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When a Poet Picked Up the Camera

A UCLA retrospective looks at the classic work of cinematographer James Wong Howe, who fought racism in his life and on the set.

July 08, 2001|SUSAN KING | 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.

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