Special Theme: James Wong Howe

April 18, 2023
Special Theme: James Wong Howe

Mondays in May | 14 Films

In a 1970 personal appearance covered by Roger Ebert, acclaimed cinematographer James Wong Howe said, “I’ve been called a user of gimmicks, but I always need a reason. When I shot the John Garfield boxing scene in ‘Body and Soul,’ I wore roller skates and used a handheld camera so I could move faster and stay closer to the action. Was that a gimmick? Not if it helped the film.”

In Garfield’s final film, the gritty 1951 film noir He Ran All the Way, Wong Howe wore swimming trunks, got into the water and used a handheld camera to capture a pivotal indoor pool sequence involving the actor and Shelley Winters. “It was very realistic,” Wong Howe would say. “We got enough reflection from the water to give their faces texture; if I had put too much light in, it would have washed out their faces.”  

Wong Howe, who died in 1976 at the age of 76, put the art in the craft of cinematography. He was a celluloid poet. He was a master of realism and deep focus. He even earned the nickname “Low-Key Howe” for his low-contract lighting of interiors.

He earned 10 Oscar nominations for his impeccable work winning for the black-and-white films, 1955’s The Rose Tattoo and 1963’s Hud.

“He revolutionized the way films communicated visually, developing new techniques that could convey feelings without the need for words…like the expressionistic use of wide-angle and fish-eye lenses in John Frankenheimer’s body-swapping science-fiction drama ‘Seconds’ (1966) or one of the earlier aerial shots in the final moments of Joshua Logan’s Technicolor romantic comedy ‘Picnic’ (1955),” wrote Beatrice Loayza in a 2022 New York Times article on Wong Howe.

TCM is paying tribute to Wong Howe in May 1, 8, 15 & 22 with a retrospective of 37 of his films and the 2019 documentary Image Makers: The Adventures of America’s Pioneer Cinematographers spanning the years 1928 to his final film, 1975’s Funny Lady, which marked his 10th nomination. Among the films airing are 1928’s Laugh, Clown, Laugh, 1935’s Mark of the Vampire, 1937’s The Prisoner of Zenda, 1938’s Algiers - his first Oscar nomination - 1941’s The Strawberry Blonde, 1957’s The Sweet Smell of Success 1968’s and The Heart is the Lonely Hunter.

His success was even more remarkable because he was of Chinese descent at a time when racism ran rampant. 

Born in China in 1899, young Wong Tung Jim found himself in Pasco, Washington in 1904 when his family moved there. Being the only Chinese in his class, he was the subject of racial slurs from his schoolmates. The diminutive Wong Howe let his fists do the talking. He got so good at fighting that in his teen years he boxed professionally earning anywhere from $10 to $100 a bout.  “After I graduated from high school, I went to California looking for adventure, and I got a job pedaling a bicycle around and delivering films. Stag films,” Wong Howe recalled in 1970.

After delivering stag films, Howe landed a job at Lasky Studios holding up the slate in front of the camera. “That meant I got a close-up at the beginning of every scene. I’d be in front of the camera, looking around as if I were lost, holding up the slate. One day Cecil B. DeMille was looking at some rushes and he asked who that fellow with the funny face was. I guess he liked my looks, and he made me his third or fourth assistant cameraman. That was in 1918.”

His career changed when he took a portrait of Mary Miles Minter. The popular actress had blue-eyes. The problem was the black-and-white film used in the day always made blue eyes look pale. Wong Howe managed to make her eyes dark and beautiful in his portrait. He realized that he had been standing in front of a dark backdrop when he photographed Minter; her eyes reflected the backdrop. So, she asked him to be her cinematographer. And Wong Howe hung a black velvet curtain in front of his camera, cut a hole in the curtain and shot her in through the hole.

“In those days, Hollywood was a little colony and the gossip spread fast,” Wong Howe noted. “Word went around at cocktail parties that Mary Miles Minter had imported herself an Oriental camera, who hid behind a velvet curtain and magically made her eyes turn dark. After that, I was never out of work.” 

Throughout his success, though, he faced racism especially from the white crew members working for him. “He dealt with laws and prejudices that relegated him to second-class citizenship all of his life,” wrote Beatrice Loayza in the New York Times in 2022.  “During World War II, he wore a button that read ‘I am Chinese’ to ward off harassment should anyone think he was Japanese.” During World War II, he wanted to join the crew of John Ford’s wartime documentary crew but the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited him from becoming a U.S. citizen. 

The late Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who was Wong Howe’s camera operator on Picnic, said in a 2001 L.A. Times interview that Wong Howe “hated racism and on ‘Picnic,’ he didn’t like being called ‘the Chinaman.’ He expected excellence from everybody, and he was a taskmaster, but he was particularly unforgiving to people we call today racist. But at that time, that kind of conversation toward Chinese or blacks or Italians or Jews was very common, particularly among film crews who were basically rednecks. His social conscious went far beyond the idea of race.”

Speaking of Picnic, one of the most memorable scenes is the romantic, erotic - well at least for 1955 - dance between Kim Novak and William Holden set to the standard “Moonglow” and composer George Duning’s theme for the movie. Holden reportedly “panicked” at the thought of dancing because he was insecure about his abilities. Even drinking before the sequence didn’t help. So Wong Howe saved the day by “having the lights and camera do the dancing. He placed the camera on a dolly that allowed it to circle the stars while also swaying up and down. He also set up 50 small, brightly colored spotlights so that the smallest movements changed the colors on the stars.”

In the case of the Western Hud, Wong Howe lit his stars to reflect that character’s inner life.  Said Ebert: “For Melvyn Douglas, shadows and isolation. For Paul Newman, contrast. For Brandon De Wilde, open and simple lighting to empathize his youth.”

For the noir classic Sweet Smell of Success, Wong Howe “re-envisioned New York with a bleak, otherworldly flair. He coated interior-set walls in oil to give them a surreal shimmer and used long-focus lenses to make buildings look clustered together, emphasizing a sense of claustrophobic delirium.”

constant in his life was his wife, novelist Sanora Babb. They were married in 1937 in Paris, but their union wasn’t acknowledged in California due to an anti-miscegenation law.

The studios also had a morality clause. 

“We would live in separate apartments. It was before the war. After the war, they repealed the law and he said now we can get married. I said, we have waited this long, we’ll wait until its convenient.” 

Babb had been a communist and she was blacklisted by HUAC. Wong Howe was “gray listed” because of Babb and his liberal political views. And in the early 1950s his career suffered. 

“You’ll notice that most of the people he worked with were what we used to call progressives,” said Wexler. “People talk about the blacklist, but there was an atmosphere of suspicion and hostility against people who were socially aware.”

“He was apolitical,” said Babb. “I told him he should have married his camera. I went to Mexico for two years [so he could keep working]. Jimmy was crazy for his work.”

He never considered himself an artist. “Once or twice, people would interview him and say you are a real artist,” recalled Babb. “You are a poet of the camera. But secretly he knew he was a lot more than a technician. I tried to tell him it wasn’t a disgrace to be an artist. I think he was just embarrassed.!”

Wong Howe explained in 1970 that “as you grow in an art or craft, you find simpler approaches. When a painter starts out, he draws in all the lines. But after many years, he begins to leave out lines, to throw them away, to suggest them without drawing them. You can do that, too, in photography, but you have to learn well.”