James Wong Howe, ASC
b. August 28, 1899 - d. July 12, 1976
Since cinematographers work off-screen, audiences tend to forget about the people who write in motion and light. In Hollywood's golden age, though, cinematographer James Wong Howe was known throughout the world.
Today, Howe is remembered as one of film's greatest artists, one of the most innovative, influential, versatile and prolific men to have ever sat behind a camera. Films that were shot by Howe are known for their poetic realism and evocative lighting. Howe himself is known for his ability to shoot anything and make it seem beautiful.
But he was no self-aggrandizing showman. His camerawork was precise and always worked with the drama of the story, never against it. He didn't employ the gimmickry of bad cameramen and hated any technique that made a film look artificial. Howe preferred a more transparent style, noting that "'Unseen' photography does not at all mean pedestrian photography; in its own terms it should express emotion, and that emotion, according to the story, may be light, somber, sinister, dramatic, tragic, quiet."
James Wong Howe was born Wong Tung Jim on August 28, 1899 in Guangdong, China. His family immigrated to the United States when he was five years old, settling in Pasco, Washington. Though anti-Chinese bigotry was strong, his family opened a successful general store in the community.
Howe's childhood was mostly uneventful, despite the constant ridicule of his ethnicity by his peers. However, his purchase of a little Brownie still camera when he was 12 pointed towards his future career. He took photographs of his relatives, despite his father's misgivings. Howe later recalled that, "My father was an old-fashioned Chinese. They are superstitious about having their pictures taken, but I went ahead and took head shots, body shots of the whole family." Unfortunately, the lack of a viewfinder on the camera led to headless relatives, much to his father's displeasure.
When his father died in 1914, Howe left Pasco to live with an Irish family in Ferndale, Oregon. After a brief stint in a salmon cannery, he tried his hand at a boxing career, but found limited success. Eventually, he drifted down the West Coast and found himself in Los Angeles, California.
James Wong Howe's entry into the rarified heights of filmmaking started humbly enough. While working as a busboy at the Beverly Hills Hotel, he spent a few Sundays watching comedy films being shot in Chinatown. A friendly cameraman suggested that Howe get a job in the film industry. Howe quickly found employment at Jesse Lasky Studios, but the head photographer, deciding that Howe's 5' 2" frame was too small to carry the equipment, hired him to pick up film stock from the cutting room floor--a janitor's job. Nevertheless, this gave Howe the opportunity to become familiar with filmmaking equipment in his spare time.
Famed director Cecil B. DeMille gave Howe his first big break during the shooting of Male and Female (1919). During a particularly involved scene, which involved actress Gloria Swanson and a (toothless) lion, there were too many camera angles and not enough cameramen. The crew grabbed Howe from the camera room and gave him the slate, along with the title of fourth assistant cameraman.
It wasn't long before DeMille saw the talents of his newest crew addition. For another scene, DeMille needed to get a close-up of a singing canary. The bird they had was not cooperating. Howe eventually came up with the solution: He stuck a piece of chewing gum in the bird's beak. As the canary moved its beak to spit the gum out, on silent film it looked like the bird was singing.
Around this time, Howe started a side-business taking still photographs of actors and actresses. Fortunately, his camerawork had improved from his old Brownie days, and all of his photos had the heads attached. One of his clients was actress Mary Miles Minter, who was elated that Howe's black and white photography darkened her pale blue eyes. She asked if he could do the same on movie film, and Howe said yes, even though he didn't quite know how he did it to begin with. He quickly realized that light reflecting off some black velvet in the room was responsible. Howe rigged a frame of black velvet with a hole large enough for a camera lens cut in the center. When other blue-eyed actors learned of Minter's amazing close-ups and the man behind them, Howe's career was launched.
In 1922, only three years after his fourth assistant cameraman's position, Howe was the director of photography of Drums of Fate, starring Minter. A year later, he shot another one of her films, Trail of the Lonesome Pine. Flush from his early successes, Howe had no trouble finding more work, shooting several films for United Artists and MGM throughout the 1920s.
But his career was nearly cut short after the introduction of The Jazz Singer (1928), the film that ushered in the era of the "talkie". During the changeover from silent to sound film, Howe was shooting footage in China for a film he wanted to direct. When he returned to Hollywood, he found that his skills were considered obsolete. Because of the expense and technical challenges of sound film, studios were only willing to hire cameramen who had experience with talkies. Luckily for Howe, director William K. Howard wanted him to shoot Transatlantic (1931), mostly because of Howe's reputation. His test footage impressed the studio, so the project was greenlighted and Howe's career saved.
Howe was one of the few cameramen to successfully make the transition from silent to sound film. The transition was made difficult by the large difference between silent and sound filmmaking technology. Before sound, cameramen had a large degree of flexibility when framing shots, because the camera and lighting equipment was fairly minimal. The introduction of sound forced cameras, with their noisy drive motors, into soundproof booths. Eventually, advances in technology allowed cinematographers to move their cameras again.
Regardless of the equipment, Howe proved to be a masterful cameraman and by the mid-1930s secured a reputation as the best cinematographer in the business. Part of his fame stemmed from the fact that he was Asian; studio writers convinced him to add some exotic flair to his name, so the cinematographer previously known as "James Howe" became "James Wong Howe."
Name shenanigans aside, Howe's reputation was built from his incredible talent. He was known for his quick, excellent work behind the camera, shooting The Thin Man (1934) in 18 days and Manhattan Melodrama (1934) in 28. Lighting was a particular specialty of his. Few cinematographers could match his evocative mix of light and shadow, which came from his pioneering use of low-key lighting. The technique would become something of a trademark in his films of the 1930s and 40s, earning him the nickname of "Low Key Howe."
He was also known for making women look beautiful on-screen, a talent he had since his time with Mary Miles Minter. When MGM felt that Hedy Lamarr's chin was weak, they tapped Howe to fix it on film. His cinematography for Lamarr's American debut film, Algiers (1938), earned him his first Academy Award nomination.
Howe's career began to slow in the late 1940s and early 1950s. His passion for the art of cinematography made him strongly opinionated and sometimes difficult to work with. Producers were afraid that the friction would slow down shooting. Nevertheless, Howe still found work. Less visually oriented directors like Daniel Mann found Howe to be indispensable. Mann said that, "I furnished the actors and their dialogue--Jimmie did the rest." Howe and Mann's collaboration was fruitful, leading to Howe's first Academy Award win for The Rose Tattoo (1955).
Attention from Senator Joseph McCarthy was also unwelcome. Though Howe was never blacklisted, the House Un-American Activities Committee thought that his involvement with supposedly "Commie" actors and producers was suspicious. (Later, when Howe was working with director John Frankenheimer on Seconds (1966), Frankenheimer thumbed his nose at McCarthy by deliberately hiring a cast that was almost entirely blacklisted.)
Another reason for his career's slight decline during this time was in the increased racial bigotry against Asians. While Howe had had to work his way through prejudice before, the war against the Japanese raised this prejudice to fever pitch. Even though Howe was Chinese, he felt its sting. Out of frustration, he wore a large button stating that "I am Chinese." His close friend, actor James Cagney, wore one as well to protest the injustice.
Prejudice also affected his personal life. In the late 1930s, he met writer Sanora Babb and the two fell in love. The two were married in Paris in 1937, since California's State Miscegenation Law forbade interracial marriage at the time. Their marriage would not be legalized in their home state until 1957, and it took the couple three days to find a cooperative judge. Even then, the judge remarked, "She looks old enough. If she wants to marry a chink, that's her business." California's strict immigration laws also prevented Howe from becoming a citizen until 1958.
Perhaps the most amusing incident involving prejudice occurred when Howe bought a Chinese restaurant. When a photographer from a local newspaper came to take a picture of the place, he couldn't fit everything in the shot, so he stepped back into the busy road. Howe, concerned with the photographer's safety, gently suggested that he use a wide-angle lens to capture everything while standing on the sidewalk. The photographer, not recognizing that the suggestion had come from a world-renown cinematographer, replied, "I'll take the picture, you just mind your goddamned noodles!"
In 1953, Howe got the opportunity to direct. Go, Man, Go was a film about the founder of the Harlem Globetrotters. His second, and last, film as director was The Invisible Avenger (1957). Neither of them was met with much critical acclaim, unlike his cinematography work.
By the 1960s and 70s, Howe was at the top of his game. During this part of his career, he won another Academy Award for Hud (1963), a Western starring Paul Newman. His total output slowed, however, because of his age and eventual failing health. He was forced to turn down a vast majority of jobs that were offered. It was rumored that he was offered the first two Godfather films, but turned them down because of his health. His final film was Funny Lady (1974), which earned him a tenth and final Academy Award nomination.
James Wong Howe died on July 12, 1976 from cancer. He had spent all of his adult life working behind the camera, leaving behind 125 films and a legacy of innovative cinematography.
Most people don't understand what exactly a cinematographer does. Screenwriter Stephen Longstreet made the mistake of showing his ignorance of cinematography in an August 1945 article in the Screen Writers Guild's magazine, The Screen Writer. Howe quickly responded with an article entitled "The Cameraman Talks Back," where he describes the technical responsibilities of his job:
The trouble with many critics and ex-critics is that for all their skillful talk, they don't understand the techniques of motion pictures. They still criticize movies from the viewpoint of the stage.... For the stage, there is the audience eye. For movies, with their wider scope and moving ability, there is the camera eye. If these two were one and the same kind of production, the cameraman's part would merely be to set his camera up in front of the action as a static recorder, press a button and go fishing....
Under the best conditions, the writer, the director and the cameraman would work closely together throughout the production. In spite of the present setup, a measure of cooperation is achieved, especially between the director and cameraman. Writers have often consulted me on how to get over certain scenes with lighting and the use of lenses.
Sometimes, as now, I am tempted to detail some of the work of a cameraman in an effort toward further cooperation. By its varied parts, he faces a job of integration on his own. Throughout the picture, there is that shared responsibility of keeping to the schedule; this, with all its other implications, means the executive ability to keep the set moving. He has a general responsibility to fuse the work of all the technical departments under his direction in order to achieve the equality of the story. He is concerned with the makeup and the costume coloring. He works with the art director to see that the sets are properly painted to bring out their best values photographically. (I refer here to black-and-white, as well as color film.) For the same reason, he confers with the set director as to the colors of furniture, drapes, rugs. The cameraman alone is responsible for the lighting, which is a part of photography but often referred to separately.
But Howe was more than just a technician or crew foreman. He felt that a good cinematographer also had very definite artistic responsibilities. Longstreet had written in his article that "brilliant cameramen are the curse of the business," meaning that many cinematographers throw in whatever camera trick strikes their fancy, regardless of its interaction with the narrative. Howe's response laid out his personal philosophy, that, "Photography must be integrated with the story."
Since Howe worked in many genres with so many directors over six decades, he had to be very versatile to meet his vision of artistic integrity. Since Howe was so incredibly prolific, only a few of his most notable films are discussed below.
One of Howe's earliest films, The Power and the Glory (1933), directed by William K. Howard, is often considered the precursor to Orson Welles's landmark Citizen Kane (1941). The film used flashbacks to tell most of the story, very novel for the time and exploited to great effect later by Welles. Howe pioneered the use of deep focus photography and crisp low-key lighting in this film, years before Gregg Toland shot Citizen Kane. The Power and the Glory was one of the early sound films, but Howe took the cameras out of their soundproof boxes to get dramatic angles.
Algiers (1938), directed by John Cromwell, was actress Hedy Lamarr's American debut vehicle, and was modeled after the popular French thriller Pepe le Moko. This film not only launched Lamarr's career, but earned Howe his first Academy Award nomination. Howe's lighting turned the Hollywood sets into exotic North African locales: rows of powerful overhead lights evoked the heat of the desert and smoky, low-key shadows gave the Casbah its mystery.
Howe teamed with Cromwell again for The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), a film about the king of Ruritania and his lookalike. Howe skillfully used split-screen photography to allow actor Ronald Colman, playing both the king and his double, to shake hands with himself. Lighting again allowed Howe to transcend the sets. In a scene between the two leads, the only light source is a lantern. Most cinematographers would have tried to lighten the scene with fill lighting, but Howe framed the scene so that the attention was all on their faces. He hated illogical lighting, insisting that all light and shadow have traceable, diegetic sources.
Hangmen Also Die! (1943) brought Fritz Lang and Howe together. This film was one of three made by Lang to denounce the Nazis. Lang himself was a keenly visual director, and his collaboration with Howe brought his vision to nightmarish life. Howe's trademark low-key lighting brought added mystery to this thriller, which portrayed the fictionalized assassination of "Hangman" Reinhard Heydrich.
Air Force (1943) was another one of Howe's wartime films, which paired him with director Howard Hawks. This film portrayed the story of a B-17 bomber crew, and Howe was tapped to recreate the look of newsreel combat footage. He used a handheld Eyemo camera for rough landings and dogfighting scenes to get the gritty realism of the newsreels. For interior shots of the bomber, Howe cleverly used a dimmer to simulate light flickering through the clouds. Howe earned a fifth Academy Award nomination on this film. Air Force is now remembered as one of Hawk's finest films, a tribute to the brave men who fought in World War II.
Raoul Walsh's Pursued (1947) strongly hinted at the psychological Westerns of the 1950s. Howe's use of deep focus emphasized the shifting levels of meaning in the story. Use of high-contrast infrared film for night scenes lent added moody drama to the barren wastelands of the West.
The Rose Tattoo (1955), directed by Daniel Mann, was adapated from a Tennessee Williams play of the same name. The play was a very symbolic romantic drama, focused on a widowed dressmaker named Serafina. Howe won an Academy Award for his lighting in this film, which perfectly illustrated his cinematic "form follows function" philosophy. Serafina, played by Anna Magnani, is lit according to her ever-darkening disposition.
Howe was a black and white partisan, feeling that "imaginative participation by the audience... will supply the colors." Nevertheless, Picnic (1955), directed by Joshua Logan, was shot in Technicolor, and beautifully at that. A small-town Labor Day is lit in stages--hard lit morning, late afternoon glow--as the narrative takes the characters through the day. A dance scene between leads William Holden and Kim Novak, to the tune of "Moonglow", is memorably shot.
Howe must have seemed like a natural to shoot the film noirish Sweet Smell of Success (1957), directed by Alexander Mackendrick. Burt Lancaster plays a high-powered columnist in New York City, a city dazzlingly shot by Howe. On-location night photography lends the film manic visual energy, generated by the contrast of bright neon and black shadow. Even though Howe was 58 years old at the time, Sweet Smell of Success looks like it was shot by a new buck. The camera work is silky smooth, seemingly channeling the rhythm of the cool lounge jazz soundtrack.
His photography for Hud (1963), directed by Martin Ritt and starring Paul Newman, earned Howe his second Academy Award win. Howe's portrayal of Texas was as a blasted wasteland, with an uncompromised realism. Something about his deep focus and framing of the landscape heightens an already moody story about the friction between a father and son.
John Frankenheimer's Seconds (1966) was something of a departure in style for Howe. Seconds was a deeply paranoid thriller, demanding an equally expressive visual treatment. Howe more than obliged, with hand-held cameras, odd low angle shots, and claustrophobic fish-eye lens use that has rarely been matched. He was nominated for his ninth Academy Award for this film.
The Molly Maguires (1970), directed by Martin Ritt, was one of Howe's favorite works. The film told the story of Irish-American coal miners who tried to get better working conditions. Although the film met mixed critical review (Pauline Kael deemed the film "a failure... but an impressive failure."), Howe's cinematography was top flight. Great pains were made to make the sets look like real 19th century coal mines. Extremely fast film stock was used for high contrast and Howe managed to borrow tiny quartz lamps from NASA to simulate miners' helmet lamps.
Sanora Babb Howe, James Wong Howe's wife, best summarizes his cinematography:
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.
Despite his nickname, Howe never imposed his low-key lighting on a film that didn't need it. In fact, Howe never really had a signature shot that immediately signaled his presence. He kept to his ideal that the best cinematography is transparent cinematography, existing only to serve the film as a whole. Howe's trademark simply was excellence.
Over the course of his six decade career, James Wong Howe earned ten Academy Award nominations for Best Cinematography, and won two of those awards. The films he was nominated for are: Algiers (1938), Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940), Kings Row (1950), The North Star (1944), Air Force (1943), The Old Man and the Sea (1959), Seconds (1966), Funny Lady (1975). The films he won were The Rose Tattoo (1955) and Hud (1963). He also was inducted into the American Society of Cinematographers, with the right to append ASC to his name, an honor shared by only the best cinematographers.
Beyond the Academy Awards, Howe has not been forgotten as a true artist. The Museum of Modern Art held a 31 film retrospective in 2001. The Seattle International Film Festival held a four film tribute in 2002. The Academy maintains a special manuscript collection in their archives, containing Howe's notes, correspondence and film. And recently, the International Cinematographers Guild selected Howe as one of the ten most influential cinematographers in history.
But the awards and tributes pale in comparison to James Wong Howe's real legacy: 125 exceptionally shot films and a lifetime spent in pursuit of beauty.
Richard Francis James Lee. "James Wong Howe: A Relative's Perspective." MovieMaker Magazine, issue 20. http://www.moviemaker.com/issues/20/20_howe.html
James Wong Howe. "The Cameraman Talks Back." American Cinematographer, December 1945. http://www.theasc.com/magazine/mar99/howe/pg1.htm
Robert Horton. "Depth of Focus: A Tribute to Cinematographer James Wong Howe." Reel News, May 2002, Volumn 10, Issue 2. http://www.seattlefilm.com/home/news/reel/may_2002/03.asp
"High Drama, Low Key: The Cinematography of James Wong Howe." The Museum of Modern Art, press release, June 2001. http://www.moma.org/about_moma/press/2001/james_wong_7_18_01.html
Hal Erickson. "James Wong Howe." All Movie Guide. http://www.allmovie.com/cg/avg.dll?p=avg&sql=B94995
"Low Key Legend: A Tribute to James Wong Howe." Seattle International Film Festival 2002. http://www.seattlefilm.com/siff2002/events_programs/james_wong.asp
"James Wong Howe (I)." IMDB. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0002146/maindetails