The Backstage Blogathon
In most films about performers, there’s a stark contrast between the glamorous world of make-believe they create in front of the camera or onstage and what happens backstage. Even stripped of theatrical artifice, one can expect to see drama behind the curtain, as well.
In They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), directed by Sydney Pollack, the performers are 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 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.