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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Seminara

James Wong Howe A.S.C.: August 28, 1899 – July 12, 1976.

Updated: May 13, 2022

His career began in the silent era and ended in 1976 with the release of Funny Lady (1975). He shot over 130 features and countless shorts. His first of many breakthroughs was the negative fill. Howe created while he was gaffing a silent film starring Mary Miles Minter, who was implicated in one of Hollywood's earliest scandals, the murder of William Desmond Taylor, but that's a story for another day.

The concept was to bring down the reflective light on her face to remove any reflection in her eyes to make them darker and more mysterious. She was so pleased with the effect that Minter personally requested that he become the Director of Photography of her next feature, Drums of Fate (1923).

Like many of his films, Drums of Fate has been lost to time, neglect, and nitrate film stock. But from the 100+ that can still see, it is easy to understand why he earned two Academy Awards out of ten nominations. My humble estimation of his work, his winners 1955's the Rose Tattoo and 1963's Hud, are not necessarily his best.

He is present on what I call the Music Video cheat-sheet, with the John Frankenheimer, Rock Hudson feature Seconds (1966). If you haven't seen it, I recommend it highly, along with Jean Cocteau's Orpheus (1950), shot by cinematographer Nicolas Hayer. Once you see these two, you'll easily spot how many times music videos ripped them off from the 1980s to 1990s and beyond. I shamelessly did.

The reason I chose Howe this morning was because of the rise in anti-Asian violence in America. Human beings, by nature, live in the moment. We forget our past and fail to learn from it. Despite his success, he was discriminated against and was not allowed to become a citizen until the United States repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943. It was signed by President Chester A. Arthur in 1882, prohibiting all immigration of Chinese laborers. It built on the Page Act of 1875, which banned Chinese women from immigrating to the United States. The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first and remained the only law to prevent a specific ethnic or national group from immigrating to the United States.

Not only that, in 1937, he traveled to Paris to marry his fiancé, Sonora Babb, because they could not do so in the United States. California did not recognize their union until 1948 when the state finally abolished it's anti-miscegenation laws. Until that point, the studio contract's morals clause prevented them from acknowledging their relationship until the law was overturned.

That was not the end of the story. Because of that marriage, Sonora was blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee for communist ties that she supposedly made while traveling to Paris to get married. Howe himself was grey-listed and put on a communist watch list. During this period, Sonora Babb left her husband behind in Hollywood and lived in Mexico City until it was safe to return home. She told an interviewer in 1978 that she did it to protect his career.

They were married until 1976 when he died while shooting, the Barbra Streisand film, Funny Lady. Ernest Lazlo, who was no slouch behind the camera and was the ASC president, stepped in to complete the film.

Of his lasting legacy, he is actually the pioneer of deep-focus cinematographer, having perfected the technique ten years before Greg Toland did it on Citizen Kane. He was the designer of the first version of the crab dolly, the first user of low-key light in cinema, thus creating the "look" most associated with film Noir. On the film, the Molly Maguires, he shot one scene lit solely by candlelight. He mentored many younger cinematographers, from John Alonso to Haskell Wexler.

Here he is shooting with a big Mitchell BNCR with a 1000' load. The Mickey Mouse ears are hidden inside the Mitchell blimp to hide the characteristic motorboat sound. The camera is mounted on a full-sized geared head (imagine shooting with a DSLR with that baby) supported on an early version of a crab dolly. I wish I knew what feature this was. Alas, that too was lost to time.

And now for an extra bite of story. James Wong Howe was an old man of 67 when he shot Seconds with John Frankenheimer in the director's chair. Today that's not old. It's the back end of middle age. Howe would meet expectations by delivering his regular, high-quality cinematography. No surprise there.

Now see the movie. Maybe it was a lifetime behind the camera and being thwarted by noncreative directors that made it happen. Maybe it was Frankenheimer inspiring and trusting him to shoot the film he saw in his head. I don't know. When I asked John Frankenheimer about working with Howe, he just laughed and told me that he was working for Howe. That Howe would make suggestions, and being relatively young at 36, working with a master of the art form, he capitulated to every one of his suggestions.

If you haven't seen it, let me sum it up. Middle-aged John Randolph is feeling like his life is going nowhere. His only kid moved to LA, got hitched, had a baby. He lives in Scarsdale, one of the tonier bedroom communities of New York City. He makes a good living and has been married so long he is bored out of his skull. One day he gets a call from a dead friend, Charlie, who, after proving himself very much alive, invites Randolf to be reborn!

Charlie was played by Mr. Robinson himself, Murray Hamilton. Anyway. John Randolf gets a chunk of cash together and signs on. He dies and is reborn not as Jesus but as Rock Hudson. This film was Rock's favorite by far of all his movies and one of two posters he had in his home that I saw. (Too long a story for here, but the other was Giant (1956.) At first, it's cool be a great big hunka, hunka, man. But he misses his kid, and he really misses his wife, and sure hot chicks and sports cars are great, but they are only transitory.

It's a classic buyer's regret story. Perfect role for Rock because it was probably the closest acting job to his closeted life. Regrets I've had few, but in the end, getting to be Rock Hudson is too big so they made a movie about it.

And now back to James Wong Howe. As previously I mentioned that I used to direct music videos. Cocteau's Orpheus and Bob Rafelson's Head (1968) are particularly inspiring cinematically. But nothing comes close to James Wong Howe's work on Seconds. He doesn't just throw in the kitchen sink, but all the pipes, the toilet bowls, the neighbor's cat, and anything else that's handy. He creates every nutty gimmick that will ever be used after that and displays it beautifully. Highest rating! Not only that, Tom Cruise was five and wanted to be a garbage-man, therefore, is not in the film.

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