James Wong Howe

Active - 1921 - 1993  |   Born - Aug 28, 1899   |   Died - Jul 12, 1976   |   Genres - Drama, Romance

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Biography by Hal Erickson

Canton-born James Wong Howe was one of the few Hollywood cinematographers whom the average movie fan knew by name. Arriving in America with his family at age five, Howe settled in Washington state. At 11, he was given a cheap brownie camera as payment for doing odd jobs for a local druggist. After World War I service and a desultory career as a prizefighter, he went to work as a handyman for the Famous Players-Lasky studio in Hollywood, shooting still pictures of various costume tests just for the experience. While taking a photo of film star Mary Miles Minter, Howe hit upon a method of making her blue eyes photograph darker; Minter began talking up Howe to everyone she met, and thus his cinematography career was underway. Overcoming the racial prejudice of certain Hollywood cameramen, Howe turned out some of the best, most evocatively lit and composed work in the business; he also developed a close working association with prestigious director William K. Howard. Howe took a vacation to China during the industry's switch to talkies, and upon returning to the states discovered he was considered "old fashioned" and unemployable. His old friend Howard came to his rescue again, engaging Howe to photograph Transatlantic (1931), in which he pioneered the use of low-hanging ceilings (ten years before Orson Welles was lauded for this "innovation" in Citizen Kane!) Howe also shot Howard's The Power and the Glory (1933), another critical success. In the late 1930s, he interrupted his thriving Hollywood career for a brief stopover in England, again collaborating with Howard on the Laurence Olivier vehicle Fire over England (1937). Howe was a particular favorite of female stars because of his inherent ability to emphasize their best features and obscure their facial flaws -- especially in close-up. Arguably, Howe's most creative years were the late 1940s onward. He shot the boxing sequence in Body and Soul (1947) holding the camera in his hands and gliding about on roller skates; he economically conveyed the diverging emotions of the climax in Picnic (1956) with an overhead shot of a train leaving in one direction, a bus in the other; and illuminated a crucial scene in The Molly Maguires (1970) using only candlelight. His work on The Rose Tattoo (1958) and Hud (1963) won Academy Awards, while his riveting exploitation of a fisheye lens in the closing scene of Seconds (1966) set the standard for most "paranoia" camera shots in subsequent films. Twice during his career, Howe left camerawork for directing. He helmed the 1954 Harlem Globetrotters drama Go Man Go; and, on location in New Orleans, Howe co-directed two pilot episodes for a TV version of The Shadow, which were spliced together and released theatrically as Invisible Avenger (1959).

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