They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is a 1969 American drama film directed by Sydney Pollack. The screenplay by James Poe and Robert E. Thompson is based on the 1935 novel of the same name by Horace McCoy. It focuses on a disparate group of characters desperate to win a Depression-era dance marathon and the opportunistic emcee (MC) who urges them on to victory. It stars Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, Susannah York, Red Buttons, Bruce Dern, Bonnie Bedelia, and Gig Young. Young won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance, while Fonda and York were nominated for the Academy Awards for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress respectively.
Robert Syverton (Michael Sarrazin), who had once dreamed of becoming a great film director, recalls the events leading to an unstated crime. In his youth, he saw a horse break its leg, after which it was shot and put out of its misery. Years later, in 1932 during the Great Depression, he wanders into a dance marathon about to begin in the shabby La Monica Ballroom, perched over the Pacific Ocean on the Santa Monica Pier, near Los Angeles. He is recruited by MC Rocky (Gig Young) as a substitute partner for a cynical malcontent named Gloria (Jane Fonda), when her original partner is disqualified because of an ominous cough.
Among the other contestants competing for a prize of 1,500 silver dollars is Harry Kline (Red Buttons), a middle-aged sailor; Alice (Susannah York) and her partner Joel (Robert Fields), both aspiring actors; and an impoverished farm worker James (Bruce Dern) and his pregnant wife Ruby (Bonnie Bedelia). Early in the marathon the weaker pairs are eliminated quickly, while Rocky observes the vulnerabilities of the stronger contestants and exploits them for the audience's amusement. Frayed nerves are exacerbated by the theft of one of Alice's dresses and Gloria's displeasure at the attention Alice receives from Robert. In retaliation, she takes Joel as her partner, but when he receives a job offer and departs, she aligns herself with Harry.
Weeks into the marathon, in order to spark the paying spectators' enthusiasm, Rocky stages a series of derbies in which the exhausted contestants, clad in track suits, must race around the dance floor, with the last three couples eliminated. Harry has a fatal heart attack during one of the races, but the undeterred Gloria lifts him on her back and crosses the finish line. Harry dies as Gloria drags him. Alice, who witnesses his death, has a breakdown and is taken away. Lacking partners, Robert and Gloria again pair up.
Rocky suggests the couple marry during the marathon, a publicity stunt guaranteed to earn them some cash, in the form of gifts from supporters such as Mrs. Laydon (Madge Kennedy). When Gloria refuses, he reveals the contest is not what it appears. Expenses will be deducted from the prize money, leaving the winner with close to nothing. Shocked by the revelation, the couple drops out of the competition.
The two leave the dance hall and stand on the pier, overlooking the ocean. Gloria confesses how empty she is inside and tells Robert that she wants to kill herself, but when she takes out a gun and points it at herself, she cannot pull the trigger. Desperate, she asks Robert, "Help me." He obliges, and shoots her in the head, killing her. Questioned by the police as to the motive for his action, Robert responds: "They shoot horses, don't they?"
The marathon continues with its few remaining couples, including James and Ruby. The eventual winners are not revealed.
In the early 1950s, Norman Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin were looking for a project on which to collaborate, with Lloyd as director and Chaplin as producer. Lloyd purchased the rights to Horace McCoy's novel for $3,000 and planned to cast Chaplin's son, Sydney, and newcomer Marilyn Monroe in the lead roles. Once arrangements were completed, in 1952 Chaplin took his family on what was intended to be a brief trip to the United Kingdom, for the London premiere of Limelight. During this trip, in part because Chaplin was accused of being a Communist supporter during the McCarthy era, FBI head J. Edgar Hoover negotiated with the Immigration and Naturalization Service to revoke his re-entry permit and the film project was cancelled. When McCoy died sixteen years later and the rights to the book reverted to his heirs, they refused to renew the deal with Lloyd, since nothing had come of his original plans.
When Sydney Pollack signed to direct the film, he approached Jane Fonda for the role of Gloria. The actress declined, because she felt the script wasn't very good, but her husband, Roger Vadim, who saw similarities between the book and works of the French existentialists, urged her to reconsider.
Meeting with Pollack to discuss the script, she was surprised when he asked for her opinion. She later said, "It was the first time a director asked me for input on how I saw the character and the story." She read the script with a critical eye, made notes on the character and later observed in her autobiography, "It was a germinal moment [for me] ... This was the first time in my life as an actor that I was working on a film about larger societal issues, and instead of my professional work feeling peripheral to life, it felt relevant." Troubled about problems in her marriage at the time, she drew on her personal anguish to help her with her characterization.
The film is notable for using the technique of flashforwards (glimpses of the future), not commonly used in movies. They are used in the last 18 minutes of the film, as passages appear denoting the fate of Robert, just before the tragic shock ending. Costar Gig Young was noted for his deep characterization of Rocky: he patterned his character after the bandleader and radio personality Ben Bernie, and used Bernie's famous catchphrase, "Yowza! Yowza! Yowza!", for the Rocky character in the film.
The film's soundtrack features numerous standards from the era. These include:
The ballroom band consisted of several real jazz musicians, all uncredited. The band were led by Bobby Hutcherson and included Hugh Bell, Ronnie Bright, Teddy Buckner, Hadley Caliman, Teddy Edwards, Thurman Green, Joe Harris, Ike Isaacs, Harold Land and Les Robertson.
According to Variety the film earned $5,980,000 in theatrical rentals in North America.
"The movie is far from being perfect, but it is so disturbing in such important ways that I won't forget it very easily, which is more than can be said of much better, more consistent films ... The movie is by far the best thing that Pollack has ever directed (with the possible exception of The Scalphunters). While the cameras remain, as if they had been sentenced, within the ballroom, picking up the details of the increasing despair of the dancers, the movie becomes an epic of exhaustion and futility."
Variety said, "Puffy-eyed, unshaven, reeking of stale liquor, sweat and cigarettes, Young has never looked older or acted better. Fonda ... gives a dramatic performance that gives the film a personal focus and an emotionally gripping power."
TV Guide rated the film four out of a possible four stars and said,
"Although it is at times heavy-handed, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is a tour de force of acting. Fonda here got her first chance to prove herself as a serious, dramatic actress ... Young is superb in his role, a sharp switch from his usual bon vivant parts ... Pollack does one of his best jobs of directing, even if his primary strength lies in his rapport with actors. The look of the film is just right and Pollack skillfully evokes the ratty atmosphere amid which explosive emotions come to a boil ... [It] remains a suitably glum yet cathartic film experience."
The film won one Academy Award and was nominated in eight other categories.
The film currently holds the record for being nominated for the most Academy Awards (nine) without receiving a nod for Best Picture.
In later years, Turner Classic Movies observed, "By popularizing the title of McCoy’s novel, [the film] gave American argot a catch-phrase that's as recognizable today as when the movie first caught on."
The title has been imitated in various media for topics having little relation to the plot or themes of the original film.
The question itself has become increasingly answerable correctly with "No" due to advances in equine veterinary medicine, capable of reducing the need for humane destruction of critically diseased or seriously injured horses, all of which the time-frame of both the film and its source novel pre-dated.
Welsh band Racing Cars recorded a song called They Shoot Horses Don't They? inspired by this movie.
They Shoot Horses, Don't They? was released to DVD by MGM Home Entertainment on October 19, 2004, as a Region 1 widescreen DVD. Kino Lorber intend to release the film on Blu-Ray on September 5, 2017.
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