Childhood & Early Life
He was born Wong Tung Jim on August 28, 1899, in Canton (present day Guangzhou), China. That year his father immigrated to America to work on the ‘Northern Pacific Railway’.
In 1904, when Howe was five-year-old, the family moved to America to join his father and settled in Pasco, Washington. His father later opened a general store and successfully ran it albeit facing discrimination from locals.
Little Howe had a rather unhappy childhood as he was also not spared of the biased and racist remarks by neighbourhood children. He would often bribe them with candies from his family store to let him play with them.
He got his first camera, a Kodak Brownie from ‘Pasco Drug’, when he was twelve.
As a child he dreamt of becoming a prize-fighter and following his father’s death, the teenager shifted to Oregon where his uncle lived. For a while he pursued a career in bantamweight boxing and obtained a record of five victories, two losses and one draw.
Thereafter he shifted to San Francisco Bay area with the idea of joining aviation school but due to fund crunch he moved south and reached Los Angeles.
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In Los Angeles he started working as a delivery boy of a commercial photographer. However he was fired after being found developing passport photos for a friend in the darkroom of the firm. To make a living he became a busboy at the ‘Beverly Hills Hotel’.
One day by chance he came across one of his ex-boxing mates who was taking a shot for actor-director Mack Sennett in a city street. With the help of this friend he got in touch with cinematographer Alvin Wyckoff and got a custodial job at the ‘Famous Players-Lasky Studios’ with a remuneration of $10 a week.
Once, when he was asked to work as an extra clapper boy on the sets of the silent romantic war film ‘The Little American’ (1917), which was being directed by Cecil B. DeMille. He caught the attention of the director and DeMille kept him on and later floated his career as an assistant cameraman.
Howe also used to earn extra income by taking stills of Hollywood stars for their promotional purpose. One such photograph took off his career as a cinematographer when he captured a still of actress Mary Miles Minter. The speciality of the picture was that Howe took her still while the actress was looking at a dark surface which resulted in her otherwise blue eyes looking darker than usual.
Howe soon became sought after by other blue-eyed actors, who insisted on taking him for their shoots.
On the behest of Minter, he became the lighting cameraman or the director of photography of her next feature ‘Drums of Fate’ (1923).
Since 1923 all through the epoch of silent film, Howe, who was also known as Jimmie in the film circle, worked regularly as a director of photography. Some of the films he worked in during that era were ‘The Trail of the Lonesome Pine’ (1923), ‘Mantrap’ (1926) and ‘Laugh, Clown, Laugh’ (1928).
He went to China in 1928 and shot some location backgrounds to use in a movie about China that he intended to direct. Although the movie was never completed, the footage was used in the 1932 released American film ‘Shanghai Express’ directed by Josef von Sternberg.
By the time he returned to America, Hollywood was going through a major technological transformation as silent movies were gradually being superseded by talkies or sound pictures.
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Initially Howe like any other skilled cameraman of the silent film era faced challenges with the new medium. After a short stint of unsuccessful endeavours, he was hired by director-producer Howard Hawks for the latter’s film, ‘The Criminal Code’ (1931).
He once again came to prominence as an ace cinematographer with his innovative work in the William K. Howard directed American comedy film ‘Transatlantic’, which was released on August 30, 1931. Once again he became one of the sought after cinematographers in Hollywood and worked consistently on several movies.
In 1933 he joined ‘MGM’ and became a virtuoso in his field for the 15 pictures he worked for the media company. He shot two of the pictures namely ‘The Thin Man’ (1934) and ‘Manhattan Melodrama’ (1934) in 18 days and 28 days respectively. His salary per week gradually rose to $500.
Thereafter he worked with ‘Warner Bros’ and earned his first ‘Academy Award’ nomination for his brilliant contribution in cinematography in the film ‘Algiers’ (1938). After this successful collaboration, Jack L. Warner, the studio boss, signed Howe to a 7 year contract that saw the latter contributing in around 26 movies of the studio.
He was often marked as a Chinese cameraman and faced restriction from becoming a citizen of the US till cancellation of the ‘Chinese Exclusion Act’ in 1943.
Post the ‘Second World War’ and his end of contract with ‘Warner Bros.’, he went to China for a documentary work. Although he was never a Communist, he found himself to be grey-listed after returning to the US. For a while he and his wife Sanora Babb, a ‘Communist Party’ member, relocated to Mexico.
Overcoming all odds he again re-established himself as one of the leading American cinematographers.
His great work par is evident in films like ‘Algiers’ (1938), ‘Abe Lincoln in Illinois’ (1940), ‘King's Row’ (1942), ‘Air Force’ (1943), ‘The Rose Tattoo’ (1955), ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ (1958), ‘Hud’ (1963), ‘Seconds’ (1966) and ‘Funny Lady’ (1975).
Personal Life & Legacy
He met novelist Sanora Babb before the ‘Second World War’ and they eventually got married in Paris in 1937. However because of the anti-miscegenation laws, the marriage was legally recognised in the US after over a decade in 1949.
He raised Martin Fong as his godson after the latter moved to the US. Fong became a cinematographer, director, film producer and actor.
On July 12, 1976, Howe passed away and was interred in Los Angeles’ ‘Pierce Bros. Westwood Memorial Park’.