Holden goes to the movies at Radio City in Chapter 18, when he's killing time before meeting his old classmate Carl Luce. He arrives during the stage show, which features the Rockettes and a rollerskating comedian. Holden is immediately perturbed by a man sitting behind him who, during the Rockettes' routine, repeatedly tells his wife, "You know what that is? That's precision." As for the comedian, Holden can't enjoy his jokes because he is unable to stop picturing the man practicing his skating, which seems "stupid." After that, Radio City's yearly Christmas show begins. Holden "can't see anything religious or pretty" about it and thinks that, as he told Sally Hayes when they saw it together last year, "old Jesus probably would've puked if He could see it." The only part of the show Holden likes, and thinks Jesus would have liked, is the sincere-seeming kettle drum player, who he and his brother Allie used to watch, and who Allie even wrote a fan letter to before his death.
By the time the movie begins, then, Holden is already overwhelmed by the apparent phoniness of most of what he's just witnessed (and most likely saddened by thoughts of the loss of his brother). The film turns out to be about an Englishman who comes home from the war, loses his memory, falls in love, and regains his memory in a happy ending—more phoniness, from Holden's perspective. "All I can say is," he narrates, "don't see it if you don't want to puke all over yourself." Yet the movie itself isn’t the most upsetting part of the experience for Holden. As usual, it’s the phony-seeming behavior of people around him that really upsets him. Holden tells the reader,
The part that got me was, there was a lady sitting next to me that cried all through the goddam picture. The phonier it got, the more she cried. You’d have thought she did it because she was kindhearted as hell, but I was sitting right next to her, and she wasn’t. She had this little kid with her that was bored as hell and had to go to the bathroom, but she wouldn’t take him. She kept telling him to sit still and behave himself. She was about as kindhearted as a goddam wolf. You take somebody that cries their eyes out over phony stuff in the movies, and nine times out of ten they’re mean bastards at heart. I’m not kidding.
Holden sees the behavior of the woman who cries during the movie (and of people who cry during the “phony stuff in the movies” in general) as hypocritical, shallow, self-centered, and cruel. While her tears over the fictional story on the screen might make her seem “kindhearted,” she’s practicing the opposite of kindness by ignoring the very real child beside her. In spite of his own often callous behavior, we see throughout the novel that unkindness in others is something Holden just can’t stand.
In addition, it’s significant that what so upsets Holden at the movies is that an adult’s unkind behavior is negatively impacting a “little kid.” Holden demonstrates a protective instinct toward children and childhood throughout The Catcher in the Rye
. After all, he lost his beloved brother Allie when Allie was just eleven years old—too young to have been tainted by the adult world of phoniness and disappointment. With Allie gone, Holden transfers his protective instincts to his ten-year-old sister, Phoebe. In Chapter 22, Phoebe asks Holden what he’d like to be, and he tells her his dream of being the “catcher in the rye”—a phrase he takes from a poem by Robert Burns:
Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around—nobody big, I mean—except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be. I know it's crazy.