×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Cinematographer James Wong Howe Put Diversity in the Picture in Early Hollywood

Few Hollywood stories can match the career highs and heartbreaking lows of James Wong Howe, whom Variety recognized in its July 15, 1976, edition as “one of the world’s foremost cinematographers.” Born in China on Aug. 28, 1899, he was 5 when his family moved to the U.S. At 18, he was hired for $10 a week to pick up scraps of nitrate film from the cutting room floor, which led to other jobs, including his debut as cinematographer on six films in 1923. Among his credits were “The Thin Man,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Picnic,” “Sweet Smell of Success,” “The Rose Tattoo” and “Hud”; he won Oscars for the last two. His final film was the 1975 “Funny Lady.”

Wong Howe married writer Sanora Babb in Paris in 1937, but because she was Caucasian, the marriage wasn’t recognized in the U.S. until 1949, when California rescinded its anti-miscegenation law. Even then, Wong Howe and Babb couldn’t go public, since mixed-race marriage violated the studios’ morals clause.

Wong Howe became fascinated watching film crews in L.A.’s Chinatown, and he applied for a job carrying equipment for the Jesse Lasky Studios in 1917. But he was too small, so they hired him for less physical work. He also starting working on the set during production and became a slate boy for Cecil B. DeMille. Meanwhile, he continued his love for still photography.

He faced constant racism in those days, but his hard work, persistence and enormous talent were enough to overcome the bigotry.

He became lighting cameraman in 1922 on “Drums of Fate,” starring Mary Miles Minter, because she liked the photos of her that he had taken.

As Variety later summed up, “His reputation grew and he quickly became one of the most prominent minority group members in Hollywood in those days.” He was billed as James Howe until 1933 when he and MGM changed his billing to James Wong Howe.

According to his biographer Todd Rainsberger, the cinematographer’s acclaim in the mid-1930s was partly due to his being a “novelty of an Oriental in the film industry”; Rainsberger adds that most American news articles about him “dealt with his race and personality.”

As cinematographer, he worked with a great roster of directors, including Martin Ritt, Alexander Mackendrick, John Frankenheimer, Michael Curtiz, W.S. Van Dyke, Sidney Lumet and Daniel Mann.

While he was well known in Hollywood circles, life in America was not easy for anyone of Asian heritage during WWII. To clarify that he wasn’t Japanese, Wong Howe wore a button saying, “I am Chinese.”

Though he was never blacklisted, Wong Howe came under the scrutiny of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which could find no evidence against him. Still, he was “deemed suspicious”  because of his willingness to work with those who were labeled Communists. Wong Howe was put on the “gray list,” meaning the Committee preferred that he wouldn’t be hired.

The list of stars in his 100-plus films as DP included Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Rita Hayworth, Bela Lugosi, Ronald Reagan, Cary Grant, Myrna Loy, Sidney Poitier, Paul Newman, Rock Hudson, Sean Connery, Kim Novak, William Holden, Barbara Stanwyck and Barbra Streisand.

He directed just a few films, including “Go Man Go,” a 1954 story about the creation of the Harlem Globetrotters starring a young Sidney Poitier.

He died July 12 at his West Hollywood home after a long bout with cancer. In its July 15 obituary, Variety said he was “one of the world’s foremost cinematographers, and usually considered without peer in the black-and-white field.” More than 40 years later, that still holds true.

More Vintage

  • Angela Lansbury

    Angela Lansbury's Remarkable Career Spans 75 Years Across Films, TV and the Stage

    An old bromide says powerful women are always threatening. Disproving that: Angela Lansbury, who in a 75-year career has earned only admiration and affection. During the 1984-96 run of “Murder, She Wrote,” she quietly and peacefully increased her control over the series, which CBS and Universal TV were happy to give her; Variety pointed out [...]

  • Tyler Perry

    Tyler Perry on Building His Production Empire and How 'Ownership Is Non-Negotiable'

    Long before Tyler Perry entered Hollywood, he built an audience through plays that he wrote, produced and often starred in. His strategy was spurred by his pursuit of ownership, and he says his prayers led him to create and showcase stories about religion, family and their triumphs over worldly evils. Since then, he has built [...]

  • Bruce Springsteen

    The Boss at 70: A Look Back at Bruce Springsteen's Early Years

    In a March 6, 1973, review of Blood, Sweat & Tears at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, Variety briefly praised the opening act: Bruce Springsteen was “a young man with a hot guitar from Asbury Park, N.J.” If you substitute the word “ageless” for “young” — the Boss turned 70 on Sept. 23 — the description [...]

  • Bullitt Rexford Metz Cinematographer

    Second-Unit DP Rexford Metz Took to the Sky and Water for Memorable Shots

    King of the second-unit cinematographers, Rexford Metz is second to none when it comes to getting shots on the ground, in water or high in the sky.  He operated the camera during the famed 10-minute chase sequence in “Bullitt” on the streets of San Francisco in 1968, and it was his coverage of muscle cars [...]

  • James Wong Howe Asian Cinematographer

    Cinematographer James Wong Howe Put Diversity in the Picture in Early Hollywood

    Few Hollywood stories can match the career highs and heartbreaking lows of James Wong Howe, whom Variety recognized in its July 15, 1976, edition as “one of the world’s foremost cinematographers.” Born in China on Aug. 28, 1899, he was 5 when his family moved to the U.S. At 18, he was hired for $10 [...]

  • Crystal Gayle First Time in Variety

    Crystal Gayle on Building Her Music Career After Leaving Sister Loretta Lynn's Label

    With her self-titled debut album for United Artists Records in Nashville nearly 45 years ago, singer Crystal Gayle immediately established a winning sound that would take the 24-year-old younger sister of country music legend Loretta Lynn repeatedly to the top of the music charts. Hit records such as “Wrong Road Again,” “I’ll Get Over You,” [...]

  • Stanley Nelson

    'Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool' Filmmaker Stanley Nelson on What He Loves About Documentaries

    Stanley Nelson’s documentary “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool” is playing in U.S. theaters after screening at Sundance. But for the past 30 years Nelson’s films, such as the features “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” and “Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities,” have detailed lesser-known stories of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content