Tom Del Ruth’s Unique Perspective

Tom Del Ruth, ASC
Tom Del Ruth, ASC

I recently spoke with Tom Del Ruth, who is living in Bend, Oregon. While he is no longer making memorable images for a living, he does keep a hand in through the Oregon Governor’s Office of Film and Television. Tom and his wife Patricia are the Central Oregon regional representatives for the Governor’s office on the Film Oregon Alliance. They recently made another visit to the capital in Salem to speak to legislators about the importance of increasing subsidies that can be passed on to producers.

“I have mixed feelings about it, because I would prefer to keep the majority of the film work in and around Los Angeles, but that doesn’t seem to be possible,” Tom told me. “Everybody has been jumping on the incentive bandwagon for years, pulling production away from Hollywood. Since I’m a resident of the State of Oregon, I thought perhaps they should be able to be allowed to take part. I feel we are only reacting to what many other states started. It’s been interesting to see how the politics of a state work.

“They’ve been very successful up until this point,” he says. “Three full-time television shows are shooting in Portland, and they employ a lot of Hollywood crew. So, essentially, it’s not runaway production from Hollywood, but simply another venue for technicians who are based in California. They come to Oregon, stay for a short period of time, and take advantage of what the state has to offer as far as employment. It’s a lot closer than many of the other states that are zapping money away from the center of entertainment. I think it can be a win-win situation, both for the state and also for the crew members and cast members who originate in Los Angeles. The postproduction is almost all done in Hollywood. I have a friend who is a makeup artist out of Los Angeles who working in Portland currently.”

Tom Del Ruth, Oregon State Senator Tim Knopp, and Patricia Del Ruth.
Tom Del Ruth, Oregon State Senator Tim Knopp, and Patricia Del Ruth.

Surprisingly, given today’s poisoned political climate, Tom has found that the legislators he’s dealt with are working with the best interests of the people at heart. “I’m probably as much a cynic about politics as anybody,” he says. “But I was really surprised to see the depth of commitment from a lot of these people to bettering the lives of their constituencies. It gave me a slightly different slant in terms of how politics work and the people who are sometimes attracted to it. Of course, you’ve got some bad apples, too. But the people that I’ve been involved with, at least ostensibly, are servicing their constituents nicely.”

If you know Tom, you know that he is a deep well of cinema history. Tom’s mother, Winnie, was a musical comedy actress on Broadway who came west from New York with other stage performers when sound came in. His father, Roy Del Ruth, was a director who began as a writer for Mack Sennett in the silent era, and built a career that spanned five decades, encompassing talkies, early color films, the founding of 20th Century Fox, Hollywood’s golden age, and even the 1950s 3D craze with 1954’s Phantom of the Rue Morgue. Cinematography fans might be interested to note that the elder Del Ruth worked with Stanley Cortez’s brother, Ricardo, in the first of three screen adaptations of The Maltese Falcon (1931) — the film that Dashiell Hammett called the most faithful to his intentions in the book. That film aired on TCM on June 7. But I digress.

Tom recalls an earlier spate of what might be termed runaway production, in the late 1960s, when he was a camera assistant to top ASC talent like Ray Rennahan, William Daniels, Daniel Fapp, Leon Shamroy and Robert Surtees. The cause was money that had been built up in foreign countries by major motion picture companies — money that these countries would not release back to the studios unless they brought production to their shores. Taxation was an issue.

“I can’t tell you how many times I went to North Africa, England or Spain to take advantage of this,” Tom says. “It was a very strange time, and the studios were having economic difficulties anyway, during that transition from old Hollywood to relatively new Hollywood. It was a disquieting time, not necessarily unlike how it is today.”

A few of the films Tom worked on overseas through this period: Justine (the director of photography was Shamroy), Doctor Doolittle (Surtees), some shots for Patton (Fred Koenekamp), and The Sand Pebbles (Joseph MacDonald).

In addition to his long experience in Hollywood — Tom first set foot on a set as a child — and because he grew up in a filmmaker’s home, where cinematographers and their colleagues were regular guests, he has an endless supply of fascinating stories. Ask him about the time his father and Daryl Zanuck, then head of production at Warner Bros., bricked up the front door of Wallace Beery’s house, with the inebriated actor inside. No runaway production that day.



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