Here’s a piece of film history so unusual that it must be shared.
For forty years, con artist and filmmaker Melton Barker traveled across the United States, roping in small towns to produce a short film titled The Kidnappers Foil that would star local children and premiere in a local theater. As you could imagine, Barker would leave town with the profits as soon as the film finished production, a scheme that’s distractingly similar to the one from The Music Man. But unlike Harold Hill, Barker left behind a finished product: each town would have a finished 20-minute film, produced on-location.
It took a while for people to put the pieces together nationwide, but it is now apparent that Barker produced The Kidnappers Foil at least 178 times, each version largely unchanged from the original in the 1930s. The Texas Archive of the Moving Image sees value in this strange piece of film arcana and has opened an archive for all remaining existing copies as part of a larger collection on “itinerant films” made by traveling producers. The organization has thus far released 11 versions to watch online, dating back from 1938. The Library of Congress is doing its part too, having added at least one version of The Kidnappers Foil to the National Film Registry last year.
The Kidnappers Foil isn’t a particularly good movie, so it’s not worth going out of your way to watch. Yet it’s undeniably part of America’s rich, weird film history.