Stanley Kubrick: First Works (1951)

Years Active: 1951-1999
Alma Mater: N/A
Associated Movements: New Hollywood
Influences: Max Ophuls, Elia Kazan

There’s not much more to write about director Stanley Kubrick than what’s already been written. His work has been analyzed, pored-over and dissected as long as it’s been around. He’s held up as the gold standard in filmmaking—the benchmark by which all other directors aspire to, and all critics compare against. Each of his major films, from 1956’s THE KILLING to 1999’s EYES WIDE SHUT, can be considered masterpieces in their own right, possessing lurid qualities that continue to draw us into Kubrick’s meticulously crafted worlds and beckon us to uncover their secrets. He was a calculating genius in every sense of the term, seemingly born as a fully formed artist— suited particularly to the moving image. Had film school existed when he was a young man, he probably wouldn’t have gone out of principle alone.

Kubrick’s sterling legacy is somewhat ironic, considering that most of his films were misunderstood, controversial, and lukewarmly received upon their release. It wasn’t until many years later that his work achieved the kind of cultural value and respect it holds now. Considering that his career spanned five decades, Kubrick’s filmography is surprisingly small, consisting of just thirteen features. This can be attributed to his reputation as a demanding perfectionist and obsessive researcher. He was notorious, especially later in life, for taking several years between projects, which he spent amassing obscene amounts of research. For instance, in compiling information for his long-gestating (but never-made) passion project NAPOLEON, he constructed a card filing system that was so thorough that it had entry for every single day of Napoleon’s life. He wasn’t just a master dramaturge however—his storytelling prowess extended to the technical side of the craft, and many of his films are famous for their groundbreaking innovations in cinematography. 1968’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY pioneered realistic space effects that are still unrivaled today. BARRY LYNDON (1975) broke new ground in low-light photography by using specialized NASA-designed lenses, often filming gorgeous tableaus by nothing more than candlelight.THE SHINING (1980) introduced the ethereal, floating specter of Steadicam to audiences around the world and freed the camera from its heavy constraints.

The controversy over his work’s challenging subject matter would turn Kubrick into a recluse late in life, which projected a great air of mystery and myth about him—indeed, many of his fans didn’t even know what he looked like. While the details of his advanced are closely guarded family secrets, Kubrick’s early life is well documented in the public forum. He was born in New York City in 1928, to Jacob Leonard Kubrick, a prominent doctor, and his wife Sadie Gertrude Kubrick. The Kubricks were of Polish, Austrian, and Romanian descent, and they identified as ethnically Jewish, although they did not raise Stanley as religious. As a bookish lad growing up in the Bronx, Kubrick wasn’t interested in the normal, mischievous pursuits of boyhood. He was obsessed with chess, which his father taught him at the age of twelve—he appreciated the game’s emphasis on patience and discipline, traits that would mark his filmmaking style later on. His love of visual art began at age 13, when his father gave him a still camera and encouraged an interest in photography.

The teenage Kubrick was more interested in jazz drumming and catching double features at the local cinema instead of attending school, where he wasn’t much of a model student. His poor grades, combined with the influx of returning World War 2 vets in 1945, pushed him out of the opportunity to attend college after graduation. To compensate, he took night classes at City College of New York while working as a freelance photographer by day. In 1946, he became an apprentice photographer for the prestigious Look Magazine, and it wasn’t long until he was promoted to full-time staff. He married his high school sweetheart Toba Metz in 1948, and they moved into the Greenwich Village neighborhood in Manhattan. It was around this time that Kubrick began frequenting film screenings at the Museum of Modern Art and became enamored by the work of directors like Max Ophuls and Elia Kazan. While most of his formative years were spent developing a love for image-making, it was only around the late 1940’s that his ambitions coalesced into a firm desire to make cinema.

DAY OF THE FIGHT (1951)

Kubrick’s first foray into the moving image is relatively nondescript and pedestrian— an independently financed newsreel intended for distribution by the MARCH OF TIME series. Essentially working on spec, Kubrick based DAY OF THE FIGHToff of an earlier photo feature he had done for Look Magazine in 1949 on Irish middleweight boxer Walter Cartier. The short film follows Cartier on the day of his big fight against fellow middleweight Bobby James on April 17th, 1950.

Kubrick and his small crew shot DAY OF THE FIGHT using specialized, daylight-loading cameras that took 100 foot spools of black-and-white 35mm film. The camerawork is extremely conservative, confined to a static tripod except for a single shot that is executed with a subtle dolly. What Kubrick lacks in style and finesse, he makes up here in an excellent visual sensibility. His background in photography Kubrick gives him the capability to imbue a compelling depth in his compositions, as well as an inherent understanding of light and its importance in storytelling. Narrated by Douglas Edwards and scored by Kubrick’s childhood friend Gerald Fried, DAY OF THE FIGHT falls very much in line with newsreel shorts of the day, incorporating a musical sound that’s very civic and MATLOCK-sounding in its jaunty sense of self-seriousness. It would be ludicrous to suggest that Kubrick’s signature themes and storytelling fascinations are fully formed on his first time at bat, but Kubrick’s long exploration with man’s relationship to creation and religion sees modest roots in DAY OF THE FIGHT with a sequence that shows Cartier and his twin brother attending church and receiving communion before the match.

Kubrick’s efforts turned out successful when he sold DAY OF THE FIGHT to RKO for four thousand dollars. He only made a profit of $100 after his out-of-pocket production expenses of $3900 were recouped, but he had managed to establish himself as a working director and start his career off on a strong note.

FLYING PADRE (1951)

Kubrick’s second newsreel short, FLYING PADRE, was also created in 1951 and features Father Fred Stadtmuller as its subject—a priest whose parish is so spread out (400 square miles to be exact), he must fly a small plane to get wherever he’s needed. Produced by Burton Benjamin and narrated by CBS announcer Bob Hite, FLYING PADRE is similar in style to DAY OF THE FIGHT and other newsreels of the day. Shooting again on black and white 35mm film, Kubrick makes use of the bright, even light of the prairie, evoking the earnest sensibilities of a western film (whereas DAY OF THE FIGHT’s treatment of light resembled film noir). The camera, locked to a tripod, is observational and unobtrusive save for one striking shot at the very end where it tracks backwards away from Father Stadtmuller and his plane. This is the earliest instance of a shot that Kubrick would employ (to striking effect) throughout his work, helping to define his style as a director. Aside from the religious aspect of his subject, Kubrick’s other defining signature—the exploration of man’s relationship to technology—begins here in FLYING PADRE with an in-depth look at how the modern miracle of flight enables Father Stadtmuller to overcome the intimidating challenges of tending to such a large parish.

DAY OF THE FIGHT and FLYING PADRE are highly representative of Kubrick’s humble, journeyman beginnings. These newsreel shorts are devoid of style, feeling very much like a bland product of “the establishment”—a nebulous entity that Kubrick would very soon turn on and stake his career against. While not particularly notable in their own right, these two newsreel shorts would firmly establish the arrival of one of cinema’s most important and treasured auteurs and enable the opportunity for his first feature.