Area residents watch a history of early 20th century MGM films during a viewing of “That’s Entertainment” Friday at the Arts Clayton Gallery in Jonesboro. (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)
JONESBORO — It was the kind of scene Norma Desmond would have lapped up.
Two dozen people sitting in the dark Friday at the Arts Clayton Gallery in Jonesboro. The lone window in the room covered as if to shelter the people from the outside world by blotting out its setting sunlight. A little bit of sun light came in early on from an adjoining room, but it quickly faded as the sun dipped lower and lower into the horizon.
The main source of light around the people came from a little machine that cast dancing shadows of a bygone era on a screen that was probably no more than 4 feet tall and wide. The images flickered as if illuminated by candle light for the world to see.
Gene Kelly sang and danced in the rain.
Esther Williams dived into pools in increasingly elaborate ways.
A teenage Judy Garland swooned over Clark Gable in “Broadway Melody of 1938.”
“Dear Mr. Gable, I am writing this to you, and I hope that you will read it so you’ll know my heart beats like a hammer and I stutter and I stammer every time I see you at the picture show,” Garland sang in the song “Dear Mr. Gable (You Made Me Love You).”
As the machine — a film projector to be exact — blasted the images across the room, words could be heard through a tiny speaker. Kelly was joined by other stars of Hollywood’s golden era, such as Jimmy Stewart, Bing Crosby and Elizabeth Taylor, as they recounted the tale of the early years of a single movie studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios.
The unintended musical accompaniment to their tale was the fast, yet steady “click-click-click” the projector made as it pulled the 1974 film, “That’s Entertainment,” from a reel and past a beam of light that brought old Hollywood stars back to life.
In that room, in that moment, it was as if it was just the stars and those people sitting out there in the dark.
“A lot of kids have never seen a projector before and it fascinates some of them to see it working because, today, a lot of it is digital and they don’t even have a projectionist in the booth at the movie theater anymore,” said Hapeville resident Ellis Hogue, whose copy of the film was used for the viewing.
When the lights came up, members of the audience came up to Hogue and expressed their appreciation for sharing his copy of the film with them.
“This is just wonderful, thank you for showing this,” said one attendee during an intermission break.
“I just love this,” said another.
The movie focused on the movies released by MGM between the 1920s and the 1950s. Much of the spotlight, of course, was put on the genre that largely defined the studio during that era.
The movie musical.
Everything from the elaborate productions committed to film by Busby Berkeley to the high-stepping, big band jazz numbers from the heyday of Gene Kelly and Fred Astair were featured. In the film, Jimmy Stewart recounted how MGM’s stars were nudged towards the musicals whether it was their forte or not.
Even Clark Gable, Robert Montgomery, Joan Crawford and Jean Harlow took turns crooning on the big screen at times. Sometimes they were asked to do full musicals. Other times, they were asked to sing a song or two in a dramatic film.
Gable elicited giggles from the audience as he strutted his way through a gleefully corny rendition of “Putting On The Ritz” with a harem of showgirls in the 1939 film “Idiot’s Delight.”
Later, they laughed and burst into applause after watching Donald O’Connor’s over-the-top slapstick antics as he belted out “Make ‘Em Laugh” in “Singing in the Rain.”
The film viewing, billed as “Friday Night at the Movies,” was part of a celebration of Hollywood taking place at the Arts Clayton Gallery. It has a two-month exhibit of vintage movie posters from the old Loew’s Grand Theater on display through the end of the month.
The viewing was one of two Hollywood-related events hosted by the gallery over the weekend. Collector Herb Bridges, whose posters are on display in the exhibit, held an open house Saturday to discuss the heyday of cinema.
In addition to being a collector of Hollywood memorabilia, Bridges also worked at the Loew’s Grand as a teenager when some of the films featured in the exhibit were in their original release at theaters.
For the film viewing, however, the number of people who attended was enough to nearly fill the space set up for the event.
“I’m just thrilled with the turnout,” said gallery manager Teri Williamson.
Williamson said it was divine inspiration that made her decide to seek out Hogue after she read a story about his film collection in a newspaper. While many people collect movies on DVD or Blu-ray discs, Hogue is a little old school. Some of his collection is on film and can only be viewed with a motion picture projector.
In addition to “That’s Entertainment,” he has six other feature films, such as “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Arabesque” and “One Spy Too Many.” He also has several vintage television shows from the 1950s on film.
“That’s Entertainment,” though, dovetailed into the exhibit.
“I think it was a wonderful addition to the exhibit because some of the movies that were featured, the posters are on the walls around us,” said Williamson.
But for attendees, the treat was more about looking back on a time when films were more innocent.
“It was very informative and great to see all of those movies again,” said Margarita Guzman.
“You get to relive your past?” her daughter, Renee Knowles, said.
“Yes,” said Guzman.
Jonesboro resident Kim Adams also echoed those sentiments, explaining that Hollywood, in her opinion, had strayed away from making those kinds of films.
“I like the fact that they are clean and wholesome — something that the whole family can enjoy,” said Adams. “You don’t see films like that anymore.”