James Wong Howe: Painting With Light

Special Article 2012

What do Mantrap (1926) and The Spanish Dancer (1923) have in common with The Thin Man (1934), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Hud (1963), and Funny Lady (1975)? All these films and more than 140 others owe their visual expression to cinematographer James Wong Howe, a transformative figure in the history of motion picture photography.

A typical impression of a cameraperson, particularly during the silent era, is that of a camera operator standing behind a tripod, cranking furiously when the director shouts “Action!” In reality, the cameraman (or cinematographer or director of photography, all titles for the same position) is an essential member of a film’s creative team. Using light and lens as palette and brush, the cinematographer directs a team of operators and assistants, electricians, gaffers, riggers, and special-effects technicians to achieve a film’s look. Many of the most successful silent-era stars and directors worked in close collaboration with one particular cinematographer on their films: Billy Bitzer with D.W. Griffith, Charles Rosher with Mary Pickford, and Roland Totheroh with Charles Chaplin.

James Wong Howe began his career in the motion picture industry as James Howe at Famous Players-Lasky (later, Paramount) in 1917. Working for ten dollars a week in the camera department, he swept floors, cleaned and carried equipment, and loaded cameras. His first assignment operating a camera came during Cecil B. DeMille’s Male and Female (1919) for a scene featuring Gloria Swanson in a lion’s den, which had to be captured in a single take requiring an unusual five-camera setup. DeMille took notice of the slate-holding Howe and promoted him to a needed “fourth assistant cameraman.”

Thereafter, Howe apprenticed as an assistant camera operator and along the way learned the intricacies of lighting, lenses, film stock, and cameras. His big career break came in 1923 with the appropriately titled Drums of Fate. To supplement his modest studio income Howe had acquired a still camera that he used after-hours to shoot publicity portraits for the actors. Following a session with Mary Miles Minter, the actress was astonished to that see her eyes appeared dark in the prints that Howe delivered. The orthographic film stock in use at the time did not register blue and the pupils of blue-eyed actors such as Minter typically washed out when photographed. Purely by accident, Howe photographed the actress near a black curtain that reflected in her eyes. When Howe said he could reproduce the effect with motion pictures, Minter insisted on having him on her upcoming feature, Drums of Fate. Howe delivered on his promise by rigging a black velvet frame for his camera, leading Hollywood gossips to whisper that ”Minter had imported a Chinese cameraman who worked mysteriously behind black velvet.”

During the mid-1920s, Howe worked primarily with directors Herbert Brenon and Victor Fleming and his technique steadily advanced. Hollywood cinematography of the mid-’20s typically consisted of bathing sets and actors alike with bright, even illumination without regard for mood or emotional effect. Because each shot was lit individually, akin to still portraits or tableaux, the images lacked visual cohesion when edited together in a sequence. The Spanish Dancer, Howe’s fifth film as cinematographer, sometimes suffers from this inconsistency. However, even at this early stage in his career, Howe had begun using light to evoke mood, as in the long shadows of the film’s dungeon scenes.

Mantrap, shot three years after The Spanish Dancer, demonstrates a marked evolution in Howe’s style. In 1925, he began experimenting with camera movement and, in the film’s opening scene, he opens with an innovative dolly shot. After tracking in on divorcee  Mrs. Barker (Patty du Pont), he slowly moves up her legs, settling on her face as she preens in her hand mirror.

Mantrap, shot three years after The Spanish Dancer, demonstrates a marked evolution in Howe’s style. In 1925, he began experimenting with camera movement and, in the film’s opening scene, he opens with an innovative dolly shot. After tracking in on divorcee  Mrs. Barker (Patty du Pont), he slowly moves up her legs, settling on her face as she preens in her hand mirror.

She then lowers the mirror to reveal the face of her lawyer (Percy Marmont), which replaces hers in the frame. Howe also used pan shots to advance the story rather than simply to explore the landscape. Howe explained in a 1945 article: “I believe in a minimum of camera movement and angles that do not violate sense but contribute intrinsically to the dramatic effect desired.” His approach is fully evident in Mantrap, when he follows Clara Bow’s legs as she trudges through the forest and in his slow, lumbering pan around the party scene in the cabin interior, conveying the boredom of the trapped participants.
    
Howe demonstrated remarkable versatility over the years and in the decades following the silent era. His philosophy remained that the best camerawork never called attention to itself but rather used lighting, framing, and movement to support and express the mood and emotion of a sequence. In a 1960 letter, he explained, “I still believe that the story is the vital nucleus, and that all else must aim and work toward expressing and interpreting the story … motion picture photography should never be a polished lens through which one views the action; it should contribute to the emotional values of that action in its own way.” Howe’s filmography provides ample evidence of his method in action. In the modeled profiles of Nick and Nora in The Thin Man, the deep-focus shadows of Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die (1943), the hand-held battle sequences of Raoul Walsh’s Objective, Burma! (1945), the Technicolor saga Old Man and the Sea (1958), and the stark vastness of the Texas panhandle in Hud, storytelling always came first for James Wong Howe.
    
Howe retired in 1975 with an unprecedented 16 Academy Award nominations, two Oscar statuettes, and recognition by his peers as one of the industry’s great cinematographers. His final production was Funny Lady. Recognizing his virtuosity, Barbara Streisand insisted on having him as her cinematographer, just as Mary Miles Minter had done a half-century earlier.
 
President of the Silent Film Festival board of directors, Rob Byrne is also a preservationist who worked on the restoration of The Spanish Dancer.