From William Roberts’ article, Shooting For the Stars. It appeared in the February 1941 issue of Modern Screen.
Of course, a well-balanced face is another thing. Oh, I’ve seen so-called perfect faces – those composite photographs showing Lamarr’s eyes, Leigh’s nose, Dietrich’s lips – but the result is always surprisingly vacant!
“Most women must be photographed with flat lights, shooting down from a forty-five degree angle, because this lighting washes out any defects. Whereas, a cross-lighting from either side, while it makes the face natural and round and real, also accentuates wrinkles, blemishes and bad lines. There are exceptions. Flat lighting would wash Joan Crawford’s face clean to the point of blankness. Crosslighting chisels her beautifully. But others can’t stand up as well.
“I’m not telling you these inside items on the stars to give you a sensational story. I’m trying to point out this – that while the Chinese author, Lin Yutang, wrote a book called ‘The Importance of Living,’ I should like to write one called, ‘The Importance of Lighting.’ It’s all-important. Take a look at the way celebrities appear in a newsreel, without careful kliegs adjusted to them. They seem messy.
“Why, the only newsreel personages I ever saw who looked decent without expert work on them, and who were, in fact, once offered a million dollars to come to Hollywood, were the Windsors. Now Wally Simpson is a bit too thin in the face and has some blemishes. But this could be corrected by shooting her three-quarters, the lights flat against her. She should never be shot in profile. As to the Duke, Edward himself, well, while he often appears a bit weary and haggard, he would have to be kept that way in Hollywood. It’s part of his adult charm. We wouldn’t want to wash that out with faked brightness.”
Now the little man expounded on picture-making. He told exactly the way pictures should be made. Here’s Howe:
“My theory of picture-making is that a movie must run true. It must be real. You must not feel that it is obviously a movie. A big fault is that photographers often try to make their photography stand out. That is bad. If you go away raving about the photography of certain scenes, you’ve seen a bad photographic job.
“When I was a beginner, way back, I had that common failing. I never gave a damn about the actor. All I wanted was to get those fat beautiful clouds in, so people would say, ‘Some shot. Some photographer.’ But now I know that’s not professional.”
There was one more thing. I had a hunch a lot of photographers, like producers, were repressed actors at heart. Did James Wong Howe ever aspire to histrionics?
“Oh, once I almost became an actor. The late Richard Boleslavsky wanted me to play with Greta Garbo in ‘The Painted Veil.’ Just a bit part. I refused. My place is behind the big machine, not in front of it. Besides I’d be scared stiff. Me, Wong Howe, an actor? Hell, the boys would rib the pants off me!”