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Restored films get screening at the Alamo on Sunday

Charles Ealy

There will be tap dancing. Some children will sing off-key. And one will offer a tippety-tap rendition of "Yankee Doodle" going to town, a-riding on a pony.

But don't let that scare you away from Sunday's special screening of "The Celluloid State," a compilation of historical films from the Texas Archive of the Moving Image.

The singing and tap dancing will be featured in "Kidnappers Foil," a 22-minute, black-and-white movie starring the children of the town of Childress in the 1930s.

Other parts of the screening will include a campy but intended-to-be-serious emergency-preparedness film called "Target Austin," which was produced in 1960 by local television station KTBC and shows what might happen during a nuclear missile strike on the city. Another Sunday segment will focus on the work of the late Cactus Pryor.

But the singing and dancing in "Kidnappers Foil" will probably get some of the biggest laughs.

Itinerant filmmaker Melton Barker directed the movie, which typically screened before a feature and was designed to attract the citizens of Childress to the local theater.

Such filmmaking was "a tried-and-true trick after the inception of cinema, in the late 1890s and early 1900s," says Caroline Frick, founder and executive director of the Texas Archive. "People didn't have resources to film themselves. So the idea was to film local crowds and say, 'Come in and see yourself on the big screen.' "

"Kidnappers Foil" capitalized on this phenomenon by "taking a shrewd gamble that people wanted to see their children" in a film, she says.

Barker made hundreds of versions of "Kidnappers Foil" throughout the United States, each time featuring a local cast with minor script adjustments. "Hundreds were made, but only a few still exist," Frick says. And some of the films ended with a children's talent show, hence the dreaded tap dancing.

"This particular version is my favorite," Frick says, "partly because it is so awful but so great at the same time."

Also, "there's more showmanship" in this version, Frick says. "This Betty Davis is my favorite Betty Davis. She wears the most amazing shoes I've ever seen in my life. And there's local product placement (for various stores) that isn't in some of the other versions."

Frick obtained the print of "Kidnappers Foil" from a group in Childress that is working to restore the local theater. "A woman in Childress found us online and contacted us and said she had a print that she thought was a Barker film," Frick says.

So Frick, who's sort of a Sherlock Holmes when it comes to such movies, took off to the North Texas town northwest of Wichita Falls and confirmed that it was a Barker production.

The nitrate print, which was highly flammable, had been stored in the abandoned theater for a long time, then moved to a home in town.

With the assistance of a National Film Preservation Foundation Grant, Frick sent "Kidnappers Foil" to a Los Angeles laboratory that specializes in film restoration. "What's exciting about this screening is that it will be the first time that this 35-millimeter print has been shown" since its preservation, Frick says. "And it will be screened in a theater with other people, as was originally intended."

"Target Austin," meanwhile, presents a fascinating, historical view of life on Congress Avenue and reveals how seriously American citizens viewed the nuclear threat in 1960.

The movie, narrated by Pryor, follows the lives of several characters as they hear a broadcast announcing an impending nuclear strike.

One well-prepared Austin family goes through its emergency checklist before heading into a fallout shelter, where they will be able to maintain their civilized tradition of sitting down to the table for dinner.

A downtown worker, however, doesn't take the warning seriously and actually powders her nose before heading to the shelter under her office building. Pryor dutifully notes this lackadaisical conduct.

And one man decides to try to outrun the missiles in his car. This, of course, is the ultimate no-no.

Austin filmmaker Gordon Wilkison directs "Target Austin," some of which was shot during the wee hours of a Sunday morning, in order to capture a deserted downtown Austin.

Frick says the Sunday event will feature a few "extra treats."

"We're planning to start the program off with a tribute to Cactus Pryor," she says. "We have a number of his films. And I think they had a lot of fun in the 1960s. ... It's a send-up reel. And I don't want to spoil it, but I can say that at one point he's doing a magic trick that doesn't work out very well."

The films to be featured Sunday were discovered as a result of the archive's free digitization program, the Texas Film Round-Up. In partnership with the Texas Film Commission, the effort has led to the digitization of thousands of Texas films that were once thought to be lost forever.

Later in the evening, Frick will be the featured speaker at a Cinema Club screening of the 1933 movie "Baby Face," starring Barbara Stanwyck.

" 'Baby Face' was known as one of the most licentious films of the pre-Code era," says Frick, referring to Hollywood movies made before strict censorship began in the mid-'30s.

The New York State Censorship Board demanded changes before the release of "Baby Face," and the original version was thought to be lost until 2004, when a print was discovered at a Library of Congress vault in Ohio. It premiered at the London Film Festival later that year. And that's the version that will screen Sunday.

"This is a great opportunity to see what antagonized people," Frick says. "But what I'm really trying to do is discuss the role of preservation in film history."

cealy@statesman.com; 445-3931

‘The Celluloid State' screening