MORE MODERN SCREEN

            Picking up where I left off last Friday, here’s another piece of an article published in the February 1941 issue of Modern Screen.  In this segment, writer William Roberts leaves Gregg Toland, ASC to his glass of beer and drops in on another legendary cinematographer, James Wong Howe, ASC.

            If you can get past the occasionally condescending\racist tone, there’s a lot of interesting information here.

            Thank God for us all that times have changed!

            But, instead of another beer, I indulged in something equally stimulating.  I saw another ace cameraman.  I left Toland, drove out into the Valley north of Hollywood and halted before an intimate Oriental restaurant bearing a blinking neon that read “Ching How.”

            This restaurant was the hobby and hide-out of the cherubic Chinese cameraman, James Wong Howe, the place where he came in the evening, to chat with old friends or supervise a steaming chow mein after a hard and tiresome day with Ann Sheridan, Rita Hayworth, Hedy Lamarr or Loretta Young!

            You wouldn’t know that he once fought gory battles in the fistic arena for ten bucks a knockout, or that he got his first job in Hollywood as a camera assistant at that same price.  But you would know, immediately, that Jimmy Howe is as American as you or I, born in Pasco, Washington, of a farmer father; and you would know, too, immediately, that he understands more about Hollywood stars than any photographer alive.

            I found Jimmy Howe a little interview shy when it came to discussing personalities.  That was because he’d been burned once.  Recently, a reporter asked him about Bette Davis, and Howe told the reporter that Bette’s enormous eyes were her finest feature, and that they must be emphasized by lighting, whereas her long thin neck must be shadowed.  The reporter misquoted him as stating that Bette was badly pop-eyed.  Ever since, Howe has been afraid to explain the truth to Bette – and if she reads this – well, hell, Bette, the guy thinks you’re the greatest actress on earth!

            Over a delicious dish of aged Chinese eggs, bamboo shoots and other Far Eastern delicacies, in a nook of his popular eatery, Jimmy Howe softened sufficiently to discuss the women he had captured for celluloid.

            He digressed on the subject of glamour gals.

            “Hedy Lamarr has more glamour than anyone in Hollywood.  Her jet-black hair and fine light complexion, marvelously contrasting, requires no faking soft diffusion lens.  But, like all glamour ladies, she must be aided by the cameraman.  First of all, I took attention away from her lack of full breasts by playing up her eyes and lips.  With a bright light I created a shadow to make you forget her weak chin.  Then, I really went to town!  I planted an arc on a level with her eyes, shadowing her forehead and blending it and her hair into a dark background.  Now, all attention was focused on her eyes.  Remember her first meeting with Boyer in ‘Algiers?’  Her eyes got away with lines that would never have passed Mr. Hays.

            “Now Ann Sheridan.  Her gorgeous throat and shoulders, and those lips.  I light them up and disguise the fact that her nose is irregular and her cheeks overly plump.  Incidentally, to correct her nose, which curves slightly to the left, I put kliegs full on the left side of her face, pushing her nose perfectly straight.  Once, on ‘Torrid Zone,’ when Annie arrived on the set with a pimple on her chin, I had the make-up man convert it into a beauty mark, and then viewing her through the camera, realized that this concentrated attention on her full lips, which made her even more glamorous!

            “Each actress, no matter how beautiful, becomes a problem.  Madeleine Carroll has a good and bad side to her face, like so many others.  I always shoot her threequarters, because it thins her out.  A full-face shot makes her too fleshy.  With Myrna Loy, there must not be white around her neck, because it’s too contrasting to her complexion.  Moreover, lights must be low, shooting upward, to reduce the size of her underpinnings.

            “Zorina, off-screen, relaxing, is an ordinary woman, with a good-sized healthy body.  But, the minute she dances before the camera, her true personality grows.  Her face turns from good looking to gorgeous.  Her body becomes smaller and willowy.  She’s easy to work with, except that an enthusiastic uncle of hers, a doctor, gave her four vaccination marks when she was young, and we have to get rid of them with make-up and special lights.

            “There is no perfect camera face, Confucius say.  Not even Loretta Young, who is reputed to have a camera-proof face.  Why, she wouldn’t want a perfect face and neither would any other actress.  A perfect face, without irregular features, would be monotonous and tiresome to observe.

More to come on Tuesday!

1.13.2023

One thought on “MORE MODERN SCREEN”

  1. It’s so bizarre to see cinematographers of those days talking about their craft in terms of lighting specific actresses’ faces. They also talk about them in quite judgmental and rude ways. I know those were the days of the big stars and there wasn’t the plethora of actors that we have today, but also just the way we think about lighting today (spaces vs faces for example) is so different.
    I think some of the imagery being created today is by far the most cinematic that’s ever been, but at the same time we embrace flaws, realistic lighting situations, and let actors move in spaces where they might not be “perfectly lit”, yet we now accept that as the norm and “cinematic”.

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