Barker, Ennis Melton (1903–1977)


By: Robert J. Duncan

Type: Biography

Published: November 23, 2020

Updated: April 5, 2022


Ennis Melton Barker, an itinerant filmmaker, was born to Doran and Eva Lee (McIver) Barker in Dallas, Texas, on February 14, 1903. He was the youngest of four children; he had two sisters and one brother. Early in life, Barker used his first name, Ennis, but later he preferred to be known as Melton Barker.

Barker always lived in Texas, but he made trips to much of the United States for more than four decades and filmed versions of the same kiddie comedy movie over and over (but with different “actors” and settings). He made hundreds of films titled The Kidnappers Foil (with no apostrophe), many of them in small Texas towns. Barker did not pay the child “actors”; their parents paid a few dollars to him. Often, a few years later, he returned to the same town after a new generation of children became available. Barker’s films were somewhat similar to, and perhaps patterned after, the Our Gang or Little Rascals short-subject child comedies made in Hollywood by Hal Roach; in fact, Hal Roach Studios once complained to the U. S. attorney general about Barker and his cameraman for promising Hal Roach contracts to several young “actors” in Barker’s films. Film archivist and historian Dwight Swanson stated, “Melton Barker was the most widely traveled and long-lasting of the itinerant film producers, returning again and again to his series The Kidnappers Foil for more than four decades.”

As early as 1921, when Barker was just eighteen, he worked as a photographer for the James P. Simpson Company in Dallas, a business that produced custom-made on-screen advertisements of local retail businesses for individual movie theaters. For about a decade, Barker continued to work for the Simpson Company in various positions, including photographer, chemist, cameraman, and department manager.

On November 18, 1925, Barker married Mariann (or Marian) B. Denney.  In April 1930, in the first few months of the Great Depression, James Simpson, Barker’s employer, committed suicide. By the early 1930s Melton Barker left the company and soon became involved in live theater in Dallas. By 1933 he began his long career as a self-employed itinerant filmmaker.

Melton Barker claimed that he had “discovered” child actor George (“Spanky”) McFarland, who was born in 1928 in Dallas. As a toddler and young child, McFarland modeled children’s clothing for a Dallas department store and also appeared on billboards in the Dallas area and in print advertisements for Wonder Bread. Both Barker and McFarland worked in advertising in Dallas simultaneously for a while, so quite possibly they did work together. In a 1972 newspaper interview, Barker said that McFarland “was a little kid I used for bread and ice cream commercials." McFarland went to Hollywood in late 1932 and starred in almost a hundred of the Hal Roach Our Gang films. 

Barker supplied newspapers with a photograph of himself holding young Spanky in his arms while standing in front of a Hal Roach truck. Although Barker apparently never filmed McFarland in any of his Kidnappers Foil films, he made the most of his connection with Spanky McFarland in promoting his own films. As film archivist and historian Dwight Swanson has pointed out, Barker frequently claimed that he had discovered Spanky McFarland “and said so at nearly every possible opportunity, even long after most of America had forgotten who McFarland was.”

Melton Barker was married at least six times. He married Ruth Fitzgerald on April 27, 1936. On June 21, 1946, he married Majel Penney. He married Pat Holder on April 29, 1949. He married Velma McGwier on May 30, 1953. On November 14, 1956, he married Carmon Ercell Ponder, and that marriage lasted for nineteen years before ending in divorce in 1975. The couple resided for part of that time in Ennis, Texas, south of Dallas. There they owned and operated a fast-food restaurant called Punkin’s Drive-In for two or three years. They later lived in a number of small towns in East Texas and North Central Texas: Athens, Atlanta, Keller, Lewisville, Pittsburg, and Winnsboro. In at least two of those towns the couple operated or perhaps owned or partially owned a movie theater. But fairly often Melton Barker went back on the road to make films and left Carmon to operate the theater.

Usually as many as a hundred children were in each Barker film. Most of them were in many of the group scenes. The films were shot out of sequence; as a result, the youngsters had no understanding of the plot. Each child had at least one close-up and at least one line of dialogue (usually at the time of the close-up).

Barker had two or three assistants who helped him during the filming, which was “honed to maximum efficiency,” despite the fact that child actors were as young as three years old. On very few occasions in some towns, a parent would claim that Barker’s activities amounted to nothing more than a money-making scheme. But no one forced parents to let their children participate; it was completely optional. In a 1972 newspaper interview, the scam question came up. Barker replied: “I get that sort of thing [sometimes]. It usually comes from ignorant people who don’t know what’s involved. . . . If people follow through on this, I think they’ll see it’s legitimate. The kids get a big kick out of being in a movie, and besides, I work too hard for this to be a fake.”    

Mel Barker’s procedure reflected the tedious work of an itinerant filmmaker. First, he placed an advertisement in a town’s newspaper, and the ad often included a short application form to recruit the child actors. Frequently an article about the project also appeared in the paper. Barker then met with parents and their children to “sell” them on his project and secure a modest initial payment. He referred to this meeting as an audition or interview, but he almost never rejected a child if his parents paid the fee and if the child was cooperative. Barker subsequently collected a final payment of a few dollars when he started the actual film shoot. John Wood recalled, in an Internet blog in 2013, that in 1942 when he was about seven, he tried out for a Barker film at the Sooner Theater in Norman, Oklahoma. Wood wrote, “I was not picked for the film and now I know why. We could not afford to pay to be in the film. I always thought it was my lack of acting talent.”  

Barker usually shot the film in a local public place such as a city park, and the filming lasted approximately a week. Sometimes Barker had a Dallas company develop the film, and other times he developed it himself in his hotel room. Apparently no copies were made. After the editing of the film, within a few weeks it was premiered as a short subject at a local movie house. Barker sent postcards announcing the local screening to the parents, and his kiddie film was shown along with a feature-length film. Typically, almost all of the children who appeared in the film, their parents, and other family members attended the showing. The film might be shown another time or two, and then the reels were left with the theater. Barker may have had some kind of financial arrangement with the local newspapers and theaters; perhaps the theater paid for the newspaper ads in exchange for ownership of the finished film.

It is not known exactly how Barker decided upon which towns to visit. The fact that he shot a great many of his films in Texas was probably a matter of convenience and economics, because he lived in North Texas or East Texas throughout his long filmmaking career.

Barker and one or two of his associates performed the roles of the kidnappers in the films. In each film, the young girl who was kidnapped was conveniently named Betty Davis. Although the contemporary Hollywood star Bette Davis spelled her name B-E-T-T-E, while the little girl’s character’s name was spelled B-E-T-T-Y, aurally the names sounded the same, which probably added a bit of glamor to the Barker film productions. 

When young Metta Lynn Castleberry auditioned for Barker’s 1938 film in Newport, Arkansas, she followed her father’s instructions to act like the kidnappers were really abducting her. He said that she should scream, kick, and cry—so she did. A few days later the little girl was in bed with the measles. When the announcement came that young Metta Lynn was chosen for the starring role in the movie that was about to start production, Metta Lynn’s mother got her out of bed. The girl still had a fever and was itching terribly, but her mother told her that she didn’t have the measles anymore. 

Barker had at least one trusted senior associate, cameraman William Dorsey Patton, and possibly others, who worked with him. He apparently allowed Patton to separately make one or more of The Kidnappers Foil films under the auspices of his company. Patton directed one in Bristol, Tennessee, in 1949. George Wilt Sanderson, Jr., also made some of the films, but it is not clear whether he was working for Barker or competing with him. Perhaps Barker was experimenting with making films in multiple towns simultaneously, or maybe he was just trying to personally get “off the road.”     

Barker may have been an alcoholic. In 1940 he was convicted of driving while intoxicated in Mason City, Iowa, where he was making a film. His stepson, Jim Ponder, recalled Barker’s drinking and that it contributed to the divorce between his mother Carmon Ponder Barker and Barker. In 2013 in an Internet blog, William Tienken recalled that he was in a Barker film that was made in Ottawa, Kansas, in the late 1960s. He said: “My most permanent memory is that I got a line [of dialogue] wrong and the director cursing me. And I wasn’t the only kid that got cursed at!”

Melton Barker died in a motel room in Meridian, Mississippi, in March 1977. He was possibly still on the road. He had made at least six films as late as 1975 and possibly one in 1976. Although Mel Barker was married at least six times, ironically, he apparently had no biological children and was single at the time of his death.

Mel Barker made films in at least twenty-nine states. Approximately 100 were made in Texas and about 200 in other states. There probably were many more than that. Only about twenty versions of The Kidnappers Foil are known to have survived. Some have been restored and can be viewed on the Internet. Caroline Frick, an associate professor in the Radio-Television-Film Department at the University of Texas in Austin, first saw a Melton Barker Kidnappers Foil film at a film archival conference. Having previously worked on film preservation at Warner Brothers, the Library of Congress, and the National Archives, she established a website on Barker and his films. Frick recalled:

I will always remember when I first saw a Kidnappers Foil film directed by Melton Barker. Although the original 35mm film had been transferred poorly to a VHS tape, I was immediately enamored by the chaotic exuberance of hordes of children performing for the camera—and, just as importantly, by the concerted effort to connect a so-called “amateur” production with Hollywood glamour… The film’s aesthetics? Quite rudimentary with a very difficult to understand soundtrack, but, at the same time, wholly reminiscent of the dozens and dozens of Hollywood produced children’s short subjects that I had worked to preserve during my time in the Warner Bros. preservation department.  

A restored copy of Barker’s Kidnappers Foil by Frick was named to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2012. Frick said:

I don’t know what Melton Barker would make of his films becoming a formal part of American film heritage, preserved by the Library of Congress and publicly shared with the world. But Barker’s former stepson, Jim Ponder, wrote to say that he thinks “Mel would have been very amused” by it all—and I believe that is high praise indeed! 

Austin American-Statesman, December 30, 2005. Billboard, October 2, 1937. Biloxi (Mississippi) Daily Herald, September 26, 1935. Corsicana Daily Sun, April 10, 11, 1930. Robert D. Craig, “Melton Barker and `The Kidnappers Foil,’” Stream of History, Arkansas Historical Society, May 2011. Delta Democrat-Times (Greenville, Mississippi), May 15, 1972. Caroline Frick, “In Search of Melton,” Texas Archive of the Moving Image (https://texasarchive.org/node/84314), accessed August 5, 2020. Caroline Frick, “Making Movies Here,” Communique, Department of Radio-Television-Film, U. T. Austin, Issue 4 (2009). The Independent, July 3, 1993. Mason City (Iowa) Globe-Gazette, August 29, 1940. Melton Barker and the Kidnappers Foil (http://www.meltonbarker.org/), accessed November 21, 2020. New York Times, July 1, 1993; February 9, 2013. Port Arthur (Texas) News, May 3, 1936. Dwight Swanson, “`Wasn’t that a Funny Thing We Did?’: Oral Histories of Itinerant Filmmaking,” The Moving Image 10 (Spring, 2010). Kenneth L. Untiedt, ed., Legends and Life in Texas (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2017).   

Categories:
  • Performing Arts
Time Periods:
  • Great Depression
  • Texas in the 1920s
  • Texas Post World War II
Places:
  • North Texas
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Dallas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Robert J. Duncan, “Barker, Ennis Melton,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 16, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/barker-ennis-melton.

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November 23, 2020
April 5, 2022

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