Melton Barker Productions (aka Melton Barker Juvenile Productions) ventured around the country from the late 1930s into the mid-1970s making the same film in town after town. The film itself changed remarkably little over its history. Melton Barker Productions would contact a local movie theater and a local newspaper to sponsor the production of the film. A casting call for local children would go out and parents would be encouraged to fill out applications that were printed in the newspaper or picked up in the theater. After paying a small fee (usually a few dollars), the children would go through a brief audition process with a representative of Melton Barker’s company. The crews were apparently very small, perhaps just including Melton Barker himself, a cameraman, a sound man and an assistant. After some brief rehearsals, the filming would begin. The locations were generally a local park and the home of a prominent local person.
While the film’s script had a few minor variations in the different versions, the plot remained the same over the course of the series.
Immediately following her birthday party, a young girl, “Betty” Davis, is kidnapped by some thugs, who hold her for ransom. Betty’s distraught father (often played by Barker himself) offers a $1,000 reward for her return. A group of local boys–with their ringleader “Butch,” imagining what they could do with $1,000, gathers to rescue Betty. A second group of even younger children attempts to join with the older children, but is rebuffed, so they form a search party of their own. The local girls also ask to join Butch and his gang. At first the boys refuse, saying the girls will only get in the away. Eventually they give in, and the large group of boys and girls searches for several days, to no avail. After another meeting, in which they again discuss what they will do with the $1,000, they hear Betty’s calls for help, and they attack the kidnappers, who are taking an inopportune nap. All of the children, including the youngsters, are invited over to the Davis house for a celebratory party, where there are several dance and song performances by the children.
The film was generally screened at the sponsoring theater a few weeks after filming. Because of its short length, it was shown before the Hollywood feature film, although often given more advertising space than the feature. No matter the actual quality of the picture, rave reviews were inevitably reported in the local paper.
The same professionally-made opening titles were used repeatedly. The 1940s version reads:
Melton Barker Presents The Local Gang in “The Kidnappers Foil”
With an Entire Local Cast
Directed by Melton Barker
This picture was produced entirely with amateur talent, selected from the neighborhood of this theatre.
The Fremont, Nebraska’s 1939 production was a typical one, and examples of its newspaper articles can be found here. The Fremont articles repeat sentences and language found in many other towns’ press coverage, leading us to believe that they were largely reprinting press releases prepared by Melton Barker Productions.