014: The Harold Hill of Movie Making

You've got Trouble! With a capital T and that rhymes with C and that stands for Cinema!

Harold Hill, you may recall, was the main character of The Music Man, a musical about a traveling con artist who went from town to town convincing the locals that their kids were in trouble. They were spending all their time doing god-knows-what at the pool hall, saying things like “swell” and “so’s your old man,” when what they really needed was a wholesome activity. What they needed was a boys’ marching band. So he would get the townsfolk riled up, sell them a lot of expensive instruments and lessons, and then skip town. (Then one day he arrives in River City, becomes smitten with the local music teacher, and the future director of Solo gets a solo.)

In real life, there were all sorts of traveling salesmen like Harold Hill in the early 20th century, some more honest than others. But none fascinates me more than the “itinerant filmmakers.”

An itinerant filmmaker would travel from town to town with some basic movie making equipment. Sometimes the sales pitch was simple: For just a few dollars per person, the whole town could get together and make a movie! Sometimes it was more elaborate, with the filmmaker convincing the locals that he was a big Hollywood producer drawn to their town for the beautiful locations. And wouldn’t you know it, the locals of the town would make perfect movie stars. All he needed was a little investment from the townsfolk to handle production costs. It would be great publicity for the town, of course, so totally worth it.

The filmmaker would post ads, announce auditions, and the townspeople got to see what it’s like to make and star in a real movie!

They would shoot for a few days, and then there would be some screenings for the excited locals who were thrilled to see themselves up on the big screen. And then the filmmaker would move on.

In the next town, the filmmaker would remake the exact same movie with an all new cast in an all new setting using the same pitch.

Most of those films are lost to time. Often only one copy of each movie was produced, and early film stock wasn’t made to last. But a few have surfaced.

Melton Barker

Melton Barker was an itinerant filmmaker from Texas who specialized in movies starring kids. He had an Our Gang-like script called “The Kidnapper’s Foil” that he produced over and over, casting kids in each town as the Local Gang. Part of his pitch was a claim that he discovered Spanky McFarland, of Our Gang fame. Hey, maybe your kid could be the next Spanky!

The plot was simple: A girl named Betty Davis is kidnapped for ransom, and the rest of the kids get together to rescue her. The script was written so that dozens of kids could have at least one line, which makes the end result feel a bit like a school play.

Barker probably made this movie hundreds of times. The Texas Archive of the Moving Image has managed to collect and digitize around 20 versions of “The Kidnapper’s Foil” made between 1936 and 1952. They also have a fantastic collection of production photos and newspaper notices. They even have a Facebook page that includes links to articles about former stars who are still alive today.

It’s a bit overwhelming to watch the same movie over and over, so I’ve done that for you. And I’ve put together a montage that shows what Barker’s films were like. I picked three scenes from “The Kidnapper’s Foil” to show back-to-back from several town’s productions. It’s amazing to see the different styles of costuming, and bad kid-acting, and watch people of a bygone era having fun doing something we take for granted now that everyone has a movie camera in their pocket. Take a look:

As a byproduct of his work, Barker ended up creating a cultural record of how people dressed and talked across America in the middle of the century. The New York Times wrote about Barker in 2013, and in that article, film historian Dan Streible noted:

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… 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.

In 2012, “The Kidnappers Foil” was among 25 American films added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically” significant.

In all the versions of Barker’s films that I watched, I saw only one person of color (although I may have missed others). She’s in the 1938 version filmed in Grand Island, Nebraska. Her presence jumped out at me, but I could not find information about her or the cast of this particular version.

“The Kidnapper’s Foil” has inspired other art. A few years ago an artist named Gareth Long created a video installation projecting several versions of the film simultaneously for a museum in Houston.

But what I haven’t seen is a modern remake of the film! It seems ripe for someone to do a shot-for-shot recreation with a contemporary cast. Perhaps it should be revived as a project to be produced by summer camps across the country each year, continuing to capture kids on film as the Local Gang.

Donald Newland

In the 1920s and 1930s, an itinerant filmmaker named Donald Newland traveled the country with a script called “[Blank]’s Hero,” where the Blank was the name of whatever town he was filming in.

There aren’t as many copies of Newland’s films as there are of Barker’s, but the production of one of them, “Staunton’s Hero,” is well documented.

One highlight of each “Hero” film was a car crash that gave the locals a chance to see how trick photography worked: two cars were filmed backing away from each other, and the scene was used in reverse in the final film. Combined with a shot that used a smoke bomb to convey the crash, it’s actually pretty effective.

Only one of Newland’s films is available its entirety: “Belvidere’s Hero,” from Belvidere, Illinois, filmed in 1926. The car crash appears at around 9½ minutes in:

Other Itinerant Filmmakers

Caroline Frick of the Texas Archive of the Moving Image has compiled a filmography of known itinerant films (pdf). Her work is a great resource on the subject, and there have been other scholarly works if you’d like further reading.

Her organization’s website also has an interesting archival television interview with itinerant filmmaker Hugh V. Jamieson, where he describes how he would develop film in hotel rooms, processing reels in the bathtub and drying them on the bed. It’s a fascinating first-person account.

And of course Wikipedia list a few other itinerant filmmakers, if that’s where you prefer to begin your rabbit hole journeys.

As more old books and newspapers get scanned, we’ll probably find more evidence of itinerant filmmakers. But we’ll probably never have a complete list. If you or your grandparents have an old itinerant film reel in the attic, let me know!

My Request To You

In bringing you this story, I didn’t just want to share itinerant filmmakers with a new audience; I also wanted to add something new to the discussion. This topic has been covered elsewhere, but I’d never seen back-to-back comparisons of the same scenes produced in different towns before. It seemed like a useful way to examine the work of an itinerant filmmaker, so I made it for this newsletter, as embedded above.

But it ended up taking a bit more time than I really had available this week. So if you enjoyed it, and this newsletter, I’d appreciate you sharing it with friends.

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And that’s it for this week. As usual, there’s more evergreen material waiting for you in the archive, and hey maybe you want to check out the archives of my old blog if you enjoy this newsletter. There are some gems there.

See you next week!

David