“They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”
A Chilling and Haunting American Classic
It is hard to believe that this film was made in 1969 since I remember it so clearly as a film that really influenced the way I see movies. In the long and distinguished career of director Sydney Pollack, he has made a few classics; among them “Three Days of the Condor,” “Tootsie,” and “Jeremiah Johnson” and “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”. In the film we are immersed into the world of a marathon dance contest during the Great Depression and the film gives us a vivid depiction of personal need and exhaustion as a simple contest for a cash prize turns into a battle among desperate people. The film is an adaptation of Horace McCoy’s 1935 novel, “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” and it is a harrowing movie that showcases Pollack’s gifts with actors and his ability to visually communicate the physical toil of the contest and the audience feels every single hour of every single day. This is a frightfully precise viewing experience.
Looking to attract attention and make some money during the pain of the Great Depression, Master of Ceremonies, Rocky (Gig Young), establishes a dance marathon for able couples at the La Monica Ballroom in Los Angeles. A $1500 cash prize goes to the pair able to remain on their shuffling feet for the longest amount of time, and 100 contestants are willing to vie for the prize. We meet World War I vet Harry (Red Buttons), aspiring actress Alice (Susannah York), farm worker James (Bruce Dern) and his pregnant wife Ruby (Bonnie Bedelia), and Gloria (Jane Fonda), a troubled young woman who finds a partner in Robert (Michael Sarrazin), a young man who wanders into the ballroom out of curiosity. Once the contest begins, the dancers must stay awake for days, which become weeks that turn into months.
Director Pollack works well with period details making the feature have a documentary atmosphere, as w meet a few of the contestants and understand the rules and demands of the contest. Rocky weeds out sickly types and tries to keep the dance floor healthy enough to preserve a lengthy show for paying audiences. It’s quite a collection of personalities, with primary focus placed on Gloria, a bitter, depressed woman who’s been unable to find a career in the movie business and who turns to marathon dancing for a monetary miracle. She’s confrontational but drawn to Robert’s soft demeanor, requiring his presence to participate and then bonding with him.
We get to know the neuroses and personal histories of the supporting cast as well. Gloria can’t keep away from Ruby, challenging her decision to not only participate in the marathon while pregnant, but to have the baby at all during such bleak times. Alice is hoping for a boost in publicity to her acting career but her need to remain glamorous is blocked by the physical pain of dancing and its painful psychological demands. Harry is far too old to be participating in such an endurance tests, but he’s determined to join the race, struggling to keep up with others as time passes.
Pollack carefully weaves spectacle with intimacy. He preserves Rocky’s presence in the story, with his knowing far more about the marathon details than he lets on to the contestants, while at the same time exercising his showman skills and trying to keep audiences in the dance hall entertained with emotional manipulations. It’s fascinating to watch the feature today and pick out its parallels to contemporary entertainment. “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” also works as a look back at a difficult time in history, when poverty ruled the land causing insane ideas to pop up as ways to make money.
If we take away the forced smiles from the desperate faces, and see what the dance marathons of the 1930s came down to, we have a circus for others who paid to see them. At the end, those who didn’t collapse won cash prizes that were good money during the Depression which was the reason for it all. The marathons offered money to the winners and distraction to everyone else.
Some of the marathons got pretty grim. Contestants tried to dance their way through illnesses and pregnancies, through lice and hallucinations, and the sight of them doing so was part of the show. We see there was elementary sadism in the appeal of the marathons. There was always the possibility that somebody would die, freak out or stand helplessly while a partner collapsed and he lost the investment of hundreds of hours of his life.
Pollack has recreated the marathon era for audiences that are mostly unfamiliar with it. The film holds our attention because it tells us something we didn’t know about human nature and American society.
The characters seem to have no histories or alternate lives; they exist only within the walls of the ballroom and during the ticking of the official clock. Pollack has life that is boiled down to this silly contest and what he tells us has more to do with lives than contests.
There are not a lot of laughs in “Horses,” because Pollack has directed from the point of view of the contestants. They are bitter with hope of release. The movie’s delicately timed pacing and Pollack’s visual style pull us in and we begin to feel the physical weariness and spiritual desperation of the characters.
The movie begins on a note of alienation and we know what is coming. The title gives it away and when it comes, it is effective not because it is a surprise but because it is inevitable. The performances are excellent throughout. Jane Fonda is hard, unbreakable and filled with hate and fear. Sarrazin can do nothing but stand there and pity her.. Red Buttons, as the sailor who’s a veteran of other marathons and cheerfully teaches everybody the ropes, reminds us of what a wonderful character actor he was and that comedians are the best in certain tragic roles.
In effect, the characters are comedians trapped in tragic roles. They signed up for the three square meals a day and a chance at the prize. They can stop whenever they want to but somehow they can’t stop and as time moves forward, the marathon begins to look more and more like life. We come to realize the horrific lengths to which people will go for some quick money and time in the limelight.