Google Doodle has once again reminded us of a great personality whom the world seems to have completely forgotten.
There is no denying the fact that human memory is short, very short indeed and we tend to forget about the people as soon as they leave the world, in many cases with their retirement from work.
This was true about James Wong Howe too whose birthday falls on August 28. He would have celebrated his 118th today had he been alive. Most of us wouldn’t have realized that it was his birthday, or its significance had the Google doodle not appeared on the search engine’s home page, reminding us about the occasion and its importance.
James Wong Howe, who was born on August 28, 1899 was one of the top cinematographer of his time. A Chinese American, Howe worked on more than 130 films. He was a master at the use of shadow and was one of the first to use deep-focus cinematography, in which both foreground and distant planes remain in focus. Many people claim that no one either before him or after his death mastered the art as much as he did.
The cinematographer who died in the year 1976 was one of the most sought after artist in thirties and forties. Due to his exceptional work he was nominated for 10 Academy Awards for cinematography, winning twice for The Rose Tattoo (1955) and Hud (1963). Howe was judged to be one of the 10 most-influential cinematographers in a survey of the members of the International Cinematographers Guild in the United States.
Despite his exceptional work and the laurel that he won, he still faced racial discrimination throughout his career. He was even “gray-listed” in Hollywood because of his frequent work with suspected communists.
Google, while paying tribute to the legend said, “Despite the barriers he faced, Howe retired with two Oscar awards as one of the most celebrated cinematographers of his time. Happy Birthday, James Wong Howe”.
He was born in the year 1899, Taishan, Canton Province, China. His birth name was Wong Tung Jim. His father Wong Howe moved to America that year to work on the Northern Pacific Railway and in 1904 sent for his family. The Howes settled in Pasco, Washington, where they owned a general store. Howe developed early interest in taking pictures and subsequently to movies due to the presence of a Brownie camera. He was still very young when his father passed away. He contemplated on taking up professional boxing to make a living. After compiling a record of 5 wins, 2 losses and a draw, Howe moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in hopes of attending aviation school but ran out of money and went south to Los Angeles.
It was a chance encounter that with cinematographer Alvin Wyckoff that changed his life. He landed an apprentice job at film lab at Famous Players-Lasky Studios. Soon thereafter he was called to the set of The Little American to act as an extra clapper boy, which brought him into contact with silent film director Cecil B. DeMille. DeMille kept Howe on and launched his career as a camera assistant. To earn additional money, Howe took publicity stills for Hollywood stars.
He also mastered in something else. He became known for using gimmicks that are a requirement in every film, even though he usually did it in black and white.
In an interview he said, “As you grow in an art or craft, you find simpler approaches…When a painter starts out, he draws in all the lines. But after many years, he begins to leave out lines, to throw them away, to suggest them without drawing them. You can do that, too, in photography, but you have to learn well.”
Howe married Sanora Babb in Paris in the year 1937. Babb was a novelist born in Red Rock, Oklahoma and the author of An Owl on Every Post and Whose Names Are Unknown. Their marriage was recognized only in 1948. The couple was married until his death in 1976. Babb never remarried and died in 2005 at age 98. In an interview with Los Angeles Times Babb said, “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!”
“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,” Babb recalled in 2001. “[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.” Howe raised his godson, producer and director Martin Fong, after Fong arrived in the United States.