AMWF History: Cinematographer James Wong Howe and Author Sanora Babb

If you’ve been busy with back-to-school errands, you might have missed Google’s recent nod to one of Hollywood’s greatest cinematographers, James Wong Howe.

On August 28, 2017, Google released a doodle honoring Howe, who received two Academy Awards for cinematography during his career. According to Google:

Throughout his career, he used lighting, framing, and minimal camera movement to express emotion. He accidentally discovered how to use dark backdrops to create color nuances in black-and-white film. He pioneered using wide-angle lenses, low key lighting, and color lighting. Howe also made early use of the crab dolly, a camera dolly with four wheels and a movable arm supporting the camera.

But Howe was a pioneer for another reason: he married a white woman, author Sanora Babb, in 1937, a time when US anti-miscegenation laws created huge bureaucratic obstacles for interracial couples. (Not surprisingly, they chose to marry elsewhere – Paris, France.) The US wouldn’t officially recognize their marriage until the late 1940s. Not surprisingly, those years weren’t easy on the couple:

Howe would not cohabit with Babb while they were legally unwed, due to his traditional Chinese views, so they maintained separate apartments in the same building. Howe’s studio contract “morals clause” also prohibited him from publicly acknowledging their marriage.

They experienced plenty of racial bigotry as well according to James Lee, Howe and Babb’s grand-nephew:

Aunt Sanora told me that on one particular occasion when they were going out to dine at a Chinese restaurant, a woman had taken the time to follow them to the entrance of the establishment. As she harassed the two of them for being together, Aunt Sanora took the woman’s hat and tossed it in the gutter. Aunt Sanora remembers this woman chasing the hat down the sewer drain exclaiming, “My $100 hat!” When the miscegenation laws were repealed, it took them three days to find a judge who would marry them. When they finally did, the judge remarked, “She looks old enough. If she wants to marry a chink, that’s her business.”

Howe would reach the pinnacle of his career in the following decades, winning Academy Awards in cinematography for his work on “The Rose Tattoo” (1955) and “Hud” (1963). Were it not for his illness in the 1970s – he died in 1976 — he might have accomplished even more. “He was reportedly offered the first two Godfather films, but just wasn’t strong enough to accept,” writes James Lee.

By unknown (Paramount Pictures) –, Public Domain,

Let’s remember the extraordinary accomplishments of Howe, and also remember how he and Babb persevered in the name of their interracial marriage.

P.S.: If you’d like to see a sample of Howe’s cinematography, Time magazine compiled a wonderful short video.

P.P.S.: You’ve got to give it to Google for the timing of their doodle – August 28, 2017 would have been James Wong Howe’s 118th birthday, a very auspicious number in Chinese culture.

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3 Replies to “AMWF History: Cinematographer James Wong Howe and Author Sanora Babb”

  1. She was persecuted and then blacklisted by HUAC. Her husband, Howe was on a gray list which means he was under suspicion of being a communist. She moved to Mexico to protect him. They should make a movie about them. Of course hollywood would probably just change Howe into an Asian female and Babb into a white male.

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