Ethnobotany James Wong Howe

James Wong Howe: Hollywood’s Ace Cinematographer

This post was written by Audrey Amidon. Audrey is a Preservation Specialist in the Motion Picture Preservation Lab and writes for The unwritten record.

James Wong Howe was one of America’s greatest cinematographers, with a career stretching from the golden age of silent cinema to the early 1970s. Nominated for ten Academy Awards, Howe won the golden statue twice, for 1955’s The Rose Tattoo, and 1963’s Hud. Howe is commonly recognized as one of the first cameramen to use deep-focus photography and was known for his low-key lighting setups that resulted in a deep contrast between light and shadows. Given his reputation as one of the greats, one might not realize how the government and the film industry kept him just outside of acceptance for more than half his life. A survey of industry trade publications and government records held at the National Archives shows that because of his Chinese ancestry, James Wong Howe was marked as different and treated as an other, not really American. Despite it all, Howe made his mark, and used his position to create new opportunities to tell the stories of Asian-Americans and to see Asian faces on screen.

James Wong Howe, "Chinese Cameraman"

Born Wong Tung Jim in 1899, James Wong Howe came to the United States with his family at age five, and grew up in Pasco, Washington. Howe made his way to Hollywood in 1916, at the beginning of the industry’s transition from New York to California and first worked as a camera assistant on Cecil B. DeMille’s Male and Female (1919). DeMille needed extra hands to film all angles of a now-legendary scene with Gloria Swanson and a lion; Howe was enlisted to hold a camera slate.[1]

Famously, Howe's move to cameraman came when he photographed actress Mary Miles Minter and she was pleased to see that her light blue eyes, which would normally appear white on the orthochromatic film in use at the time, registered as darker in the portrait. Minter requested that Howe be her cameraman and he devised a 4 foot by 5 foot black velvet screen to place around the camera lens so that the black would reflect off her eyes and darken their appearance on the film.

Soon, Howe's name began appearing regularly in the trade papers, attached to one big production after another. In 1923, Paramount’s promotional publication featured a photograph of the cameraman with director Herbert Brenon, identifying Howe as the “only Chinese cameraman,” a label that would stick and mark him as other. He wasn't just one of the best cameramen, he was always the "Chinese cameraman," and one can imagine that the trade papers weren’t alone in setting him apart.[2]

In the Chinese Exclusion Act case files, we see evidence of Howe being officially otherized as the result of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1884. The original act restricted the immigration of Chinese laborers, and was later amended to require all individuals of Chinese ancestry to apply upon leaving and re-entering the United States, whether they were born here or not. In June 1924, James Wong Howe applied to leave the United States to go to Canada to shoot The Alaskan for director Herbert Brenon. The case files are a wealth of genealogical information, including interviews with family members and letters from employers. In Howe’s interview, we see that he believed he had been born in Pasco but learned from the interviewer that his mother had said that he was born in China. We also find a letter from Herbert Brenon, who states that Howe had worked for Famous-Players Lasky (known today as Paramount Pictures) since 1918 and had been chief cameraman since the start of 1923.

An article in the January 4, 1928 edition of Variety lists James Wong Howe with five other cameramen who commanded up to $ 1000 a week in salary (almost $ 15,000 in today’s dollars), and yet describes him as "the only Oriental who ever handled a production camera." (Reducing Howe in this way isn't just problematic, it also simply wasn't true - many Asian countries had independent film industries that started in the earliest days of cinema and were thriving by the 1920s.) Despite being part of a small group of the highest-paid cameramen, a list of members of the American Society of Cinematographers in the same article does not include Howe.[3]

An American Cinematographer in China

James Wong Howe soon set his sights on a bigger project. A small notice in one corner of the January 5, 1929 edition of Exhibitors Herald-World indicates that Howe planned to return to China and open a studio in Shanghai.[4] The April 1929 issue of American cinematographer adds that Howe would also be traveling to Asia as a representative of the early additive color system Vitacolor.[5] Neither of these ventures appears to have worked out, as Howe was back stateside by January 1930, with an announcement in Variety that he would be entering a business partnership with Tom White, a former Paramount executive. Until that time, all of Howe's work had been on silent films. The two would produce Japanese language sound films, starring Japanese-Americans from the theater scene around San Francisco. The films would tour with the actors and producers to places such as Japan and Hawaii, where Japanese was spoken.[6]

While it may have been a brilliant idea, the one feature the company produced, Tragedy of Life, apparently was not successful enough to keep the lights on and no more films were made.[7]

Howe returned to Hollywood and after a brief stint in B pictures, soon was back to working on major studio productions. Occasionally writing articles on lighting or other areas of expertise, by the 1940s, Howe’s descriptors in trade publications changed from “Chinese cameraman” to “ace,” “noted,” “top,” and “famed.”

Howe appears in government records again during World War II, in publicity pieces from the Office of War Information. The articles contain stories of a multitude of hyphenated Americans, featuring Chinese-, Spanish-, and Portuguese-Americans prominently, along with stories of American society and institutions. In one (NAID 148959437), "Hollywood’s Noted Chinese Cameraman" is said to be planning to film the war in his homeland. In another, (NAID 148961316), Howe ruminates on the possibility that audiences had come to associate the shaky footage shot by combat cameramen with authenticity and that, after the war, the Hollywood camera would be similarly unchained. Howe was somewhat ahead of his time and one of the first to try the technique for anything other than a trick shot, in the 1947 boxing film Body and Soul.[8]

After the war, James Wong Howe again went to China, this time to film an adaptation of the Chinese novel Rickshaw boy. An article in the January 1949 issue of American cinematographer mentions that Howe planned to return the following year with a synchronous magnetic sound recorder, but filming never resumed. The political situation in China made the production too risky, and the studio canceled it.[9]

James Wong Howe, Director

In the mid-1950s, Howe again took a brief hiatus from Hollywood, and pursued independent projects. He directed a low-budget biopic about the Harlem Globetrotters starring Sidney Poitier, and made a short 16mm Kodachrome film about the Chinese-American watercolorist Dong Kingman. A copy of the film, Dong Kingman (Local Identifier: 306.6497) is in our holdings as it was acquired by the United States Information Agency for exhibition overseas.[10]

Later in his life, Howe became a mentor to a student from Hong Kong, filmmaker Peter Yung. Yung recounted that Howe had always wanted to make a documentary about the first Chinatown in the United States, and guided Yung through the process, introducing him to elders in the community and arranging for necessary equipment. The resulting film was Yung’s first documentary, One day in Locke (1971). Later, Howe encouraged Yung to return to Hong Kong, saying "... it'll be better for you to return to China– you can only unleash what is uniquely yours when you return to where you belong."[11]

After Howe's death, Yung took the original footage from Rickshaw boy and made a documentary about rickshaw pullers, which was broadcast on British television in 1981.

Final thoughts

While this piece traces how James Wong Howe’s life and identity played out via trade publications and his interactions with the United States government, it does not tell the story of his personal life, where he encountered daily racism and additional legal barriers. In a 2001 Los Angeles Times article,[12] Howe's widow, the novelist Sanora Babb, recounted how they spent years living separately because they could not be legally married in their home state of California. Trade publications may have no longer referred to Howe as a “Chinese cameraman,” but in the Times article, Haskell Wexler, Howe’s camera operator on the 1955 film Picnic, stated that Howe didn’t like being called “the Chinaman” on set. Wexler’s comment makes clear that while the trades had moved on in their descriptions of Howe, he was still encountering racism while trying to live and work. The constant work of dealing with the attitudes and prejudices of the time may have been why Howe tried so many times to strike out on his own, each time to tell stories that Hollywood would not. With the recent increase in opportunities for Asian American filmmakers, one wonders what stories Howe left untold, and what stories he would tell if he were here today.


Much of the research in this post relied heavily on Lantern: The Media History Digital Library, a vast online resource of motion picture trade publications and fan magazines. If you are interested in a topic in film history, Lantern is a great place to start your research.

Thanks to Chris Magee, a former National Archives employee who wrote about the Chinese Exclusion Act case files on NARA’s Internal Collaboration Network, and thanks to Daniel Dancis who sent it to me and asked if I could turn it into a blog post.


Below are links and citations for NARA records that are mentioned in the article:

Record Group 85: Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Chinese Exclusion Act Case Files. Wong Tung Jim (NAID 298953).

Record Group 208: Records of the Office of War Information. Feature Stories, 1942-1945. S-1273 Hollywood’s Noted Chinese Camera Man to Film War in Homeland (NAID 148959437).

Record Group 208: Records of the Office of War Information. Feature Stories, 1942-1945. S-6716 The Mobile Motion Picture Camera and James Wong Howe (NAID 148961316).

Record Group 306: Records of the U.S. Information Agency. Moving Images Relating to U.S. Domestic and International Activities, 1982-1999. Dong Kingman - 1955 (NAID 52701, Local ID 306.6497).


Footnotes:

[1] Biographical anecdotes are from a recording of Howe speaking at the 1974 San Francisco Film Festival, which was digitized and made available online by the Pacifica Radio Archives: https://archive.org/details/pra-AZ1253

[2] "Director and Cameraman." Paramount pep, April 1923, pg 15. See also: “Sorrel Sailors.” Variety, July 6, 1927, pg 14.

[3] "300 Important Cameramen Becoming Recognized as Photographic Marvels." Variety, January 4, 1928, pg 6, continued on pg 13.

[4] "Returns to Native China to Make Films." Exhibitors Herald-World, January 5, 1929, pg 28.

[5] "Howe Takes Vitacolor to Orient." American cinematographer, April 1929, pg 11.

[6] "Howe's Jap Talkers: Cameraman Forms Own Company, Tom White as Partner." Variety, January 15, 1930, pg 7. For more details on the plan, see "First Japanese Road Film By American." Variety, pg 7, continued on pg 59.

[7] For more context on early Japanese-American films, see THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Cinematic 20th century Nikkei by Greg Robinson, Ph.D.

[8] An examination of the scene and his technique are in the blog post “Wrap Shot: Body and Soul, ”On the website of the American cinematographer magazine.

[9] "A Synchronous Magnetic Recorder." American cinematographer, January 1949, pg 14.

[10] While we are currently unable to access the building to make this film available, it can be viewed at archive.org: https://archive.org/details/dong_kingman_1954

[11] An English translation of Peter Yung's comments about his relationship with James Wong Howe can be found here: https://www.lcsd.gov.hk/CE/CulturalService/HKFA/documents/2005525/2007343/c-74-more-translation .pdf

[12] “When a Poet Picked Up the Camera; A UCLA retrospective looks at the classic work of cinematographer James Wong Howe, who fought racism in his life and on the set. " King, Susan. Los Angeles Times. July 8, 2001, CAL. 20.

Tagged Audrey Amidon, cinematography, film, James Wong Howe, RG 208, RG 306, RG 85