Harry Stradling Jr. is one DP in Hollywood who achieved success the old fashioned way: He earned it. Although born to the biz via father Harry Stradling Sr. (who lensed such cinematic gems as My Fair Lady, Hello Dolly and Hitchcock’s Suspicion), Harry Jr. was his own man from the start.
“I joined Local 659 as a permit in 1943,” Stradling recalled. “My first job as an apprentice camera assistant, under DP Joe Ruttenberg, was slapping the slate on George Cukor’s Gaslight.” The thought of Harry’s bold move into motion pictures creased his face with a grin. “It paid twenty bucks more a week,” he said with a laugh.
By the 1950s, Stradling was assisting other DPs such as Bob Surtees (Music for Millions), Paul Vogel (on Red Skelton comedies), and operating for Frank Phillips on Gunsmoke. A prize pupil of natural looking hard-light, the up-and-coming Stradling exemplified many of his father’s teachings: a solid work ethic and good nature on set. On shooting with his DP dad, Stradling commented proudly, “Since he was my father, I had to cut the mustard myself … which made me better.”
A decade later, Stradling was immersed in Westerns. He especially enjoyed the five films done with director Bert Kennedy. From the James Garner comedic, gun-slinger classics, Support Your Local Sheriff (and Gunfighter), to the Frank Sinatra-driven Dirty Dingus Magee (along with a couple of Robert Mitchum flicks thrown in), Stradling rose to the photographic challenge. “Understanding all of the mechanics and the how-to-make-it-work aspects of shooting Westerns kept it interesting,” the retired DP said.
One of Stradling’s toughest pictures, which also garnered critical acclaim, was Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man. “We did the winter exteriors in Vancouver,” Stradling remembered. “And at 40 degrees below zero, it hurt just to take out your meter.” When pressed for a story about the battle sequences, Harry demurred and admitted to operating a camera, one handed, on horseback, wardrobed and made-up like an Indian. “I was saddle sore for a week,” he said about the “seat-of-his-pants” cinematography.
As he dealt with his father’s passing, Stradling also experienced professional success and subsequent comparisons to his dad. Stradling proved he was truly his own man while shooting The Way We Were, for which he received an Oscar nomination for best cinematography. He lighted Barbra Streisand with a beauty light set-up that she had never seen before. Joking with the DP, Streisand said, “Your father never did it like that!” Harry Jr. calmly answered, “That’s because I never showed him how.”
Stradling also received an Oscar nomination for best cinematography for 1776 and an Emmy nom for the TV miniseries George Washington. When asked about his success, he said. “You’re only as good as your crew.” Rattling off names like Tim Vanick, Dick Minardus, Bob Stradling (Harry’s son, named after his mentor, Robert Surtees), and key grip Tommy May, Stradling said, “They were all top-notch professionals who were considered trusted eyes that could see problems and fix them.”
The following twenty years of Stradling’s career, whether photographically master-minding Midway or lensing the John Sturges good-cop-fighting-corruption thriller McQ, he was a DP in demand. From directors Sam Peckinpah to Billy Wilder, and Blake Edwards to Richard Brooks, Stradling worked well with every big hitter in Tinseltown. Stars like John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Liz Taylor, James Coburn, Jack Lemmon and Katharine Hepburn (the list is endless) were all lighted, lensed and liked by the camera of Harry Stradling Jr.
At interview’s end, I asked Harry for advice for future DPs and his take on the business. As to the biz, his only regret is not making a film with Tom Hanks. Regarding advice, he offered: “Always listen to the director. He’s the boss of the film. And always make the ladies look good.”
Written by Jim Udel