Today’s Google Doodle celebrates the life of cinematographer James Wong Howe, a Hollywood legend who would have turned 118 years old on August 28. Although you may not know his name or his incredible life story, chances are you’ve seen the films he’s shot. The two-time Oscar-winner filmed over 130 movies from 1923 to 1975. His story is a true American immigrant success story.
Although Howe’s films were popular throughout the country, he faced racial discrimination throughout his career. He was even “gray-listed” in Hollywood because of his frequent work with suspected communists. Howe died in 1976 at age 76 in Hollywood.
“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,” Google notes.
Here’s what you need to know about James Wong Howe.
1. Before Howe Found a Job in Hollywood, He Considered Becoming a Boxer
Howe was born Wong Tung Jim in Taishan, Canton Province in China on August 28, 1899. First his father moved to the U.S. to work on the Northern Pacific Railroad and sent for his family in 1904. At first, the family lived in Pasco, Washington and ran a general store. As a teen, he moved to Oregon to live with an uncle and he considered a boxing career. In fact, Howe has a record page on BoxRec.com. He won five fights, one by knockout, between March 1915 and April 1916. All of his fights were in Portland, Oregon.
According to Howe’s New York Times obituary, Howe was the only Chinese boy in his school classes, so her was often bullied. He was often involved in fistfights, and decided to turn that into a brief boxing career. He earned between $10 and $100 per bout to help his family after his father died in 1914.
After his boxing career ended, Howe moved further south on the West Coast. He found himself in San Francisco, working as a delivery boy for a photographer. A few months later, his boxing winnings finally dried up and he found himself in Los Angeles.
Penniless, he searched for any job he could get with a movie studio. He wanted to be a cameraman, but Jesse Lasky wouldn’t hire him for that job because of his short statue. However, he became a slate boy for Cecil B. DeMille. In 1917, DeMille made him an assistant photographer. During his spare time, he worked on cameras himself.
In 1922, Howe got his big break when DeMille saw Howe’s brilliant photographs of actress Mary Miles Minter. That launched his career and he shot six movies in 1923 alone. It also established his talent for making actresses look gorgeous.
2. He Won Oscars for Filming ‘Hud’ With Paul Newman & ‘The Rose Tattoo’ With Burt Lancaster
Howe earned 10 Oscar nominations in his career, but only won twice. Just like everyone else in Hollywood at the time, Howe was so productive that in 1944, he competed against himself. He was nominated for The North Star and as one of three cinematographers on Air Force.
Howe finally won his first Oscar for The Rose Tattoo (1955), which also featured an Oscar-winning performance from Italian actress Anna Magnani and co-starred Burt Lancaster. The film was directed by Daniel Mann and based on the Tennessee Williams play.
In 1964, he won his second Oscar for Hud, which starred Paul Newman and featured Oscar-winning performances from Patricia Neal and Melvyn Douglas.
Howe also became known for using gimmicks that are, by today’s standard, a requirement in every film, even though he usually did it in black and white. He was the first cinematographer to use deep-focus cinematography, a decade before Gregg Toland famously did it in Citizen Kane. He also famously shot a scene in the 1947 boxing movie Body And Soul while on roller-skates.
In a 1970 interview with Roger Ebert, Howe defended his use of these so-called “gimmicks,” saying they were necessary for the movies.
“As you grow in an art or craft, you find simpler approaches,” Howe told Ebert. “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.”
3. Howe Was Briefly ‘Gray-Listed’ & Suspected of Being a Communist Sympathizer
After World War II, Howe found himself caught up in the communist witch-hunt of the Hollywood film industry. He wasn’t a communist and was never formally blacklisted, but he worked with many others who were investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee, including John Garfield.
His wife, Sanora Babb, told the Los Angeles Times that Howe 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],” Babb said in 2001. “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.”
Babb was blacklisted, so the couple moved to Mexico City for a time. After making two films in 1948, Howe was unemployed until he was hired to shoot the 1950 Western The Baron of Arizona by Samuel Fuller.
4. His Marriage to Wife Sanora Babb Wasn’t Recognized Until After 1949
In 1937, Howe married Sanora Babb in Paris. Babb was a novelist born in Red Rock, Oklahoma and the author of An Owl on Every Post and Whose Names Are Unknown. However, thanks to anti-miscegenation laws, the marriage wasn’t recognized in the U.S. until 1948. The couple was married until his death in 1976. Babb never remarried and died in 2005 at age 98.
“We couldn’t get married for a long time,” Babb recalled in a 2001 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “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!”
Babb explained that the only restaurant they were allowed to go to together outside Chinatown was Chasen’s. Even in Chicnatown, they often faced problems, she said.
“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.”
5. Howe’s Last Film Was 1975’s Funny Lady’ With Barbra Streisand
Howe’s final film was Funny Lady, the 1975 sequel to Funny Girl with Barbra Streisand. It was his first project since 1971’s The Horeseman, which he didn’t complete. Producer Ray Stark convinced Howe to come out of retirement and he earned his last Oscar nomination for the film. During production, Howe collapsed, so Ernest Laszlo filled in to finish the movie.
One of the ironies of Howe’s career was that he didn’t earn Oscar-nominations for some of his most beloved films. His work on Sweet Smell of Success, Picnic, He Ran All The Way, Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Thin Man, Hangmen Also Die!, Pursued and Body and Soul all failed to earn him nominations.
“Sometimes, as now, I am tempted to detail some of the work of a cameraman in an effort toward further cooperation,” Howe once wrote about the role of the cameraman. “By its varied parts, he faces a job of integration on his own. Throughout the picture, there is that shared responsibility of keeping to the schedule; this, with all its other implications, means the executive ability to keep the set moving. He has a general responsibility to fuse the work of all the technical departments under his direction in order to achieve the equality of the story.”