They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969)
Reviewed on 2007 July 16
I think this is a much grimmer Depression-era movie than The Grapes of Wrath.
Gloria Beatty’s (Jane Fonda) hard life left her as warm and cuddly as a barrel cactus. We don’t get much of her history, but we see a painful life reflected in her hard eyes as she signs up for a dance marathon in a seedy California ballroom. Her initial partner is disqualified because of an illness and she wastes little sympathy on him, focusing instead on getting a new partner. Her main worry is whether the contestant chosen for her, the hapless Robert Syverton (Michael Sarrazin), will be able to keep up with her. She’s focused on winning the $1500 prize for the last couple standing.
That’s a nice chunk of money any time, but in the Depression, that billboard advertising the prize money must have been like a mirage in the dessert. Many couples participate in this days-long thing and Rocky the MC (Gig Young) is going to give the spectators every bit of drama he can wring out of the exhausted, desperate dancers. The miniscule rest periods and “nurses” on duty are just a formality, and the marathon begins to take its toll on the participants.
I like how director Sydney Pollack told this in a somewhat non-linear style, and the way he handled the notorious derby scenes. What’s remarkable is the way he can wring empathy from the viewer for the peripheral characters on the dance floor and contempt for the anonymous ghouls in the audience. When someone in the audience — a “fan” of Gloria’s — won’t let her sleep on Robert’s shoulder while they’re on the floor, you sense Gloria’s frustration. To the extent of wanting to slap the pest yourself.
Four chocolate morsels.