Friday, February 22, 2013
BOB GARFIELD: Our next story is about a film category not celebrated at the Oscars. In the first half of the 20th century, a small group of so-called itinerant filmmakers made a living traveling from small town to small town, charging residents to appear in movies where they and the town they lived in would be the stars. The practice mostly died out by the late fifties, but one man named Melton Barker, who started in the thirties, continued into the seventies. Barker’s films were unique in that they were always exactly the same. For 40 years, he shot countless iterations of a movie called “The Kidnappers Foil.” Caroline Frick, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has spent years collecting prints of “Kidnappers Foil.” Here’s the plot:
CAROLINE FRICK: The rich girl in town by the name of Betty Davis is kidnapped by two men. The father of Betty Davis offers a reward and the “gang" - quote, unquote - gets together to figure out how they can find Betty and get the reward. Once they, of course, find Betty they, rather inexplicably, put on a talent show. So you have one reel that's about this kidnapping –
- very slim kidnapping narrative and then a quick segue way into a talent show.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, what were the talents? Just curious.
CAROLINE FRICK: There were hundreds of these made, and we really only have about 20 of them. You sort of see the 1930s, oh, children who are gonna be the next vaudeville entertainer or Shirley Temple or Bob Hope. There’s lots of tap dancing and there’s sort of a radio announcer type, and then as you get into the fifties, perhaps more interpretive dance, a lot of bad singing.
But what’s interesting is also that they select certain songs that have more regional appeal. So what, let’s say, the children were singing in Childress, Texas in the thirties isn’t gonna resemble what was being done, let’s say, in Pennsylvania.
CHILD/SINGING: Is it true what they say about Dixie? Does that sun really shine all the time?
BOB GARFIELD: Melton Barker sounds, for all the world, like the Music Man, only, you know, instead of a marching band he’s got – promises of cinema stardom. So is that what this guy was about?
Was he a scam artist?
CAROLINE FRICK: No. He was an entrepreneur who was a realist and perhaps, at times, bluntly so. His marketing materials, at one point in his career, basically said, your children are never gonna make it in Hollywood. Let's face it. You know it, I know it. Let me just take 10 backs, we’ll put ‘em on the big screen in your local town, and this will be a lot of fun.
BOB GARFIELD: How did you stumble upon “The Kidnappers Foil?”
CAROLINE FRICK: It’s funny, I’ve been searching and researching Barker for, sadly, over a decade now. It's become a little hazy.
But I’d stumbled upon it. And I had worked at Warner Bros. in the Film Preservation Department, preserving hundreds of children's short subjects. I think I became obsessed with the fact that Barker had made hundreds of films, hundreds and hundreds, and yet, nobody knew about him. He’d made more filsm than Martin Scorsese, and nobody heard about him.
BOB GARFIELD: So here’s a – montage of the same scene involving a series of local little girls whose character’s name, by the way, is Betty Davis, [LAUGHS] It’s, it’s why it’s - it’s majestic.
[“KIDNAPPERS FOIL” CLIPS]:
CHILD: Betty, Betty - my little sister, she’s been kidnapped! Oh, what shall I do?
CHILD: Betty, Betty, my little sister, she’s been kidnapped! Oh, what shall I do! Dad, Dad, Dad!
CHILD: Oh, Betty, Betty, my little sister, she’s been kidnapped. Oh, what shall I do?
CHILD: Betty, Betty, my little sister’s been kidnapped! What shall I do?
CHILD: Dad, Dad, Dad, Dad –
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] It sounds like the outtakes from “Our Gang” comedies. [LAUGHING]
CAROLINE FRICK: Oh, completely. I mean, it’s actually really funny ‘cause who’s been kidnapped? It’s Betty Davis, wink-wink. Right? So there is this kind of connection between Our Gang comedies, m – real Hollywood, with a capital H, and these local versions. You’re absolutely right. And, of course, Melton Barker liked to promote that he had discovered Spanky McFarland.
[“OUR GANG” CLIP]:
SPANKY McFARLAND [SINGING]: We're going to start our follies, we hope you like the show. For everything is ready, we’re raring to go.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: Apart from the beauty of the regional dialects and the kind of conceptual art aspects of doing the same movie a, a hundred plus times, what makes this story so compelling to you?
CAROLINE FRICK: One of the aspects to me, as someone who is a historian at heart, is looking at the depiction of our country over time, in communities that aren't necessarily covered regularly in the national media and, in particular, for me is the fact that he get this through the fifties, through the sixties and into the seventies. And when you look at what children are learning today in the textbooks of what this country was going through in the sixties and seventies, you're not thinking of “The Kidnappers Foil.” You’re thinking of the Civil Rights movement, you’re thinking of presidents being assassinated. There's a different tone, I think, and a different perspective that seems to emerge from “The Kidnappers Foil” series.
BOB GARFIELD: And then there's the filmmaker himself. On the road for 30 or 40 years, remaking the same film, who was this guy?
CAROLINE FRICK: An enigma. My favorite aspect to his personality that I’ve been able to discover is that he actually hated children.
He loved dogs.
BOB GARFIELD: Did, did he have a life? Did he have a family?
CAROLINE FRICK: I know that he was married – a couple of times. Those marriages ended in divorce. He did not have any children of his own. The closest I've come was chatting with his former stepson, who didn't much remember him and, in fact, vaguely remembered that he was a filmmaker. Indeed, I don't think that Barker left much of a long-term impression, didn't have long-term relationships. But the impact that he had on lives in the short term is quite significant.
When we have brought back prints of these films to communities, people are overjoyed. I have had hundreds, literally hundreds of emails from people saying, my family never believed I was in this movie, I remember this filmmaker who came to town. I would love more than anything to see a copy of it.
BOB GARFIELD: Have you, in your obsessive, compulsive [LAUGHS], single-minded focus on “The Kidnappers Foil” become Melton Barker?
CAROLINE FRICK: Well, as much as I would like to say that that's not a good question to ask, he is my spirit Texan. All of us at the Texas Archive of the Moving Image have a spirit Texan. And there is no doubt that, that Mel is mine. [LAUGHS] And I have started to make my own version, so it’s true.
BOB GARFIELD: Is it true?
CAROLINE FRICK: Yes. And the man was a genius, by the way. I did not realize, he kept those children in sort of like sequestered groups, based on age. Why? Because if you bring them all together, like I did, disaster! I had kids in trees, I had kids running around. I don’t – I don’t know. The man was a genius.
BOB GARFIELD: You have picked up where Melton Barker left off.
CAROLINE FRICK: For educational purposes, [LAUGHS] yes.
BOB GARFIELD: Oh my –
- Caroline, [LAUGHS] thank you very, very much.
CAROLINE FRICK: Oh well, thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Caroline Frick is an assistant professor at the University of Texas Austin and executive director of the Texas Archive of the Moving Image. If you can sit through them, there are ten streamable versions of “The Kidnappers Foil” at Melton, that’s M-E-L-T-O-N, Barker.org [meltonbarker.org].
[CHLLDEN SINGING/UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman and Chris Neary. We had more help from Khrista Rypl. And our show was edited - by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Rob Frankel.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s vice-president for News, and our boss. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.