The Backstage Blogathon
Directed by Sydney Pollack. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), is a backstage drama about contestants in a dance marathon during the Great Depression of the 1930s. James Poe and Robert E. Thompson adapted the screenplay from the novel by Horace McCoy who specialized in hard-boiled fiction.
In the opening credit sequence, we’re introduced to the character Robert during his childhood in the country. That prosaic footage is intercut with flash forwards to the present where a young adult Robert (Michael Sarrazin) is standing in the surf at low tide near the Santa Monica (California) pier. Robert recalls the past with a warm glow until there’s a jarring memory just as a wave crashes against the pier.
Throughout this exposition, the voice of the marathon’s emcee Rocky (Gig Young) is heard laying down the rules of the contest: “We go around the clock and around and around and around. Ten minute break every two hours. There’ll always be a trainer and a nurse on duty and a doctor out here 24 hours a day, okay?
Now, all you kids got a release form. You fill it out, you sign it, then you hand it over when you get your official entry numbers. Only, read it first. You break your leg, we fix it. You catch a cold, there’s free aspirin but acts of God, the management is strictly not held to account. Fire, flood, double pneumonia, that’s between you and him. So read it and then sign.”
Horace McCoy writes:
The marathon dance was held on the amusement pier at the beach in an enormous old building that once had been a public dance hall. It was built out over the ocean on pilings, and beneath our feet, beneath the floor, the ocean pounded night and day. I could feel it surging through the balls of my feet, as if they had been stethoscopes.
When he stumbles out of the surf into the Pacific Ballroom, the man-child Robert Syverton is like a newborn among the old pros lining up to enter “The World’s Greatest Dance Marathon Contest.” There’s anticipation in the hopeful faces of the contestants as the camera pans across the sign-in table. Harry the hoofer (Red Buttons) looks at least fifty and is still wearing his sailor suit from the Great War. He’s thirty on the release form, however. Alice (Susannah York) is young and beautiful enough to believe fame is just around the corner. She’ll eventually look beaten as a derelict. There’s a softness to her that makes some men want to protect her while others immediately try to take advantage. Gloria (Jane Fonda), another failed actress, sneers at her English accent and her pretensions as an artiste. Ruby (Bonnie Bedelia) and James (Bruce Dern) are a young couple looking for a quick way out of financial woes. They’ve been traveling the marathon circuit though now Ruby is five months pregnant, Gloria isn’t shy about telling her she’s in no position to have a kid. Michael Conrad, best known as the desk sergeant on Hill Street Blues, is Rollo, Rocky’s chief enforcer. He surveys the hall on roller skates, breaking up fights and counting people out as they drop from exhaustion.
In McCoy’s novel, Robert meets Gloria Beatty on Melrose Avenue near Paramount Studios when they’re both scrapping for bit parts. They like each other and have common goals, but there’s no romance brewing. The movie compresses their meeting to the ballroom. Newcomer Robert steps in to take the place of the partner she arrives with when he’s disqualified.
Academy award winner Young shows Rocky’s complexity. He’s an unrelenting showman in front of the crowd, a frantic cheerleader who’s full of sanctimonious appeals to patriotism and to sentimental tugs at the heartstrings. What they really want, of course, is to see some real suffering and Rocky is always willing to oblige. When his “wonderful kids” have been up for 500 near continuous hours, he puts them through the paces of “The Derby,” a double time foot race to the tune of “By the Sea.” Philip H. Lathrop’s cinematography with editing by Fredric Steinkamp [Sunday in New York (1963)] is astonishing.
Even behind the scenes, Rocky is always working an angle. Still, there’s sensitivity in his eyes and he’s capable of compassion. “I’m not out to cheat anybody,” he pleads after telling Gloria that he can “always spot a loser.” Here, only the house wins in Rocky’s rigged game. Backstage, men and women are in their own dormitories, crashed out on cots during their brief rest periods. Late in the film, Alice finally cracks in the shower room in a harrowing scene where York and Young transcend mere “acting.”
The hopelessness is disquieting to say the least. Could They Shoot Horses have been made during the 1930s era it depicts with, say, Joan Crawford in the lead? It’s a tantalizing idea though the script would’ve been hard to get past the Production Code censors. To the filmmaker’s credit, McCoy’s story wasn’t softened. He describes Gloria as not pretty enough to make it. Of course, that doesn’t apply to Fonda, but she’s appropriately disheveled and nails the desperation. I imagine that she drew on the tough talking “dames” played by Crawford, Bette Davis and others.
Remarkably, songwriter and They Shoot Horses associate producer Johnny Green, who co-wrote the film’s recurring love theme “Easy Come. Easy Go,” had his first hits in the 1930s including the jazz standard “Body and Soul.” An instrumental version of his “I Cover the Waterfront,” also co-written with Edward Heyman, is heard during a sedate interlude.
This is my entry in the Backstage Blogathon co-presented by Movies Silently and Sister Celluloid. See the complete listing at either of their sites. Yowza!
This was a very comprehensive coverage of this film. Now I want to see it again. It’s been many years since I’ve seen the film and now mostly forget it. This film captured an interesting era and a unique activity from that time. Great cinematic fodder.
Your speculation of this story having been captured on film in an earlier era is an interesting one. I seem to recall seeing older films about dance marathons, but now I can’t remember for sure.
This was a good post.
Hope you drop by the posts I did for the Blogathon. I covered two films on my two active blogs linked below.
Tossing It Out
Wrote By Rote
Thanks for reading. I will check those out.
Thanks so much for joining in! I also enjoyed your speculation on the topic of this being a “real” 1930s film. Crawford would have been perfect!
Thanks for having us! Another thought on the 1930s recast–Gable would’ve made a good Rocky.
They Shoot Horses is a great and often-overlooked gem. It’s the perfect mix of bitterness and hopelessness, I don’t think a film like it could get made today. Fonda is perfect too – somehow you manage to feel sympathy for her vile character!
You’re right about that. Her cameo in the recent YOUTH with Michael Caine is like revisiting the mean-mouthed Gloria.
I’ve been meaning to see this one. I like your breakdown of characters–it sounds like the film tries to capture the different walks of life found at one of these marathon dances.
Though I haven’t seen the movie, I bet Barbara Stanwyck would be an ideal candidate for a ’30s film version. Check her out in TEN CENTS A DANCE, and you’ll see what I mean.
Yes, Stanwyck would be perfect. There is some overlap with taxi dancing. I’ve never heard of that movie but it sounds good.
Fabulous review! It’s been a while since I’ve seen this haunting film, but your descriptions have made this film fresh in my mind. I also liked how you compared the film to the novel.
Jane Fonda is perfect here, as is Gig Young. Their performances blew me away.
You know, if this film has been made in the 1930s, Joan Crawford would have been an excellent choice.
Thanks very much. McCoy also wrote KISS TOMORROW GOODBYE which I need to read/watch at some point.