- "Wasn’t That a Funny Thing That We Did?"Oral Histories of Itinerant Filmmaking
The history of itinerant filmmaking involves hundreds of films and thousands of people, each with his or her own memories of the experience. The films themselves, which were made quickly and often just as swiftly discarded or misplaced, generally exist now only as references in newspaper advertisements or articles hidden in reels of microfilm, to be found again by sharp-eyed researchers. A tiny fraction of the original films have reemerged from theater closets or attics in the homes of the filmmakers’ families in the decades since they were last publicly screened. When seen again, these rediscovered movies have prompted sparks of recognition among the original participants and nostalgia or curiosity among those too young to have experienced the making of the films themselves. The memories of itinerant film culture live on, even when the film prints do not.
Most of these films were truly ephemeral because they were often shown publicly just a handful of times, or perhaps only once. They were geographically limited as well because a film may have been a huge success and an important event (however briefly) in one town but would have had no audience and no relevance in a town just a few miles away. Because the primary draw of the films was seeing yourself, your community, and your neighbors on screen, they generally were of no interest to those outside of the town in which they were shot. Even today, when removed from their local contexts, the films largely cease to be meaningful, except as documents of specific times and places or as examples of a type of filmmaking that has long ceased to exist.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of itinerant filmmaking is just how widespread the practice was. Melton Barker, certainly one of the most prolific itinerant film producers, claimed to have filmed one thousand productions on his own—an exaggeration perhaps, but well over one hundred of his films have been documented.1 The life of an itinerant filmmaker was difficult and tedious, resembling the work of a traveling salesman more than a creative artist. Production demands of the genre usually kept the filmmaker in each town for only a few days before he or she packed up the car and headed to a new hotel in a nearby town, ready to start all over again on the production of another nearly identical movie.
The number of people who sat in movie theaters and saw images of themselves projected on the same screens as the starlets and matinee idols of the cinema is almost unimaginable now, especially considering how quickly the itinerant film genre itself was forgotten. Itinerant filmmaking was largely a small-town phenomenon. Perhaps the filmmakers were capitalizing on the sense of community that existed in smaller towns, though this is contradicted by the number of productions in larger cities. Melton Barker, for example, made films in Tucumcari, New Mexico, and Guthrie, Oklahoma, but also in Memphis, Little Rock, and San Antonio.
Both the look and the concept of the locally made small-town film seem to have had little lasting resonance beyond the screenings, except among the people who were directly involved with the productions. The itinerant films that incorporated narratives, scripts, and acting (however unpolished) required the directors to have slightly longer relationships with the townspeople who appeared in their films, though sometimes this only meant that they filmed them for hours instead of seconds. Despite the ballyhoo that many of the filmmakers put into selling themselves as being “from Hollywood” and their local films as steppingstones to stardom, it appears that few of the local participants really gave much credence to that far-fetched notion. Instead, most participants remember perceiving the films as just “a fun thing to do,” as one of the child stars would later put it.2
Itinerant filmmaking worked as a business in part because it capitalized on the excitement generated by seeing one’s image (or that of one’s child, neighbor, or friend) on the screen. Talking to participants today, many decades later, there is a wide range of responses from...