Earlier this month the New York Times ran a short article on itinerant filmmaker Melton Barker. Referring to the man as a “huckster” and to his profession as a “racket” the article tells the story of a man drifting from town to town reshooting the same script over a hundred different times in over a hundred different towns. In each new place Barker found himself, he’d put out a talent call looking for child actors. Then, after charging them a small fee to appear in his film (anywhere from $1-$9), Barker would shoot them in a short usually titled The Kidnapper’s Foil. The film would have an invitation-only premier for the families of all the actors. Afterwards The Kidnapper’s Foil would run as a short before feature films giving locals the ability to go into their theater and see their own town on par with the all the glitz of Hollywood. So my question is, who was he conning?
Melton Barker’s most notable achievement in life was finding and backing child actor George McFarland, better known as Our Gang’s Spanky. So when Barker came to town it’s easy to see why parents were quick to pony up the dough for their kid to be in his film. After all, everyone thinks their child is the best child so what’s to stop them from reaching Spanky-level fame and riches. Jumping forward to 1993 when auditions were being held for a reboot of The Little Rascals I remember my own mom going on about how perfect my brother and I would be as an Alfalfa and Spanky duo. To be fair to my mom’s perhaps overestimation of how talented we were, we did somewhat fit the mold.
We never actually went to the auditions and, alas, I never was a famous child star but my mom’s certainty that we’d be just as adorable as any other so-and-so was unmatched. I would later get my fifteen minutes of screen time in 1995 as a musical chairs contestant on The Bozo Super Sunday Show. I placed second and brought home Matt’s chocolate chip cookies, a set of Uno cards, and life time bragging rights. I flaunt my credentials* only to cut to the bone of the matter. It was amazing watching myself on Bozo. I spent countless Sunday mornings watching Bozo create worlds and then all of a sudden I was right next to him in that world. Melton Barker, despite being a tipsy vagrant, wasn’t conning anyone. In fact, the man was performing a public service.
Since Barker’s films would play as shorts before a Hollywood produced feature both locations would be brought to the same par. Suddenly local streets would seem just as alive with adventure as the distant jungles and big cities. In an interview with the AV Club Michel Gondry discussed these themes as they related to his 2008 comedy Be Kind Rewind:
It sort of fuses this idea I’ve had for years, believing that people could create their own entertainment and they would enjoy it better, because they are in it. And the film would not have to be technically achieved, because it’s like watching a home movie. You don’t watch it for the technique, you watch because it’s reminiscing on good moments you spent with your friends. It reflects you. It belongs to you.
Although Barker used the same script in every town he visited each film is unique in its own right because each film belongs to a different town. It’s important to note that if Melton Barker had just made this film once, or even made a different film in each town, he would be a much less important filmmaker. With The Kidnapper’s Foil each copy of the film is equal to the entire collection. Because each film is equally loved no single copy is the definitive copy. Instead, they all exist together as a testament to hometown pride and the pleasure of creating rather than consuming.
So what do you think? Do you consider Melton Barker a con-man or a public servant? Have you ever been on a television show or in a movie? Please leave some comments below so that we can continue our conversation on Melton Barker, hometown pride, and Spanky-level fame and riches.
*I was also an extra in a deleted scene from Fred Claus where I played “shocked mall person.” In the scene I was supposed to run out of a Godiva where I was “shopping” and look shocked as a bunch of angry mall santas beat up Vince Vaughn with styrofoam candy canes. It was pretty great. Because I worked in the mall they were filming I didn’t even have to sign up to be an extra, I just hung around with my co-worker, ate a lot of free chocolate, stole some candy bars from craft service, and then left when we got bored.
-Jet Fuel Blogger, Lucas Sifuentes