Loitering with Intent

Source: Peter O’Toole, Loitering with Intent: The Child (New York: Hyperion, 1992), pp. 2-3

Text: Modestly sized and a comfortable little spot was my long ago, well-remembered news cinema. Near to the front as could be, Daddy and I would plushily park our bottoms. Chocolate would be eagerly chewed, chatter would be eagerly heard or joined, but presently all the jaws would still and darkness would quietly enter the small auditorium ushering all our eyes towards the colourfully lighted curtained screen, and then the curtains would part. Music bombasted mightily out, a huge cockerel ecstatically crowed, a grand camera spun whirlingly around, time marched to drums and trumpets, Chinese junks sailed into blood-red sunsets, skippered perhaps by the great and good Popeye, champagne bottles swung to smash and froth on the sterns of huge ships as the ships, in turn, majestically glided down their chutes and plunged into the rude, foaming sea.

Will the elephant with the blaring trunk, the winged ears, the looming tusks and the immense feet come thundering out of the splintering screen, pursued maybe by the Ritz brothers? Will Donald Duck be on today? Or a king or a cricketer, or a boxing match or the Three Stooges, or a hurricane or a Zulu? Who’s this? A uniformed fat man with a big chin, all wobble and posture and rant. The audience is booing him. It’s Mussolini and he’s being booed; cheerfully and vulgarly and ripely booed; but booed in the way you’d boo the Demon King in a pantomime. Comical villainy to be encouraged with a raspberry jeer.

Shortly after, in that cinema, Hitler and I met for the first time. It is impossible to tell you what I felt because, other than being temporarily unhappy, I cannot remember what I felt. When that profoundly strange, mincing little dude from Linz came all unexpectedly onto my screen, not his hideous mouth nor his noise nor his moustache nor his forelock, swastika, salute, eyes or frenzy disturbed my mind; it was the look on his face. The audience boos, though, were of another colour; a grimmer lowing, an ugly note not for pantomime villains capering about banana skins, though there was to the concatenation merry laughter and choked damnations of the man.

Comment: Peter O’Toole (1932-2013) became a notable screen actor. His childhood was peripatetic and the location of this memory is uncertain, though it may be Leeds. He writes that he was ‘aged 5 or so’. O’Toole’s book (the first of two volumes of autobiography) uses this encounter as the trigger for the author to trace his childhood in parallel with that of Hitler. News cinemas, which showed a combination of newsreels, comedy shorts and cartoons, were a common feature in major UK towns and cities from the 1930s to the 1950s. A cockerel crowing featured in the opening sequence of the Pathé Gazette newsreel.

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