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James Wong Howe (1899-1976) was born Tung Jim Wong in the province of Kwantung (Canton), China. When he was five his family emigrated to the United States and settled in Pasco, California, where his father, Wong How, owned a general store. His grade-school teacher gave him the name James Wong Howe. When he was 16, Howe pursued a brief career as a professional boxer but soon left the ring and moved to Los Angeles in 1917. He got a job as a camera-room handyman at Lasky Studios, and from there worked his way up to assistant cameraman on such films as "Puppy Love" (1920) and "Ebb Tide" (1922). His breakthrough came in 1922, when he was able to take still photographs of Mary Miles Minter in which he made her pale blue eyes register on the film by having her look at a dark surface. Shortly after that, Howe was named a head cameraman and soon earned a reputation for original lighting methods and photographic creativity on such films as "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine" (1923) and "The Alaskan" (1924). He was visiting China in 1928 when sound took over the industry, and his absence caused a setback in his career. It was not until "Transatlantic" (1931) that he re-established himself as one of Hollywood's top cameramen when he reintroduced deep focus into films shot on a soundstage. Howe was credited as James Howe or James How in his early years in the industry, but Majestic Pictures and Fox added Wong in the early 1930s to create a sense of novelty. Howe married the novelist Sanora Babb in 1937 in Paris, though the marriage was not legalized in California until 1957 because of the State Miscegenation Law, which prohibited interracial marriage. Similarly, the state's restrictive immigration rules prevented Howe from being naturalized as a citizen until 1958. Between 1922 and 1975, Howe was cinematographer for a total of 120 features; he also directed and codirected two films, the first being "Go, Man, Go!" (1954). Howe was nominated ten times by the Academy for his cinematography, beginning with "Algiers" (1938). He received Academy Awards for photographing "Rose Tattoo" (1955) and "Hud" (1963). His last film was "Funny Lady" (1975).
The James Wong Howe papers span the years 1915-1991 (bulk 1932-1975) and encompass approximately 11 linear feet. The material consists of production files, correspondence files, subject files, manuscripts, and scrapbooks covering Howe's career. The production files comprise the bulk of the collection and cover 77 of Howe's films, though in most cases the material consists of only a script and no other production documents. There is also material on several unrealized projects, including "Rickshaw Boy" (for which Howe returned to China in 1948 to shoot location material). A small amount of material on Howe's television career, as well as a few manuscripts of his articles, an oral history, and transcripts of radio broadcasts, are illuminating. The correspondence files generally date from the 1940s and are not extensive. The bulk of the subject files consists of biographical and publicity material about Howe. The scrapbooks contain the earliest material about Howe, dating from 1915.
Gift of Mrs. James Wong Howe (Sanora Babb), 1982-1993, with additions from Don Lee, 2002.
James Wong Howe