The Lawless Roads

Source: Graham Greene, The Lawless Roads: A Mexican Journey (London: Longmans & Co., 1939), p. 77

Text: I went my first night to Fritz Lang’s Liliom, a naïve and rather moving film of heartlessness on earth and repentance in heaven. The audience were more interesting than the film; they accepted the sentiment just as any European audience would have done, but when the two messengers from God – dressed in sinister seedy clerical black – appeared beside the body and lifted Liliom’s soul between them into the sky, legs trailing like stuffed dolls through the firmament, they hooted and cat-called. Many got up and went out: they were not going to have anything to do with heaven or hell; only later, when that they found out that heaven was to be treated with whimsicality and a touch of farce, did they settle down into their seats. When I came out the streets were dark, and the air at seven thousand feet felt cold and thin and lifeless.

Comments: Graham Greene (1904-1991) was a British novelist, many of whose works were filmed and who was a notable film critic in the 1930s. The Lawless Roads is an account of his visit to Mexico in 1938. Liliom (USA 1934) was based on the play by Ferenc Molnár about a fairground barker who commits suicide after taking part in a robbery. He is sent to Purgatory and then returned to earth to perform one good deed.


Source: Ricky Tomlinson, Ricky (London: Time Warner Books, 2003), pp. 23-24

Text: My other escape was the cinema where it cost only a couple coppers to go to a Saturday matinee at the Everton Picture Palace. As well as the main feature there were normally a couple of shorts and a Pathé Newsreel about the aftermath of the war. The Germans were booed and the British Tommies were cheered.

As the light from the projector shone on to the screen we threw bits of orange peel into the air, which looked like falling stars as they fell through the light. The usher – a war veteran – would hobble down the aisle, saying, ‘Oh aye, who’s throwing that bloody peel? Yer out on your ear if I catch you.’

Liverpool seemed to be full of fellas like that – a legion of injured heroes who became doormen, ushers and lift attendants, or worked the market stalls.

From the moment the credits rolled and the landscape flashed up showing wide open plains, I groaned, ‘Bloody hell, not another Western.’ I hated cowboy films, but my mates loved them. They came out afterwards ‘shooting’ people with their fingers and smacking their arses as they ‘rode’ home.

Sometimes I’d sneak around the corner and see a romance or a comedy, but I couldn’t tell anyone. As with my writing, the lads wouldn’t have understood.

That’s how I discovered the Old Mother Riley films. Arthur Lucan and his wife Kitty McShane were the biggest box-office stars of their day. Lucan would dress up in a frock and play Old Mother Riley, a gossipy Irish washerwoman, while Kitty played the headstrong daughter. I laughed until tears ran down my cheeks.

Inspired by these films, I convinced a mate of mine, Davey Steee, that we should put on a show for the neighbourhood kids and charge them a penny at the door. I walked the streets banging on a metal drum to publicise the show, while Davey hung a sack for the curtain in the loft over his garage. The audience were literally packed to the rafters as I donned one of Mam’s frocks and did my own version of Old Mother Riley.

This was my first experience of acting – unless you count trying to con my little brothers into doing chores for me. From memory it wasn’t a bravura performance, but none of the kids asked for their money back. Most of them were included in the show, which proved a clever ploy. I’ve been improvising ever since.

At the Lytton cinema on Everton Road you could see a movie for empty jam jars, which had a deposit on them. One of us would get a ticket and go inside, where he opened the back door for the rest of us. We couldn’t all sneak in at once – it would have been too obvious – so each of us had to wait until someone in the cinema went to the toilet. Then we ambled back into the auditorium, without arising suspicion. The ushers must have known, but they never kicked off.

Comments: Ricky Tomlinson (1939 – ) is a British actor and political activist, best known for the television series The Royle Family. His childhood was spent in Liverpool. There were fifteen Old Mother Riley films made between 1937 and 1952.


Source: Extract from Len England, Mass-Observation File Report 215: Newsreels (June), 19 June 1940, reproduced from Original file report held at Mass-Observation Archive, University of Sussex

Text: Mention was made in the last report of the horrifying effect that some newsreel sequences had upon members of the audience. This effect is becoming more obvious. An observer in Streatham heard one elderly working-class woman say ‘Gertie and I cried all through the newsreel. Those poor boys out there in all that. The pictures were terrible’. In a Watford cinema another observer heard one girl say to her friend ‘I don’t think they should show you this, do you?’ at shots of air raid havoc. In the Picturegoer (15.6.40) a letter was published as follows:

There has been much criticism in the past on newsreels showing us the horrors of modern warfare in China, Spain, etc., and although we felt strongly about these presentations they did not strike near enough to make us protest publicly. But the war newsreel of to-day is horrifying us. This week we went to our local cinema to see ADVENTURE IN DIAMONDS and SPATS TO SPURS, a light programme calculated to make us forget what might be happening ‘over there’. But did we enjoy our programme? No, because we viewed it through a haze of tears and the horrible quickening of nerves as we saw our boys moving up to the Belgian front.

As the war continues in all its fury, are we to be subjected to further horror, are we to watch our husbands bombarded, are we to see the shattered limbs of our brothers lying on the battlefield, the anguished bodies of our sons carried in on stretchers? No, unless the film distributors realise that we cannot sit in a luxury cinema watching these ghastly things, unless they relegate the war newsreel to its proper place, the New[s] Theatre, we will stay outside the cinema for the duration. This is our resolve and there are thousands of mothers and wives who feel the same.

A further letter commented on the same thing:

Some of the recent newsreels have been in very bad taste; an outstanding example being the showing of dead bodies lying outside a bombed Belgian hospital. Cannot the censor prevent the issue of these pictures which can only bring pain and suffering to those loved ones on active service. After all, we go to the cinema to be carried away from our troubles.

The main response to these shots continues to be a very high degree of comment and signs of horror at the most unpleasant shots. There is no indication in this that the shots are popular but they still constitute the bulk of newsreels and are accompanied by such remarks as ‘There are other sights too grim to show you’. To shots other than of air raids the response is increasing. In the British Movietone News, 13.6.40, an item called ‘The Italian Assassin’ began with close-ups of Mussolini. Obs watched this reel twice and on each occasion there was an immediate and widespread outburst of hisses, boos, catcalls and laughs. Obs has never seen this on any other occasion though twice at least the newsreels have contained shots of Hitler himself. The outcry lasted for nearly a minute on each occasion.

Response to political and military figures has increased; Reynaud, Weygand and Gort have been clapped every time they have appeared though none of the three have been applauded at all before the last two weeks. There has been very prolonged applause for Churchill every time, and at a West End theatre where response is usually very low a man called out ‘Well done’ when the Prime Minister appeared and clapping followed.

The royal family, however, receive less applause than before. The British Movietone reel mentioned above was observed with two very highly responsive audiences; the last item was a fairly long sequence of the King presenting medals at Buckingham Palace; the Queen was watching from the balcony. At the first showing of this the King was applauded for 2 seconds — Reynaud had received 5 seconds applause a minute before — at the second showing there was no clapping at all. On each occasion the shots of the Queen were greeted in dead silence.

The most important newsreel item in the last few weeks has been the Dunkirk evacuation; shots of this were obtained by cameramen on the spot, and by others lining the train route from the coast home. They could not, however, be released immediately and there was an opportunity by skilful cutting to exploit the dramatic possibilities of the situation. Paramount and Movietone in the main let the shots speak for themselves and did not give them much commentary; GB produced a patriotic commentary which will be mentioned further; and Pathe blended the shots into a sequence that gained a higher response of applause than anything else yet noted by an observer. The sequence began with soldiers marching into Dunkirk; then came a word of congratulation to the Navy and the Air Force for their assistance, this being illustrated with stock shots; the actual embarkation; then compliments to the French army, to the nurses and other women helpers, to the wounded, finally shots of the landing, the train journey, and a few words from the troops. The whole item lasted about four minutes; for nearly a quarter of that time, that is, a full minute, there was applause. Hitherto the loudest applause had been 10 seconds for the survivors of the Altmark.

Comments: Mass-Observation carried out a series of studies in 1930s and 1940s into how people in the UK lived, through a mixture of observation, diaries and invited comments. Cinema-going was included among its social surveys, and during 1939-1945 it paid particular attention to newsreels. Data from the original observers’ reports were collated into File Reports, and all of the film File Reports were compiled by Len England. This particular report is on audience reaction to newsreels in June 1940. The newsreels referred to are British Movietone News, Pathe Gazette, Gaumont-British News and British Paramount News.

Links: Copy of full file report at News on Screen

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.