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James Wong Howe, A.S.C.
Born Wong Tung Jim
August 28, 1899(1899-08-28)
Taishan, Guangdong, China
Died July 12, 1976 (aged 76)
Hollywood, California
Years active 1919 - 1975
Spouse(s) Sanora Babb (1947-1976, his death. Marriage recognized in the US from 1949)

James Wong Howe, A.S.C. (Chinese 黃宗霑; pinyin: Huáng Zōngzhān) (August 28, 1899 - July 12, 1976) was an American cinematographer who worked on over 130 films. A master at the use of shadow, he was one of the first to use deep-focus cinematography, photography in which both foreground and distant planes remain in focus. During the 1930s and 1940s he was one of the most sought after cinematographers in Hollywood. He was nominated for ten Academy Awards for cinematography, winning twice. Howe was judged to be one of history's ten most influential cinematographers in a survey of the members of the International Cinematographers Guild.


Life and work

Early life

Howe was born Wong Tung Jim in Taishan, Canton Province (now Guangdong), China in 1899. His father Wong Howe moved to America that year to work on Northern Pacific Railway and in 1904 sent for his family. The Howes settled in Pasco, Washington, where they owned a general store. A childhood Brownie, said to have been bought at Pasco Drug (a now-closed city landmark), may have sparked an early interest in photography. The teenaged Howe moved to Oregon after his father's death and briefly considered a career as a flyweight boxer before moving to Los Angeles, California. In Los Angeles, Howe took several odd jobs, including work as a commercial photographer's delivery boy and as a busboy at the Beverly Hills Hotel, before becoming interested in movies. Howe eventually took a low-level job at Lasky Studios which brought him into contact with silent film director Cecil B. DeMille. DeMille gave Howe a job as a clap boy. To earn additional money, Howe took stills during the filming, which he frequently sold to the stars as souvenirs. Howe was a cousin of actress Anna May Wong.

Silent film

One of those still photographs launched Howe's career as a cinematographer when Howe stumbled across a means of making actress Mary Miles Minter's eyes look darker by photographing her while she was looking at a dark surface (see Howe's technical innovations for more details). Howe became Minter's preferred photographer and in 1923 worked on his first movie as head cameraman, filming Minter's closeups in Drums of Fate after mounting black velvet in a frame around the camera. Throughout his career, Howe retained a reputation for making actresses look their best without resorting to tricks like shooting through gauze. Howe worked steadily as a cinematographer from 1923 until the end of the era of silent film.

In 1928, Howe was in China shooting backgrounds for a movie he hoped to direct. The project he was working on was never completed (although some of the footage was used in Shanghai Express), and when he returned to Hollywood, he discovered that the "talkies" had largely supplanted silent films. Howe had no experience with sound film and his talents were no longer considered applicable. He fell out of demand as a cameraman until director William K. Howard selected him to be the cinematographer on Transatlantic in 1930.

Sound film and the war years

Howe's innovative work on Transatlantic reestablished him as one of the leading cinematographers in Hollywood, and he worked continuously through the 1930s and 1940s, generally on several movies a year. Howe gained a reputation as a perfectionist who could be difficult to work with, often overruling and even berating other members of the film crew. In a 1945 issue of The Screen Writer [1], Howe stated his views of a cameraman's responsibility, writing that "[t]he cameraman confers with the director on: (a) the composition of shots for action, since some scenes require definite composition for their best dramatic effect, while others require the utmost fluidity, or freedom from any strict definition or stylization; (b) atmosphere; (c) the dramatic mood of the story, which they plan together from beginning to end; (d) the action of the piece." Howe's broad view of a cinematographer's responsibilities may in some cases have infringed upon the traditional role of the director.

Howe was nominated for an Academy Award in 1944 in the "Best Cinematography: Black-and-White" category for his work on the movie, Air Force, which nomination he shared with Elmer Dyer, A.S.C., and Charles A. Marshall.

In the early 1930s, while at MGM, Howe, who had generally been billed as "James Howe", began listing his name in film credits as "James Wong Howe". Over the course of his career, he was also credited as "James How", "Jimmie Howe", and "James Wong How".

During World War II, Howe continued to work in Hollywood, where he met his future wife, novelist Sanora Babb, whom he married in 1947 in Paris. Due to anti-miscegnation laws, the marriage would not be legally recognized in the United States until 1949 [2]. Babb died in 2005, aged 98.


After the end of World War II, Howe worked somewhat less frequently. His work continued to be highly regarded, however. In 1949 he was hired for shooting tests for a never made comeback film starring Greta Garbo(La Duchesse de Langeais). In 1956, Howe won his first Academy Award for The Rose Tattoo. The film's director, Daniel Mann, had originally been a stage director and later stated that he gave Howe control over almost all decisions about the filming other than those regarding the actors and dialogue. In 1957's Sweet Smell of Success, Howe worked with director Alexander Mackendrick to give the black-and-white film a sharp-edged look reminiscent of New York tabloid photography such as that taken by Arthur "Weegee" Fellig. During the 1950s, Howe directed his only two feature films, The Invisible Avenger, one of many film adaptions of The Shadow, and Go, Man, Go!, a movie about the Harlem Globetrotters. Neither was a critical or commercial success.

Later life and work

Howe's best known work was almost entirely in black and white. His two Academy Awards both came during the period when Best Cinematography Oscars were awarded separately for color and black-and-white films. However, he successfully made the transition to color films and earned his first Academy Award nomination for a color film in 1959 for The Old Man and the Sea. He won his second Academy Award for 1963's Hud. His cinematography remained inventive during his later career. For instance, his use of fish-eye and wide-angle lenses in Seconds (1966) helped give an eerie tension to director John Frankenheimer's science fiction movie. After working on The Molly Maguires (1970), Howe's health began to fail and he entered semi-retirement. In 1974, he was well enough to be selected as a replacement cinematographer for Funny Lady. He collapsed during the filming; American Society of Cinematographers president Ernest Laszlo filled in for Howe while he was recovering in the hospital. Funny Lady earned Howe his tenth and final Oscar nomination. Three documentaries were made about Howe during the last two decades of his life.

He is buried at Pierce Bros. Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles.

Technical innovations

Howe's earliest discovery was the use of black velvet to make blue eyes show up better on the orthochromatic film stock in use until the early 1920s. Orthochromatic film was "blue blind"; it was sensitive to blue and green light, which showed as white on the developed film. Reds and yellows were darkened. Faced with the problem of actors' eyes appearing washed out or even stark white on film, Howe developed a technique of mounting a frame swathed with black velvet around his camera so that the reflections darkened the actors' eyes enough for them to appear more natural in the developed film.

Howe earned the nickname "Low-Key" because of his penchant for dramatic lighting and deep shadows, a technique that came to be associated with "Film Noir". Later in his career, as film-stocks became faster and more sensitive, Howe would continue to experiment with his photography and lighting techniques, such as shooting one scene in The Mollie Maguires solely by candlelight.

Howe also was known for his use of unusual lenses, film stocks, and shooting techniques. In the 1920s, he was an early adopter of the crab dolly, a form of camera dolly with four independent wheels and a movable arm to which the camera is attached. He entered the ring on roller-skates, carrying an early hand-held camera, for the boxing scenes of Body and Soul (1947). Picnic (1955) features a very early example of the helicopter shot filmed by the second-unit cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, and planned by Wexler and Howe.

Although the film technique of deep focus is most associated with cinematographer Gregg Toland, Howe used it in his first sound film, Transatlantic, ten years before Toland made the technique on Citizen Kane. For deep focus, the cinematographer stops the lens down and floods the set with light so that elements in both the foreground and background remain in sharp focus. The technique requires highly sensitive film and was difficult to achieve with early film stocks; Toland, Howe, and Arthur Edeson were among the earliest cinematographers to carry off the effect.

Frequent collaborators

Selected filmography

External links

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