Master DP James Wong Howe

Howe at home with his Super-8
camera in the early 1970s.

When I was eight years old, I
was already aware of the importance of one relative who’d managed
to break free from our ostensibly dysfunctional family mold.
Most of my immediate and extended family was, and still is, situated
around central and eastern Washington state, but even at an early
age I was told about "Uncle Jimmie’s" film career in
California. Not a few times when a movie was playing on television,
it was pointed out to me that Jimmie had worked on it. My father
had always promised me that someday we would go to California
to see my great-uncle Jimmie. I eagerly awaited that day, until
the phone rang in my home in Yakima on July 12, 1976. The voice
on the other end of the line gave us the news that Uncle Jimmie
(as everyone called him) had died. I remember being intensely
disappointed, for now I would never meet the larger-than-life
uncle for whom I was given my middle name. I would, however,
develop a curiosity for the art of filmmaking and, not surprisingly,
an interest in James Wong Howe’s work in particular.

Through Uncle Jimmie’s widow,
my 89-year-old great-aunt Sonora Babb Howe, I’ve since heard
some interesting stories about his life. Although she is a professional
writer and undoubtedly the best one to present the information
in this article, she has given me her blessing to proceed with
this humbling task and unique opportunity.

James Wong Howe was born Wong
Tung Jim in Kwantung, China, on August 28, 1899. His father,
my great-grandfather Wong How, came to America in 1899, settled
in Pasco, Washington and went to work for the Northern Pacific
Railroad. Eventually Wong How opened a general store in Pasco,
and in spite of anti-Chinese bigotry, became a successful businessman.

For young Wong Tung Jim, those
early years in America were not happy ones. He was a constant
subject of ridicule because of his Chinese heritage. Jimmie would
take candy from his father’s store to bribe the neighborhood
children into playing with him. Prejudice would follow him throughout
his life and career; although, ironically, his ethnicity distinguished
him from other cinematographers and played a role in making him
one of the best-known practitioners of his craft in the world.

James Wong Howe was around 12
years old when he bought a little Brownie camera in a drugstore.
He took pictures of his brothers and sisters, even though his
father was an old-fashioned Chinese who was superstitious about
having his photo taken. When he had the film developed, their
heads were missing! This wasn’t because of some angry spirit
lurking nearby, but due to the fact that his camera had no viewfinder.
Just the same, Jimmie’s father was very displeased with the results,
to say the least.

Several years passed, and Jimmie
left for Oregon to take up boxing. This had no lasting appeal
for him. Eventually he became a delivery boy for a commercial
photographer in Los Angeles, but was dismissed when he helped
a friend who was going back to China by doing some passport photos
in the firm’s laboratory.

Jimmie next took a job as a
busboy at the Beverly Hills Hotel. On Sundays he would go to
Chinatown to watch a comedy being shot. He spoke to the cameraman,
who suggested to Jimmie that he try working in the movies. Shortly
thereafter, Jimmie went to the Jesse Lasky Studios, but the man
in charge of photography told him that he was too small and frail
to carry the equipment. Instead he hired Jimmie to pick up scraps
of nitrate stock from the cutting-room floor for 10 dollars a
week. In his spare moments, he became familiar with the hand-cranked
cameras, the lighting equipment and the film-laboratory processes.

Howe received the first of his 16 Academy Award
nominations for Algiers (1938) with Hedy Lamarr.

Jimmie’s break came in 1919 on
the Cecile B. DeMille film Male and Female. The crew was shooting
a scene in which Gloria Swanson was to be attacked by a toothless
lion. The sequence required multiple cameras, and there were
not enough assistants. Jimmie was called from the camera room
and given the slate. He was dubbed the fourth assistant cameraman.
Before long, Jimmie endeared himself to DeMille. The legendary
director had encountered a major production problem: he needed
a close-up of a canary singing, and the crew tried everything
to get the bird to sing, but to no avail. Jimmie asked if he
could try. He took a piece of chewing gum and lodged it in the
canary’s beak. The bird moved its beak in an attempt to dislodge
the gum, and on silent film it looked like it was singing. DeMille
was impressed and raised Jimmie’s salary to 15 dollars a week.

Jimmie became as interested in
taking still photographs as in shooting motion pictures, and
made more money selling photographs to the stars than he did
at the studio. A film actress named Mary Miles Minter approached
Jimmie one day and asked if he would take her picture. She was
ecstatic over the photographs because Jimmie could make her pale
blue eyes, which did not turn out well on film, look dark. She
wanted to know if he could do the same thing on motion picture
film. He assured her that he could. If that was the case, Minter
said, then she wanted him as her cameraman. Jimmie was elated
at the thought of becoming a cameraman — even though in reality
he wasn’t sure how he’d made Minter’s eyes look dark in the first
place. Eventually he realized that the darkness was caused by
light reflecting off some black velvet that happened to be in
the studio. So he had a big frame of black velvet made, cut a
hole in the center for the lens and filmed all of Minter’s close-ups
that way. Word got around that the actress had found herself
a mysterious Chinese cameraman who made her eyes go dark on film!
Soon everyone with blue eyes wanted him to photograph them, and
his career was launched.

In 1922, James Wong Howe was director
of photography on Mary Miles Minter’s Drums of Fate, and on Trail
of the Lonesome Pine the following year. He had no problem finding
jobs, and began freelancing. He shot Sorrel and Son (1927) for
United Artists; and Laugh Clown Laugh (1928), Four Walls (1928),
and Desert Nights (1928) for MGM.

When sound came to movies, Howe
was in China shooting backgrounds for a movie he planned to direct.
The footage he shot was used, but not by him. It was incorporated
into a film called Shanghai Express (1932). When Jimmie returned
to Hollywood, the film industry had been revolutionized by the
advent of sound. Cinematography had changed to accommodate it,
and only cameramen with experience shooting "talkies" could
get work. By chance, Jimmie met director William K. Howard, who
was anxious to secure James Wong Howe’s help on a picture called
Transatlantic. Jimmie had just purchased some new lenses with
$700 of his own money, and did some tests. The studio was impressed
with the results. Howard got the green light to make his film,
and hired Howe to shoot it.

His last Academy Award nomination was
for Funny Lady, his last film, shot in 1974, the year
this picture was taken.

Jimmie’s low-contrast lighting
on interiors earned him the nickname "low-key Howe," and
his reputation landed him numerous assignments. He moved to MGM
in 1933 and shot 15 pictures for the studio. In 1934 he filmed
The Thin Man in 18 days, and Manhattan Melodrama in 28 days.
He gained a reputation for being fast, and his salary rose to
$500 a week. Jimmie could now be seen driving in his $37,000
Duesenberg, and onlookers would stare in disbelief, wondering
who would let their houseboy drive such an expensive car.

By the mid-1930s James Wong Howe
was the best-known cameraman in the world, due in no small part
to being an Oriental in the movie industry. In 1938 he received
the first of his 16 Academy Award nominations, for Algiers. His
photography of Hedy Lamarr so impressed Jack Warner that he offered
Jimmie a seven-year contract. From 1938 to 1947 he ended up shooting
26 films for Warner Brothers, and was loaned out to shoot four
more pictures for other studios.

During the war years, racial bigotry
intensified. Since Jimmie was an Oriental, he was grouped with
the Japanese and forced to wear a large button proclaiming: "I
am Chinese." Out of protest, Jimmie’s close friend James
Cagney wore one as well. It was just prior to this time that
Jimmie met writer Sanora Babb. She is a white woman, and at that
time the miscegenation laws forbidding interracial marriage were
in effect. Consequently, they did not marry until September of
1949. Aunt Sanora told me that on one particular occasion when
they were going out to dine at a Chinese restaurant, a woman
had taken the time to follow them to the entrance of the establishment.
As she harassed the two of them for being together, Aunt Sanora
took the woman’s hat and tossed it in the gutter. Aunt Sanora
remembers this woman chasing the hat down the sewer drain exclaiming, "My
$100 hat!" When the miscegenation laws were repealed, it
took them three days to find a judge who would marry them. When
they finally did, the judge remarked, "She looks old enough.
If she wants to marry a chink, that’s her business."

The late ’40s and early ’50s saw
a decline in James Wong Howe’s career. He developed a reputation
for being difficult to work with and having a temper on the set.
Producers were concerned that such displays would alienate the
crew and slow down production. Another problem arose during this
period, also known as the McCarthy era. Although he was not blacklisted,
Jimmie came under the scrutiny of Congress’ House Un-American
Activities Committee. He was deemed suspicious because of his
so-called willingness to work in films with "Commies." (He
had worked with men who were ultimately blacklisted, such as
John Garfield, as well as other actors and directors who’d been
his associates at Warner Brothers.) None of this hindered Jimmie
from winning his first Academy Award for The Rose Tattoo in 1955.

The funniest anecdote that circulated
around Hollywood occurred when Jimmie had purchased a Chinese
restaurant near the Ventura Freeway which Aunt Sanora helped
him run. A photographer from a valley newspaper had come to take
a picture of it. Jimmie had told him that if he would only put
a wide-angle lens on the camera, the photographer could come
closer to take the picture and not have to stand so close to
the freeway. Without knowing who he was talking to, the photographer
told Jimmie, "I’ll take the picture, you just mind your
goddamned noodles!"

A Warner Brothers PR still from the early 1940s.

Jimmie got the opportunity to
direct a feature film in 1953 called Go, Man, Go, about the founder
of the Harlem Globetrotters. It was shot in 21 days on a budget
of $130,000. His only other work as a director came in 1957 when
he co-directed The Invisible Avenger. His direction, however,
did not net him any acclaim.

Jimmie won another Academy Award
for shooting Hud in 1963. He was at the top of his profession,
turning down far more jobs than he accepted. One of his favorites
was his work on The Molly Maguires in 1970. It was shot over
five months in the coal mines of Pennsylvania. Not long after,
Jimmie’s health began to fail. Retirement was forced upon him,
and for the last six years of his life he was sick and frequently
hospitalized. He was reportedly offered the first two Godfather
films, but just wasn’t strong enough to accept.

In 1974, Ray Stark was producing
Funny Lady, the sequel to Funny Girl. Stark, director Herbert
Ross and production manager Howard Pine wanted a replacement
for cinema-tographer Vilmos Zsigmond. They contacted Jimmie because
they believed he could make Barbra Streisand look her best. Jimmie’s
health was stable, and the day after Ray Stark called, he was
on the set ready to shoot. But a short time later, Jimmie collapsed
on the set and had to be rushed to the hospital. ASC president
Ernie Laszlo substituted for him until Jimmie recovered and returned
to finish the film, for which he was awarded a 16th and final
Oscar nomination.

Aunt Sanora has written, "My
husband loved his work. He spent all his adult life from age
17 to 75, a year before his death, in the motion picture industry.
When he died at 77, courageous in illness as in health, he was
still thinking of new ways to make pictures. He was critical
of poor quality in any area of film, but quick to see and appreciate
the good. His mature stylewas realistic, never naturalistic.
If the story demanded, his work could be harsh and have a documentary
quality, but that quality was strictly Wong Howe. If the story
allowed, his style was poetic realism, for he was a poet of the
camera. This was a part of his nature, his impulse toward the
beautiful, but it did not prevent his flexibility in dealing
with all aspects of reality."

To this, a great-nephew and mere
observer can only add, "Amen." MM

(I am indebted to my great aunt,
Sanora Babb Howe, and to the work of Mr. Todd Rainsberger, without
which this article would not have been possible.)

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