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James Wong Howe Poster

Biography

Jump to: Overview (5)  | Mini Bio (1)  | Spouse (1)  | Trivia (7)  | Personal Quotes (4)

Overview (5)

Born in Guangzhou, China
Died in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, USA  (cancer)
Birth NameWong Tung Jim
Nickname Jimmy
Height 5' 3" (1.6 m)

Mini Bio (1)

Master cinematographer James Wong Howe, whose career stretched from silent pictures through the mid-'70s, was born Wong Tung Jim in Canton (now Guangzhou), China, on August 28, 1899, the son of Wong How. His father emigrated to America the year James was born, settling in Pasco, Washington, where he worked for the Northern Pacific Railroad. Wong How eventually went into business for himself in Pasco, opening a general store, which he made a success, despite the bigotry of the locals.

When he was five years old, Wong Tung Jim joined his father in the US. His childhood was unhappy due to the discrimination he faced, which manifested itself in racist taunting by the neighborhood children. To get the kids to play with him, Jimmie often resorted to bribing them with candy from his father's store. When Jimmie, as he was known to his friends and later to his co-workers in the movie industry, was about 12 years old he bought a Kodak Brownie camera from a drugstore. Though his father was an old-fashioned Chinese, suspicious about having his picture taken and opposed to his new hobby, Jimmie went ahead and photographed his brothers and sisters. Unfortunately, when the photos were developed, the heads of his siblings had been cut off, as the Brownie lacked a viewfinder.

His childhood dream was to be a prizefighter, and as a teenager he moved to Oregon to fight. However, his interest soon waned, and he moved to Los Angeles, where he got a job as an assistant to a commercial photographer. His duties included making deliveries, but he was fired when he developed some passport photos for a friend in the firm's darkroom. Reduced to making a living as a busboy at the Beverly Hills Hotel, he journeyed down to Chinatown on Sundays to watch movies being shot there.

Jimmie Howe made the acquaintance of a cameraman on one of the location shoots, who suggested he give the movies a try. He got hired by the Jesse Lasky Studios' photography department at the princely sum of $10 per week, but the man in charge thought he was too little to lug equipment around, so he assigned Jimmie custodial work. Thus the future Academy Award-wining cinematographer James Wong Howe's first job in Hollywood was picking up scraps of nitrate stock from the cutting-room floor (more important than it sounds, as nitrate fires in editing rooms were not uncommon). The job allowed him to familiarize himself with movie cameras, lighting equipment and the movie film-development process.

His was a genuine Horatio Alger "Up From His Bootstraps" narrative, as by 1917 he had graduated from editing room assistant to working as a slate boy on Cecil B. DeMille's pictures. The promotion came when DeMille needed all his camera assistants to man multiple cameras on a film. This left no one to hold the chalkboard identifying each scene as a header as the take is shot on film, so Jimmie was drafted and given the title "fourth assistant cameraman. He endeared himself to DeMille when the director and his production crew were unable to get a canary to sing for a close-up. The fourth assistant cameraman lodged a piece of chewing gum in the bird's beak, and as it moved its beak to try to dislodge the gum, it looked like the canary was singing. DeMille promptly gave Jimmie a 50% raise.

In 1919 he was being prepared for his future profession of cameraman. "I held the slate on Male and Female (1919)", he told George C. Pratt in an interview published 60 years later, "and when Mr. DeMille rehearsed a scene, I had to crank a little counter . . . and I would have to grind 16 frames per second. And when he stopped, I would have to give him the footage. He wanted to know how long the scene ran. So besides writing the slate numbers down and keeping a report, I had to turn this crank. That was the beginning of learning how to turn 16 frames".

Because of the problem with early orthochromatic film registering blue eyes on screen, Howe was soon promoted to operating cameraman at Paramount (the new name for the Lasky Studio), where his talents were noted. A long-time photography buff, Jimmie Howe enjoyed taking still pictures and made extra money photographing the stars. One of his clients was professional "sweet young thing" Mary Miles Minter, of the William Desmond Taylor shooting scandal, who praised Jimmie's photographs because they made her pale blue eyes, which did not register well on film, look dark. When she asked him if he could replicate the effect on motion picture film, he told her he could, and she offered him a job as her cameraman.

Howe did not know how he'd made Minter's eyes look dark, but he soon realized that the reflection of a piece of black velvet at the studio that had been tacked up near his still camera had cast a shadow in her eyes, causing them to register darkly. Promoted to Minter's cameraman, he fashioned a frame of black velvet through which the camera's lens could protrude; filming Minter's close-ups with the device darkened her eyes, just as she desired. The studio was abuzz with the news that Minter had acquired a mysterious Chinese cameraman who made her blue eyes register on film. Since other blue-eyed actors had the same problem, they began to demand that Jimmie shoot them, and a cinematography star was born.

Jimmie Howe was soon advanced beyond operating cameraman to lighting cameraman (called "director of photography" in Hollywood) on Minter's Drums of Fate (1923), and he served as director of photography on The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1923) the next year. As a lighting cameraman he was much in demand, and started to freelance. Notable silent pictures on which he served as the director of photography include Paramount's Mantrap (1926), starring "It Girl" Clara Bow, and MGM's Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928), starring silent superstar John Gilbert opposite Joan Crawford.

The cinematography on "Mantrap" was his breakthrough as a star lighting cameraman, in which his lighting added enormously to bringing out Clara Bow's sex appeal. He bathed Bow in a soft glow, surrounding the flapper with shimmering natural light, transforming her into a seemingly three-dimensional sex goddess. Even at this early a stage in his career, Howe had developed a solid aesthetic approach to film, based on inventive, expressive lighting. The film solidified his reputation as a master in the careful handling of female subjects, a rep that would get him his last job a half-century later, on ;Barbra Streisand''s Funny Lady (1975).

Jimmie Howe journeyed back to China at the end of the decade to shoot location backgrounds for a movie about China he planned to make as a director. Though the movie was never made, the footage was later used in Josef von Sternberg's Shanghai Express (1932). When he returned to the US, Hollywood was in the midst of a technological upheaval as sound pictures were finishing off the silent movie, which had matured into a medium of expression now being hailed as "The Seventh Art." The silent film, in a generation, had matured into a set art form with its own techniques of craftsmanship, and pictures like 7th Heaven (1927) and The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1929) generally were thought to be examples of the "photoplay" reaching perfection as a medium. This mature medium now was violently overthrown by the revolutionary upstart, Sound. The talkies had arrived.

The Hollywood Howe returned to was in a panic. All the wisdom about making motion pictures had been jettisoned by nervous studio heads, and the new Hollywood dogma held that only cameramen with experience in sound cinematography could shoot the new talking pictures, thus freezing out many cameramen who had recently been seen as master craftsmen in the silent cinema. Director William K. Howard, who was in pre-production with his film Transatlantic (1931), wanted Jimmie Howe's expertise. Having just acquired some new lenses with $700 of his own money, Howe shot some tests for the film, which impressed the studio enough to gave Howard permission to hire Jimmie to shoot it.

Once again, his career thrived and he was much in demand. He earned the sobriquet "Low-Key Howe" for his low-contrast lighting of interiors, exerting aesthetic control over the dark spots of a frame in the way that a great musician "played" the silences between notes. In 1933 he gave up freelancing and started working in-house at MGM, where he won a reputation for efficiency. He shot The Thin Man (1934) in 18 days and Manhattan Melodrama (1934) in 28 days. It was at MGM that he became credited as "James Wong Howe". Howe's original screen credit was "James Howe" or "Jimmie Howe", but during his early years at MGM "Wong" was added to his name by the front office, "for exotic flair", and his salary reached $500 a week. After shooting 15 pictures for MGM, he moved over to Warner Bros. for Algiers (1938), garnering him his first Academy Award nomination. Studio boss Jack L. Warner was so thrilled by Howe's work with Hedy Lamarr that he signed Jimmie to a seven-year contract. James Wong Howe shot 26 movies at Warners through 1947, and four others on loanout to other studios.

A master at the use of shadow, Howe was one of the first DPs to use deep-focus cinematography, photography in which both foreground and distant planes remain in focus. His camerawork typically was unobtrusive, but could be quite spectacular when the narrative called for it. In the context of the studio-bound production of the time, Wong Howe's lighting sense is impressive given his use of location shooting. Citic James Agee called him one of "the few men who use this country for background as it ought to be used in films." Wong Howe used backgrounds to elucidate the psychology of the film's characters and their psychology, such as in Pursued (1947), where the austere desert landscape serves to highlight the tortured psyche of Robert Mitchum's character.

Wong Howe was famed for his innovations, including putting a cameraman with a hand-held camera on roller skates inside a boxing ring for Body and Soul (1947) to draw the audience into the ring. He strapped cameras to the actors' waists in The Brave Bulls (1951) to give a closer and tighter perspective on bullfighting, a sport in which fractions of an inch can mean the difference between life and death. He was hailed for his revolutionary work with tracking and distortion in Seconds (1966), in which he used a 9mm "fish-eye" lens to suggest mental instability.

James Wong Howe became the most famous cameraman in the world in the 1930s, and he bought a Duesenberg, one of the most prestigious and expensive automobiles in the world. His driving his "Doozy" around Hollywood made for an incongruous sight, as Chinese typically were gardeners and houseboys in prewar America, a deeply racist time. During World War II anti-Asian bigotry intensified, despite the fact that China was an ally of the United States in its war with Japan. Mistaken for a Japanese (despite their having been relocated to concentration camps away from the Pacific Coast), he wore a button that declared "I am Chinese." His close friend James Cagney also wore the same button, out of solidarity with his friend.

Wong Howe was involved in a long-term relationship with the writer Sanora Babb, who was a Caucasian. Anti-miscegenation laws on the books in California until 1948 forbade Caucasians from marrying Chinese, and the couple could not legally marry until 1949, after the laws had been repealed. In September of 1949 they finally tied the knot, and Sanora Babb Wong Howe later told a family member that they had to hunt for three days for a sympathetic judge who would marry them.

Wong Howe eventually bought a Chinese restaurant located near the Ventura Freeway, which he managed with Sanora. When a photographer from a San Fernando Valley newspaper came to take a picture of the eatery, Howe counseled that he should put a wide-angle lens on his camera so he wouldn't have to stand so close to the freeway to get the shot. "I'll take the picture," the photographer unknowingly snapped at one of the master cinematographers of the world, "you just mind your goddamned noodles!"

Perhaps due to the sting of racism, the hypocrisy of a country fighting the Nazis and their eugenics policies that itself allowed the proscription of racial intermarriage, which kept him from legally marrying the woman he loved, or perhaps because of the Red-baiting that consumed Hollywood after the War, James Wong Howe's professional reputation began to decline in the late 1940s. Losing his reputation for efficiency, he was branded "difficult to work with," and producers began to fear his on-set temper tantrums. Though Wong Howe was never blacklisted, he came under the scrutiny of the House Un-American Activities Committee for his propensity for working with "Reds", "Pinks" and "fellow-travelers" such as John Garfield. Though he was never hauled in front of HUAC, Wong Howe's good friend Cagney had been a noted liberal in the 1930s. James Wong Howe felt the chill cast over the industry by McCarthyism.

In 1953 Wong Howe was given the opportunity to direct a feature film for the first time, being hired to helm a biography of Harlem Globetrotters founder Abe Saperstein, Go Man Go (1954). The film, which was brought in at 21 days on a $130,000 budget, did nothing to enhance his reputation. Howe managed to pull out of his career doldrums, and after McCarthyism crested in 1954 he won his first Oscar for the B+W cinematography of The Rose Tattoo (1955), in which the shadows created by Howe's cinematography reveal the protagonist Serafina's emotional turmoil as much as the words of Tennessee Williams. He directed one more picture, the undistinguished Invisible Avenger (1958), a B-movie in which The Shadow, Lamont Cranston, investigated the murder of a New Orleans bandleader, before returning to his true vocation, the motion picture camera.

By the mid-'50s Howe had made it back to the top of the profession. In 1957 he did some of his most brilliant work on Sweet Smell of Success (1957), a textbook primer on the richness of B+W cinematography. Ironically, he was not Oscar-nominated for his work on the film, but was nominated the following year for his color work on The Old Man and the Sea (1958) and won his second Oscar for the B+W photography of Hud (1963). Once again Wong Howe used a landscape, the barren and lonely West Texas plains, to highlight the psychological state of the film's protagonist, the amoral and go-it-alone title character played by Paul Newman.

One of Wong Howe's favorite assignments in his career was the five-month shoot under the once-blacklisted Martin Ritt on The Molly Maguires (1970), a tale of labor strife, which was shot on location in the Pennsylvania coal fields. His health started to fail after the shoot, and he was forced into retirement, requiring frequent hospitalization in the final years of his life. Reportedly he had to turn down the offer to shoot The Godfather (1972), as he was not healthy enough to undertake the assignment. Gordon Willis got the job instead.

When Funny Lady (1975) producer Ray Stark fired Vilmos Zsigmond as the director of photography of his Funny Girl (1968) sequel, he hired Howe due to his faith that the great lighting cameraman who had done wonders with Mary Miles Minter, Clara Bow, and Hedy Lamarr could glamorize his star, Barbra Streisand. Howe took over the shoot, but his health gave out after a short time and he collapsed on the set. Oscar-winner Ernest Laszlo, then-president of the American Society of Cinematographers, filled in until Howe returned from the hospital and finished the shoot. He received his last Oscar nomination for his work on the film. It marked the end of a remarkable career in motion pictures that spanned almost 60 years.

By the time of his retirement, he had long been acknowledged as a master of his art, one of the greatest lighting cameramen of all time, credited with shooting over 130 pictures in Hollywood and England. He worked with many of the greatest and most important directors in cinema history, from Allan Dwan in the silent era to Sidney Lumet in the 1960s. He created three production companies during his professional career, an untopped career in which he racked up ten Academy Award nominations in both B+W white and color (including notoriously difficult Technicolor), in formats ranging from the Academy ratio to CinemaScope, all of which he mastered. An even greater honor than his two Oscar wins came his way. In 1949, when he was chosen to shoot test footage for the proposed comeback of the great Greta Garbo in the proposed movie "La Duchesse de Langeais," such was his reputation.

Sanora Babb Wong Howe wrote after his death, "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 style was 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."

His greatest asset to film may have been his adaptability, the many ways in which he could vary his aesthetic in service of a story. Howe initially fought the notoriously gimmicky John Frankenheimer over his desire to use a fish-eye lens for "Seconds." Subsequently, Howe used the lens masterfully to convey the psychological torment of the protagonist, locked in a beyond-Kafkaesque nightmare that simply relying on sets and lighting couldn't bring across. He had made it work by adapting his aesthetic to the needs of the story and its characters, in service to his director.

Howe's work recently was given retrospectives at the 2002 Seattle International Film Festival, and in San Francisco in 2004, a rare honor for a cinematographer. It is testimony to his continuing reputation, more than a quarter century after his death, as one of the greatest and most innovative lighting cameramen the world of cinema has ever known.

Perhaps the greatest honor that can be bestowed on James Wong Howe is that this master craftsman, a genius of lighting, refutes the auteur theory, which holds that the director solely is "author" of a film. No one could reasonably make that claim on any picture on which Howe was the director of photography.

- IMDb Mini Biography By: Jon C. Hopwood

Spouse (1)

Sanora Babb (16 September 1949 - 12 July 1976) ( his death)

Trivia (7)

The widow of Oscar winning cinematographer James Wong, Sanora Babb, died of natural causes Dec. 31, 2005 at her Hollywood Hills home. She was 98.
Wong-Howe's widow waited 65 years in the shadow of a literary giant for her first completed novel to be published. Upstaged in 1939 by John Steinbeck's best-selling "The Grapes of Wrath" Babb's tale about the travails of a Depression era farm family was shelved by Random House. At 97, Babb earned long overdue praise for the novel "Whose Names Are Unknown" when it was rescued by the University of Oklahoma Press in 2004.
Cousin of actress Anna May Wong.
Discovered Quinn Cummings.
Member of ASC (American Society of Cinematographers).
Cinematographer for seven Oscar Best Picture nominees: Shanghai Express (1932), Viva Villa! (1934), The Thin Man (1934), Kings Row (1942), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Picnic (1956) and The Rose Tattoo (1955).
He was honored with a Google Doodle on May 25, 2018.

Personal Quotes (4)

[on John Frankenheimer] I don't think John really understands dramatic values; he's more or less mechanically inclined: lenses and camera and that. All that's my job; he ought to worry about the story and the actors.
[on Humphrey Bogart] What I liked most about him I suppose was that he was honest, he never minced his words. Believe me, ninety-nine percent of the people in Hollywood go through life and never say what they mean, but Bogart just wasn't like that. There was no baloney about him.
[on Greta Garbo] She was like a horse on the track. Nothing, and then the bell goes, and something happens.
[on the zoom lens] Zooms are for commercials.

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