- Jackrabbit GeniusMelton Barker, Itinerant Films, and Creating Locality
It took Hal Roach about 10 days to shoot what I do in a day.—Filmmaker Melton Barker, 1972
In mid-October 1975, a small announcement appeared at the bottom of page fourteen in the Blytheville, Arkansas, Courier-News. With a headline alerting readers to a “Movie Producer Arriving Next Week,” the article quoted the manager of Blytheville’s Ritz Theatre describing the visiting producer, Melton Barker, as a true “veteran in the field.”1 Barker would be traveling to Blytheville to shoot a short film featuring children from the community, talent not required: “The children do not have to be able to sing or dance to get a part, all they have to do is talk over a mike to see if their voice will record.”2
Enthusiastic advertisements promoting participation in the film production proclaimed that Barker had made over a thousand such kids’ movies and urged parents to “get [their children] down there for this tryout and see what they can do . . . [as] [End Page 1] rehearsals and filming of the picture [would] not interfere with school work.”3 What the press material surrounding the 1975 film production neglected to mention, however, was that producer Melton Barker had collaborated with the Ritz Theatre several times before, journeying to Blytheville to shoot the very same children’s short subject, the Kidnappers Foil, utilizing the exact same method and script in 1936, 1951, and 1969. In fact, in 1951, the Ritz Theatre owners had, with great fanfare, screened the most recent production alongside the 1936 version.
From the inception of cinema, so-called itinerant filmmakers like Melton Barker traveled throughout North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand—quite possibly the entire world. Motion picture exhibitors would enter into contracts with traveling producers to create community-based short subjects, then would market and promote the films’ premieres, screening them alongside theatrical features. A large percentage of the material produced by traveling filmmakers did not utilize a narrative structure; rather the camera panned groups of schoolchildren, factory workers, and others in a style not altogether different from the early Lumière actualités. Other itinerant films either concocted some sort of limited narrative or mimicked popular Hollywood films and genres as a method to encourage community participation and amuse audiences. Itinerant films can be seen as a subgenre of what has become known within media history as the local film—movies with targeted geographical appeal featuring community landmarks, businesses, and most important, local men, women, and children.
Over the last thirty years, significant research on film exhibition and moviegoing practice has proliferated within North American and European media studies, successfully challenging earlier academic emphasis on textual analysis or assumptions surrounding audience reception. The itinerant or traveling showman has played an important role in the histories of film exhibition, particularly those concerning the first half of the twentieth century. The work of itinerant film producers, including Melton Barker, among many others, adds much to locally oriented media research and historiography by exemplifying an understudied but intriguing and widely prolific mode of production and exhibition. Barker’s long career, spanning the 1930s through the latter part of the 1970s, additionally challenges traditional film histories that often associate the traveling filmmaker with the pre–World War II period.
In 1906, a short Billboard article detailed the difficulty in compiling accurate statistical data for the burgeoning trade of film exhibition. The article noted that the entrepreneurial (and relatively undocumented) nature of early cinematic presentation could aptly be known as the “jack-rabbit . . . of the business of public entertaining. No one is in a position to even estimate the number . . . [of organizations] now in operation; [End Page 2] for an estimate covering today would be worthless tomorrow.”4 Unwittingly, Billboard’s frustration in tracking cinema industry growth in the early 1900s foreshadowed the difficulties faced by those researching the closely related phenomenon of itinerant film production in the first decade of the twenty-first century.
Jackrabbits—jumping or hopping from one place on a vast prairie to the next, leaving little to no evidence of their trail—provide an excellent metaphor for the traveling...