Who Was James Wong Howe?
Wong Tung Jim, A.S.C., (August 28, 1899 – July 12, 1976), known professionally as James Wong Howe, was a Chinese American cinematographer who worked on over 130 films. During the 1930s and 1940s, he was one of the most sought after cinematographers in Hollywood due to his innovative filming techniques. Howe was known as a master of the use of shadow and one of the first to use deep-focus cinematography, in which both foreground and distant planes remain in focus.
Howe started his career as an assistant cameraperson a virtuoso in applying and exploiting shadows in films, Howe was one of the pioneers in using deep-focus cinematography where distant places remained under focus along with foreground of the scenes. His rich body of work encompassed more than 130 films that he contributed to in a long career span of over five decades.
He worked with many eminent directors like Allan Dwan, Samuel Fuller, John Cromwell, Sidney Lumet and William K. Howard. His excellent work on cinematography saw him being nominated for the ‘Academy Awards’ ten times. He won the award twice, first in 1956 for the film ‘The Rose Tattoo’ and then for the 1963 film ‘Hud’. According to a survey of members of ‘International Cinematographers Guild’, Howe was considered one of history’s 10 most influential cinematographers. He became a member of the prestigious ‘American Society of Cinematographers’ and had the honour and right to add ASC to his name.
Born in Guangzhou, China, Howe immigrated to the United States, aged five and grew up in Washington. He was a professional boxer during his teenage years, and later began his career in the film industry as an assistant to Cecil B. DeMille. Howe pioneered the use of wide-angle lenses and low-key lighting, as well as the use of the crab dolly.
Despite the success of his professional life, Howe faced significant racial discrimination in his private life. He became an American citizen only after the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943, and due to anti-miscegenation laws, his marriage to a white woman was not legally recognized in the United States until 1948.
He became known for his “constant efforts to achieve realism,” the obituary adds, and he once “filmed [the U.S. actor] John Garfield’s boxing scenes in Body and Soul by donning roller skates and darting around the ring for closeup shots.” He was also known for pioneering the use of wide-angle lenses as well as the crab dolly, a dolly best used on flat surfaces where three of the wheels turn in the same direction.
On May 25, 2018, Google honored Howe with a doodle on its homepage. The Google Doodle, which was created in partnership with Howe’s nephew, Don Lee, was initially rolled out in the U.S. last year; however it was withheld from running nationally when Hurricane Harvey struck the southern coast as a mark of respect to the events and relief effort.
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 1958 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.