Cast & Crew
During the Depression, while awaiting execution for the murder of an acquaintance, Robert Syverton recalls the circumstances of the crime. Wandering on an amusement pier beside the Pacific Ocean, he recalls when, as a child, he witnessed the destruction of a favourite horse. Robert is then attracted to a dance marathon about to begin in the dilapidated Aragon Ballroom. As he watches, a contestant is disqualified because of an ominous cough. Pressed by the man's aggressive partner, cynical Gloria Beatty, host Rocky recruits Robert as a substitute. Among the throngs competing for the prize are a middle-aged sailor suffering from heart trouble; aspirant actress Alice and her partner, Joel; an impoverished farm worker, James, and his pregnant wife, Ruby; and other destitute couples. As the marathon continues the weaker pairs are quickly eliminated, while the vulnerabilities of the stronger contestants are observed and exploited by the master of ceremonies. The theft of Alice's alternate gown stimulates mutual suspicion. After observing Alice and Robert together, Gloria takes Joel as her partner. Joel, however, receives a job offer and quits the role. Gloria's next partner is the sailor. To rekindle the spectators' enthusiasm Rocky stages a series of derbies in which the exhausted contestants, clad in track suits, must circle the floor. In these races the last three couples are eliminated. As Gloria and the sailor participate, her partner has a heart attack. Undeterred, she lifts the man to her back and crosses the finish line. Horrified, Alice sequesters herself in the shower, where she suffers a mental breakdown. Robert and Gloria are again partners. Inspired, Rocky suggests that they marry during the marathon. When Gloria refuses, the host reveals the contest's fraudulent nature. From the prize will be deducted numerous expenses, leaving the winner with nothing. Rocky boasts that he stole Alice's dress to excite spectator interest and to stimulate the rivalrous instincts of the contestants. Disgusted with this duplicity, the couple departs. Outside Gloria attempts to shoot herself, but she cannot pull the trigger. When she requests his help Robert obliges. Questioned by the police as to the motive for the murder, Robert can only say, "They shoot horses, don't they?" Meanwhile, the marathon continues.
Allyn Ann Mclerie
Noble "kid" Chissell
Noble "kid" Chissell
C. E. Dismukes
Vou Lee Giokaris
Ben L. Goodman
Philip H. Lathrop
Theodore B. Sills
Robert E. Thompson
Best Supporting Actor
Best Art Direction
Best Costume Design
Best Supporting Actress
Best Writing, Screenplay
They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, directed by Sydney Pollack in 1969, is the Gone with the Wind (1939) of dance-marathon movies. Based on a 1935 novel by Horace McCoy, it gave Jane Fonda her serious-acting breakthrough as Gloria, a cynical cookie who enters a California marathon as a way of staving off poverty until her totally unpromising movie career gets going. When her partner gets disqualified for health reasons, she latches onto a young man named Robert (Michael Sarrazin), who just wandered in to watch for a while. Soon they're trudging around the dance floor with a motley crew of competitors including a wannabe Hollywood star named Alice (Susannah York), an aging Navy man called Sailor (Red Buttons), and a working-class stiff (Bruce Dern) and his pregnant wife (Bonnie Bedelia), who actually won a marathon once. A smooth-talking emcee named Rocky, played with tragicomic brilliance by Gig Young, presides over the show.
And a show it is, rather than a genuine contest. Gloria and Robert learn this the hard way, when Rocky reveals that he ruined Alice's pretty dress so she'll look as wretched as the audience expects her to. As another way of boosting the marathon's sadistic visual appeal, Rocky interrupts the day-to-day drudgery of ordinary dancing with special "derbies" of high-speed walking, ousting the three couples who come in last. This eliminates the herd's weakest members and pleases the paying spectators by making the entrants look even more ridiculous and pathetic than usual.
McCoy's book was best received in Europe, where it was seen as one of the first American novels to reflect the existentialist ideas-viewing life as essentially absurd and purposeless-then gaining ground among philosophers and writers. Credit goes to the filmmakers for following the story's grim outlook to its logical conclusion, ending it on a note of dismal violence (foreshadowed in stylized flash-forward scenes) that Hollywood has never surpassed for sheer bleakness. Only in the adventurous 1960s era would mainstream production outfits like ABC and Palomar Pictures expect to earn their money back with such a downbeat conclusion.
McCoy knew the dance-marathon scene first hand. After stints as a sports journalist and pulp-mystery writer, he headed to Hollywood in the early 1930s for an acting career, which ended almost as soon as it began. He got the idea for a story about marathon dancers while working as a bouncer at a Santa Monica amusement pier. He went on to a long screenwriting career, specializing in westerns and crime dramas, but the two major movies adapted from his books--They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and the 1950 James Cagney vehicle Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye--bear out his reputation as quite a gloomy novelist.
The strongest asset of They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is its casting, especially of the Gloria and Rocky characters. Fonda wasn't crazy about the script, but her then-husband Roger Vadim was among the many French left-wingers who admired the novel, so she signed on. She was surprised when director Pollack solicited her creative ideas about the story's underlying issues, and he was probably surprised by the thoughtfulness of the responses he got from an actress known mainly for comedy and sex-kitten roles in pictures like Cat Ballou (1965) and Barbarella (1968). She and Buttons decided to get a taste of the subject matter by dancing to exhaustion, but she reports in her 2005 memoir My Life So Far that she was hallucinating after a mere two days. In any case, she credits the seriousness of her work in this project for encouraging a new sense of independence and self-reliance that paid large dividends in her personal and political life.
Pollock was apparently worried that Young would be too lightweight as Rocky, preferring gravel-voiced Lionel Stander for the role. Young himself was hesitant when he got the offer from a former agent who'd moved over to ABC's feature-film division. But fear of departing from his usual romantic-comedy mold faded when he realized what he could do with the role. It earned him a deserved Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor-perhaps because the film's depictions of self-destructive people struck a chord with his own weaknesses of alcoholism, hypochondria, and drug abuse.
Pollack also benefited greatly from the project, which cemented his position as an A-list director-and a daring one, not afraid of confining a whole feature film to a single setting that's as sleazy as it is claustrophobic. In a characteristic review, Pauline Kael of The New Yorker said that while Pollack wasn't an "imaginative" or "inventive" filmmaker, he staged the derby material "terrifyingly well" and "kept the grisly central situation going with...special energy and drive." Kael also trumpeted Fonda as the potential Bette Davis of the '70s, possessing "the true star's gift of drawing one to her emotionally even when the character she plays is repellent."
Kael was right about the derby scenes, which still carry cringe-inducing power, and almost right about Fonda, who continued to mature as an actress despite counterproductive projects and career moves. Seen today, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? remains a fascinating and troubling film, etching many haunting characters while spotlighting the dark side of capitalism and memorializing a Depression-era fad that has fortunately died away. By popularizing the title of McCoy's novel, it also gave American argot a catch-phrase that's as recognizable today as when the movie first caught on. Not many pictures can boast as much.
Producers: Robert Chartoff, Irwin Winkler
Director: Sydney Pollack
Screenplay: James Poe, Robert E. Thompson, based on Horace McCoy's novel
Cinematography: Philip H. Lathrop
Film Editing: Fredric Steinkamp
Art Direction: Harry Horner
Cast: Jane Fonda (Gloria Beatty), Michael Sarrazin (Robert Syverton), Susannah York (Alice), Gig Young (Rocky), Red Buttons (Sailor), Bonnie Bedelia (Ruby), Michael Conrad (Rollo), Bruce Dern (James), Al Lewis (Turkey), Robert Fields (Joel), Severn Darden (Cecil).
by Mikita Brottman and David Sterritt
They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
They Shoot Horses, Don't They? on DVD
Sydney Pollack's first prestige success is a grim but exacting drama that keeps its symbolism in check and concentrates on the human cost of a shameless historical phenomenon. The film is graced with excellent ensemble acting and impressive production values, and is quite an emotional meat grinder.
Synopsis: Down & out transients in Los Angeles flock to the last hope of the unemployed, the Monster Marathon dance out on Santa Monica Pier. The endurance dance show goes 24 hours a day with only ten-minute breaks every two hours, and is periodically interrupted for a walking footrace to eliminate the slowest couples. Volunteering for a chance at $1500, the desperate participants turn themselves into a sideshow of blood, sweat and tears; the marathon grinds up the optimistic and the cynical alike.
Gloria (Jane Fonda) latches onto another aimless drifter Robert (Michael Sarrazin) when her intended partner turns up sick. The overage Sailor (Red Buttons) is a marathon veteran and thinks he can make up in experience what he lacks in youth. Show-biz failures Alice (Susannah York) and Joel (Robert Fields) overdress in hopes of attracting the attention of talent scouts in the audience. And James (Bruce Dern) urges his pitiful, pregnant wife Ruby (Bonnie Bedelia) into the marathon in spite of the obvious health risks.
They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is an endurance test for the audience. The dancers stay in the hall and its adjoining sleeping rooms and deteriorate physically and mentally for almost two months of grueling torture. Outwardly, the marathon is a genteel spectacle with a smiling emcee (Gig Young) to praise the musicians and promote phony 'personal interest' backgrounds for the various dancers. As he puts it, the customers that fill the bleachers are paying to see someone worse off than they are, and he encourages the spectators to pick a couple and cheer them on. Dancers with specialty acts can perform and keep the nickels and dimes thrown from the stands. Some of them become dancing advertisements for local businesses by wearing shirts emblazoned with messages like "Western Bill Collection." A few contestants are tempted to cheat and others are manipulated by the management to add drama to the show, which pays lip service to their efforts while waiting to exploit them when they finally collapse or go crazy under the stress. The Day of the Locust imagined an apocalyptic Hollywood, but this picture is a more coherent protest against a system fed human lives to a ballroom version of the Roman circus.
They Shoot Horses, Don't They? was begun, planned and prepared by screenwriter James Poe (The Big Knife, Lilies of the Field, The Bedford Incident) as his directing debut. Poe's wife Barbara Steele was the intended Alice, the role that eventually went to Susannah York. Sydney Pollack stepped in after the major casting was done, making changes to the screenplay and adding players of his own like Michael Conrad. The result was nominated for nine Oscars® but the only winner was Gig Young as Best Supporting Actor. When the time came for voting, the movie was probably just too depressing for its own good.
MGM's DVD of They Shoot Horses, Don't They? doesn't do the film justice. When Sydney Pollack's Panavision film Castle Keep was released last summer on a pan-scanned disc, fan protests resulted in a speedy enhanced Widescreen reissue. This much more prestigious Pollack award-winner is being dropped on the market in an old flat letterboxed transfer with limp color and poor detail, and it doesn't even have the stereophonic track from the 1998 laser disc release (the original film was mixed in 3-track stereo). MGM is merely distributing the title in a multi-picture deal with ABC films and so is not directly responsible, but this They Shoot Horses, Don't They? release amounts to trashing a classic. The disc has an original trailer as its only extra.
For more information about They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, visit MGM. To order They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson
They Shoot Horses, Don't They? on DVD
I may not know a winner when I see one, but I sure as hell can spot a loser.- Rocky
My father never made it out of the fourth grade. He knew people. But he didn't know his ass from his elbow. You know what he was? He was a faith healer. I used to travel the circut with him. I was the one he healed. I was the shill, to set the crowd up. "Walk, my boy. When I lay my hands on you, you will walk." You will walk. Sodden old bastard. He thought it was him they believed in, but it was me.- Rocky
Here they are again, folks! These wonderful, wonderful kids! Still struggling! Still hoping! As the clock of fate ticks away, the dance of destiny continues! The marathon goes on, and on, and on! HOW LONG CAN THEY LAST!- Rocky
Somebody screamed.- Alice
That was you, Alice.- Rocky
Why'd you do it, kid?- Policeman
Because she asked me to.- Robert
Obliging bastard. Is that the only reason you got, kid?- Policeman
They shoot horses, don't they?- Robert
Sydney Pollack shot some of the frightening derby sequences himself, donning a pair of roller skates to get right in the action with the frantically heel/toe-ing actors.
As of 2002, this film holds the record for the most Academy Award nominations without a nomination for Best Picture: 9.
1969 New York Film Critics Award for Best Actress (Fonda).
Released in United States 1997
Released in United States 2008
Released in United States August 2002
Released in United States September 1994
Released in United States Winter December 1969
Shown at Locarno International Film Festival August 1-11, 2002.
Shown at WideScreen Film Festival in Los Angeles October 31 - November 16, 1997.
Released in United States 1997 (Shown at WideScreen Film Festival in Los Angeles October 31 - November 16, 1997.)
Released in United States 2008 (Shown at AFI/Los Angeles International Film Festival (Milestones) October 30-November 9, 2008.)
Released in United States August 2002 (Shown at Locarno International Film Festival August 1-11, 2002.)
Released in United States September 1994 (Shown at Telluride Film Festival September 2-5, 1994.)
Released in United States Winter December 1969