Wong Tung Jim in Kwantung, China, 28 August 1899; emigrated to the United
States, 1904; credited early in his career as James or Jimmie Howe.
Married the writer Sanora Babb.
Farm laborer, professional boxer, delivery boy; 1917—janitor, then
camera assistant, Lasky Studios; 1922—first film as
Drums of Fate
; 1954—directed first film,
Go Man Go
; some TV and commercial photography in the 1960s.
Academy Award for
The Rose Tattoo
, 1955, and
12 July 1976.
Puppy Love (Neill); For Better, For Worse (W. De Mille); Told in the Hills (Melford); Male and Female (C. De Mille)
Everything for Sale (O'Connor)
The Woman Who Walked Alone (Melford); The Sired Call (Willat); Burning Sands ( The Dweller in the Desert ) (Melford)
Drums of Fate ( Drums of Destiny ) (Maigne)
The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (Maigne); To the Last Man (Fleming) (co); The Woman with Four Faces (Brenon); The Spanish Dancer (Brenon); The Call of the Canyon (Fleming)
The Breaking Point (Brenon); The Side Show of Life (Brenon); The Alaskan (Brenon); Peter Pan (Brenon)
The Charmer (Olcott); Not So Long Ago (Olcott); The King on Main Street (Bell); The Best People (Olcott)
The Song and Dance Man (Brenon); Sea Horses (Dwan); Padlocked (Dwan); Mantrap (Fleming)
The Rough Riders ( The Trumpet Call ) (Fleming); Sorrell and Son (Brenon)
Laugh, Clown, Laugh (Brenon); The Perfect Crime (Glennon); Four Walls (Nigh)
Desert Nights ( Thirst ) (Nigh)
Today (Nigh); The Criminal Code (Hawks) (co)
Transatlantic (Howard); The Spider (McKenna and Menzies); The Yellow Ticket ( The Yellow Passport ) (Walsh); Surrender (Howard); Dance Team (Lanfield)
After Tomorrow (Borzage); Amateur Daddy (Blystone); Man about Town (Dillon); Chandu the Magician (Varnel and Mensies)
Hello, Sister! ( Walking down Broadway ) (von Stroheim and Walsh); The Power and the Glory ( Power and Glory ) (Howard); Beauty for Sale ( Beauty ) (Boleslawsky)
The Show-Off (Reisner); Viva Villa! (Conway) (co); Manhattan Melodrama (Van Dyke); Hollywood Party (Dwan and others); The Thin Man (Van Dyke); Stamboul Quest (Wood); Have a Heart (Butler); Biography of a Bachelor Girl (Griffith)
The Night Is Young (Murphy); Mark of the Vampire (Browning); The Flame Within (Goulding); O'Shaughnessy's Boy (Boleslawsky); Whipsaw (Wood)
Three Live Ghosts (Humberstone) (co); Fire over England (Howard)
Farewell Again ( Troopship ) (Whelan); Under the Red Robe (Sjöström) (co); The Prisoner of Zenda (Cromwell)
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Taurog) (co); Algiers (Cromwell); Comet over Broadway (Berkeley)
They Made Me a Criminal (Berkeley); The Oklahoma Kid (Bacon); Daughters Courageous (Curtiz); Dust Be My Destiny (Seiler); On Your Toes (Enright)
Abe Lincoln in Illinois ( Spirit of the People ) (Cromwell); The Story of Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet ( Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet ) (Dieterle); Saturday's Children (V. Sherman); Torrid Zone (Keighley); City for Conquest (Litvak) (co); A Dispatch from Reuters ( This Man Reuter ) (Dieterle)
The Strawberry Blonde (Walsh); Shining Victory (Rapper); Navy Blues (Bacon) (co); Out of the Fog (Litvak)
Kings Row (Wood); Yankee Doodle Dandy (Curtiz)
Air Force (Hawks); Hangmen Also Die! (F. Lang); The Hard Way (V. Sherman); The North Star (Milestone)
Passage to Marseilles (Curtiz)
Objective Burma! (Walsh); Counter-Attack ( One Against Seven ) (Z. Korda); Confidential Agent (Shumlin); Danger Signal (Florey)
My Reputation (Bernhardt)
Nora Prentiss (V. Sherman); Pursued (Walsh); Body and Soul (Rossen)
Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (Potter); The Time of Your Life (Potter)
The Baron of Arizona (Fuller); The Eagle and the Hawk (Foster); Tripoli (Price)
The Brave Bulls (Rossen) (co); He Ran All the Way (Berry); Behave Yourself (Beck); The Lady Says "No" (Ross)
The Fighter (Kline); Come Back, Little Sheba (Daniel Mann)
Main Street to Broadway (Garnett); Jennifer (Newton)
The Rose Tattoo (Daniel Mann); Picnic (Logan)
Death of a Scoundrel (Martin)
Drango (Bartlett and Bricken); The Sweet Smell of Success (Mackendrick)
The Old Man and the Sea (J. Sturges); Bell, Book, and Candle (Quine)
The Last Angry Man (Daniel Mann); The Story on Page One (Odets)
Tess of the Storm Country (Guilfoyle); Song without End (C. Vidor and Cukor) (co)
The Outrage (Ritt)
The Glory Guys (Laven)
This Property Is Condemned (Pollack); Seconds (Frankenheimer); Hombre (Ritt)
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (Miller)
Blood Kin ( The Last of the Mobile Hot-Shots ) (Lumet); The Molly Maguires (Ritt)
Funny Lady (Ross)
Go Man Go
Dong Kingman ( The World of Dong Kingman ) (+ pr—short)
Invisible Avenger (co)
"Lightning," in Cinematographic Annual 1931 , Hollywood 1931.
"Reactions on Making His First Color Productions," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), October 1937.
"The Cameraman Talks Back," in Screen Writer , October 1945.
On The Glory Boys , in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), August 1965.
Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1967.
In Sources of Light , edited by Charles Higham, London, 1970.
Filmmakers Newsletter (Ward Hill, Massachusetts), February 1973.
On Funny Lady , in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), September 1976.
Image (Rochester, New York), no. 1, 1977.
Rainsberger, Todd, James Wong Howe, Cinematographer , San Diego, California, 1981.
Crichton, K., in Collier's (New York), 12 June 1937.
Jacobs, Jack, in Films in Review (New York), April 1961.
Lightman, Herb A., on Hud in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), July 1963.
Lightman, Herb A., on The Outrage in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), April 1964.
Lightman, Herb A., on The Molly Maguires in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), April 1970.
Eyman, W.S., in Take One (Montreal), March-April 1972.
Film Comment (New York), Summer 1972.
Focus on Film (London), no. 13, 1973.
Lawrence, R., in Today's Filmmaker (Hempstead, New York), no. 4, 1974.
Kaye, A., and P.J. Smith, in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), February 1974.
Stein, R., in Audience (New York), December 1974.
Gillet, John, in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1976.
Parrish, Robert, in Focus on Film (London), November 1976.
Gerely, A., in Film und Ton (Munich), October 1977.
Parrish, Robert, in American Film (Washington, D.C.), April 1986.
Eyman, Scott, in Five American Cinematographers , London, 1987.
* * *
Despite the fact that the motion-picture camera is the mechanical means by which films actually come to be, the role of the cameraman, or director of photography, or cinematographer, is often overlooked in assessing a movie's value. James Wong Howe is one of the few cinematographers to receive any individual recognition before the 1970s, two others being Billy Bitzer and Karl Freund. Howe's lengthy career spans more than five decades. He earned a reputation as one of the most innovative cameramen, always eager to experiment, and one of the professional craftsmen who was responsible for the "look" of the Warner Brothers product with the 26 pictures he photographed at that studio between 1938 and 1947.
A Chinese immigrant interested in athletics and boxing, Howe landed a job as assistant to Alvin Wyckoff, Cecil B. De Mille's photographer. He learned the rudiments of photography from Wyckoff, convinced Mary Miles Minter to allow him to take some publicity shots of her, and as a result she requested he photograph her in Drums of Fate and The Trail of the Lonesome Pine in 1922–23. His use of low-key lighting to emphasize fantasy in Betty Bronson's Peter Pan enhanced his reputation, as did his realistic lighting for Laugh, Clown, Laugh , starring Lon Chaney. When the arrival of sound threw Hollywood studios into turmoil, Howe took time off to visit his homeland. Upon his return he had difficulty finding work because producers explained they needed photographers who understood sound.
Howard Hawks broke the ice by hiring him to shoot The Criminal Code , which earned him a two-year contract at Fox, where his best film was The Power and the Glory , directed by Preston Sturges and filmed in straightforward, newsreel style. Howe went to MGM in 1933 where his films included Viva Villa! , The Thin Man , and Whipsaw . He became bored at MGM, and, after shooting the color tests of Marlene Dietrich for The Garden of Allah for David O. Selznick, went to England where he photographed Fire over England , then returned to the US to do some of his finest work in Selznick's The Prisoner of Zenda . That film cast Ronald Colman in dual roles and is famous for the scene in which Colman shakes hands with himself. Howe explained, "Split screen was used, of course, but not the usual straight line split. I placed a three-by-four-foot optical glass three feet in front of the camera. Ronald Colman shook hands with a double. The double's head and shoulders were matted out with masking tape on the glass. The scene was photographed, the camera shutter was closed, and the film was wound backward to the beginning of the scene. We then masked out everything but Colman's head and shoulders and re-photographed the scene. This required great accuracy on the part of everyone involved, especially on Ronald Colman's part as he spoke and reacted to himself. We did all this 14 times. The third try was the best."
Following that success, he shot his first color film, also for Selznick, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer . "A splash of red or blue in the background of a color picture can distract audience attention in the same way a strong highlight does in monochrome," explained Howe. "In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer I tried to subordinate background color and to confine the major coloring of any scene to the players. This is not as difficult as it sounds, and it worked out successfully." Howe followed Sawyer with the atmospheric black-and-white Algiers . Howe recalled that Hedy Lamarr, in her first US film, "was bewildered and possessed of all the physical defects the average girl has on her arrival at the film factories." His success in transforming her into a glamor girl earned him a contract with Warner Brothers, where, in a ten-year period, he photographed 36 films. Howe's realistic style was a perfect match for the hard-hitting Warner Brothers product. These films include a sepia-toned The Oklahoma Kid , Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet , Kings Row , Yankee Doodle Dandy , and Body and Soul .
During the 1950s and 1960s Howe freelanced, doing his most memorable work— Come Back, Little Sheba , Picnic , The Rose Tattoo (for which he received his first Oscar), The Sweet Smell of Success , and The Old Man and the Sea . His sense of dramatic realism was in full evidence in Hud , which earned him a second Oscar, and, to many, his best work was his innovative, distorting, wide-angle photography for John Frankenheimer's Seconds .