In the mid 1940’s during the early years of his life, Stanley Kubrick made his money by playing chess for small change in New York City parks and working as an apprentice photographer for Look magazine. During his time at high school, he took a series of photographs which he sold to Look magazine thus kick starting his short but important time as a photographer. He became known for creating brilliant photo series which told a story, his ability to communicate a narrative through images was what encouraged such a positive and strong response to his work from fellow professionals and members of the public. One of his most famous photo series took place on the New York subway system where he photographed people, mostly young couples, waiting for trains and traveling on them. The series painted a beautiful picture of the banalities of modern relationships but still showed couples in happy and warm embraces.
Kubrick always had a strong interest in films and meticulously taught himself everything he needed to know about techniques and practice and teamed up with a friend from school Alexander Singer who worked for a production company. By spending time with Alexander he created contacts within the industry, learned from Alexander about the industry and the two of them talked about making a film together based on Homer’s The Iliad. Kubrick, however, true to his solitary character decided to go it alone and in 1951 made a film about a boxer, Walter Cartier who he had met and photographed for Look magazine. This became his first film, a 16 minute black and white documentary called Day of the Fight. The film was shot on the day that Walter Cartier fought fellow boxer Bobby James and won on 17th April 1950. The film sees Cartier carrying out his daily activities like eating his breakfast and his lunch and preparing for his fight. This film, despite being very short and his first attempt at making a film showcased his ability to create juxtaposition between two opposing things, in this case the very basics of modern living against the back drop of high staking boxing matches.
Kubrick continued to learn as much as he could about film making by talking with people already in the profession, he claimed that having seen so many bad films he was convinced he would be able to make something better. He continued his film making my releasing Flying Padre also in 1951, another short documentary film about a priest who would fly 4000 miles visiting the 11 churches in his expansive parish in New Mexico. Much like Day of the Fight, the film focuses on the daily occurrences of the Priest profession; he performs ceremonies and makes visits to people in the parish. The film was financed by RKO Pictures who bought Day of the Fight from Kubrick for $4000 which only granted him a small profit but gave him a step to making his next work. In an interview with Joseph Gelmis in 1969, Kubrick described Flying Padre as a “silly thing about a priest in the Southwest“.
After pocketing a small profit from both films and through screening his films to friends and family, Kubrick raised $1000 towards funding his first feature length film Fear and Desire an anti-war film starring Frank Silvera who went on to star in Kubricks follow up feature film Killer’s Kiss. The films initial budget was provided by Kubricks uncle who put $10’000 towards production costs. Despite using precarious DIY methods of shooting some of the scenes, the budget escalated dramatically to over $30’000 and Kubrick’s producer had to provide the extra costs and unfortunately, the film was not a success at the box office.
Unable to pay back the investors or fund his next feature Killer’s Kiss, Kubrick made a commissioned short film for the Seafarers International Union. As Kubricks first colour film, he used the opportunity to establish some of his skills as a film maker, and some of these techniques would become Kubrick’s signature in films yet to come. This film was lost until the early 1970’s when it was discovered by film scholar Frank P Tomasulo who arranged for it to be printed. It was released on DVD in 2008, 9 years after Kubricks death.
Killer’s Kiss was released in 1955 and also lost Kubrick around $40’000 as he was unable to pay back investors with the films profits. The film was met with mixed reviews upon its release, but much like other early work, it wasn’t until later that it was considered as a credible piece of film making. United Artists, who distributed the film required the ending to be changed and offered Kubrick $100’000 for the film and agreed to fund his next feature The Killing. Kubrick teamed up with producer James B. Harris after meeting him while playing chess in one of New York’s parks. This collaboration added some value for the picture as Harris contributed $80’000 to the production after United Artists only offered $200’000 as Harris and Kubrick were unable to sign a big enough star in the lead role. The film was a failure at the box office and Kubrick recorded a loss of around $130’000. The reviews against him were largely negative but the film has since gained a massive cult following and Quentin Tarantino has written that The Killing was his inspiration for Reservoir Dogs.
So with three feature film under his belt, each one failing to succeed at the box office and putting Kubrick more and more out of pocket each time one might think Kubrick would take a back seat from film making and recuperate some costs, pay off some debts and go back to photography. But this is Stanley Kubrick we are talking about, stubborn, willful and tenacious. Kubrick ‘s next feature, also with producer James Harris, Paths of Glory starred Kirk Douglas and was funded by MGM and United Artists after the head of production at MGM saw The Killing and rather liked it. After Kubrick suggested the film should be adapted from the novel of the same name by Humphrey Cobb, MGM became reluctant to provide funding as they were unsure if the story would be enough for a success, however, once Harris and Kubrick acquired Kirk Douglas to play the lead role, United Artists agreed to back the film. Paths of Glory was not a box office smash, it didn’t generate thousands of dollars but it was met with higher praise than any of Kubricks other feature and it earned him critical acclaim in the industry. This would be enough for him to continue his film making further and he would go on to direct Douglas in Spartacus three years later, a big budget Hollywood blockbuster.
Stanley Kubrick’s tenacity and drive gave him the stamina to keep going through the rough times to reach the good times. His films haven’t always been met with a brilliant box office response, even his most renowned film 2001: A Space Odyssey was a box office failure, but his films find their audience in the underground and the less mainstream cinema goers. Everyone has to start somewhere and Kubrick’s early work certainly gave him a rocky introduction to the industry but the career and the reputation that was waiting for him was worth the hard work and bad revenue of the early years. By always pushing the boundaries of both budgets and content, Kubrick became famed for his integrity, his persistence and his unrelenting ability to make visionary films that would provoke the industry and his audiences to pay close attention.
Article by Eleanor Wilkin