Retro Cinema: "Flying Padre" (1951)

In 1951, a new filmmaker named Stanley Kubrick created the short documentary “Day of the Fight” on a reported budget of $3,900 and sold the film to RKO for $4,000 – the highest sum that the studio ever paid for an independently produced short film. Buoyed by his $100 profit, Kubrick was happy when the studio tapped him to create a film for its RKO-Pathe Screenliner series of human interest short documentaries. The studio advanced Kubrick $1,500 for the project, which he quickly accepted.

The resulting film, “Flying Padre,” is not exactly something you would expect from Kubrick. Originally titled “Sky Pilot,” the eight-minute film centers on Reverend Fred Stadtmuller, a German-born Roman Catholic priest in rural Harding County, New Mexico. Reverend Stadtmuller served an 11-church parish that stretched 4,000 square miles – most of it lacking paved roads. In order to get around his parish quickly, the good priest relied on a piper cub airplane called the Spirit of St. Joseph (an obvious parody of Charles Lindbergh’s celebrated Spirit of St. Louis). And in case you’re wondering, there were no airports in the parish – Reverend Stadtmuller’s airplane took off and landed on rough dirt fields.

Each year, the priest covered 12,000 miles in flight. “Flying Padre” covers two days in Reverend Stadtmuller’s parish. The film opens with the priest in flight to the funeral of a ranch hand. The film’s narration, delivered by CBS News announcer Bob Hite, notes that the parish congregants are primarily “Spanish Americans” – obviously the term “Mexican American” wasn’t exotic enough for 1951.

After the funeral, Reverend Stadtmuller flies back to his main parish in Mosquero, New Mexico. Kubrick indulges in some brief dramatic lighting of the choir boys in prayer. Reverend Stadtmuller has other kids to worry about – he referees a dispute between an unnamed girl and a playmate of hers named Pedro.

The priest’s airplane, which was purchased with $2,000 borrowed from a friend, comes in handy when he receives a call from a young mother in an isolated rural village. It seems that her baby is very ill and she needs to get him to a hospital. But since she is so far removed from civilization, the priest flies to the rescue and brings mother and child to the small city of Tucumcari, where an ambulance is waiting to take them to a hospital.

“Flying Padre” duplicates the same problems that made “Day of the Flight” a disappointment. For starters, we never get to hear Reverend Stadtmuller – Kubrick shot the film without sound, so all we have to listen to is Bob Hite’s droning narration, a cutesy music score and occasional sound effects. (The priest’s airplane could easily be mistaken as the airborne cousin of Jack Benny’s celebrated Maxwell automobile.)

“Flying Padre” also makes a heavy use of blatantly staged sequences. The little girl in the child disagreement sequence has a great deal of difficulty keeping a straight face – she is clearly amused by whatever direction Kubrick gave her. Even worse, the sick baby and isolated mother sequence is so obviously fake – it is never clear how a camera crew just happened to be with this young woman in the middle of nowhere – that it is difficult to appreciate whatever the real life circumstances would have been.

But to its credit, “Flying Padre” manages to get in some interesting camerawork – especially of Reverend Stadtmuller while piloting his airplane. (Kubrick doubled as cinematographer, but received no screen credit.) The funeral sequence is also striking with its close-ups of the mourners – an artistic touch that is often absent in documentary shorts of that era. The final shot, taken from the rear of the ambulance supposedly rushing the sick infant to the hospital, is a smooth reverse tracking image of the priest standing by his airplane.

“Flying Padre” ultimately made little impact on Kubrick’s career. RKO had no further assignments for Kubrick, and the filmmaker would quickly write off the experience. One of Kubrick’s very few comments on the work found him dismissing the production as a “silly thing.”

Yet the back-to-back experience of “Day of the Fight” and “Flying Padre” convinced Kubrick to quit his day job as a photographer for Look Magazine and self-educate himself on the art of filmmaking. Since there were no film schools available at the time, Kubrick dove into as many books as he could find on the subject. He survived on unemployment insurance and money hustled from chess games he played in New York’s Washington Square Park until he was able to secure a commission from the independent Lester Cooper Productions to create “The Seafarers,” a 30-minute color industrial film promoting the Atlantic and Gulf Coast District of the Seafarers International Union (SIU), a labor organization representing the workers in the maritime trade.

“Flying Padre” has not been commercially released for home entertainment viewing. The film can easily be found online. While not a remarkable film, it offers a missing link in Kubrick’s early evolution as a creative artist.

As for Reverend Stadtmuller, he continued to serve the county for decades. He passed away in 2008 at the age of 95.
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