Editor’s Note: We’ll also touch upon another lost, forgotten Ormond historical document, Parisienne Creations, concerned with the vaudeville-inspiring cabaret halls of Paris, within the context of this review.
The many who are quick to denounce this entry on Ron Ormond’s resume, unfortunately, don’t know the man behind the lens.
Ron Ormond directed a series of westerns for Robert L. Lippert Productions* — twelve of them with Lash La Rue, plus one non-western with Lash, Please Don’t Touch Me. Ron was then contracted — in a style similar to his “jukebox musicals” Square Dance Jubilee (1949) and Kentucky Jubilee (1951), his western-musical Forty Acre Feud, and vaudevillian document Varieties on Parade (1951) — to recreate, for the sake of documentation, a 19th century minstrel show to put on drive-in screens.
Born Vittorio Di Naro, anglicized to Vic Narro, Ron got his start in show business as a vaudeville stage magician, “Rahn Ormond,” in tribute to his friend and mentor, magician/hypnotist Ormond McGill. It was on those touring stages where Ron met singer and dancer June Carr, who soon became his long-time wife and co-partner in film, many of which we’ve reviewed at B&S About Movies.
Again: This film is not a minstrel show committed to film: it is a documentary — presented in a dramatic format — about minstrel shows.
It is important to understand Ron’s work and affections for his vaudeville years, which he paid tribute to with Varieties on Parade (1951), because the precursor to vaudeville, which lasted until the 1930s, was minstrels shows, which dated back to the mid-1800’s. Both entertainment forms included a wide variety of acts consisting of comedians, singers, dancers, acrobats, magicians, ventriloquists, animal acts, and even male and female impersonators — with one exception: minstrel shows mostly featured white performers adorned in black face for the purpose of portraying black people. We say “mostly,” because African-Americans were also part of the casts (as shown in the clip, below). In fact, as the “white” shows toured, there were black-only minstrel shows that also toured the U.S. in the early days of the 19th century.
So, while many express outrage with the mere existence of Yes Sir, Mr. Bones, the film is not a case of Robert L. Lippert “putting on a minstrel show” and capturing it on film. The film is a case of Ron Ormond creating — for the times — a document regarding the earliest beginnings of vaudeville: an art form that gave birth to the iconic, “Borscht Belt” talents of Red Skelton, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Henny Youngman, and George Burns. Even illusionist Harry Houdini developed his skills on vaudeville’s touring stages. The African-American equivalent, the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” gave rise to singers such as James Brown, multi-performers like Sammy Davis, Jr., comedian-impressionist Flip Wilson (who dabbled in female impersonation, long before Martin Lawrence and Tyler Perry), and comedian Redd Foxx, who rose to the top of U.S. TV ratings in the early ’70s with his updating of the Amos ‘n’ Andy comedic formula with his series — featuring situations and characters based on his stage act — Sanford & Son.
As with Ron Ormond’s other works in the jukebox musical format we’ve previously reviewed at length, or the jobs where he had to “make a movie” out of stock footage and the pieces-parts of other films (Untamed Mistress), Ron needed to come up with a “plot” to present the material. In the case of Yes Sir, Mr. Bones: a plotline was additionally needed to soften the presentation, so that the production didn’t come across as “putting on a minstrel show” and capturing it on film — which would be, admittedly, offensive.
So Ron came up with story about a young boy visiting an entertainment retirement home occupied by ex-minstrel and vaudeville actors, so as to learn more about the art form that grew out of Parisian Moulin Rouge theaters (which is the whole point of the film: to work as a historical document to preserve a moment in U.S. history that shouldn’t have existed, but did).
Enraptured by the boy’s interest, the residents start to reminisce; the film flashes back to an old riverboat holding an old-fashioned black face minstrel show — one filled with song and dance numbers and various vaudevillian skits. Unlike real-life minstrel shows, the usual, raunchy humor is cleaned up for the drive-in crowd who, until this film, may have heard of or seen photos of minstrels shows from the early 1900 to 1930s, but never seen one, in the ever-changing, maturing times of the 1950s.
If you go into Yes Sir, Mr. Bones as a historical document of a bygone era, and allow the film to work as what it is, a “historical document,” you’ll realize that man, while making grave mistakes, has the fortitude to see their errs — and change. And change Ron Ormond did: in his later life, for the remainder of the ’70s until his death, he created a succession of Christian films (The Second Coming) concerned with his own salvation through Jesus Christ.
In this clip, below, which features Scatman Crothers (The Shining; a longtime friend and associate of Redd Foxx, he came to guest star on Sanford & Son) in his feature film debut, his partner is Flournoy Eakin “E.F” Miller. A later vaudevillian actor, writer, and lyricist, Eakin came to work on Broadway, and then as a writer on CBS-TV’s Amos ‘n’ Andy. While the full-length film is not available, there are several clips in a playlist preserved on You Tube to sample. Those clips come from the authorized, DVD reissue by the VCI imprint, which offers an extensive, contextual commentary track as part of their reissue.
* We previously reviewed the Robert L. Lippert sci-fi productions Flight to Mars (1951) and Project Moonbase (1959) as part of our “Outer Space Week” tribute. Both are, needless to say, Bechdel test failures when it comes to their documenting women working in outer space. We also recently reviewed the Lippert-Ormond rock ‘n’ roll flicks That Tennessee Beat (1966) White Lightnin’ Road (1967).
** We discuss, at length, racial portrayals in film — by both black and white actors portraying the other — in our review of the radio station-based dramedy, Loqueesha (2019). We also analyze the portrayal of white, rural Americans, aka, rednecks, hicks, crackers, with our “The Top 70 Good Ol’ Boys Film List – A collection of down-home films produced from 1972 to 1986” featurette examination on Hicksploitation cinema.