#587) The Kidnappers Foil (c. 1936-c. 1952)
OR “The Children’s Hour”
Directed & Written by Melton Barker
Class of 2012
Special thanks to the Texas Archive of the Moving Image, who have helped preserve these films. And extra special thanks to the Melton Barker website, which has been collecting information on all versions of “The Kidnappers Foil”.
The Plot: Little Betty Davis is kidnapped, and her father offers a $1,000 reward. Determined to get that money, a group of kids band together to foil the kidnappers. After a successful rescue mission, Betty’s sister Jean expresses her gratitude by throwing a party/talent show for all the kids. But wait, it gets better. “The Kidnappers Foil” was remade literally hundreds of times over the years by the same filmmaker, in different towns throughout the south, with a new cast of local children every time. Together these films paint one of the more fascinating pictures on this list of significant movies.
Why It Matters: The NFR rundown is mostly a plot synopsis and the overall history of this film project.
But Does It Really?: I’m always looking for films on the NFR that stand on their own unique piece of ground, and “The Kidnappers Foil” is hands down one of the weirdest, most unique films on the list. Part amateur home movie, part avant-garde experiment, part local talent show, there is truly nothing like “The Kidnappers Foil” on this list. The films alone are an interesting watch, and the history behind them is even more fascinating. I was simultaneously baffled and delighted by every second of “The Kidnappers Foil”, and it’s this distinctive quality that solidifies the film’s place on the NFR.
Everybody Gets One: Not much is known about Melton Barker, other than he was born in Mississippi in 1903, and was raised in various towns across Texas. Barker claims he worked for a number of Hollywood studios, and was responsible for discovering Spanky McFarland, though these claims are disputed (there is, however, a photo of him and McFarland). With home movies still being an expensive hobby, Barker saw the money-making potential of traveling to different towns, casting local children for his film, charging for acting lessons, and screening these films at the local movie house for the community to enjoy. While Barker made a handful of other movies in his lifetime, his legacy was and is “The Kidnappers Foil”.
Wow, That’s Dated: These films have the same ’30s kids vibe I would attribute to an “Our Gang” short (which does lend Barker’s Spanky story a little credence). Also, did every kid in the ’30s have to wear a whoopee cap (aka a Jughead hat)?
- The earliest versions of “The Kidnappers Foil” date back to 1933 in Ardmore OK, Miami OK and Madison WI, while the last “Foil” appears to be from 1976 in Honey Grove TX. Over the years, Barker filmed at least 287 versions of “The Kidnappers Foil” across 28 states, primarily in the south, but stretching out from California to Rhode Island, Minnesota to Florida. Of the handful that are known to still exist, 21 of these films can be found on the Melton Barker site, and you bet your bottom dollar I watched all of them.
- Since my viewing of these films, I enjoy explaining “The Kidnappers Foil” to friends because it always sounds like a scam. In fact, what Barker was doing here is similar to the scheme Harold Hill pulls in “The Music Man“: A stranger comes to town, sells its citizens on a plan that involves their kids, culminating in a performance that, despite their lackluster talent, earns raves from the parents.
- Yes, that’s right, the lead character in this movie is named Betty Davis. By 1933, Bette Davis was getting started at Warner Bros., and was still waiting for her breakout role. It’s possible Barker had never heard of her before naming his leading lady, and never bothered to change it over the years.
- Betty’s sister Jean has her big acting moment when she realizes Betty has been kidnapped, and most of Jean’s actors use their natural southern accents to turn “dad” into the multisyllabic “Da-yud! Da-yud!”. Speaking of, in most versions of “Kidnappers”, Betty & Jean’s father is played by Melton Barker himself, though in later versions the character is eliminated entirely.
- Adjusted for inflation, the $1000 reward in 1933 would be about $20,000 today. Go, kids, go!
- The joy of watching these films is that you get to observe the seams; the stilted acting, the kids pausing before receiving their cues, the ambient noises picked up on the mikes. It gives you the sense that these movies were filmed fast and cheap, no time for retakes! Added bonus: Watch these films with earbuds to hear Barker give off-screen directions.
- It’s weird to think that a decent amount of these kids are theoretically still alive.
- If I was a kid in one of these towns where “Kidnappers” was being filmed, I would have begged my parents to be in this, and would probably be deeply embarrassed by my own performance as an adult. But alas, I was born too late, and the closest I ever got was being an extra in some superhero short that filmed at the abandoned Stockton Airport.
- The talent shows are always the best part of “Kidnappers”, though most of the talents are either tap dancing or singing a popular tune off-tempo. One kid earns points for originality by doing stunts on their swing set.
- The songs featured in the talent shows are a good mix of popular tunes and novelty songs. Among the selection: “The Codfish Ball“, “Mickey Mouse’s Birthday Party“, “Goody Goody“, “Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, Oh!“, “Playmates“, and something called “(If I Had) Rhythm in My Nursery Rhymes” which finds its way into multiple versions. One girl in San Marcos, Texas sings “The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down“, which if you ask me is quite a looney selection.
- I know they’re kids, but some of this singing is giving me some serious John Daker flashbacks.
- Viewing these shorts in sequential order highlights how Barker streamlined the process as he went along. By the late ’40s, Barker starts filming each individual line rather than trying to capture a whole scene in one take. Around this time Barker also stopped filming the talent shows, shooting only the first reel with the local talent and reusing the best talent shows from previous versions, splicing in new reaction shots. I watched the same performances of “Beautiful Dreamer” and “The Wise Old Owl” five times! These versions all end with the local children singing “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here”.
- One girl in Shawnee, OK sings “Ma! He’s Making Eyes at Me”. It’s been done.
- Ooh, the 1951 Las Cruces, New Mexico version has a Waylon Jennings-esque narrator. Was the plot that hard to follow?
- Stick around for the Pine Bluff, Arkansas version from 1952, featuring the town’s annual Easter egg hunt. I hope someone finds the E.T. cameo in “Phantom Menace”.
- If there’s one thing I appreciate about these movies, it’s that they teach kids to practice vigilante justice at an early age.
- After reaching its peak in the early ’50s, productions of “The Kidnappers Foil” lessened throughout the decade, no doubt due to the increasing accessibility of home movie cameras, as well as the rise of television, and therefore local stations. According to Melton Barker’s website, he died in 1977 at age 74 while on the road.
- Despite his prolific filmography, it appears that Barker did not hold onto any copies of “Kidnappers”, and roughly 90% of them are lost. Once again, my extreme thanks to the Barker website, as well as the Texas Archive of the Moving Image, who have spent years archiving and cataloging the surviving prints, as well as preserving related newspaper articles and conducting interviews with surviving performers.