Surtees, Robert L.

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SURTEES, Robert L.

Cinematographer. Nationality: American. Born: Covington, Kentucky, 8 September 1906. Family: Married Maydell (Surtees); children: two daughters and two sons, including the photographer Bruce Surtees. Career: Photographer and retoucher in a portrait studio, Cincinnati; camera assistant Universal, from mid-1920s: assisted Gregg Toland, Joseph Ruttenberg, Hal Mohr, Stanley Cortez, and others for the next 15 years; 1942—first film as cinematographer, This Precious Freedom; then worked for MGM, and freelance. Awards: Academy Award for King Solomon's Mines, 1950; The Bad and the Beautiful, 1952; Ben-Hur, 1959. Died: In Carmel, California, 5 January 1985.

Films as Cinematographer:


This Precious Freedom (Oboler)


Lost Angel (Rowland)


Meet the People (Reisner); Music for Millions (Koster); Thirty Seconds over Tokyo (LeRoy) (co); Two Girls and a Sailor (Thorpe)


Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (Rowland)


No Leave, No Love (Martin) (co); Two Sisters from Boston (Koster)


Unfinished Dance (Koster)


The Big City (Taurog); Tenth Avenue (Rowland); The Kissing Bandit (Benedek); A Date with Judy (Thorpe); Act of Violence (Zinnemann)


Big Jack (Thorpe); Intruder in the Dust (Brown); That Midnight Kiss (Taurog)


King Solomon's Mines (Bennett)


The Light Touch (Brooks); The Strip (Kardos); Quo Vadis (LeRoy) (co)


The Wild North (Marton); The Merry Widow (Bernhardt); The Bad and the Beautiful (Minnelli)


Ride Vaquero (Farrow); Mogambo (Ford) (co); Escape from Fort Bravo (J. Sturges)


The Long, Long Trailer (Minnelli); Valley of the Kings (Pirosh)


The Mark (Robson); Oklahoma! (Zinnemann)


The Swan (C. Vidor) (co); Tribute to a Bad Man (Wise)


Les Girls (Cukor); Raintree Country (Dmytryk)


Merry Andrew (Kidd); The Law and Jake Wade (J. Sturges)


Ben-Hur (Wyler)


It Started in Naples (Shavelson)


Cimarron (A. Mann)


Mutiny on the Bounty (Milestone)


PT-109 (Martinson)


Kisses for My President (Bernhardt)


The Satan Bug (J. Sturges); The Hallelujah Trail (J. Sturges); The Collector (Wyler) (co); The Third Day (Smight)


The Lost Command (Robson)


The Graduate (Nichols); Dr. Dolittle (Fleischer)


Sweet Charity (Fosse)


The Arrangement (Kazan)


The Liberation of L.B. Jones (Wyler)


Summer of '42 (Mulligan); The Last Picture Show (Bogdanovich); The Cowboys (Rydell); The Other (Mulligan)


Lost Horizon (Jarrott); Oklahoma Crude (Kramer)


The Sting (Hill)


The Great Waldo Pepper (Hill); The Hindenburg (Wise)


A Star Is Born (Pierson)


The Turning Point (Ross)


Same Time, Next Year (Mulligan); Blood Brothers (Mulligan)


By SURTEES: articles—

On Quo Vadis in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), October 1951.

"Using the Camera Emotionally," in Action (Hollywood), September-October 1967.

On The Graduate in Films in Review (New York), February 1968.

On The Last Picture Show in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), January 1972.

American Cinematographer (Hollywood), April 1973.

On The Hindenburg in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), January 1976.

Action (Hollywood), January-February 1976.

On The Turning Point in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), December 1977.

On SURTEES: articles—

Lightman, Herb A., on Oklahoma! in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), April 1955.

Rowan, Arthur, "Pictorial Emphasis in Cinematography," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), February 1956.

Grandi, Leo, on Ben-Hur in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), October 1959.

Scot, Darrin, on Mutiny on the Bounty in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), February 1963.

Lightman, Herb A., on The Lost Command in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), July 1966.

Lightman, Herb A., "Cinematography with a Split Personality," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), February 1968.

Critisch Filmforum (The Hague), 7 August 1968.

Film Comment (New York), Summer 1972.

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

Take One (Montreal), no. 2, 1978.

American Cinematographer (Hollywood), May 1978.

American Cinematographer (Hollywood), May 1979.

Obituary in Variety (New York), 16 January 1985.

Obituary in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), March 1985.

American Cinematographer (Hollywood), August 1986.

* * *

Robert L. Surtees's career as a cameraman spanned almost 50 years—from camera assistant in the late 1920s to cinematographer on his last film in 1978, from the silent era to the new Hollywood. A significant part of that career was as a cinematographer in the classic Hollywood style, that "invisible" style of filmmaking that dominated American films from the introduction of sound well into the 1960s.

Analyzing such a long career is similar to taking a survey course in the history of American cinema. As a young cameraman, Surtees was an assistant to such influential cinematographers as Gregg Toland and Joseph Ruttenberg, whose work helped set the technical standard in the industry for several decades. As a studio cinematographer for MGM for almost 20 years, Surtees photographed films in almost every popular genre, from small comedies such as Lost Angel to westerns such as Escape from Fort Bravo to blockbuster musicals like Oklahoma! When he began working for MGM in the early 1940s, the studio system was in its heyday and the classic Hollywood style—characterized by an even, balanced lighting, match cutting, and linear narratives—was the norm. During that era, the producers and the studio exerted creative control, not the directors. Thus, each studio developed its own "look." At MGM, this look was one of opulence, which was revealed through the use of high-key lighting. Surtees's work at MGM at this time was indicative of that studio's style. During the 1950s, when the studio system began to crumble partly from the competition of television, films became grander in scale and larger in scope. Widescreen films and spectacular Technicolor epics were popular successes, and Surtees's filmography from this decade—which includes Quo Vadis, Raintree County, and Ben-Hur—reflects this trend. The decade of the 1960s was one of transition in the industry when the old studio system finally gave way to the rise of independent producers and the importance of the director as the creative force. Surtees's tenure at MGM ended in 1962 and he became a freelance cinematographer working for such stalwarts as William Wyler (The Collector) as well as for up-and-coming directors like Mike Nichols (The Graduate). Surtees continued working into the 1970s, by this time for the "new Hollywood," characterized by independent producers and directors whose personal vision shaped the style of a film, sometimes in a rather self-conscious manner. It is fitting that Surtees was chosen by Peter Bogdanovich as the cinematographer for The Last Picture Show, for the film subtly alludes to the end of the old Hollywood studio system—a system that Surtees saw rise and fall. It is a tribute to Surtees's talent and adaptability that he could succeed from one era through he next.

Searching for one type of film or a particular style that Surtees specialized in is difficult. However, after analyzing his filmography and studying reviews of his films, it can be said that Surtees was adept at lush Technicolor cinematography, particularly that found in such big-budget A-films as King Solomon's Mines (for which he won an Oscar), Quo Vadis, Mogambo, Oklahoma!, Raintree County, Ben-Hur (for which he won his third Oscar), Mutiny on the Bounty, and Dr. Dolittle. So influential was his work on King Solomon's Mines, for example, that the excess footage was used in other jungle films, most notably Watusi. Analyses or critiques of these films do not fail to mention the excellent or beautiful cinematography. As one critic so eloquently stated, "Each frame of celluloid is like a painting."

—Susan Doll