Electric Shadows

For many years in Hollywood, the most prominent Chinese-American — if not the only one with any stature was the legendary cinematographer, James Wong Howe. A technical wizard and master of chiaroscuro, Howe left an indelible mark on films stretching from the silent era until his death in the mid-1970s, among them Mantrap (1926), The Criminal Code (1931), Algiers (1938), Hangmen Also Die! (1943), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Hud (1963) and Seconds (1966). Martin Scorsese has cited Howe’s work in the boxing sequences of Body and Soul (1947) as an important influence on Raging Bull; he also owned a Chinese restaurant called Ching How in Studio City, frequented by industry figures in the ‘40s and early ‘50s.

During the golden age of the studio system, when Hollywood’s interest in China was too frequently represented by glib or offensive Chinoiserie (even in pro-China stories produced after the Japanese invasion) Howe was looking closely at Chinese films, and considering the possibilities of coproduction and cross-cultural collaboration. As early as 1924, and twice again in 1930 and 1948, he attempted independent productions to be shot in China, and in 1945, Script Magazine published “Electric Shadows,” a prescient attempt by Howe to call his peers’ attention to the potential of Chinese cinema.

A fascinating journal that came on like a cross between a west coast version of The New Yorker and a Hollywood lit-zine, Script was published weekly out of Beverly Hills by Rob Wagner, a writer, artist, activist and film colony insider. It featured contributions by Tom Mix, Charlie Chaplin, Upton Sinclair and Eddie Cantor, along with early short stories by William Saroyan, Ray Bradbury, and Louis L’Amour. The magazine’s unapologetic socialist leanings were noteworthy as well, and serve as the subject of Hollywood Bohemia, a recent book by Wagner’s great-grandson, Rob Leicester Wagner.

Mr. Wagner has graciously allowed China Film Insider to reprint Howe’s essay, and we’re proud to do so, as he fits right in. In language that may seem altogether familiar to CFI readers and industry watchers of recent years, Howe discusses the myriad of Chinese stories waiting to be told, the educational and social benefits of a robust Chinese film industry, the commercial potential of China’s population, and ways in which Chinese filmmakers and Hollywood might work together. The piece also contains a fascinating capsule account of the Shanghai film studios’ migration to Chungking during the Sino-Japanese War and the hardships faced there. (He also tips his hat to the egalitarian ideals of Mao’s Communist insurgents, at the time based in Yan’an, then called “Yenan.”).

Though too quick to wave away the Chinese studios’ accomplishments of the 1930s (including such films as Wu Yonggang’s The Goddess, and Yuan Muzhi’s Street Angels), Howe is genuinely prophetic, perceiving shared interest, mutuality, and global rewards both commercial and aesthetic in ways that are only beginning to be realized now, many decades and wars later.

(We are presenting Howe’s article as originally published, with pinyin transliteration and idiosyncratic spelling and punctuation preserved.)


Electric Shadows

The Chinese have had popular “screen shows” for 2,000 years. A white cloth stretched between two bamboo poles was set up at night in the market place. An oil lantern lighted the screen from the back and experts manipulated their life-like translucent, colored puppets. There were shadow plays and dramas. There was dialogue and music and color, and always an interested audience. These shows were called “lantern shadows.” The modern motion pictures are called tien ying, “electric shadows.”

The Chinese “electric shadow” industry, although potentially important, is small and weak, as might be expected in an industrially undeveloped country. China, predominantly agricultural, with almost its entire industry concentrated so near the seaboard that it was quickly destroyed by Japan in 1932 and again in 1937, has been neglected as a market and its resources have never been exploited. China represents one-fifth of all mankind, and its future is of vital importance to the whole world, whether its future is to be that of a backward, exploited country, or a developing, democratic nation.

Motion pictures, with their possibilities for education, culture, entertainment, will be an exciting part of post-war China. But they cannot develop without an accompanying development of other industries. As railroads and modern methods of communication extend into the interior, and language barriers are broken down and standards of living rise, interest in movies will develop, theatres will be built, and, above all, there will be that extra hour of leisure and that extra piece of change without which you cannot go to the movies.

Hollywood has so dominated the international market that it may seem premature to discuss the possibilities of film production in countries unheard from before the war. But with the world made small and accessible these possibilities are taking on reality. Treated with intelligence, this prospect, it seems to me will be interesting and profitable for all concerned rather than disturbing. But immediate gain has a way of getting in the eye like a cinder, to say nothing of getting in the heart like a stone. A war or a soft peace, for instance, may appear to a few to be more financially desirable than considerations of long-term human profit. The majority of people may see more clearly than that. The important thing is not only to see but to do.

If the age of the common man is upon us we must be proud of our role as world citizens, and contribute in the way we know best– through our work. Since our work here in Hollywood is movies, naturally we think in those terms. Of course, with a little further thinking, it is easy enough to see how closely connected pictures are to other phases of living.

Before the war there were only a few studios in China and not quite 400 theaters, most of these concentrated in the coastal cities. They showed 85 percent American films, 15 percent native, Russian, French and British. There were a few machines of their own invention, but the bulk of material, including film, came from the U.S.A. The advent of sound was more of a setback than a help because of the incredible language difficulties. Dialects change from province to province, and are not understood outside their own immediate areas. There is no universal language in China, although Mandarin and Cantonese are two of the largest dialects. Government decree made Mandarin the national dialect and that became the language of the films. However, a small percentage was permitted in Cantonese because actually aside from the northern cities, the income came largely from the southern cities, the Malay States, Hawaii, and cities of the United States with large Chinese populations. With the exception of students and officials who may be from either north or south, the emigrating Chinese are southerners, speaking Cantonese.

The industry was not taken seriously nor treated with respect, either as a field for investment or as a career. Its financial resources depended on the entertainment concessions and on a few adventurous individuals returning from the States. The studios managed to develop several stars, the best known being Butterfly Wu whose pictures came to enjoy long runs in the cities. The pictures were of a poor quality in every sense, for the most part imitative of the worst in our own films. All the characters were rich, carefree souls, with no relation to anything in China or in life, except, perhaps, a frivolous minority in the few worldly cities. But the great bulk of Chinese dramatic material was left untouched. The make-up of Chinese actors to represent American and Europeans, by the way was astonishingly good except for a little trouble around the eyes.

With the war, things began to change. Fifteen hundred film people joined the long trek inland by river boat and foot. They took what equipment they could with them. In Chungking, to escape the bombings, laboratories, editing and storage compartments were built in tunnels thirty feet below ground. Sound stages were on the surface. At the sound of an air raid, equipment was quickly carried into the dugouts. The destruction of an important item sometimes interrupted shooting for days. When the water supply was cut off, as in 1939, these people carried water from the river up a long hill and poured it into a reservoir. All film had to come from America by long, crude, painful means of transportation. Every inch of that film became precious. It could be used only for the most meaningful purpose.

In Japanese-held territory theaters were confiscated and former sound stages were turned into stables by the enemy. In Free China 112 theaters showed Chinese, American or Soviet films. The greater part of the workers and stock in the industry, went to the various government projects turning out military and propaganda pictures. This was a hard life. Many of the units went to the sprawling fronts. They traveled by truck, mule, camel and afoot, sometimes over roadless areas. They went to villages behind Japanese lines, and seven 3,000 miles in Inner Mongolia, where people saw movies for the first time. Farmers and soldiers saw the films and found in them a universal language, a way to knowledge and a means of communication with the unknown outside world.

This vast circumstance reveals the power of the screen in such a telling way that its potential for good seems hardly to have been touched. But just imagine pouring into those fertile, eager minds the hocus-pocus that passes for and is defended as entertainment. The same argument goes on in China as in America. In China it centers on the difference between Soviet and American films. It is a revealing comment on us all that we may not find entertainment and pleasure in the good, the serious, the thoughtful, and must believe the only the light and superficial is entertaining. Actually one without the other lacks appeal; they should be inseparable. No one would deny that some films stress one quality more than the other. But our own propaganda and educational documentary war films and those of other nations have not failed in their entertainment value, but have combined the two necessities well. The same is true of serious drama. A good musical, too, may propagate certain ideals and enrich our taste in music. A gay comedy often satirizes things that should be held up to ridicule.

Motion pictures will play an important role in the rebuilding of China, more important than the role we are used to associate with our own films. For one thing, they will be the strongest factor in breaking the enormous spoken language barriers which divide China.

If the movement to Romanize the writing of Chinese gathers enough force, people everywhere will learn to read and write. Many of us here do not realize that in China reading and writing are the luxury of the scholar, and that the majority of people are shut out from this means of communicating thought. Character-writing may be beautiful and picturesque but it serves only the few. The possibilities of films in educations, in sanitation, in heath, in cultural and technical learning, in visual knowledge of all kinds are almost limitless.

China, with the growth of its own industry, will turn from western imitations to her own rich sources of drama, to the inexhaustible materials of her ancient colorful history, to the experiences of China’s years of war and to the stories of her own original young writers. Examples of what these young writers are doing can be seen in two recent novels out of the war years which have been republished in America, Village in August by T’ien Chün, and Rickshaw Boy by Lau Shaw. Other current themes would deal with changing China, the growing freedom of women, for instance. China has as many types of people, and as great and varied a wealth of scenic background and climate, as America or the U.S.S.R.

An important field in which China and the United States will cooperate, I think, is the development of the technical branch of motion pictures. The United States is far ahead in techniques and technicians, much equipment and many technical workers will be in demand in China. China must look toward Hollywood for help until her own workers are trained. China will have to use a great majority of foreign films to supply her vast potential audience. She must also develop her own industry on a large scale. With a population of more than 400 million, it is sensible to believe that the U.S. will profit rather than suffer by the development of China’s film industry.

The Chinese government is now preparing to furnish hundreds, perhaps thousands, of 16mm. projectors and screens for the running of educational as well as entertainment films throughout the country. Hollywood can expect to sell many regular productions reduced to 16mm., as well as an exchange of documentary films which will increase the mutual understanding of our countries. Incidentally, I have been talking for years about the coming of age of the 16mm. film. Now, stepped up by its brilliant use in the war, it is here, and with even vaster promise than I imagined. The documentary film, so often buried by its critics, is more alive than ever and will find new fields and new uses. It will be made by governments and by professionals, as well as experimenting amateurs, to whom so much of the credit for its present excellence belongs.

When we can see which way the winds are really blowing in the Far East, we will be able to speak in more definite terms of the future of China. One thing we do know is that there is a tremendous movement of peoples fighting against age-old burdens of oppression from within and without, towards a democratic way of life. Whatever halts they may suffer on the way, they have shown a sure advance within Kuomingtang China and even more so in the Yenan areas. This advance will continue as inexorably as a tide until China again takes her place among the nations. It is not to be hoped that her civilization of the past, once so splendid and since fallen into ruin and decay, will be restored, but rather that a new civilization will be permitted to develop and mature in freedom. An independent, modern China is an essential factor in the peace and progress of the world.

Script, Vol. 31, No. 714 (October 6, 1945)