BOOTLEG FILES 311: “Day of the Fight” (1951 short documentary directed by Stanley Kubrick).
LAST SEEN: Available on numerous online video sites.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Unavailable for commercial release.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Someday, maybe.
First-time filmmakers are often cut a great deal of slack, since their craft usually takes a great deal of time to master. Orson Welles, of course, was the glaring exception, having started at the pinnacle of his art and spending the next four decades working his way down.
Stanley Kubrick’s first attempt at filmmaking is a decent but curious effort from 1951 called “Day of the Fight.” The film offers glimpses of the great talent that would dominate cinema for years, but at the same time it also displays a great deal of the clumsiness that is typical of a neophyte talent. Still, it is easy to overlook the problems inherent in this debut effort.
Part of Kubrick’s problem came by working far outside of the Hollywood studio system. Serving as his own producer, Kubrick fell into the trap that continues to snag too many filmmakers: self-indulgence. With no outside force offering a counterbalance, the director/producer tends to run amok in the wrong direction. This was most evident in Kubrick’s first feature, the 1953 “Fear and Desire,” but in a short film like “Day of the Fight” is not so glaring.
“Day of the Fight” represented Kubrick’s graduation from still photography into motion pictures. He was inspired by the “March of Time” newsreels that were popular during the era, and his good fortune led to hook up with Alexander Singer, an aspiring filmmaker who worked as an office boy at Time Inc., the producer of the newsreel series. Kubrick and Singer decided to collaborate on their own documentary short modeled on the “March of Time”-style of filmmaking.
For the subject, Kubrick decided to revisit a 1949 photo essay he shot for Look Magazine about the New York-based middleweight fighter Walter Cartier. Kubrick, a boxing fan, framed Cartier in a style that was closer to art photography than sports coverage. The fact that Cartier was male model photogenic helped make the pictures even more striking, especially when he was shot opposite the big bruiser Tony D’Amico.
Kubrick got back into touch with the boxer via his twin brother Vincent Cartier, a lawyer who doubled as fight manager. Since Walter Cartier had an interest in acting, the brothers saw no harm in having Kubrick follow them with a camera.
“Day of the Fight” opens with a broad view of the boxing world, starting with a brief sequence of a fat boxing fan getting a ringside ticket to a bout before going into a montage of athletes in a boxing school. Then, curiously, the film cuts to veteran boxing writer Nat Fleischer in his office, thumbing through a directory of current boxers. He stops on the page with Walter Cartier’s photograph. At this point, the film really begins.
The rest of “Day of the Fight” takes place on a single day – April 17, 1950, to be precise – when Cartier is waiting for a 10:00 pm fight. The Cartier brothers are seen waking up in a cramped apartment at 6:00 am. It is an obviously staged shot, if one considers that Kubrick would have otherwise been sitting in their room waiting for them to rise.
The brothers get dressed and go for Mass at their local church. They return to the apartment for breakfast. Walter also pauses to play with his dog. Actually, that was not his dog – Kubrick felt that the boxer needed to show a playful side and he borrowed the canine for the scene.
Walter then goes to a doctor for a pre-fight examination. For lunch, he gets a free steak meal at the restaurant owned by a friend – an unidentified fat fella who smokes a cigar and looks at Walter’s lunch with gluttonous delight.
Back in the apartment, Walter prepares his equipment for the evening’s fight. He also studies his face in the mirror, pushing his nose down to simulate what it would look like in the event it gets broken. The brothers ride in the back seat of a convertible to the arena (we don’t know who is driving them), and Walter gets prepared for the fight.
Strangely, the fight itself is something of an anti-climax. Walter scores a knockout of his opponent in less than three minutes. End of the film.
One reason why “Day of the Fight” is not a great film is its irritating wall-to-wall narration, delivered bombastically by veteran newscaster Douglas Edwards. The script is full of painfully obvious cliches – when Walter is at Mass, Edwards notes that while he is a good fighter, “he doesn’t put all of his faith in his hands.” Edwards also refers to Walter’s ring opponent as “the boy” – actually, an African-American adult named Bobby James (who is never identified in the narration).
Another problem with the film is its military-style music score, created by first-time composer Gerald Fried, a Kubrick friend. Fried would later get into the proper groove, scoring several of Kubrick’s later films and classic TV series including “Star Trek” and “Roots.”
Cartier is never interviewed for the film, so we have no clue what he sounds like. The film also misidentifies him as 24, when he was actually 28 at the time Kubrick shot the film. The four-year cut helped buy Cartier ring time, since anyone pushing 30 was considered a bit old for the sport.
To its credit, the film offers brief glimpses of masterful Kubrick’s visual style, with silhouette shots, reverse tracking, and moody lighting that plays up Walter’s roughly handsome features. As for the fight, Kubrick at one point somehow managed to get his camera under the two boxers while they were in combat. Kubrick and Singer shot the fight with 35mm Eyemo cameras that took 100-foot rolls of film and required near-constant reloading. Kubrick would later claim that Singer captured the knockout punch, but Singer counterclaimed that Kubrick was being too generous.
“Day of the Fight” reportedly cost Kubrick $3,900 to shoot, though Singer stated it was closer to $4,500. As luck would have it, Time Inc. was winding down its March of Time series when the film was completed. But Kubrick managed to sell the film to RKO Radio Pictures, which included it as part of its RKO-Pathe “This is America” series of short films. The studio bought the film for $4,000, the highest fee that it ever paid for an independent short. Thus, if the $3,900 budget is correct, Kubrick made exactly $100 profit on his work.
Cartier continued in boxing without becoming a champion, then drifted into Hollywood. His most memorable work came on television as Pvt. Claude Dillingham opposite Phil Silvers’ Sgt. Bilko in the classic series “The Phil Silvers Show.” He never worked again with Kubrick.
As for “Day of the Fight,” the film made no impact with critics and audiences. It would probably be forgotten today if not for the Kubrick connection. Since there has never been an official home entertainment release, this rarely-seen work has turned up in bootleg versions. A somewhat murky version of the film can be seen on YouTube, Archive.org, and several other web sites.
Kubrick, of course, went on to the proverbial bigger and better. But, hey, you didn’t need me to tell you that!
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