Born on Christmas Day in Durban, South Africa, Noel Langley was the son of Durban High School headmaster Aubrey Samuel Langley and Dora Agnes Allison. Noel Langley attended his father's school (Durban High School- KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa) until 1930. Noel's relationship with his headmaster father was a strained one as he did not meet his father's expectations. His father, Aubrey Samuel 'Madevu' (the isiZulu word for mustache), was a queer mix of sensitive artist, strict disciplinarian and rugby football enthusiast valued boys who were physically active. It seems that Langley senior rejected his son who was artistically inclined and physically weak (he was barred from sport and cadet drill by his doctor, Dr George Campbell). Their relationship was so poor that Noel bragged to Jack Cope (a fellow Natalian, poet and novelist) after his father's death that he had helped kill his father by sending him money for drink.
He then studied at the University of Natal, from which he graduated with a BA in 1934. While at University, he began writing plays. His play Queer Cargo was produced by the Durban Repertory Theatre in 1932. Sailing for England, post-graduation, he by chance met a cousin of Charles Wyndham, the founder of London's Wyndham's Theatre. Queer Cargo was subsequently produced at Wyndham's Theatre where it ran for seven months. Langley wrote other plays for the West End stage in this period, which included For Ever and Farm of Three Echoes. His first big success came in 1935 with the publication of his first novel, Cage Me a Peacock, a satire set in ancient Rome. This was followed by another novel, There's a Porpoise Close Behind Us, and a children's book, The Land of Green Ginger, in 1936. Langley began writing for films in the 1930s, helping to write the British films King of the Damned and Secret of Stamboul. Langley then left London for Hollywood, having accepted a seven-year contract as a screenwriter for MGM.
At MGM, his first credited film was Maytime, a musical based on the 1917 operetta. In part due to the success of his own children's book The Land of Green Ginger, he was one of the screenwriters auditioned for the job of adapting L. Frank Baum's children's novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to film. In 11 days, he provided a 43-page adaptation. Changes he introduced to story are the inclusion of the actors playing the Tin Woodman, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion characters as farmhands in the sepia tone Kansas sequences as well as changing the color of Dorothy's shoes from silver to ruby. Langley also introduced Miss Almira Gulch, the Wicked Witch's Kansas counterpart. He then wrote a final draft. However, unbeknownst to him, MGM hired Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf to do rewrites. But, producer Arthur Freed was displeased with their work and turned the script back over to Langley. Langley disliked their changes and removed many of them. He felt that their version was "so cutesy and oozy that I could have vomited." The final film was released in August 1939. Langley was dismayed by the end result. He said, "I saw it in a cinema on Hollywood Boulevard at noon and I sat and cried like a bloody child." However, he amended his opinion when he saw the film for a second time in England during its 1949 re-release: "I thought, 'It’s not a bad picture. Not a bad picture, you know'."
After World War II, during which he served in the Canadian Navy, Langley worked on many British films including the film noir They Made Me a Fugitive (1947), the remake of Tom Brown's Schooldays (1951), the Alastair Sim Scrooge (1951), The Pickwick Papers (1952), Ivanhoe (1952) and the Technicolor The Prisoner of Zenda (1952). (His contribution to Zenda, however, was minimal, since the 1952 film followed the script nearly word-for-word the 1937 film version, on which Langley did not work,.)
In 1964, Langley made a series of tapes for New York radio station WBAI, reading The Tale of the Land of Green Ginger in its entirety. He subsequently edited it down to fit on an LP, which was issued by the listener-sponsored station and offered as a fund-raising premium. Langley continued to write novels and plays throughout his life. He also wrote short stories for the Saturday Evening Post and other magazines.
In 1937, Langley married Naomi Mary Legate in Los Angeles. They had been a couple since his days in South Africa. They later had five children. The couple divorced in California in 1954 and Noel Langley obtained custody of the children. She is believed to have returned to her hometown of Pietermaritzburg.
Langley married actress Pamela Deeming in 1959.
In 1961, Langley became a naturalised US citizen.
In his later years, Langley worked part-time in drug rehabilitation. He died in 1980 in Desert Hot Springs, California, United States.King of the Damned (1935)
Secret of Stamboul (1936)
Marie Antoinette (1938)
Queer Cargo (1938, based on his play)
Listen, Darling (1938)
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Babes in Arms (1939)
Northwest Passage (1940)
Unexpected Uncle (1941)
They Made Me a Fugitive (1947)
The Vicious Circle (1948)
Edward, My Son (1949, based on his play)
Cardboard Cavalier (1949)
Adam and Evelyne (1949)
Her Favourite Husband (1950)
Honeymoon Deferred (1951)
Tom Brown's Schooldays (1951)
Father's Doing Fine (1952, based on his play)
The Prisoner of Zenda (1952)
The Pickwick Papers (1952)
Our Girl Friday (1953)
Knights of the Round Table (1954)
The Vagabond King (1956)
The Search for Bridey Murphy (1956)