Howe was born in China but when he was a 5-year-old boy, his family immigrated to the US. He could have been a professional boxer or a pilot but his destiny was to revolutionize the cinema world.
In the 1930-40s, everyone wanted to work with him. But what was his magic all about?
The master of realism
When James Howe started working in Hollywood, he had to face racism every single day. Yet, his talent and dedication helped him to rise above it and earn respect.
Howe always focused on realism. To achieve it, the cinematographer used various lightning techniques, making it as naturalistic as possible. James Wong Howe's best movies include:
- The Thin Man;
- Sweet Smell of Success;
- Yankee Doodle Dandy;
- The Rose Tattoo.
James Wong Howe, the pioneering cinematographer and two-time Oscar-winner behind The Thin Man (1934), Mark of the Vampire (1935), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Hud (1963), Seconds (1966), and many, many more, was born on this day in 1899. pic.twitter.com/bY3wLkMpHU— New Beverly Cinema (@newbeverly) August 28, 2019
Hud and The Rose Tattoo were adored by critics and helped James to earn two Oscars. His last work was a musical Funny Lady with Barbra Streisand, which earned him another Academy Award nomination.
Problems with marriage
James Wong Howe faced racism not only in his career. He couldn’t marry the woman he loved because of it, too. He met Sanora Babb, a novelist and editor, before World War II. The pair fell in love and decided to get married but it wasn’t as easy as it is now.
Remembering cinematographer James Wong Howe on his birthday. pic.twitter.com/pr8kAYViRA— TCM (@tcm) August 28, 2019
At that time, the US didn’t allow interracial marriages. The pair in despair traveled to the city of love, Paris, and wedded there. However, when they returned home, their marriage didn’t exist.
Because Howe was Chinese-American, his traditional views prohibited him from living with Babb as they were considered unwedded. Moreover, the cinematographer was banned from acknowledging his romance with Sanora by his studio’s contract.
Master cinematographer James Wong Howe, born on this day in 1899, with director John Frankenheimer on the set of his visionary masterwork SECONDS (1966) 🎥 pic.twitter.com/J4MPI6fcc6— Criterion Collection (@Criterion) August 28, 2018
Nonetheless, nothing prevented the two from loving each other. They were secretly married for 11 years until California abolished the law against interracial unions.
The famed cinematographer passed away at 76 in his own bed in Hollywood in 1976. Despite 44 years since his demise, his legacy still lives and his work still inspires many generations of cinematographers and, probably, will continue doing so.