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Taishan, Guangdong
Birth Sign
Taishan, Guangdong

James Wong Howe was an accomplished and well-known Chinese American cinematographer. Howe began his career as an assistant cameraperson and rose through the ranks to become one of Hollywood’s most renowned and sought-after cinematographers. Howe was a master at using and exploiting shadows in films, and he was one of the first to use deep-focus cinematography, in which distant objects remained in focus alongside the foreground. Over the course of his nearly five-decade career, he contributed to more than 130 films. Allan Dwan, Samuel Fuller, John Cromwell, Sidney Lumet, and William K. Howard was among his collaborators. He was nominated for the ‘Academy Awards 10 times for his outstanding cinematography. He received the prize twice, the first for the film ‘The Rose Tattoo’ in 1956 and the second for the film ‘Hud’ in 1963. Howe was voted one of the top ten most influential cinematographers in history by members of the ‘International Cinematographers Guild.’ He was inducted into the distinguished ‘American Society of Cinematographers,’ and was given the honor and ability to use the letters ASC after his name.

Childhood and Adolescence

Wong Tung Jim was born on August 28, 1899, in Canton, China (now Guangzhou). His father went to America in that year to work for the ‘Northern Pacific Railway.’

Howe’s family relocated to Pasco, Washington, in 1904, when he was five years old, to be with his father. His father later opened and successfully operated a general store, despite local prejudice.

Little Howe had a difficult childhood since he was subjected to prejudice and racism from his peers in the neighborhood. He would frequently bribe kids with candy from his family’s store in exchange for allowing him to play with them.

When he was twelve, he bought his first camera, a Kodak Brownie, from ‘Pasco Drug.’
He aspired to be a prizefighter as a youth, and after his father died, the teenager moved to Oregon to live with his uncle. For a while, he competed in bantamweight boxing, winning five times, losing two times, and drawing once.

Following that, he traveled to the San Francisco Bay area with the intention of enrolling in an aviation school, but due to financial constraints, he moved south to Los Angeles.

James Wong’s Career

He began working as a delivery boy for a commercial photographer in Los Angeles. He was sacked, though, after being caught producing passport images for a buddy in the firm’s lab. He worked as a busboy at the ‘Beverly Hills Hotel’ to make ends meet.

By accident, he ran upon one of his former boxing teammates who was filming a scene for actor-director Mack Sennett in a downtown street. With the assistance of this acquaintance, he was able to contact cinematographer Alvin Wyckoff and secure a cleaning position at the ‘Famous Players-Lasky Studios for $10 per week.

When he was approached to work as an extra clapper boy on the sets of Cecil B. DeMille’s silent romantic war film ‘The Little American’ (1917), he said yes. DeMille kept him on and subsequently launched his career as an assistant cameraman after he captured the director’s interest.

Howe supplemented his income by photographing Hollywood personalities for promotional purposes. When he captured a still of actress Mary Miles Minter, it launched his career as a cameraman. The photograph’s unique feature was that Howe held her immobile while she stared at a dark surface, causing her ordinarily blue eyes to appear darker than usual.

Howe was quickly sought after by other blue-eyed performers, who insisted on bringing him along on their shoots.
He became the lighting cameraman or director of photography for her next picture, ‘Drums of Fate,’ at Minter’s request (1923).

Howe, who was also known as Jimmie in the film community, worked as a director of photography on a regular basis from 1923 till the end of the silent film era. ‘The Trail of the Lonesome Pine’ (1923), ‘Mantrap’ (1926), and ‘Laugh, Clown, Laugh’ were among the films he worked on during that time (1928).

In 1928, he traveled to China and photographed some location backgrounds for a film about China that he planned to direct. The footage was utilized in the 1932 American film ‘Shanghai Express,’ directed by Josef von Sternberg, despite the fact that the film was never completed.

When he came to America, silent movies were gradually being replaced by talkies or sound pictures, and Hollywood was undergoing a tremendous technological transition.

Initially, Howe, like any other competent silent film cameraman, experienced difficulties with the new medium. Following a brief period of failure, he was engaged by director-producer Howard Hawks for the film ‘The Criminal Code’ (1931).

With his unique work in the William K. Howard directed American comedy picture ‘Transatlantic,’ which was released on August 30, 1931, he rose to popularity as an ace cameraman once more. He became one of Hollywood’s most in-demand cinematographers once more, working on a number of films.

He joined ‘MGM’ in 1933 and became a genius in his profession over his 15 years at the studio. He completed two films in 18 days and 28 days, respectively, ‘The Thin Man’ (1934) and ‘Manhattan Melodrama (1934). His weekly wage gradually increased to $500.

Following that, he worked for ‘Warner Bros.’ and was nominated for his first ‘Academy Award’ for his outstanding contribution to cinematography in the film ‘Algiers’ (1938). Following this successful partnership, Jack L. Warner, the studio’s president, signed Howe to a seven-year deal that saw him appear in about 26 of the studio’s films.

He was frequently identified as a Chinese cameraman, and he was barred from acquiring a US citizen until the ‘Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943.

He moved to China for documentary work after the ‘Second World War and the termination of his contract with ‘Warner Bros.’ Despite the fact that he was never a Communist, he was placed on the grey list after returning to the United States. He and his wife, Sanora Babb, a member of the ‘Communist Party,’ moved to Mexico for a time.

He re-established himself as one of the leading American cinematographers despite all obstacles.
His outstanding performance may be seen in films such as ‘Algiers’ (1938), ‘Abe Lincoln in Illinois’ (1940), ‘King’s Row’ (1942), ‘Air Force’ (1943), ‘The Rose Tattoo’ (1955), ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ (1958), ‘Hud’ (1963), ‘Seconds’ (1966), and ‘Funny Lady’ (1968). (1975).

Achievements and Awards

For two pictures, ‘The Rose Tattoo’ (1955) and ‘Hud,’ he received ‘The academy Awards (1963).

Personal History and Legacy

Before the Second World War, he met novelist Sanora Babb, and the two married in Paris in 1937. However, because of anti-miscegenation legislation, marriage was only legalized in the United States after more than a decade, in 1949.

After Martin Fong went to the United States, he raised him as his godson. Fong went on to work as a cameraman, director, producer, and actor.
Howe died on July 12, 1976, and was buried in the ‘Pierce Bros. Westwood Memorial Park’ in Los Angeles.

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