Ruttenberg, Joseph

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Cinematographer. Nationality: American. Born: St. Petersburg, Russia, 4 July 1889; emigrated to Boston aged four years. Family: Married Rose (Ruttenberg); daughter: Virginia. Career: Newsboy, then reporter and news photographer, Boston; 1914—formed his own newsreel production company; 1915—joined Fox as photographer; 1917—first film as cinematographer, A Painted Madonna; 1935–68—worked for MGM. Awards: Academy Award for The Great Waltz, 1938; Mrs. Miniver, 1942; Somebody Up There Likes Me, 1956; Gigi, 1958. Died: In Los Angeles, California, 1 May 1983.

Films as Cinematographer:


A Painted Madonna (Lund); Thou Shalt Not Steal (Seurat)


Doing Their Bit (Buel); The Debt of Honor (Lund); The Woman Who Gave (Buel); Women, Women


The Fallen Idol (Buel); My Little Sister (Buel)


Tiger's Club (Giblyn); From Now On (Walsh); The Shark (Henderson)


Beyond Price (Dawley); Know Your Men (Giblyn); The Mountain Woman (Giblyn); A Virgin Paradise (Dawley)


Who Are My Parents? (Dawley); The Town That Forgot God (Millarde); Over the Hill (Millarde); My Friend the Devil (Millarde)


If Winter Comes (Millarde); Does It Pay (Horan)


School for Wives (Halperin); The Fool (Millarde)


Summer Bachelors (Dwan)


Applause (Mamoulian) (uncredited); The Cocoanuts (Florey and Santley) (uncredited); The Battle of Paris (The Gay Lady) (Florey) (uncredited)


The Struggle (Griffith); The Smiling Lieutenant (Lubitsch) (uncredited)


Gigolette (Lamont); Frankie and Johnnie (Auer); People's Enemy (Wilbur); Man Hunt (Clemens)


Three Godfathers (Boleslawsky); Fury (F. Lang); Piccadilly Jim (Leonard); Mad Holiday (Seitz)


A Day at the Races (Wood); The Big Day (Borzage)


The Great Waltz (Duvivier); The First Hundred Years (Thorpe); Everybody Sing (Marin); Three Comrades (Borzage); The Shopworn Angel (Potter); Spring Madness (Simon); Ice Follies of 1939 (Schünzel) (co)


Tell No Tales (Fenton); On Borrowed Time (Bucquet); The Women (Cukor) (co); Balalaika (Schünzel)


Broadway Melody of 1940 (Taurog) (co); Waterloo Bridge (LeRoy); The Philadelphia Story (Cukor); Comrade X (K. Vidor)


Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Fleming); Two Faced Woman (Cukor)


Woman of the Year (Stevens); Mrs. Miniver (Wyler); Crossroads (Conway); Random Harvest (LeRoy)


Gaslight (Cukor); Mrs. Parkington (Garnett)


Valley of Decision (Garnett); Adventure (Fleming)


Desire Me (Cukor); Killer McCoy (Rowland)


Julia Misbehaves (Conway); B.F.'s Daughter (Leonard)


The Bribe (Leonard); Side Street (A. Mann); That Forsyte Woman (Bennett)


The Miniver Story (Potter); The Magnificent Yankee (J. Sturges)


The Great Caruso (Thorpe); Cause for Alarm (Garnett); Kind Lady (J. Sturges); Too Young to Kiss (Leonard)


Because You're Mine (Hall); The Prisoner of Zenda (Thorpe); Young Man with Ideas (Leisen)


Julius Caesar (Mankiewicz); Small Town Girl (Kardos); Latin Lovers (LeRoy); The Great Diamond Robbery (Leonard)


The Last Time I Saw Paris (Brooks); Her Twelve Men (Leonard); Brigadoon (Minnelli)


Interrupted Melody (Bernhardt) (co); The Prodigal (Thorpe); Kismet (Minnelli)


The Swan (C. Vidor) (co); Somebody Up There Likes Me (Wise); Invitation to the Dance (Kelly) (co)


The Vintage (Hayden); Man on Fire (MacDougall); Until They Sail (Wise)


Gigi (Minnelli); The Reluctant Debutante (Minnelli)


Green Mansions (M. Ferrer); Wreck of the Mary Deare (Anderson)


The Subterraneans (MacDougall); Butterfield 8 (Daniel Mann) (co)


Two Loves (Walters); Ada (Daniel Mann); Bachelor in Paradise (Arnold)


Who's Got the Action? (Daniel Mann)


The Hook (Seaton); It Happened at the World's Fair (Taurog); Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed? (Daniel Mann)


A Global Affair (Arnold)


Sylvia (Douglas); Harlow (Douglas); Love Has Many Faces (Singer)


The Oscar (Rouse)


Speedway (Taurog)

Film as Cameraman:


Gone with the Wind (Fleming)


By RUTTENBERG: articles—

"Overhead Lighting for Overall Set Illumination," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), December 1952.

"Photographing Pre-Production Tests," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), January 1956.

"Sound-Stage Sea Saga," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), April 1960.

Positif (Paris), September 1972.

Seminar in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), July 1975.

Focus on Film (London), Spring 1976.

In Dance in the Hollywood Musical, by Jerome Delamater, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1981.

Film History (Philadelphia), vol. 1, no. 1, 1987.

Eyman, Scott, in Five American Cinematographers, Metuchen, New Jersey, 1987.

On RUTTENBERG: articles—

Lawton, Ralph, "Tyro in Technicolor," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), September 1949.

Gavin, Arthur, on Gigi in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), July 1958.

Film Comment (New York), Summer 1972.

Focus on Film (London), no. 13, 1973.

Revue du Cinéma (Morges, Switzerland), July-August 1983.

The Annual Obituary 1983, Chicago, 1984.

Film & History, vol. 1, no. 1, 1987.

* * *

"The old pro" to studio executives, actors, and film directors, Joseph Ruttenberg was a cinematographer whose technical mastery was matched by a visual artistry that enriched the films of directors more concerned with drama and acting than visual style. When he worked with directors who did care about lighting and composition, the films they made often were nominated for Academy Awards. Ruttenberg earned ten nominations, and won Oscars four times. In all he filmed about 110 movies between 1917 and 1968.

Born in Russia, Ruttenberg was brought to the United States as a very young boy. His first job was as a copy boy on the Boston American (where he was also an occasional personal messenger for William Randolph Hearst). At the American Ruttenberg discovered photography. First as a runner who hand delivered news film to the laboratory, then as a darkroom technician, then as a press photographer, Ruttenberg learned how to make pictures with speed and under adverse conditions. One night, for example, when he couldn't use his own flash equipment, he opened the shutter on his camera and waited for the flashes of other photographers. To photograph theatrical sets he used different colored lights to register the appropriate contrasts of color in his black-and-white images. This combination of expertise and invention won him a commission to photograph European stage sets for the Boston Opera. There, in Paris, on the eve of the First World War, he fell under the spell of the moving picture.

In America in 1914, the movies were chiefly regarded as an amusement. But in Europe they were perceived as a graphic art, as an educational tool, as an historical record, and as a dramatic medium. One of the notions current in Europe in 1914 was that film could be an archive of the images of people and events of historical importance. Ruttenberg developed a variation of this while he was in Paris. When the approach of war sent him and the other Americans of his party back to the United States, Ruttenberg returned with an ambitious proposal to assemble a visual encyclopedia on motion-picture film.

This idea, so extraordinary for an American in 1914, reveals how profoundly Ruttenberg had been affected by European concepts of the potential of film. Though he was unable to find backing for his encyclopedia in Boston, Ruttenberg chose not to return to his previous work in still photography. Instead he formed a partnership with a Yale friend—who had money and mechanical ability. They purchased a hand-cranked movie camera, built a film processing unit in a Boston loft, and for nearly six months produced a weekly newsreel for the local Loews theaters. Minimal profits and a demanding schedule led the two to eventually abandon the enterprise, but the experience was to be useful when Ruttenberg moved to New York City and employment with William Fox in 1916.

Again Ruttenberg rose through the ranks, from slate-holder and still photographer (at $18 a week) to assistant cameraman and then cinematographer (when he left Fox in 1926 he was making $175 a week). Using Pathé and Bell and Howell cameras, Ruttenberg shot at least 26 films between A Painted Madonna (his first as cinematographer) in 1917, and The Struggle for D.W. Griffith in 1931. A complete filmography for Ruttenberg remains to be assembled because in these years Ruttenberg often collaborated on films but received no on-screen credit. Rouben Mamoulian's Applause is one of these; Lubitsch's The Smiling Lieutenant is another—both were credited to George Folsey, one of Ruttenberg's closest friends. Though they worked 50/50, only Folsey got credit for legal reasons.

Lighting, camera movement, and location filming were inhibited in the first years of sound movies. There can be little doubt that Ruttenberg was wary about moving west in such circumstances. So when the Fox production company moved to Hollywood in 1926, Ruttenberg chose to remain in New York, where he soon was making screen tests with sound for MGM, RKO, and Universal. (Some of the actors he tested with the new sound systems were the Marx Brothers, Helen Hayes, Fred Astaire, Walter Huston, and Claudette Colbert.)

In the mid-1920s, Ruttenberg actually wanted to return to Europe, to work with the German directors Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau. Ironically, though Ruttenberg finally did get to work with Lang on Fury, it was not until 1950 when he photographed Side Street for Anthony Mann that he was able to work in the conventions of a style (film noir) that was rooted in German Expressionism.

Though D.W. Griffith chose Ruttenberg to film The Struggle because he liked his camera tests made for the film, Ruttenberg also wanted to work with Griffith who was always (Ruttenberg recalled) "experimenting. He went into a foundry to [record] pretty good sound, . . . and would say 'We'll try these things'." Ruttenberg embraced challenges; when CinemaScope was introduced in the 1950s Ruttenberg enthusiastically wrote to Louis B. Mayer that "it was the best thing since sound."

In 1935 Ruttenberg finally made the move to Hollywood, briefly working at Warner Bros., and then shifting to MGM; by this time the traumatic period of the transition to sound was over, and Ruttenberg's talent as a lighting cinematographer could be used with the same freedom as in the 1920s.

Ruttenberg's camerawork was distinctive for three reasons. First, he composed the film image on two planes. The primary subject of interest, one or more actors, would appear in sharp focus, and the background would be softer, slightly out of focus. In consequence, actors would "project" out of the screen, acquiring an almost three-dimensional weight. Ruttenberg considered the "deep focus" technique used by Gregg Toland for William Wyler and Orson Welles to be a mistake, the loss of an opportunity to direct the eye of the spectator. (Nevertheless, in Somebody Up There Likes Me, Ruttenberg and the director Robert Wise did use deep focus for several sequences, including a wonderful allusion to the breakfast sequence of Citizen Kane; in the film, Everett Sloane, who played Bernstein in Kane, is seen on the floor with Paul Newman's children in deep focus, echoing the nursery visit Kane insists Bernstein may want to make—but does not—to see Kane's children in Citizen Kane.)

The second reason was his lighting. While many cinematographers delegate lighting to assistants, Ruttenberg believed lighting was central to cinematography. With it he could mould and change what was in front of the camera. Often he would defy union rules to handle the lights himself. (And it was not until he moved to Hollywood that he used a light meter; his years of experience in still photography, as well as in the movies, gave him a sure sense of exposure.) Katharine Hepburn, like scores of other actresses, wanted Ruttenberg to shoot her films because his lighting flattered her (Hepburn liked shadows on her neck).

The importance of lighting in films like Gaslight, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Waterloo Bridge, where shadows are atmosphere, does not need to be pointed out. Less obvious is the lighting used for a film like A Day at the Races. Filming the Marx Brothers, Ruttenberg often noted, was an adventure because they never did the same thing twice, especially on retakes. Multiple cameras, and an even, relatively shadowless lighting scheme was necessary if separate shots were to be cut together smoothly when the film was completed. Three Comrades, shot in 1938 for Frank Borzage, is one of Ruttenberg's masterpieces of lighting. The "spirituality" of Borzage's characters is given tangible substance in this film: Margaret Sullivan, at times, is almost luminous.

Ruttenberg's camerawork was also distinctive in a third way. Given the opportunity, and at times on his own initiative, he would seek to film whole sequences in a single take. As early as the 1920s, when he was working at the Astoria Studio without screen credit, Ruttenberg constructed dolly mechanisms, camera cranes, even rolling bridges so that shots of 30 or more seconds could be made. Some of his shots defy understanding: in Gigi he films in a room full of mirrors, but the camera and lights are not seen, and in Brigadoon his camera sweeps around dancers on a hilltop, hovering and flying, floating in a space that seems free of gravity.

—Robert A. Haller