’s Nest When the company desperately needed to replace an actor injured in a horse stunt, Noble’s reputation for handling animals brought him to the attention of the director, who hired him to play an Indian. In Philadelphia, the management at Lubin, impressed with the footage of him on horseback, contacted Johnson and asked him to come to Philadelphia and sign as a Lubin player. He seemed a natural for the movies. Good looks. Tall and robust. Athletic. And light-skinned enough that most people probably wouldn’t even know he was a colored man. Johnson’s roustabout days ended.
He appeared in short films for Lubin, playing nonblack characters. Then, in 1915, movie work took him back to Los Angeles, where moviemaking was becoming big business… With his ability to perform any number of stunts, Johnson found steady work at Universal in serials and films like A Western Governor’s Humanity, in 1915, and Kinkaid, Gambler, in 1916. He also appeared briefly in Intolerance. Immediately noticed by the black press, he was called “the race’s daredevil movie star” as well as “America’s premier Afro-American screen star.”
Film poster for “The Trooper of Troop K” starring Johnson and produced by Lincoln. (Image Source)
You should really check out Bogle’s book. which details Johnson’s work in creating (along with his brother George) the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, which had on investors, producers and employees of different races, but was dedicated to producing Black films… this a CENTURY AGO!
To learn more about the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, go here to the African American Registry. For more on Noble and his brother, George, and their work in film, check out this article at Old Hollywood.net. Read this Indie Wire article on Johnson as one of Hollywood’s first “Race Shifters”. Or watch the 1933 trailer for “King Kong”,which starred Johnson as the Native Chief, below.