Thursday, February 28, 2013

Noble Johnson and Lincoln Motion Pictures

I didn't want to let Black History Month come to a close without introducing you to a true pioneer:

Noble Johnson.

 (image courtesy Classic Horror Film Board)

A prolific character actor, his career spanned from the earliest days of cinema through the 1950s.  He is best known today for his roles in King Kong and She Wore A Yellow Ribbon.  His most important picture, however, is arguably The Realization of a Negro's Ambition -- the inaugural film for the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, which he founded in 1916 along with Clarence A. Brooks (also an actor),  Dr. James T. Smith, and Dudley A. Brooks.

(image courtesy Wikipedia)

Jon C Hopwood writes:

In 1916 [Johnson] founded his own studio to produce what would be called "race films", movies made for the African-American audience, which was ignored by the "mainstream" film industry.  The Lincoln Motion Picture Co...was an all-black company, the first to produce movies portraying African-Americans as real people instead of as racist caricatures.  (Noble Johnson IMDb page)

Their first movie was a mature, intelligent drama:

The plot concerned a young engineering graduate of the Tuskegee Institute who leaves the family farm to try his hand in the oil fields of Los Angeles. Turned away because he is Black, the young man rescues a white woman in a runaway carriage. She turns out to be the daughter of the oil company owner, who offers the young man a job with the company's oil exploration team. Later, the young engineer realizes that his parents' farmland shows oil possibilities, and the company owner bankrolls the exploratory drilling tests that eventually prove successful. (Bob Birchard, "Lincoln Motion Picture Company", Hollywood Heritage Summer 2001)

For the average (read: white) audience, used to seeing Black performers relegated to comic relief (or worse), the idea that they could present a sophisticated picture was astonishing.  Seems crazy today, but in 1916 this was a big deal:

The Los Angeles Examiner noted with somewhat condescending amazement that..."colored players can develop histrionic talent above that required for straight comedy.” (Bob Birchard, "Lincoln Motion Picture Company", Hollywood Heritage Summer 2001)

Lincoln started off with moderate success, but financial difficulties, the pressures of leading a double career, and a limited audience caused it to shut down in 1921.  

This did not mean the end for Noble Johnson.  He worked with some of the biggest names of the 1920s:

These included Rudolph Valentino, Buster Keaton, Hoot Gibson, Laura La Plante, John Barrymore, Douglas Fairbanks, George O'Brien, Richard Arlen, Richard Dix, Dolores Costello and William Haines. Of his silent films, several still exist. Some of them are: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, 1921; The Ten Commandments, 1923; and The Thief of Baghdad, 1924 and more. ("Noble Johnson, A Hollywood Original!", African American Registry)

(image, from Moby Dick [1930], courtesy Classic Horror Film Board)

Noble Johnson made his last screen appearance in 1966, and died in 1978 at the ripe old age of 96.

Fun fact:  Johnson moved to Colorado as a young boy, and became great friends with one of his classmates.  Many years later, working in Hollywood, they ran into each other and renewed that friendship.
The classmate?  Lon Chaney.


Caftan Woman said...

I knew of Noble Johnson the actor, but not of his pioneering producing career. Fascinating stuff.

Flapper Flickers + Silent Stanzas said...

I only just learned about it myself! Glad you enjoyed the post. :)

Erick Dean Tippett said...

That it took me, an avid student of
Afro-American history since my days at Roosevelt University as a library work study student where J. A. Rogers' Race and Sex in the Americas opened my eyes about hidden history, to have to guess at age 35 and only recently in my sixties have it confirmed that Noble Harris was a black actor /producer from my grandmother's
generation, is a testament to the
criminal brainwashing of the
'american' mind!

Erick D. Tippett
Retired Musician/Teacher
Chicago, Illinois