June 26, 2007

Flying Padre (1951)

In the early 50s, a young photographer named Stanley Kubrick decided to quit his job at "Look" magazine and try his luck at directing movies after discovering the potential of cinema as an art form. While eventually Kubrick would become a master of the craft and a renowned artist by his own right, the young filmmaker had his humble beginning at making short newsreels for RKO Radio Pictures. It all started when a friend convinced him to make "Day of the Fight", a short documentary about boxing that they intended to sell to "The March of Time" newsreel. Sadly, that newsreel was canceled, but to their fortune, people at RKO liked Kubrick's movie and bought the film. While Kubrick didn't make money out of "Day of the Fight", it opened him the doors at RKO, as they gave him the chance to make a new documentary for them: "Flying Padre".

Narrated by CBS announcer Bob Hite, "Flying Padre" tells the story of two days in the life of Father Fred Stadtmuller, a Catholic priest in rural New Mexico with a very particular way of reaching the people of his 400-square mile parish. Since his parish is too large and the roads of New Mexico aren't really good, Father Stadmuller uses a Piper Cub airplane to travel to whenever his people needs him, offering not only spiritual help, but sometimes also physical. Through the film, we follow this "Flying Padre" through his daily obligations, which not only include giving sermons at the church or helping people to solve their differences peacefully, as Father Stadmuller also uses his plane to help people in emergencies. In the movie for example, Father Stadmuller takes a sick child and his mother from their isolated ranch to the nearest hospital.

Based on Stadtmuller's experiences as priest of the New Mexico community of Mosquero, Stanley Kubrick wrote the screenplay for this brief recounting of several of Stadtmuller's adventures as Mosquero's "Flying Padre". Contrary to what the narration may tell, while the events portrayed in the movie did happen, what we see on screen is only a reenactment of them, not an actual depiction of Stadtmuller at work. Despite the fact that what it's on screen is obviously staged, Kubrick makes a great job at making us discover the true heroism behind the humble priest, and to a certain extent it's very informative about the situation of New Mexico's rural land of those years. The text of the narration (apparently also written by Kubrick) is very in tone with what was the standard in the early 50s, although often falls in the clichés of the era.

While his work with the screenplay doesn't show any sing of the talent that would make him a legend, the excellent camera-work he uses in the shooting of the film is a clear display of the abilities of the promising director. As he did in "Day of the Fight", Kubrick employs a mix of editing and cinematography to create a very dynamic movie in the style of Max Ophüls (who was a big influence in his early years). While of course Kubrick is forced to remain true to the newsreel's conventions, he manages to create pretty good looking scenes that at times seem to tell the tale of the "Flying Padre" in better fashion than Bob Hite's fast narrative. Sadly, the film's cinematography is probably the only think that would make one see this movie as a Kubrick film, as it is probably the only element that shows Kubrick's rising talent as a filmmaker.

What I mean is that not only the screenplay is troubled, where the movie truly suffers the most is in the quality of the reenactment of several events in the priest's life. The problem is that since neither the "actors" (people literally playing themselves) nor the director had any experience in this aspect, the result is a "documentary" that feels staged and fake when it should be the exact opposite. Another of the problems is definitely Nathaniel Shilkret's score for the film and the way Kubrick uses it in the movie. While Shilkret was one of the best composers for newsreels during the Golden age of the genre (and even composed for feature films in the 30s), his work in this movie sounds old, clichéd and archaic, a sad ending for his long career.

Even when "Flying Padre" is definitely a flawed film, it is still an interesting piece of history as it shows the development of Stanley Kubrick's career from young photographer to legendary filmmaker. While the writing and the directing of actors leaves a lot to be desired, the camera-work and the cinematography are 100% Kubrick and it shows. It is very easy to dismiss this movie as a mere curiosity, but one has to remember that in only 4 years Kubrick went from this movie to "Killer's Kiss" and his first two masterpieces, "The Killing" and "Paths of Glory". Of his three first documentaries this is probably the worst, and I don't doubt it could be seen as disappointing; but as people say, "you have to start with something".


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