Cinematographer James Wong Howe’s career spanned six decades of stylistic change and technical innovation. His manipulations of light and shadow sheathed stars in glamour and shaped the look of countless classics. This 31-film retrospective, organized by curator Joshua Siegel, reveals the work of a consummate Hollywood insider, ethnic outsider, and maverick artist.
Born in 1899, Howe emigrated from China with his family at age five, settling in Pasco, Washington. As a teenager he dabbled in professional boxing, moved to Los Angeles, worked as a janitor on a Cecil B. De Mille set, and later as an assistant cameraman. His talent for visual flattery soon endeared him to such silent icons as Clara Bow, whom he photographed in Victor Fleming’s Mantrap (1926). Bow plays a vivacious Minneapolis manicurist transplanted to the Canadian wilderness after her hasty marriage to a burly frontiersman; Howe’s camera divides its attentions between the beauty of the great North woods and her flapper’s giddy, luminous charms.
Early talking pictures were hampered by static camerawork. For Transatlantic (1931), directed by William K. Howard, Howe joined sound with motion. The film opens with an elaborately choreographed tracking shot of furred and bejeweled passengers boarding a luxury liner for Europe. A debonair con man, a saucy Swedish dancer, a caddish banker, and his wronged wife (Myrna Loy) are at sea when the intrigues begin, the big Crash looming over them. Howe alternates glittering images of frenzied partying with dark silhouettes of thieves and murderers moving along the ship’s narrow corridors.
By 1933, when Howe shot Howard’s The Power and the Glory, Hollywood’s mood had dampened considerably. Seeking greater naturalism, the cinematographer convinced Spencer Tracy to wear no makeup for this cautionary tale, told in flashbacks, about the precipitous rise and fall of a railroad tycoon. Howe’s divine illumination reinforced the film’s Depression-era ethos about the perils of worldly fortune.
When war broke out, Howe harnessed talent to patriotic duty in Air Force (1943). Howard Hawks’s rousing battle cry, made in the wake of Pearl Harbor, follows the crew of a B-17 bomber en route to the Pacific. Dudley Nichols collaborated with an uncredited William Faulkner on the caustic screenplay, and Howe based his dive-bombing, bravura camerawork on actual war footage, bits of which he also included.
In the ’30s, MGM added “Wong” to Howe’s name and began promoting him as their in-house exotic. But mostly, in public, he took a back seat to stars and filmmakers, and his only directorial project, a documentary on China, was never completed. A master of light, he was at home in the dark, whether amid the phantom memories haunting Robert Mitchum, as an orphaned rancher beset by Freudian anxieties, in Raoul Walsh’s great noir Western Pursued (1947); or on the inky streets of New York, smeared with tabloid dirt, in Alexander Mackendrick’s gloriously grimy Sweet Smell of Success (1957). And in more than one film, he drew from personal experience. In Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul, John Garfield plays a Jewish boxer from the tenements of New York, caught between neighborhood pride and gangland corruption. Howe, ever the fighter, strapped on roller skates and stepped into the ring to film the picture’s final, breathless knockout.