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)