Itinerant filmmaker Melton Baker made children the stars in Salisbury, other N.C. towns
SALISBURY — As a 6-year-old in the summer of 1941, Barbara Page Earley apparently was a good screamer.
Her screaming ability almost landed her the starring role in the Salisbury movie “Kidnappers Foil.”
Even though the role of kidnapped “Betty” went to Martha Ray Hatley, Earley impressed the film's casting director enough to have a speaking line in the movie.
With a large group of kids around her after Betty had been kidnapped, Earley — a towheaded cutie — shouted, “Come on, gang, let's go find her.”
The filming of “Kidnappers Foil” took only a few days in June 1941. It was shot in City Park and at a two-story brick home across the street at 1037 Confederate Ave.
Earley was one of about 150 Salisbury children cast for “Kidnappers Foil” by itinerant filmmaker Melton Barker, who had his town-to-town movie enterprise down to a science.
Because she was 6, Earley has only the vaguest of memories of the film, shown at Salisbury's Capitol Theatre July 9 and 10, 1941, as a lead-in to that week's feature film, “A Girl a Guy and a Gob.”
Earley remembers going to the Yadkin Hotel for an audition. Her older sister, Dot, who was 15 at the time, served as her escort.
For the actual filming at City Park on a hot summer day, Earley wore shorts that looked like a skirt — a “skort,” if you will.
Her memory of the movie's storyline is being part of an “Our Gang”-like group of children who set out to find a girl kidnapped from her home after a birthday party.
The fictitious reward was a whopping $1,000.
Earley attended the premiere of the movie at the Capitol on July 9, 1941. There was a big crowd, given the large number of children who had been cast.
That was by design, of course. For their children to participate in the movie, parents paid from a couple of dollars up to $10 a child — considerable money in post-Depression 1941.
Some research has suggested Barker charged for “training,” rather than a fee for just being in the movie.
The two-reel comedy ran about 25 minutes.
Children as main characters in movies were a popular thing back then, thanks to the “Our Gang” shorts.
“That was the Shirley Temple days, too,” Earley says.
In his press releases to newspapers announcing he was coming to their towns, Barker identified himself as being from Hollywood and boasted he had “the distinction of having discovered Spanky McFarland of the ‘Our Gang' comedies.”
Researchers into Barker's life and his coast-to-coast filmmaking say they have found nothing to prove nor discredit Barker's claim to have worked in major Hollywood studios in the 1920s.
But for most of his life, Barker lived in Texas, and as an adult, he was based in Dallas. Now and then, when he wasn't on the road, he ran a drive-in restaurant and movie theater.
There have been 1930s photographs found of Barker with McFarland that might support his claim of having discovered the child actor.
Barker's small enterprise went by Melton Barker Productions, or Melton Barker Juvenile Productions. He essentially made the same film — “Kidnappers Foil” — in every town and relied on a tiny crew, which included himself, a cameraman, sound man and assistant.
Barker directed the movie and often played Betty's distraught father, who offered the $1,000 reward, or he was the lead kidnapper.
The story only required three adults — the father and two kidnappers.
Barker's work spanned five decades from the 1930s into the 1970s. And according to researchers, “Kidnappers Foil” was shot and shown in towns and cities in at least 27 different states.
Salisbury was one of 14 N.C. towns in which Barker made a “Kidnappers Foil” movie with children as his cast. The others included Burlington (1941), Gastonia (1941, 1949 and 1950), Goldsboro (1941), Greenville (date not known), High Point (1941), Lexington (1949), Lumberton (1942), Monroe (1941), Mount Airy (1941), Reidsville (1948), Rockingham (1941), Statesville (1949) and Thomasville (date not known).
In Texas alone, Barker made at least 100 “Kidnappers Foil” movies in 65 towns and cities.
As visible as Barker was for so long, you'd think plenty of “Kidnappers Foil” movies would survive.
“It has been so surprising how difficult it is to track down information on Melton Barker or track down any of the films,” Madeline Fendley told Earley in an e-mail in November 2012.
“We know of more than 150 filmings but only have copies of nine of them. It's like they all just vanished.”
Fendley has been supplementing the dogged detective work into Barker's filmmaking done by Caroline Frick, a movie archivist and founder of the Texas Archive of the Moving Image in Austin.
Frick also teaches at the University of Texas.
Though she has tried, Earley has never been able to find the Salisbury version of “Kidnappers Foil,” or hear a verified account of its fate.
The films usually became the property of the local theaters, but because they were nitrate in composition, they often disintegrated after many years and were thrown away.
“The copies that do still exist often have been retrieved from the theaters where they were shown,” the Melton Barker website says, “or they have ended up in the hands of local historical societies.”
In 2012, the Library of Congress added “Kidnappers Foil” to the National Film Registry, judging it to be “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant.
Barker began his low-budget filmmaking in the early 1930s, and it's thought he produced his first “Kidnappers Foil” around 1936. Married and divorced twice, Barker died alone in a motel room in the late 1970s, according to his stepson Jim Ponder.
Barker's movie-making formula went like this.
He contacted a local theater and/or newspaper to sponsor the production. Next, a casting call went out to local children, ages 3 to 14, and parents filled out applications printed in the newspaper or available at the local theater.
The children brought those applications to their auditions. Most everybody was cast, and filming started after some brief rehearsals.
According to the Melton Barker website, he almost always filmed at a park and the home of a prominent local person.
The “Kidnappers Foil” plot always had two thugs kidnapping a young girl, Betty Davis, immediately following her birthday party.
Betty's father would offer the large reward for her return. “Butch,” another leading children's role, led a group of local boys who gathered for the hunt. A second group of even younger children, after being rebuffed by the older boys, would form a search party of their own.
Some local girls also would ask Butch whether they could join his crew. They were rebuffed at first, because the boys thought girls would get in the way. But the boys finally gave in, though the search for Betty was unsuccessful for several days.
After another meeting in which the kids discussed again the things they could do with $1,000, they would hear Betty's calls for help and attack the kidnappers while they napped.
Betty's father invited all the kids to his house for a celebration after Betty's rescue.
The short movie also includes some dance and singing performances by the children.
Barker's opening titles for the movie usually said, in three different frames: 1) “Melton Barker presents ...” 2) “The Local Gang in Kidnappers Foil” and 3) “With An Entire Local Cast.”
In all these films, Barker never used an apostrophe after the “s” in “Kidnappers”)
Barbara Page Earley grew up on Elm Street in Salisbury and graduated from Boyden High School in 1953.
Her father owned the Red Pig barbecue restaurant, which was located where today's Gateway building for the Rowan County Chamber of Commerce is on East Innes Street.
Barbara and her late husband, Charles, had a son, Charles David, who lives in Durham today. Charles Sr. worked many years for Thomas & Howard, then finished up his working days with Carolina Freight.
Barbara worked 30 years for Wickes Lumber.
For years, Barbara wondered what happened to Salisbury's copy of “Kidnappers Foil,” while also marveling that she never heard any discussion about the children's movie.
Years ago, when the Capitol Theatre was still in business, Barbara asked the operators if they knew where a copy of “Kidnappers Foil” would be, “only to be told that the film would have deteriorated by then,” she says.
Earley told her husband about her childhood appearance in the movie, but “I don't think he believed me.”
Charles Earley finally believed his wife after January 2010. One night, he was channel surfing with the remote control when he stopped on a “Texas Country Reporter.”
The television show dealt with the career of Melton Barker and included information about the “Kidnappers Foil” movie he made in Childress, Texas.
Barbara Earley immediately emailed Judy Johnson of the Childress Theatre Company, who put her in contact with Frick, then Fendley, both with the Texas Archive of the Moving Image.
“I'm kind of a little bit of a detective,” Earley explains.
She tracked down several Salisbury Post newspaper articles from 1941 reporting on the movie. The photographs identified Olan Painter as Barker's cameraman and Julian Smith as his sound man.
Earley also has been desperate to hear from other Salisburians who might have been in the “Kidnappers Foil” movie. She contacted classmate Sonny Phillips, whose father, Paul, ran the Capitol Theatre in 1941, but Sonny had no recollection of the film.
Earley has sent emails to three others who she thought might remember “Kidnappers Foil,” but she has had no luck so far.
Earley holds out a faint hope that Salisbury's version of “Kidnappers Foil” can be found somewhere. She would love “to see who else is in it, for one thing.”
She also would like to be able to show the movie to her young granddaughter, who is almost the same age Barbara was when she uttered the famous line, “Come on, gang, let's go find her.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or firstname.lastname@example.org.