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Monday, March 24, 2008

Yes Sir, Mr. Bones

Regular readers of Dreamtime know my love of Emmett Miller, and my interest in the old time minstrel shows and the very strange - and very racially insensitive, it should be noted - art of blackface. From the emails I've received, I know several readers/listeners share my interest and may also be interested in Yes Sir, Mr. Bones, a 54-minute movie from 19 and 51, which contains the only known footage of Miller in action.

The movie is available as 1/2 of Showtime USA, a DVD that also contains Square Dance Jubilee, featuring Spade Cooley, and thus giving us even more of a TTRH connection. As a commenter noted on the Amazon page, Yes Sir, Mr. Bones is probably as close as we're likely to get to a reconstruction of an actual minstrel show, from the opening "end man" comedy routines, featuring Miller, to the "olio" including sentimental ballads performed by an "Irish Thrush" to an amazing softshoe on sand routine to the closing burlesque numbers. The movie supposedly takes place in a show biz retirement home; a young boy wanders in and the residents - thanks to the magic of imagination - recreate a minstrel show.

If you're offended by blackface material - some of it very crude, by the way - you don't want to watch this movie, as one of the audio commentaries puts it right at the beginning. If you're interested in it as a historical document - especially of Emmett Miller - you do. At its current price of $12.99, it's a steal.

Frustratingly, Miller does not sing, although we get a hint of his trademark yodel in his first routine. Even better, we get to see him out of blackface during the framing opening and closing segments.

The movie also features a young Scatman Crothers - misnamed in the movie credits as Scatman Corothers - in his first movie appearance, as well as several other African-American performers, who, happily, do not perform in blackface. It's interesting to note that Crothers and partner perform a vintage minstrel routine that would later be recreated - almost word-for-word - in Spike Lee's great movie, Bamboozled.

The DVD reproduction of Yes Sir, Mr. Bones is extremely clean, looking as if it came from an original 35mm print. There's some noticeable edits, probably because the original had been spliced. The sound is excellent, contrary to what one reviewer has to say.

If you're buying the DVD for the Miller material, the second feature, the 80-minute Square Dance Jubilee, will be just an added bonus. It's a weird, little cross between a cowboy song movie and a kiddie Saturday matinée. Since I know his history - I still need to do a show on him - watching Spade Cooley is a somewhat surreal experience. He looks weird, probably just nervousness, but he has this enormous false grin plastered on his face throughout his entire performance. He waves his tempo hand at band and singers as if he's going to beat them at any moment, and he generally looks like a guy teetering on the edge...

... which, come to think of it, he was.


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