|They Shoot Horses, Don't They?|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 26 October 1999|
Some great American movies have slipped between the cracks, and THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY? is one of them. Based on Horace McCoy's 1935 novel, directed by Sydney Pollack and written by James Poe and Robert E. Thompson, this deeply engrossing, almost hypnotically fascinating movie was released by the short-lived ABC theatrical distribution arm. And so no one has had much incentive to promote it on video until now.
Anchor Bay Entertainment is one of the greatest DVD companies less for the extras they provide -- they rarely go beyond the standard set -- as for their selection of movies. Not everything they release is excellent, but they've scoured the vaults for marginal films, releasing, for example, a large number of Disney movies that Disney's own video division evidently decided weren't worth bringing to home video. (And some of them aren't, but for the sake of movie history, if nothing else, it's good that Anchor Bay is in there plugging.)
THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY? is, as usual, scant on extras; scene selection, languages, trailer, both letterboxed & panned/scanned prints, and the "making of" featurette produced back in 1969 to promote the movie. Mere trifles -- but the movie is hardly a trifle. It was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Jane Fonda for actress, Sydney Pollack for director, the adapted screenplay, art direction, score, editing, costume design and supporting actor -- which Gig Young won for his role as Rocky, the sardonic but complicated manager of the dance hall. (The movie should have been nominated for best picture, too, but was beaten out -- most likely -- by the mediocre HELLO, DOLLY.)
This is the only feature film to center on one of the strangest crazes of the twentieth century: dance marathons. Starting in the 1920s and continuing on until the late 1930s, these were dances that simply went on, steadily, until one couple was left standing. There were short breaks every hour, and the dance hall promoters fed the contestant (who had to keep dancing while they ate), but the dance went on and on. Enough time has passed since this craze that it's utterly astonishing to learn how long these dances went on. The couple holding the longest record danced over five thousand hours. That's not a misprint: they danced for seven months.
In this handsome, authentic-looking film, young drifter Robert Syverton (Michael Sarrazin) wanders into a dance hall on a beach pier somewhere in Southern California. (No one cites a date, but it's 1932.) A dance marathon is about to start, and when the planned partner of Gloria Beatty (Jane Fonda) opts out, promoter Rocky recruits Robert to take his place. And the dance begins.
Robert is an open guy who's stunned to realize the depths of Gloria's bitter despair. She's run out of options to the degree that when he asks her how she'd spend the prize money, she snaps that she'd "buy some good rat poison." And the dance goes on.
We meet other contestants. The British Alice (Susannah York) is a would-be actress who's modeled herself on Jean Harlow; sure that a producer will spot her, she keeps herself looking beautiful with makeup and changes of dress. But after many hours, someone steals her change of clothes and makeup, and she begins to fall apart. And the dance goes on.
Ex-sailor Harry Klein (Red Buttons), who claims to be 31 but who is obviously older, is used by Rocky as a target for audience sympathy. He makes up wild claims about Harry's World War I military heroics, but Harry is getting more and more weary as the dance goes on.
This is the eighth marathon for James (Bruce Dern) and his pregnant wife Ruby (Bonnie Bedelia); they've signed up in hopes of making enough money to pay for the baby, but no one cuts Ruby any slack. She has to keep up with the rest of them. And the dance goes on, and on, and on. Rocky shouts "Yowzah, Yowzah, Yowzah!" and calls attention to the dancers, who acquire sponsors from among the audience members.
"As the clock of fate ticks away, the dance of destiny continues," Rocky says over the loudspeaker, "and the marathon goes on and on and on." There's no question that the movie (and McCoy's novel) was intended to present the dance marathon as a metaphor for life itself, but the movie is very light-footed about this; the idea hovers in the background, never really imposing itself. The characters are very strongly written and played, and although the story really is "and the dance goes on," you're drawn into it by the sheer engrossing spectacle of these people dancing and dancing, arguing, catching a moment of sleep, and dancing again. ("Dancing" here really means, after the first few hours, holding onto each other and shuffling around the floor.)
At times, the anguish of the dancers is so vividly realized that the movie is almost hard to watch, particularly in the "Derby" scenes. Once a week, for ten minutes, the dancers have to run around the dance floor, like a race track; the last three couples across the finish line are eliminated from the dance, which goes on.
The movie takes place almost entirely inside the ballroom, a completely convincing set designed by Harry Horner. Philip H. Lathrop's photography and Pollack's vigorous, involved direction help prevent the kind of sameness that lesser talents might have been unable to prevent from manifesting itself.
Most of the performances are exceptionally good. Fonda was just hitting her stride as an actress here, and surprised the world with the strength of her playing; it's hard to believe the movie she made just before this was BARBARELLA. Gig Young had been a light leading man or hero's best friend for years; Pollack took a chance in casting him as the weary, cynical but strangely supportive Rocky -- and Young won the Oscar. He never had another role this good, but he didn't have to; he made his mark with this one.
Michael Sarrazin was a major young leading man at this time, but his career choices in the next few years essentially removed him from Hollywood consideration. By 1976, he was appearing in European movies, and later on, TV movies and straight-to-video films, where he remains to this day. His big mournful eyes and sad, sensual mouth were perfect for the role of Robert, and Sarrazin is good, but he's not exceptional.
Susannah York is, but then again, from about 1965 to 1980, she gave one exceptional performance after another, though today she's about as little-known as THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY?.
The film doesn't quite hit the top marks, partly because of an aura of pretentiousness, underscored by the frequent flash-forwards to Sarrazin under arrest, then in prison. The opening, showing someone shooting a horse, is rather literal, and should have been left off. But overall it's a fine movie, well worth seeking out; the DVD is from a good print, the sound is clear and the song score (including the great "Easy Come, Easy Go") is vivid and memorable. Perhaps the most impressive achievement of an impressive movie is that despite it all, there's a sense of hope and optimism behind the jaded bitterness of Gloria, and Rocky's world-weary cynicism. The dance goes on.