Strange, scammy director made the same movie over and over for 40 years

A filmmaker named Melton Barker travelled America from the 1930s to the 1970s, making and remaking a short movie called "The Kidnapper's Foil," which featured a large cast of kids. He'd roll into small towns, announce that he was going into production, and advertise for proud parents who wanted their kids to break into the movies. He'd raise local money to (re)make the film with an all townie cast, have it produced, and leave it behind. There are lots of versions still extant, but there are probably hundreds more that may never be recovered. They're a fascinating insight into the lives of Americans across the country and the years.

She estimates that Barker made hundreds of versions of “The Kidnappers Foil,” but fewer than 20 have been unearthed and digitized. In advance of his arrival to a new town — like Reidsville, N.C., or Allentown, Pa. — Barker, who Ms. Frick said probably died on the road in 1977, would broker a deal with a local theater to screen the film upon completion, handing over the reels once they’d been developed, either by himself (working in his hotel room) or by a lab in Dallas. (During part of his career Barker, like the filmmakers of his era, was working with cellulose nitrate, a wildly flammable film stock that is difficult and dangerous to store.) All the currently accessible prints are available to view on, a Web site Ms. Frick and her colleagues built to raise more interest in Barker’s work. That collection, Ms. Frick reasoned, might lead to the recovery of more prints.

Dan Streible, a film historian and an associate professor of cinema studies at New York University, is the director of a recurring symposium for so-called “orphan films” like “The Kidnappers Foil.” Mr. Streible said such films, which he defines loosely as “amateur films and home movies, medical films, outtakes, uncompleted films, fragments — things which were not commercial features,” are also “the ones that need the most preservation and advocacy.” He added, “There wasn’t an obvious commercial value to them, and there isn’t always an obvious owner in the legal sense, and they’re films that are left behind in archives for any number of haphazard reasons.”

These lost artifacts can become essential cultural documents, and what they occasionally lack in narrative coherence or flash they make up for in historical worth. Unlike Hollywood films set in fake small towns and populated by professional actors, “The Kidnappers Foil” captures, however incidentally, an authentic American culture and locale. “By going to all those small towns, throughout the South and all over, Barker was preserving regional dialects that cannot be heard in a single Hollywood film,” Mr. Streible said. “No one else was recording people in Childress, Tex., in 1936, and here they are, a large group of them all talking in their natural voices.”

The Legacy of a Camera-Toting Huckster [NYT/Amanda Petrusich]

(via Making Light)

(Image: Texas Archive of the Moving Image)


    1. Just what I was thinking.

      Except since this was real life, I wonder if any of the parents’ saw any red flags when a stranger blew into town asking for access to everyone’s children in order to make a movie with the word “kidnapper” in the title.

      1.  People weren’t nearly as hysterical about such things back then.  For all the faults of the era, there was a lot more common sense.

  1. Calling him a scammy huckster might be going to far. He did, after all, deliver what he promised: A chance to see your kid on the silver screen. It’s not like he took the money and left town.

    Obviously he was no auteur, but his product was probably a real thrill on opening night.

    1.  Yeah, I was surprised to read that he finished each of the films. Heck, I know “real” producers who don’t even do that.

    2. Digging through the site, there’s an old clipping about an investigation based on him promising parts in real “our gang” type movies at the real Warner Brothers and presenting himself as someone who worked on their behalf.

      So, I guess it really depends on how he presented it – if it was always as something that was just for local consumption, then fine. It does appear though that he was selling it as something far more than just that though. The term “preying on hopeful parents” was used.

      1. It doesn’t looks scammy at all. I found what I assume to be a flyer promoting the production. It looks like he’s being very forthright in saying he would “produce a two reel talking movie, similar to the Gang Comedies, as formerly produced in Hollywood”… and that “your local theatre will make the dream … come true”

        More here:

        1. Interesting. That would align more with some of the dates on the map: where he went back to the same cities again. In one case it was only twelve years or so, and in others it was more like 30 years. You’d think that if it was a scam, people wouldn’t let him back in to town to do it again.

          I didn’t make up the clipping though. It’s here:

          I wonder if the issues were more that the parents were reading more into it than was said. Or perhaps he promised a bit more to some parents in exchange for other… “favours”*

          *chocolate? Ice cream? back rubs?

  2. Cory, why do you call this guy a “strange, scammy dictator”? Sounds like the local kids had a lot of fun. Is there any evidence he ripped people off, or made outrageous promises?

    1. According to the article a girl’s family handed over $9 for her to take part in 1936. Adjusted for inflation that makes around $148 now.
      By comparison, I’m paying rather more for dance lessons, costumes, and tickets which will enable me to see my daughters take part in a dance recital next month.

      1. Inflation doesn’t work as neatly as that. Going by the average wage in 1936, $9 could have easily been two weeks’ pay.

        1. You protest too much: $9 in two weeks works out at just under 20% of the median wage in 1936.

          However, I’m happy to concede that if you determine the present day dollar equivalent by accounting for the change in median income, you get a bigger figure ($381).
          I still don’t think that’s an outrageous figure.

          1.  During the height of the Depression in a small town?  That’s a ridiculous amount of money.  The NYT article states that the girl’s parents couldn’t have afforded it, but her sister saved it up.

      1.  Fucking autocorrect. About half the messages I receive now, through just about any channel, have been stripped of meaning because goddamn smartphones keep insisting they can spell better than their owners…

        1. In which case I apologise for even pointing it out. This happens to me all the time. More often than fixing the odd mistake it makes me come across as a babbling mad man.

    2. Cory, why do you call this guy a “strange, scammy dictator”?

      You know who else was a strange, scammy dictator?

  3. I agree that calling the directory scammy is a bit much cause he did deliver the movie as promised. The NYT article compares him to the production company that produced Rebecca Black’s video, which, for what it was, looked good. 

    1. Oh God, my brain is now actively shutting down in order to prevent that ear-worm entering my head again on the very mention of her name…

    1. I imagine around the 10 year mark was where the movies were at their best.  By that time he’d have gotten it down to a science, but maybe he hadn’t quite lost the passion.

    1. Agreed.  I really don’t see how this differs from all of us being offered the opportunity to leave our very own writing on the same page as a famous…


  4. I do find strange scammy a rather strange header for this. If the strange is put there because he used local chilren as a catalist to sell his product then by that token the jc penny/ sears portrait center is strange as well. while he prolly made the movies for considerably less then the money put into it he did deliver a movie and from the page he even went back to remake movies in the same towns indicating he wasnt worried about being run out of own as a huckster on his return. while i love your site and always find it interesting i do find the hipsteresk mentality of applying todays ethics codes morals and societal conscisousness to the past rather annoying.

    1. i do find the hipsteresk mentality of applying todays ethics codes morals and societal conscisousness to the past rather annoying.

      You think that honesty is ‘todays’ morality? Fascinating.

  5. Uh, isn’t this the plot of “The Music Man”?  And nearly, The Producers?
    This guy was not doing these films to benefit anyone but himself.  It was his career.  The fact that he finished the movies and left them in town doesn’t change that.

    1. So his career is a scam? He supplied a product that people wanted and then moved on to do it again. How is this different than a traveling peddler visiting many towns while selling the same wares?

    2.  If you wanted to do this today, simply billing it as a ‘movie production & acting workshop’ for young people would garner you plenty of positive interest. And, now just like then, you’d be doing no-one any harm and hopefully everyone would have fun.

      1. They do this today, in the form of “Who’s Who” volumes, and poetry collections for students.

        Sorry if I just disappointed anyone.

        1. There’s a company in Palm Springs that periodically puts out a Who’s Who of pets for local rich people.

    3. It’s the Music Man if the music man actually successfully pulled together a functioning band in each town he visited that performed a popular show in town. It’s the Music Man… if the Music Man wasn’t a con-man, and did exactly what he said.

      So not really like that at all. :P

      Most people work to benefit themselves – he apparently provided enough of a service that even for those prices he could come back again and do it in the same town for the next batch of kids who wanted the opportunity.

  6. Reminds of “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” (1974) – Duddy’s first venture was making short Bar Mitzvah films for Families. 

  7. In unrelated news, hundreds of adults recount tales of being molested as children at the hands of a strange movie maker, between 1930 and 1975.

    You have to admit, this would be a pedophiles dream gig.

  8. I don’t think the filming was as nefarious a scam as the title to this post implies, but there are still people alive that were children in these films and they could give valuable insight about it. Seeing the films are very entertaining if you were from one of the small towns. For instance, my mother grew up in Childress, TX. where one of the films was shot and they have shown the film at class reunions so that people can identify themselves, their siblings etc. Sadly my mother was too young to be in it at the time but people she knew were, like one of her teachers. It was even cool for me to see the old stores and park, where I played as a child. I get the impression from people in Childress that they knew the film was redone in other towns and they didn’t expect anything more from it than just a chance to let their kids be part of something fun and unique. Some of the kids and parents in the films might have gone overboard with their expectations of how “talented” their little darling child was and what the film could do to advance their personal opportunities as actors etc., but I don’t think Barker was promising anything more than what he delivered and a polite compliment of how talented they were and what a great job they were all doing!

  9. Barker was unique only in how long he stuck to the same film (and there were gaps in his Kidnappers Foil filmography in which he was doing local film work and managing movie theaters, etc.). Itinerant filmmaking began early in the 20th century and was a flourishing (though always marginal) business model in the 1930s. The nonfiction “See Yourself in the Movies” films were more common than narratives–one of these, “Kannapolis, NC” by H. Lee Waters, was named to the National Film Registry in 2004.

  10. So am I the only one who now desperately needs to see ALL versions of “The Kidnappers Foil” screened simultaneously next to one another, Video Wall style? I’d put down serious money to see that happen.

  11.  I’m kind of flummoxed by how many people are passing their own “scam test” on this, so I have a bridge to sell you if you’ve got access to a money order.

    Yes, these days you might pay a significant amount of money to send your child to dance or sporting lessons but these are skills the kid is learning from someone who knows how to teach them and provides an opportunity for personal growth; the NYT article makes no mention of this man having any skills as an acting teacher, nor bringing one along with him.  He provided no learned skill to the children for his rather large fee, only the opportunity to act as unskilled labor, see the product once and then he’d skip town.

    Not providing the promised product (the film in this case) is not the sole definition of a scam. 

    1.  I’m totally on the side that Barker was probably working a scam, but the story is so novel and interesting that I’m kind of rooting for an Ed Wood-style biopic, if only to raise awareness and lead to more prints being discovered. Film history might do well to cast him as kind of a gentleman bandit who at least handed in the finished films.

  12.  Er… if he wasn’t producing it as a Hollywood Opportunity, and people knew it was just a local movie, it actually sounds a lot like the Missoula Children’s Theatre, which does great work creating plays featuring local children.

    If he was presenting it as an opportunity to catch the notice of Hollywood agents, then it was a scam. (Which the MCT is obviously not.)

Comments are closed.