William F. O'Brien
Special to The Sun
“The Legacy of a Camera Toting Huckster,” was the headline for an article that appeared in a recent edition of the Sunday New York Times. That article dealt with Melton Barker, a Texas filmmaker who spent decades traveling through several states, including Oklahoma, where he would make a movie titled “The Kidnappers’ Foil” that involved the kidnapping of a young girl and her subsequent rescue by a group of young children. It ended with the children singing and dancing. The film was about 20 minutes in length.
The article detailed how Barker would make a deal with a local theater to show the movie prior to his arrival, and also would place an advertisement in a local paper that would say that a movie would be made and later shown there, and for a small fee parents could have their children be in the film. The Texas Archive of the Moving Image website contains a page devoted to Barker, which documents how from the 1930s until his death in 1977 he was on the road making his films in Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, North Carolina and South Carolina among other states. He also operated several restaurants and theaters during times when he was not traveling.
While Barker made the film hundreds of times, fewer than 20 versions have been found. The filmmaker would arrive with a small crew hat included a cameraman, two adult actors and a sound man, and parents were happy to pay several dollars to have their children appear in a movie that would be shown locally. The Texas Archive website includes a map that shows the places where Barker was known to have made movies, and they include the Oklahoma communities of Oklahoma City, Ada, Anadarko, Guthrie and Shawnee.
The film he made in Shawnee was discovered several years ago when the downtown Hornbeck Theater in that town was being renovated, and is now featured on the Oklahoma Historical Center’s website that details the making of movies in the state. In 2012 the Library of Congress added “The Kidnapper’s Foil” to its list of culturally and historically significant American movies.
University of Texas Film Historian Caroline Frick has done a considerable amount of research on Barker, and she has concluded that he was much more than a huckster armed with a camera. In an article that appeared in “The Moving Image,” which is published by the University of Minnesota Press, titled “Jackrabbit Genius Melton Barker, Itinerant Films and Creating Locality,” Frick describes how Barker was part of a tradition of itinerant filmmaking that was as old as the film industry itself but it has not received the attention of film historians that it deserves. She credits Barker and other traveling movie makers for bringing the magic of the film-making process to communities far from Hollywood. She also notes how their films captured the speech patterns of the places where they were made and included genuine locales that were not part of films made in Hollywood.
The film historian details that the showing of those movies in places where they were made and their presence on the Internet has resulted in local efforts to preserve and restore some of the structures that were featured in them. And the Internet site devoted to Barker includes emails from many people who were in his movies who write of the thrill of seeing themselves in a movie in a theater in their hometown. Frick believes that many versions of “The Kidnapper’s Foil” may be located in unused theaters and other places where films were stored and are waiting to be found.
WILLIAM F. O’BRIEN is an Oklahoma City attorney.