Gloria (Jane Fonda) is a young woman of the Depression. She has aged beyond her years and feels her life is hopeless, having been cheated and betrayed many times in her past. Fantasizing about movies, she sees herself as an actress and decides to head for Hollywood, having got the idea from a movie magazine while recuperating in the hospital from a suicide attempt which resulted from another unhappy love affair.
Robert (Michael Sarrazin), a desperate Hollywood citizen unsuccessfully trying to become a director, never doubting that he'll eventually make it. Robert and Gloria meet and decide to enter a dance marathon, one of the crazes of the thirties. The grueling dancing takes its toll on Gloria's already weakened spirit, and she tells Robert that she'd be better off dead, that her life is hopeless - all the while acting cruel and bitter, alienating those around her, trying to convince him to shoot her and put her out of her misery. After all, they shoot horses, don't they?
Jane Fonda ... Gloria Beatty
Michael Sarrazin ... Robert Syverton
Susannah York ... Alice LeBlanc
Gig Young ... Rocky
Red Buttons ... Harry 'Sailor' Kline
Bonnie Bedelia ... Ruby
Michael Conrad ... Rollo
Bruce Dern ... James
Al Lewis ... Turkey
Robert Fields ... Joel Girard
Severn Darden ... Cecil
Allyn Ann McLerie ... Shirley 'Shirl' Clayton
Madge Kennedy ... Mrs. Laydon
Jacquelyn Hyde ... Jackie
Felice Orlandi ... Mario
"They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" is such a fascinating film that it made worthwhile a little research into the dance marathon craze of the 1920s and early 1930s. According to the DVD extra, the set was modeled on the old Aragon Ballroom, built in the 1920s on the Lick Pier at Santa Monica, California. The once-elegant ballroom had grown seedy by the early 1950s, at which time it enjoyed a brief revival as the location of early Lawrence Welk show broadcasts. In the 1960s, the Aragon was again revamped under a different name as a short-lived rock concert venue - with appearances by Alice Cooper (is his pre-Cooper days) and Jim Morrison of the Doors. It was destroyed by fire shortly afterward.
Marathon dancing was, according to most historians, as brutal and exploitive as it is depicted in "Horses." It was for that reason that this early 20th century variety of Roman coliseum culture was banned in much of the country by the late 1930s.
This movie uses fictitious characters to tell a story that appears to be remarkably accurate from a historical point of view. Jane Fonda's ultra-cynical, sharp-tongued character, Gloria, along with ruthless manager/promoter Rocky (played by Gig Young), contrast perfectly with the eerily-resigned and unpretentious Robert (Michael Serrazin). The casting and dialogue are brilliant. The visual effects are haunting.
This film is not for everyone. But for those interested in the social pathology that allows human suffering to become a form of amusement, the malicious ill-treatment of the poor, or the harsh realities of the depression era, this is multifaceted cinema that can be watched again and again, each time yielding new subtleties. It is a morbidly fascinating character study that reflects a truly desperate time.
In this movie's only moment of deadpan black humor, a nurse asks Gloria Beatty (Jane Fonda) after an exhausting dance session that has lasted nearly 1,000 hours, "Can I get you something for your feet?" Her response, as black as night, is, "How about a saw?" Taken out of context, her retort would inspire at least a barf of nervous laughter -- comic relief mirroring the temporary relief that particular something would give Gloria. But knowing the fury that her character has, this dissatisfaction with life in general, it wouldn't be a far stretch to see her amputate her feet right off and be done with it as the band plays on and Gig Young herds his cattle into mindless motion, for a promise of a little over one grand as a prize. She has nothing, she expects nothing -- and this is her last exit to a better life.
Such is the heroine of Horace McCoy's novel of the same name, which appeared in 1935 and told a story so lurid it could not possibly be true: that of the horror of dance marathons in which people down on their luck danced for interminable hours with brief "rest periods" no longer than 15 minutes, and all for free food and money. The ultimate price to pay for an era of abundance turned inside out into the belly of the beast the Depression Era was. All the time while Ginger and Fred danced under the stars and brought Hollywood magic to their eyes, all false promises. The greater irony is that its plot is set right at the edge of the world: the West, where dreams have been known to come true, especially for aspiring actors looking for their Big Break. That it was written by someone who was himself in the fringes is only fitting: some of the more effective stories come from people at the edges of society.
In a tone similar to Hubert Selby's REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, several characters are caught under the wheels of the American Dream and the need to escape the rampant poverty that had the nation under a vise. Dancing with Gloria are Robert Syverton (Michael Sarrazin), who seems to have committed a crime which makes this a story told in extensive flashbacks; Alice LeBlanc (Susannah York), who with partner Joel (Robert Fields) aspired to be a star; Ruby (Bonnie Bedelia) and James (Bruce Dern), a young married couple expecting their first child; and the Sailor (Red Buttons), a veteran of dance marathons. Rocky (Gig Young), the emcee, holds the ultimate poker card as to who will win this coveted prize and has the morals of a two-dollar bill.
What neither of them begin to suspect is that there is no light at the end of this tunnel. Rocky, the emcee, as corrupt as he is, is the only one who knows the final outcome and plays the game and each contestant until many of them literally fall dead... or worse, become raving lunatics moving for the sake of moving. Like the quick fix that the characters of REQUIEM were hooked on, he is just that to these people who soon progress from dancers full of life to zoned-out zombies in one horrific shot where we see their reflections through shards of broken glass, their eyes staring, looking at nothing, as they shuffle about in mock-dancing.
Alice will lose her dreams and turn into a shell of her former self: a scene in which she tries to seduce Robert is painful, especially when it happens right by a picture of an actress she emulates, Jean Harlow. Gloria will become even more bitter, and a sense of Hell on Earth will be the dominant feeling once the stakes become higher. And throughout it all, the dance.
But if the dancing in itself is punishing, nothing can account or compare to the two horrifying sequences where all of the contestants must race around the ballroom and avoid at all costs at being the last three couples, grounds for elimination. The first of them runs for the entire duration of its ten minutes and is a reverse chariot sequence in BEN HUR: instead of chariots, there are desperate people -- one of them, Ruby, is seven months pregnant -- and instead of a whip we have the emcee. It is interminable, and hits home at just how inhuman this contest is. The second one is even more terrible: the unforgettable image of Jane Fonda dragging the Sailor behind her back, a symbolic horse trying to remain in the game.
THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY? comes with a heavy dose of nihilism that would be the tone set throughout the Seventies and in many ways, it can be said that Seventies cinema began in 1969 with this and with MIDNIGHT COWBOY, both films about the underbelly of society. Every performance in the movie is on-target including that of Michael Sarrazin who is looks like a non-entity but is more the chewed-up remains of the dream machine. Sydney Pollack uses a number of flashy techniques appropriate of the time -- flashcuts, stylized sequences that seem out of a narrative structure -- and in doing so has created his own masterpiece. Timeless, the story of human exploitation is even more relevant today with the advent of reality game shows like Fear Factor and its self-degrading contestants. It's an ugly portrayal of us as a society, willing to partake in the spectacle of seeing people worse than we are acting little more than animals destined for carnage.
A brutally bleak screen adaptation of the pulpy Horace McCoy novella, about a Depression-era dance marathon where down-and-outers drive themselves to the brink of exhaustion to win the cash prize.
This film has become relevant again today in the age of reality T.V., where people tune in to watch strangers be humiliated, rejected and made fun of. Meanness and suffering sells today, and apparently it sold back then as well. The M.C. of the dance marathon, played wonderfully by Gig Young in one of his last (if not the last) film performances before the troubled actor murdered his wife and then killed himself, creates little narratives and dramas around each of the dancers, so that the audience can have their favorites to root for. Every once in a while, someone will show off a special talent, singing a song or hoofing a little dance number, and the audience will throw change at them, which the performer then frantically scrabbles up like a desperate pigeon. The cast of dancers is led by Jane Fonda, in a break-out role as Gloria, the jaded woman-of-the-world who's seen it all and doesn't want to see anymore; Susannah York, as a pretentious wannabe actress, who acts up a storm during a mesmerizing breakdown scene; Red Buttons, as an aging ex-serviceman who struggles to keep up with the young kids around him; and Bruce Dern and Bonnie Bedelia, as a sweet couple of country bumpkins who are desperate to win the cash for their unborn baby. And yes, that is Al Lewis (aka Grandpa Munster) lurking around in the background as one of the dance marathon officials.
Director Sydney Pollack vastly improves on the source material, making something much richer and deeper out of McCoy's lurid novella. He uses an edgy, jarring style that's suited perfectly to the material, and which he would never again display.
"They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" holds a sort of grisly fascination over its audience. Bleak as it is, it's also entertaining in a rather morbid way, making us feel like we're members of the audience watching this sick spectacle and making it that much harder for us to condemn the film audience without labeling ourselves as hypocrites.