They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (Sydney Pollack, 1969)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

On the Santa Monica Pier, in the shabby La Monica Ballroom, a bizarre Depression-era fad unfolds – the dance marathon. A worn out collection of hopefuls (Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, Susannah York, Bonnie Bedelia, Red Buttons, and Bruce Dern) compete in hopes that a Hollywood casting agent spots them or that they at least win the contest’s $1,500 cash prize. But the competition is a grueling public spectacle, lasting thousands of hours and taking weeks to proceed, leaving dignity and salvation farther and farther away. Based on Horace McCoy’s brutally poetic novel and featuring stand-out performances including Gig Young’s award-winning role as the marathon’s huckstering emcee, Sydney Pollack’s seminal film puts a cap on 1960s idealism and paints a bleak portrait of the American Dream that still resonates today.

Disc Features:

  • New 2K digital transfer, presented with uncompressed stereo on the Blu-ray edition
  • Audio commentary by director and producer Sydney Pollack
  • Audio commentary with Jane Fonda, producer Irwin Winkler, former president of ABC Pictures and talent agent Martin Baum, Bonnie Bedelia, Michael Sarrazin, Red Buttons, and legendary hair stylist Sydney Guilaroff
  • New interviews with actors Jane Fonda, Bruce Dern, and Bonnie Bedelia
  • New interview with film critic Kim Morgan
  • New interview with filmmaker Sarah Gertrude Shapiro discussing They Shoot Horses and introducing her 2013 short film Sequin Raze
  • Original featurette on the making of the film
  • Trailer
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Scott MacDonald, composer John Green’s musical continuity notes, Pollack’s forward to the screenplay, and notes, pictures, and diagrams taken from Pollack’s shooting script; a new paperback edition of McCoy’s original novel

Survey discussions of Sydney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969) and you will find the film described as grim, glum, raw, ratty, sleazy, sad, gruelling, claustrophobic, rancorous, nihilistic, bitter, and hopeless. Horses is undoubtedly all these things but it is first and most importantly a film about idealism. There are no great tragedies without idealism, no poignancy found in the downfall without some preceding conviction. To become disillusioned, one must first have illusions to cast off and They Shoot Horses depicts the brutal, agonizing process of abandoning the American Dream or being destroyed by it. At its harshest, Horses punishes its characters with both.

Set almost entirely within a rundown ballroom on the Santa Monica Pier, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? examines the harrowing competition of a 1932 dance marathon. The event’s organizer, Rocky (Gig Young in an Oscar-winning role), pumps the contest’s audience with shouts of “Yowza! Yowza!” and remarks about the participants aimed more at building spectator sympathies than describing any truthful picture of the contestants. The event is dressed up with fanfare, music, and loads of bunting, but the enterprise is far grimmer than even the tired ballroom might suggest. Beneath a glittering mirror ball, participants must keep their feet moving and the rest of their bodies off of the floor, dancing in two hour spans and given only ten minute breaks in between. Periodically, a manic foot race eliminating three pairs of contestants is held to thin the herd and further fray exhausted nerves. The entire competition lasts many weeks but the promise of $1,500 or of being discovered by Hollywood star-makers in the crowd brings out desperately dedicated hopefuls, be they down on their luck actors like Joel (Robert Fields) and Alice (Susannah York as a Harlow wannabe), a young pregnant couple like James and Ruby (Bruce Dern and Bonnie Bedelia), or a seasoned veteran like Sailor (Red Buttons).

At the centre of it all is failed actress Gloria (Jane Fonda) and wanderer Robert (Michael Sarrazin), an unlikely pair thrown together when Gloria’s original partner is deemed too sick to participate and Robert, who simply entered the ballroom on a whim, is roped in by Rocky’s quick talk. The pair mix like oil and water. Gloria is resentfully venomous and hard as nails, having little faith in anything other than her single-minded will to win $750 and “buy some good rat poison.” Her initial partner Robert is a quiet dreamer, full of reserved empathy for his competitors and pity for Gloria’s boundless cynicism. Robert’s compassion eventually leads to a moment of intimacy with Alice that confirms Gloria’s distrust of everyone and sets her on a carousel of other partners who lack her devotion or her stamina. Eventually Robert and Gloria are forced to resume their partnership, but a proposal by Rocky that the pair marry in order to milk the audience for some goodwill and gifts reveals that the prize money is a sham and brings They Shoot Horses to its darkest moment and its despairing conclusion, Gloria’s accomplished death wish.

Jane Fonda originally turned down the role, being unimpressed with the script, but McCoy’s novel had been popular in French leftist circles and Fonda’s husband, Roger Vadim, encouraged her to join the project. Sydney Pollack’s collaborative approach with Fonda, encouraging her to make the role her own and invest herself into the character with the film’s support, was a revelation to the actress and inspired her self-reliant attitude in both her career and her politics. The film was a success for Fonda, Pollack, and all involved – nominated for nine Oscars (winning one), six Golden Globes (winning one), five BAFTAs (winning one); nominated for the Directors Guild of America Award and the Writers Guild of America Award; Fonda winning the New York Film Critics Circle Award and Horses named Best Film by the National Board of Review.

Ultimately, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is about the American Dream – the idea that the United States offers equal opportunity to all its citizens and that success is determined by initiative and hard work. The dance marathon is one such opportunity, with uncomplicated rules for play and success measured by simply outlasting your competitors, but Pollack knew he wasn’t making a mere recreation of an event.

When you put a group of people in one room for two hours, you’re making an allegory. You can’t help it. If you put them in a dance hall, the dance hall becomes a microcosm … What you put on the screen isn’t the whole truth, it’s just your truth, and it isn’t even all your truth.

Except for brief, intercut scenes of a young Robert and an older man shooting a fallen horse to put it out of its misery and of a contemporary Robert being arrested and tried for a crime, Horses takes place almost exclusively within the La Monica Ballroom, either out on the dance floor or backstage in the offices and rest areas where the façade of the show gives way and the grim reality of its toll is revealed. Altogether, it’s a trap, a special Circle of Hell where frivolous pastimes are recast as punishing stress tests. Pollack (with his DP, Philip H. Lathrop) captures these scenes in medium shots and close-ups to reveal the pain and anguish felt by his characters, using roller skates to smoothly shoot from within the tumult. Dances and races are sometimes presented in near real time, offering the audience a snippet of the ordeal by withholding the relief of an expected conclusion. (Fonda claims to have tried marathon dancing in preparation for the shoot and lasted only two days before experiencing hallucinations.)

The truth offered in Horses is ultimately a rejection of the American Dream, both with regard to the contest itself and with its audience generally. By the film’s end, the contest’s prize is revealed to be false and it breaks Gloria. For all her anger about central casting having “it all rigged before you ever show up” and people being less than cattle because cattle at least has “somebody feeding them,” she knows what’s fair and the dance marathon, in the purity of its concept, seems immune to the cheat. Gloria is the quintessential cynic hiding a disappointed idealist and when at last even the dance marathon fails her, the last of her idealism dissolves and so too does her anger, leaving only despair at a cruel and heartless world tended by indifferent keepers.

Speaking about the film in 1970, Pollack remarked:

There is a poverty of spirit today as well as a poverty of body. Human nature doesn’t change. The elements in human nature that produces the dance marathon still exist. That kind of exploitation still goes on. But today it isn’t expressed in the form of a dance marathon … [The film] disturbs people, and yet I didn’t intend for it to disturb them as much as it does … I don’t really believe there’s no justice … I don’t find man’s situation hopeless. Basically the film shows a girl who blows her brains out because she can’t bear the pain of living. Painful as life is, I can’t imagine getting out of it.

Pollack might not see the world so despondently but Horses certainly does, and its exceptionally disturbing quality rests in how it presents the craven commodification of the American Dream. The tragedy of the dance marathon is only partly that its prize money is a lie. Its principle cruelty is the manner that it chews up and spits out its broken competitors with little more to show for the ordeal than the pennies thrown at them by the crowd and a little bit of cash granted by a sponsor. It portrays an American Dream that leaves the unsuccessful dead in spirit and body and that sells its exploitation as solace for public consumption – better to be the one tossing the pennies on the dance floor than to be the poor exhausted soul picking them up. Vicki Braun noted, “There are short-cuts to happiness, and dancing is one of them.” The dance marathon’s pivotal ruthlessness is to divorce dance from happiness and turn it into a pitiable ordeal.

Steve Simels suggests that “Sydney Pollack’s dance-marathon movie has probably aged better than any American film of its time.” Novelist Horace McCoy, a failed actor and dance marathon bouncer himself, saw the contest as sideshow freakery emblematic of the Depression’s desperate times. At the time the film was made, Pollack no doubt saw the “poverty of spirit” and “body” of his era in the assassinations, environmental disasters, terrorism, wars, and scandals that were quickly overtaking the idealism that defined the decade. Today, Horses anticipates the fame-seeking, get-rich-quick promises of reality television that deludes contestants and viewers alike, trading on our idealism for market share and trying to perpetuate the illusion of opportunity for another fiscal quarter. Martha Graham said, “Dance is a song of the body. Either of joy or pain.” They Shoot Horses attends to the pain, but its real insight is in the way it explores how that pain becomes falsely packaged for joy.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is in desperate need of a new and definitive hard media presence, as its solid LaserDisc edition is long antiquated and its uninspired, non-widescreen enhanced MGM DVD is now out of print. Unfortunately, the title seems to be subject to some confusing rights issues with MGM still holding DVD rights while current film prints are credited to Buena Vista Pictures. We can hope that these potential problems are surmountable, that a Criterion Collection edition might one day appear and Pollack’s dance marathon might strike up once again. For a cover treatment, we propose Canadian cartoonist Gary Taxali. Taxali’s interest in vintage comics and advertising could make for a period appropriate illustration that offers some modern transgressions and criticisms. It would also provide a welcome reprieve from the agonized faces and glittering mirror balls that typically surround treatments of the film.

Credits: The commentaries, the featurette, and the notes of Sydney Pollack and John Green are imported from the previous LaserDisc edition. Kim Morgan was picked to provide a video essay given her excellent piece on the film written for the Library of America – “Dance of the damned: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? – and Scott MacDonald was selected to provide an essay given his article for the A.V. Club – “Do Hollywood movies come any bleaker than The Shoot Horses, Don’t They? The connection between the exploitation of the dance marathon’s participants and that of current reality television contestants suggested bringing in Sarah Gertrude Shapiro to provide her thoughts on the film and her own work on The BachelorSequin Raze, and UnReal.

This post is also indebted to Janet L. Meyer’s Sydney Pollack: A Critical Filmography, Mikita Brottman and David Sterritt’s article for TCM, and Glenn Ericsson’s review.

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