Shortly after Stanley Kubrick had completed his first film for RKO – the short subject Day of the Fight (1951) – the studio offered him a follow-up project for their Screenliner series which specialized in short human-interest documentaries. The subject of their proposal was the Reverend Fred Stadmueller, a priest at Saint Joseph’s Church in Mosquero, New Mexico. Known to his parishioners as the “Flying Padre” because he owned a small, single-engine plane that allowed him to visit his church members who were spread out over a four thousand mile area, Stadmueller was an inspiration to the mostly Spanish-American farmers and ranchers who made up his congregation.
Kubrick’s portrait of him in Flying Padre (1951) follows a similar structure he used in Day of the Fight but encompasses two days instead of one and climaxes with some human drama: a sick baby is transported from a remote ranch via Stadmueller’s airplane, the Spirit of St. Joseph, to the nearest airport where an ambulance waits to rush the child to a hospital. Along the way we are treated to glimpses of Stadmueller’s daily life which include his breakfast routine at the parish house, a funeral service for a ranch hand, and his counseling of two young parishioners who have been quarreling. Like Day of the Fight, Flying Padre uses only a narrator and a music score to accompany the visual narrative.
Kubrick wanted to call his second short Sky Pilot but was overruled by the producer. Though visually accomplished – there is a virtuoso tracking shot on an airport runway in the film’s final seconds – Flying Padre is a more prosaic experience than Day of the Fight which had the more dynamic and charismatic Walter Cartier as its subject. Nevertheless, the film is important in the arc of Kubrick’s career because it convinced him he wanted to devote his life to making movies. “It was at this point that I formally quit my job at Look to work full time on filmmaking,” Kubrick stated in an interview.
Kubrick just barely broke even on the making of Flying Padre but more problematic was the fact that RKO, now in the throes of financial difficulties, no longer had any assignments for him. Undeterred, the young director collected unemployment insurance while he immersed himself in the cinema, studying the films of Sergei Eisenstein and other important directors in the regular series at the Museum of Modern Art’s screening room, reading everything he could on the subject of film theory and discussing the mechanics of filmmaking with other craftsmen.
In 1953 he received a commission from the Seafarers International Union to make an industrial film on the Atlantic and Gulf Coast District of the American Federation of Labor entitled The Seafarers. It helped pay the bills and spurred him on to start raising money and begin production on his first feature film that same year, Fear and Desire.
Two days in the life of priest Father Fred Stadtmuller whose New Mexico parish is so large he can only spread goodness and light among his flock with the aid of a mono-plane. The priestly pilot is seen dashing from one province to the next at the helm of his trusty Piper Club administering guidance (his plane, the Flying Padre) to unruly children, sermonizing at funerals and flying a sickly child and its mother to a hospital.