When a Poet Picked Up the Camera

Susan King is a Times staff writer

Throughout his 50-plus year career in Hollywood, famed cinematographer James Wong Howe was always willing to try new things--whether it be new cameras, lenses or lighting--to create magic.

How far would he go? To give moviegoers a gritty, you-are-there realism to the boxing sequences in the 1947 John Garfield pugilist classic “Body and Soul,” Howe donned a pair of roller skates and a hand-held camera, and entered the ring to capture the action.

The UCLA Film and Television Archive will pay tribute to the two-time Oscar winner with a 17-film celebration of Howe’s artistry with the motion picture camera. The monthlong event kicks off Wednesday with “Body and Soul” and the 1966 John Frankenheimer thriller, “Seconds,” which was Howe’s last film in black-and-white and features his inventive use of the wide-angle lens. Frankenheimer will introduce the film.


Also screening is the fanciful 1924 silent “Peter Pan”; 1955’s “Picnic,” his second feature in color; his last film, 1975’s “Funny Lady”; 1955’s “The Rose Tattoo,” for which he won his first Oscar; 1963’s “Hud,” for which he won his second Oscar; and 1957’s “Sweet Smell of Success.”

UCLA is an appropriate place to honor Howe because he taught cinematography there in the mid-to late ‘60s. Among his students was Dean Cundey, cinematographer of such films as “Apollo 13” and “What Women Want.”

The diminutive Howe (he was 5-foot-2) was born Wong Tung Jim in Guangdong, China, on Aug. 28, 1899. He immigrated with his father and stepmother to Pasco, Wash., when he was a youngster. There he experienced the ugliness and cruelty of racism, something he endured nearly his entire life. Children would refer to him as “Chinkie.” His first teacher quit, refusing to teach a “Chinaman.” His second teacher ended up anglicizing his name.

Drifting to Los Angeles, Howe began his 57-year film career in 1917 as a janitor in the camera room at Lasky Studios. When the cinematographer needed another assistant for a scene on the 1919 Cecil B. DeMille hit “Male and Female,” Howe was promoted to fourth assistant cameraman.

Howe received another big boost in his career in the early ‘20s from popular actress Mary Miles Minter, who was thrilled when he was able to make her eyes “go dark.” The blue-sensitive film of the period gave Minter’s pale blue eyes a white, even glazed appearance on film. During the silent era, Howe developed a style of soft focus and diffused lighting that the stars of the day preferred.

Beginning in the ‘30s and continuing throughout his career, he opted for a more realistic approach, becoming the master of low-key lighting, unusual camera moves and deep-focus cinematography. In fact, he earned the nickname “Low-Key Howe” for his low-contrast lighting of interiors.


Howe shot 15 pictures in three years at MGM in the mid-’30s, then went to England later in the decade where he made such films as “Fire Over England.” He shot 26 pictures at Warner Bros. between 1938 and 1947, and was loaned out to shoot four pictures at other studios. After the ‘40s, he freelanced at various studios.

Ever the perfectionist, Howe, who died in 1976, was known for being very strict, difficult and critical with his crew. If a crew member tried to slack off during production, he would incur Howe’s wrath. Tensions were so bad on the Frankenheimer film “The Horsemen” that the director fired him on the first day of production in Spain.

Not only did Howe change the landscape of cinematography, he influenced and changed the lives of numerous people. Recently, his widow, writer Sanora Babb, Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “Bound for Glory”) and director John Frankenheimer offered their recollections of Howe.

On Racism and Politics

Sanora Babb: We couldn’t get married for a long time. There was a miscegenation law. We would live in separate apartments. It was before the war. After the war, they repealed the law, and he said now we can get married. I said, we have waited this long, we’ll wait until it’s convenient!

We couldn’t go in a restaurant together. The only restaurant we could go inside aside from Chinatown was Chasen’s. Even once in Chinatown at a very nice restaurant [we had problems]. At the end of a picture, somebody would have a big dinner party, so Jimmy gave the dinner party that night. It was after “The Rose Tattoo” and it was for Anna Magani. [The guests] were at the table. When we sat down, two men across the dance floor sitting in the booth came over and got a hold of our chairs and dumped us both on the floor. Jimmy was very short, but he remembered his high school boxing and got up and hit the man on the chin and knocked him out.

I remember he was sliding across the dance floor. The other one got a chair and was going to hit Jimmy. I had no thought of what I was doing. I jumped on the man’s back and fell forward on the chair. After I saved Jimmy, he said, “Honey, you stay out of this, I’ll take care of myself.” When that was over, Anna Magnani stood up and held up her drink and said real loud, “To the champ.”


Haskell Wexler: He hated racism and on “Picnic” he didn’t like being called “the Chinaman.” [Wexler was Howe’s camera operator on the film]. He expected excellence from everybody and he was a taskmaster, but he was particularly unforgiving to people we call today racist. But at that time, that kind of conversation toward Chinese or blacks or Italians or Jews was very common, particularly among film crews who were basically rednecks. His social consciousness went far beyond the idea of race. He was active in what would be called today left-wing causes.

You’ll notice that most of the people he worked with were what we used to call progressives. People talk about the blacklist, but there was an atmosphere of suspicions and hostility against people who were socially aware.

Babb: He was apolitical....I told him he should have married his camera. I was in [trouble with the blacklist]. I was involved when the guilds were being formed [in Hollywood]. That was a very active time. Of course, we were accused of overthrowing the government. I went to Mexico for two years [so he could keep working]. Jimmy was crazy for his work.


John Frankenheimer: I hired him specifically because I thought he was a great cameraman, and I still do. There is no doubt about the fact he is the best cameraman I ever worked with.

With me, he was wonderful. He was remarkably collaborative. I learned stuff from him. He reinforced what I already knew--you could never compromise. He would never compromise anything. We did [“Seconds”] together shoulder to shoulder. He had this Turkish bath he used to go to in Hollywood every Saturday and we would steam for about four hours. I would look like a grape when I came out of it. I wouldn’t do that for anybody else, but I would do it for him.

I just had tremendous respect for him. He understood the movie so well. Everything about the lighting was planned. When he used the hand-held camera, it was planned. His use of that wide-angle lens [in the movie] was his idea.


Wexler: In [director] Josh Logan’s book about “Picnic,” he has a section about me because I did the last shot of the film--the helicopter shot. In those days, the only helicopters were military helicopters. There were no things like camera mounts.

So I sat on a piece of wood that was attached to the helicopter [and I shot the scene]. I remember sitting next to Jimmy Howe when they saw the dailies. My heart was pounding. After he saw it, he said, “Very good, very good,” just like that. Until this day, when I do a good shot, I hear Jimmy Howe saying, “Very good, very good.”

On the Set

Frankenheimer: He was impossible with crews, which is why we had to fire him off “The Horsemen.” The Spanish crew revolted. It was impossible for him to relate to them. We had a revolution the first day of shooting. I didn’t want to work without him, but after that incident on “The Horsemen” I couldn’t do it. He was terrible to the crew on “Seconds” too, but he was great with me.

Wexler: He was a sweet guy, but he was a boxer before he was a cameraman. He was always somewhat in that fight stance. Once you got past that and he knew that you were a friend and you were OK, he’d relax. He used to whittle on the set. In my experience he was a very introspective person.

Art Versus Craft

Babb: Once or twice, people would interview him and say you are a real artist. You are a poet of the camera, and he was just kind of embarrassed by it. But secretly he knew he was a lot more than a technician. I tried to tell him it wasn’t a disgrace to be an artist. I think he was just embarrassed!


Howe Screenings

Here’s the schedule for “The Cinematography of James Wong Howe”:

July 11: “Seconds,” introduced by John Frankenheimer; “Body and Soul.”

July 12: “Transatlantic” and “The Power and the Glory.”

July 15: “Peter Pan,” with live musical accompaniment by Robert Israel.

July 25: “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” introduced by director Robert Ellis Miller, and “Picnic.”


July 27: “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Funny Lady.”

July 28: “The Rose Tattoo” and “Sweet Smell of Success.”

July 29: “Kings Row” and “The Hard Way.”

Aug. 1: “Passage to Marseilles” and “Algiers.”

Aug. 3: “Hud” and “This Property Is Condemned.”


Screenings take place at the James Bridges Theater, Melnitz Hall, UCLA, Westwood. Times vary. Admission is $7; $5 for students, seniors and UCLA Alumni Assn. members with ID. For more information, call (310) 206-FILM or go to