The story of James Wong Howe: from giving chewing gum to canaries to winning Oscars
‘The poet of the camera’, ‘an artist in film’, ‘a painter with light’: these are some of the names given to James ‘Jimmy’ Wong Howe. A pioneer, an innovator, a creator, James Wong Howe is one of the world’s greatest ever cinematographers. He worked on over 120 films between 1922 and 1974, directed two features, and won two Oscars. As well as making films, he worked on documentaries, TV, and commercials. He was even offered the job of working on the Godfather films shortly before his death.
But Wong Howe wasn’t a likely figure, pitted for greatness from birth. A first-generation Chinese American, Wong Howe fought prejudice all his life.
Learning the ropes
James Wong Howe was born Wong Tung Jim in Guangzhou, China on August 28, 1899. Howe’s father brought his young family to the US – what he described as the ‘mountain of gold’ – when Howe was 5 years old.
His first home was Pasco, Washington, where his father opened a general store and became the first Chinese merchant in the town. As a child, Howe faced vicious racism. His first schoolteacher quit as she didn't want to teach a person of Chinese descent. His second teacher changed his name to be more anglicised, which is how he became ‘James Wong Howe’. As a child, Howe was bullied by his classmates, and used to take sweets from his father’s shop to give to the other children and try to make them like him.
He was learning how to hold his own in a world that was not built for him, that tried to hold him down at every opportunity – and learnt to persevere and prosper. This was a lesson that he would carry throughout the rest of his career.
Lights, camera, action
Wong Howe left Pasco to become a boxer, but later moved to LA – home to the glitz and glamor of the movies – and became a bellboy in a Beverly Hills hotel.
Then, at 17, James Wong Howe got into the film industry from the bottom. He was employed at the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation as a cleaner, but it was from here that he would forge connections with some of the greatest movie makers of his generation. From sweeping up film ends in the camera room, he eventually became an assistant cameraman – the first step in a career that would last for more than 50 years.
From chewing gum-eating canaries to roller skating cameramen
Wong Howe pioneered the wide-angle lens, low key lighting (which earned him the nickname "Low Key Howe"), and deep focus. He was also one of the first cameramen to ever use a hand-held camera. But he also had some unusual approaches to the new technology of film.
It was Wong Howe’s creative – and sometimes unusual – thinking that made him famous. He got his accidental big break by using a visual trick to make the actress Mary Miles Minter’s light blue eyes show up dark on film. “The word went around at cocktail parties that Mary Miles Minter had imported herself an Oriental cameraman, who hid behind a velvet curtain and magically made her eyes turn dark,” Wong Howe said. “After that, I was never out of work."
While shooting a film for Cecile B. DeMille, Howe was tasked with capturing a close up of a singing canary. But they couldn't get the canary to sing. They tried all kinds of methods, like the noise of a sewing machine and a violinist, until someone realized that the bird was female and that they don’t sing at all. But with some characteristic ingenuity, Howe grabbed some chewing gum and put it in the canary's mouth. The bird’s chewing made it look like it was singing – problem solved.
Other ingenious techniques that Howe used included: shooting a boxing scene by rollerskating around the action; using the reflection of tin cans to light a scene up a hill without electric lights; shooting scenes while being pushed around in a wheelchair; and weighing down birds to make them land where he needed them to.
Against all odds
James Wong Howe became one of the best cinematographers in history – he was even the most well paid cameraman in Hollywood for a time. But he had to fight prejudice all his life to maintain his position. Like the days of bribing schoolchildren with sweets to make them like him, Howe faced prejudice both on and off the film set.
James Wong Howe married Senora Babb in 1937 in Paris, but their marriage wasn't legally recognised until 1957 as they were an interracial couple. During World War Two, Howe had to wear a badge that said ‘I am Chinese’ as everyone thought he was Japanese. His friend James Cagney wore one too out of solidarity.
Fighting this uphill battle – even being investigated by the Un-American Activities Committee under McCarthy – makes Wong Howe’s achievements even more impressive.
A lifetime on film
When Wong Howe began his career films were silent and in black and white. By the time he made his last film, every aspect of movie-making was different. Howe saw all of these changes, not only keeping up with the times, but also constantly innovating and pushing the form forwards.
Film making was completely different by his death in 1976, in part thanks to James Wong Howe himself.