Stanley Kubrick’s Very First Films: Three Short Documentaries

In early 1950, Stanley Kubrick was a 21-year-old staff photographer for Look magazine. At night he haunted the movie theaters, watching classics at the Museum of Modern Art and current releases elsewhere. He made a point of seeing just about every movie that came out, no matter how bad it was.

“I’d had my job with Look since I was seventeen, and I’d always been interested in films,” Kubrick told writer Joseph Gelmis in 1969, “but it never actually occurred to me to make a film on my own until I had a talk with a friend from high school, Alex Singer, who wanted to be a director himself.”

Singer worked as an office boy at The March of Time, a company that produced newsreels. He told Kubrick that he heard the company spent $40,000 to make a one-reel documentary. Kubrick was deeply impressed. “I said to him, ‘Gee, that’s a lot of money,’” Kubrick told Jeremy Bernstein of The New Yorker in 1966. “I said ‘I can’t believe it costs that much to make eight or nine minutes of film.’” Kubrick got on the phone to film suppliers, laboratories and equipment rental houses and crunched the numbers. He calculated that he could make a nine-minute film for about $3,500. “We thought we could make a considerable profit,” he told Bernstein.

Kubrick decided to make a film about middleweight boxer Walter Cartier, who he had done a photo story on for Look the previous year. He rented a spring-loaded 35mm Bell & Howell Eyemo camera and dived into the project. “I was cameraman, director, editor, assistant editor, sound effects man–you name it, I did it,” Kubrick told Gelmis. “It was invaluable experience, because being forced to do everything myself I gained a sound and comprehensive grasp of all the technical aspects of filmmaking.”

The resulting film, Day of the Fight, brings the look and feel of film noir to the newsreel form. (Watch the complete 16-minute film above.) It follows Cartier and his twin brother, Vincent, in the hours leading up to his fight with a formidable opponent named Bobby James. The scenes were all carefully planned, except for the big fight at the end, which was filmed live on April 17, 1950 at Laurel Gardens in Newark, New Jersey.

Kubrick rented two Eyemos that night, one for himself and the other for Singer. Kubrick hand-held his camera and moved around–at one point even holding the camera underneath the boxers and shooting straight upward–while Singer provided basic coverage with his camera on a tripod. The Eyemos took 100-foot rolls of film, which meant Kubrick and Singer were constantly changing film. They tried to time it so that one was shooting while the other was reloading. “It was pretty busy and pretty hectic,” Singer told Vincent LoBrutto for Stanley Kubrick: A Biography. “We had to get it. It had to be down on film–there was no picture without getting this fight.”

They got it. When Cartier delivered the knock-out punch, Kubrick was reloading but Singer captured the moment. To complete the project, Kubrick hired his childhood friend Gerald Fried to compose music, and CBS newsman Douglas Edwards to provide narration. Day of the Fight was generally well-received. As LoBrutto writes, “Kubrick’s innate photographic sense and the passion he brought to the project resulted in a film devoid of the common pitfalls of novice filmmakers.”

But when Kubrick set out to market the film, he found he had already stumbled into a pitfall of the novice businessman. The movie had cost about $3,900 to make. “When we began to take it around to the various companies to sell it,” he told Bernstein, “they all liked it, but we were offered things like $1,500 and $2,500. At one point I said to them, ‘Why are you offering us so little for this? One-reel shorts get $40,000!’ They said, ‘You must be crazy.’”

Kubrick eventually sold it to RKO-Pathé for about $100 less than it cost him to make, he told Bernstein. He did have the satisfaction of seeing the Day of the Fight at New York’s Paramount Theatre at an April 26, 1951 screening of My Forbidden Past, starring Robert Mitchum and Ava Gardner. “It was very exciting to see it on the screen, and it got a nation-wide and world-wide distribution,” Kubrick told Bernstein. “Everybody liked it and they said it was good. I thought that I’d get millions of offers–of which I got none, to do anything.”

Flying Padre:

Actually Kubrick did get one offer after the success of Day of the Fight. RKO-Pathé paid him $1,500 to make a newsreel about a priest in New Mexico who got around his vast parish in a Piper Cub airplane. Flying Padre (above) tells the story of two days in the life of Rev. Fred Stadtmueller.

“Unlike Day of the Fight,” writes LoBrutto, “Flying Padre is a rather typical human-interest newsreel documentary. Kubrick’s filmmaking skills are assured but reveal less of the cinematic talent that lies within. The photography is evenly lit. Shots are composed in classic photojournalist style, pleasing and artful to the eye.”

All of Kubrick’s expenses–travel, film, equipment rental–came out of his $1,500 fee, so again he made do without a crew. Even after restricting the running time to nine minutes, he barely broke even. Kubrick would later describe the film, released in 1951, as “silly.”

The Seafarers:

After breaking even on Flying Padre, Kubrick could read the writing on the wall. Short documentaries didn’t pay. Surprisingly, it was at precisely this point that he decided to formally quit his job at Look and devote himself to filmmaking. As he explained to Bernstein, “I found out how much feature films were being made for–you know, millions–and had calculated that I could make a feature film for about ten thousand dollars.”

So once again Kubrick was off to the races. While raising money for his first feature film, Fear and Desire (find it in our collection of Free Movies Online), he accepted a paying job directing a 30-minute film for the Seafarers International Union. The Seafarers (above), released in 1953, is of little note aside from being Kubrick’s first color film. He never mentioned it in interviews.

Looking back on his early documentary work in a 1968 interview for Eye magazine, Kubrick put things into perspective: “Even though the first couple of films were bad, they were well photographed, and they had a good look about them, which did impress people.”



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  1. AP says . . . | April 4, 2012 / 1:05 pm

    All three films are set to be released on Blu-Ray later this year along with Fear & Desire as the main feature. Kino Lorber is currently putting it together. Only The Seafarers is currently on DVD.

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