It’s 1932 and the country is suffering in the middle of the Great Depression. A dance marathon taking place on the Santa Monica pier becomes a beacon of hope for a collection of hungry and downtrodden contestants. The grand prize of $1500 is worth the punishment their bodies will be forced to endure to stay on their feet and outlast their competitors.
Hardened failed actress Gloria (Jane Fonda), middle-aged sailor Harry and his wife (Red Buttons and Allyn Ann McLerie), a pregnant young wife and husband (Bonnie Bedelia and Bruce Dern), a delusional actress (Susannah York) and a drifter (Michael Sarrazin) are among the contestants lured onto the dance floor and attempt to win the prize.
The man running the show Rocky (Gig Young) doesn’t so much cares for the well being of the poor souls who are on the verge of exhaustion as he does as putting on a good show for the crowds coming to see these marathon dancers put through the ringer. And that golden carrot of salvation they’re all chasing might not be the prize they’re nearly killing themselves for.
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is a terrific film! It is not necessarily a fun one, but it packs a wallop. It’s a depressing, tragic story that will make you shake your head at what desperate people will put themselves through and be sickened by how disregarded they are by the promoter for the sake of his ‘show’.
It’s an impressive fourth film from director Sydney Pollack. Taking place all in one set, he manages to continuously make the film not play as a stagey, repetitive dance – which is ironic since that is exactly what the story is. The characters are put through an assembly line experience doing the same thing constantly. Yet somehow you’re completely engaged throughout.
You see the progression of the story within this dance hall and the gradual degradation that is taking place to all the characters each time the horrific sounding alarm sounds and they must race back to the dance floor and get back on their feet.
It’s the exhaustion you witness that really hits me when watching the film. It beautifully conveys what a toll the characters are being put through. As you might’ve guess as the dance marathon continues day after day all of them begin looking more haggard, they move slower, their clothes are fraying, you can almost smell how bad the hall and they are.. It’s almost comparable to a prison movie.
There’s a dizzying quality that begins to happen with many segments of the film. The contestants are put through a derby, which they are forced to race around the dance floor against each other and the last three group of contestants are eliminated. After already putting in days and weeks of being on their feet no one wants to be the ones to lose, so it’s this pathetic stampede of humanity pushing themselves, struggling to keep up, all for the amusement of a paying crowd. It’s a terrific sequence.
This was Fonda’s first real strong dramatic turn. She had just come from filming Barbarella at the time and she’s great in this. She plays a cynical, downtrodden character who accepts nothing good will come to her. She’c completely walled off herself believing any hope of her life turning around is a pipe dream.
She’s really a tragic figure and she’s excellent. I suppose They Shoot Horses is where her career really became something different than before. After this she would continue with strong dramatic parts and become Jane Fonda The Actress.
The entire supporting cast are all excellent. A young Bedelia (who most will know as John McClane’s wife in Die Hard) always stands out to me as a heartbreaking addition to the roster of dancers. Here she is this young woman, very pregnant being dragged around the dance floor, completely exhausted. It’s impossible not to have sympathy for her and hoping someone will put an end to this punishment she’s allowing herself to be put through.
Also one amusing bit of casting is Al Lewis as Gig Young’s right hand man. It’s a very small part, but you can’t help to notice, “Hey, there’s Grandpa Munster!”.
The standout and showiest part is Young, whose MC of this dancing ordeal has no scruples and no sympathy for the contestants, no matter what sly lies he tells them. His loyalty lies with the paying audience. He’ll go to any lengths to get them on their feet and cheer and he doesn’t hesitate to exploit the hopeful lot he’s recruited to win a grand prize.
As good as he is in Oscar winning performance, I’ll forever associate him with the Twilight Zone episode Walking Distance. It was where I first saw him and whenever I see him it’s that Rod Serling story that I always think of. It’s a fantastic episode!
They Shoot Horse is excellent. It’s a unique setting, Pollack tells the story is very effective way and it’s filled with great performances from an ensemble cast. It’s a depressing tale, but an excellently told one. It will stick with you.