Chinese-American cinematographer James Wong Howe was an industrious, itinerant youth. In modern parlance, he was a con man, but so was everyone in the early, exploratory years of cinema, when the fledgling film industry was producing dozens of titles every week. During the 1910s, the silent film directors receiving acclaim — such as DW Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille — seemed to soar through shrewd business acumen, false confidence, and good luck.
Wong Howe had all those things, but he had more guts – he had to be. It was evident in the boundless, reckless renewal of his work; his reputation as a supreme perfectionist; and its success and respected status in an industry that saw virtually no place for artists of Asian descent. James Wong Howe was the personification of resistance.
His decades-long career, spanning the silent era, Hollywood’s golden age, and New Hollywood’s renaissance of the 1960s and 1970s, characterized a creative spirit that persisted despite changing fashions, industry upheavals and discriminatory practices. He revolutionized the way films communicated visually and developed new techniques that could convey feelings without the need for words or even artists — such as 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 first aerial shots in the closing moments of Joshua Logan’s Technicolor romantic comedy “Picnic” (1955).
These and other examples of Wong Howe’s photographic prowess are featured in an ongoing series devoted to his work, running through June 26 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens.
James Wong Howe was born Wong Tung Jim in 1899 in Kwantung, China. In the early twentieth century, he was taken away to Pasco, Washington by his enterprising father. There he experienced racism, learned to box and began tinkering with cameras before his father’s death in 1914 ushered in a period of digression. Unlike Charlie Chaplin’s classic character the Tramp, Wong Howe was an outsider who stumbled from misfortune to misfortune. He went to Oregon, San Francisco, and then Los Angeles, where 18-year-old Jimmie Howe eventually found a job with the concierge staff at Lasky Studios.
DeMille developed a fondness for Jimmie; he was amused by the young man’s floral shirts, the contrast between his short stature and the oversized cigars he smoked on set. Wong Howe was not passive; he seemed to view the question of his skin color as a challenge. In his spare time, he began to familiarize himself with the studio’s equipment and practice taking pictures with a still camera. He was soon promoted to assistant cameraman.
No one in those days was what we might consider today a bona fide camera expert. People learned on the job, improvised and experimented with the new technologies, so the crew members who stood out were the ones who found creative solutions to the problems that arose on set. This was Wong Howe’s strength and the source of his first major breakthrough. Impressed by Wong Howe’s silent portraits of her, actress Mary Miles Minter insisted that he shoot her next film. He had come up with a solution that could prevent her blue eyes from turning white on camera, a problem caused by the blue-sensitive orthochromatic film in use at the time. From then on, his reputation as a formidable cameraman was assured.
Wong Howe wasn’t the only Asian artist hanging out in the back of the studio. There was Japanese-born actor Sessue Hayakawa. Hollywood’s on-screen enforcement of anti-miscegenation laws limited him to playing banned lover roles or sadistic Svengali types, but his popularity among white female viewers made him an affordable presence. Then there was Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong, a go-to supporting artist as the film industry began setting up bigger, more spectacular productions in “exotic” environments. Wong Howe would even shoot her in one of her first major roles, as the native princess Tiger Lily in Herbert Brenon’s “Peter Pan.”
But renewed anti-Asian sentiment and the 1930s production code, which strangled the portrayal of interracial relationships, further diminished the industry’s willingness to collaborate with artists of Asian descent. Wong Howe initially struggled during this period, but his work — especially his penchant for dramatic, high-contrast lighting, which earned him the nickname “Low-key Howe” — spoke for itself. His split-screen shot allows Ronald Colman’s Major Rassendyll to speak directly to his doppelganger in John Cromwell’s “The Prisoner of Zenda,” (1937), and the fight scenes he filmed in Busby Berkeley’s “They Made Me a Criminal” (1939). so entrenched you can almost feel the sting of the boxing gloves.
Although he was adored by the press – what a novelty that an Asian man could be so talented? and so full of personality—and respected by his associates, Wong Howe was often scorned by the white crewmen under his command. He had to deal with laws and prejudices that relegated him to second-class citizenship throughout his life. During World War II, he wore a button that read “I’m Chinese” to avoid harassment if someone thought he was Japanese. Although he had lived in the United States for nearly four decades, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited him from acquiring citizenship; without it, he was forced to turn down exciting creative opportunities like joining John Ford’s war documentaries.
Perhaps most devastating was his marriage to the novelist Sanora Babb; the couple tied the knot in Paris in 1937, but the studios’ California anti-miscegenation and morality clause prevented them from going public until decades later. Because of his alleged association with Hollywood communists, he was “grey list” by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee; Wong Howe stayed out of politics for the most part, but it didn’t help that China had become a communist state.
Still, he continued through the precarious 1940s, collaborating with Fritz Lang on the provocative war thriller ‘Hangmen Also Die!’ †
Wong Howe’s images are sublime, his expressive play of light and shadow evokes moral conflicts out of nowhere. He reimagined New York with a somber, otherworldly flair with “Sweet Smell of Success,” Alexander Mackendrick’s 1957 drama about a villainous newspaper man, a work considered by many to be Wong Howe’s chef d’oeuvre. He oiled interior walls to give them a surreal sheen, and used long-focus lenses to make buildings look alike, emphasizing a sense of claustrophobic delirium.
There are few individuals whose work has ushered in cinema’s transition from a dime spectacle to an art form in such a comparable way. Still, Wong Howe was hungry. Since the 1920s he wanted to direct, and although he was given the opportunity in the form of commissioned documentaries and B-movies, his real ambitions were all too often denied. There was a project about rickshaw pullers in China, as well as a script he co-wrote with Babb about San Francisco’s Chinatown, but both ideas were eventually scrapped due to lack of funding. If you can only see one screening at the Museum of the Moving Image, make it Wong Howe’s only directorial feature, “Go, Man, Go!” (1954), fresh-faced Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee in a drama about the Harlem Globetrotters. It’s a bare-bones production, but the guts and spirit of something even bigger was just beneath the surface, like Wong Howe himself.
Wong Howe did not deny his Chinese roots. For a time, he ran a popular Chinese eatery frequented by Marlene Dietrich, Mickey Rooney and Tyrone Power. And in his last years he started wearing traditional Chinese clothes. In Todd Rainsberger’s 1981 study of the cameraman, it becomes clear that Wong Howe, who died in 1976, longed to create a more comprehensive portrait of America, one that felt loyal to him, if not his employers. He was one of the great American cinematographers and a two-time Oscar winner, but he wanted more because he knew he deserved it. That was his resistance.
“How It’s Done: The Cinema of James Wong Howe” runs through June 26 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens. For more information, visit movingimage.us.