Plot: What’s it about?
No jobs. No money. No food. No shelter. During the depression, these problems faced most Americans, and some would do anything they could to meed their needs. Already popular by that time was a ritual called the dance marathon, where couples would enter a contest to dance as long as they could. Well, they didn’t have to dance all the time, but they did have to stay in continuos motion at all times. Now, these dancers would dance for hours on end. No really, I mean hours, not as in a few, not as in five hundred, but as in twelve hundred plus hours of non stop motion, with infrequent breaks to rest your feet. Why would people enter these contests? Easy. The promoter would offer food, shelter, and laundry service for as long as the dancers could keep going. If you stopped, you were gone, and if your partner gave out, better find a new one fast. In addition to the provisions, a cash prize was often offered, to further entice people to sign up. Nurses and doctors were usually needed on site at all times, because the stress on their bodies was often too much.
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? places us right in the front row of just such a dance marathon. This particular marathon is promoted by Rocky (Gig Young), who is not at all worried about the dancers, only about the amount of money he can make by exploiting them. He offers the usual provisions, and ups the ante by putting up a cash prize of fifteen hundred dollars, enough money for the winners to live without fear of the depression. Potential couples show up in droves for a chance to enter the contest, lined up as far as you can see. From far and wide, even a couple from Alaska is present, they show up for the food, shelter, and chance at a better life. Rocky’s crew turns away anyone who is suspect, no illnesses or handicaps allowed. But Rocky does approve a young pregnant girl, as he says it will give the crowd someone to root for.
As the marathon starts, one hundred and two couples fill the dancefloor, but our film focuses on just four couples. First off, we have Robert (Michael Sarrizan) and Gloria (Jane Fonda), who didn’t start out as a pair, but out of need, found themselves together once the music started. Next up is the Hollywood bound couple of Rollo (Michael Conrad) and Alice (Susannah York), who hope to turn heads with their performance, and finally get their big break. Then we have our energetic Sailor (Red Buttons) and his fiery haired partner, with Sailor garnering most of the attention. He seems out to prove that age is not a factor, that he can outdance any man in the place. Finally, we have mother to be Ruby (Bonnie Bedelia) and her lover James (Bruce Dern), who are veterans of the marathons, and need money for their expected child. Just because these couples start off together does not mean they will end up together, however.
While this movie is mostly shot on a dancefloor, it’s not as if all the characters do is dance. it amazes me how well these characters are developed in this picture. It’s not as if we are seeing a bunch of nameless faces out there, we know who these people are, we know why they are there. The depth of the characters is well done, and makes the characters easier to relate to and get attached to. We get equal time for each couple, with Robert and Gloria getting a little more of the spotlight. This level attention adds tension to the movie which is invaluable. We have no idea who will be the next couple to break apart or who will be the next person to drop. This helps slowly build suspense, as just like the crowds do, the watcher picks a couple he wants to win the contest. If the movie would have focused too much on one person/couple, it would not have been as good. It also allows for nice sub plots to appear, which helps strengthen the picture that much more.
If I had to summarize this movie in one word, it would be desperation. Everyone in this film is desperate, from the dancers all the way down to the crowd who cheers them on. The dancers are desperate for food, for a place to stay, for survival. They hang on as long as they can, just knowing a hot meal is coming if they can stay moving for a while longer. The prize money offers the chance at something else they are desperate for, a new life. A chance to escape poverty and the depression, and live a happy life. So badly do they want these things, that they risk their bodies, endure intense physical strain, just for the chance they might win. The promoter, Rocky, is also a desperate man, looking for any possible way, moral or immoral, to sell more tickets. He even tries to persuade two dancers to get married right on the floor, just for profit’s sake, then get divorced right after they win or lose. So desperate for every dollar he can get, he doesn’t even see the dancers as people, just ends to his own means. The crowd also has desperation, desperation for something to believe in, something to hope for. They choose one couple to cheer for, and get a rare chance for hope in their lives. The desperation shows in all these elements as well, the longer the ritual happens, the more desperate the people get.
In They Shoot Horses, the actors (both male and female) not only had spoken lines to deliver, they also had to make the audience believe they were in this strenuous contest. People who have been on their feet and moving for over twelve hundred hours straight don’t look like they did at the beginning of the whole thing. Whether in eye appearance, facial expressions, or overall body movement, these performers did a splendid job of making the fatigue seem real. The look in these people’s eyes is uncanny, they look vacant, to be blunt. It’s as if they don’t even know what they’re doing anymore, they just know they have to keep doing it. In boxing and football, they call it the thousand yard stare, where the person has no idea of their immediate surroundings. These dancers have that stare. Facial expressions can convey messages that words never could, and the actors in They Shoot Horses use them to full effect. Bonnie Bedelia in particular puts on a great facial performance, grimacing with pain in almost every shot of this picture. The stress and wear and tear on these dancers shows on their faces, and that adds a great degree of realism. Body movement slowly decreases as the marathon continues, and the actors do a superb job of appearing less mobile as we progress.
The actors in They Shoot Horses do deliver great performances outside their body language as well. Jane Fonda is often criticized for her acting in this picture, but I feel like she is just annoying as hell in real life, and so no one likes her anyway. Even if she gave a perfect performance, I doubt many people would admit it. She overact a tad in this movie, but it fits her overdramatic character well, so everything is fine. Michael Sarrizan does a great job as her partner, especially believable as his fatigue grows into exhaustion. I am not very familiar with his other work, but he is tremendous here.
Red Buttons plays the overzealous ancient mariner, Sailor, who tries to be the showman of the film. Buttons is a terrific actor, and this is no exception to that reputation. He brings Sailor to life, making what might have been a conceited character actually likable to the audience. Susannah York also delivers a top notch acting performance in this film, with excellent development inside the role. Gig Young, as the event’s promoter, brings a deft balance between humanism and greed, with greed getting the edge by far. His character is well developed, and really branches out, but not to the extent of being a nice guy. He displays great range, from caring and hospitable to ruthless.
The supporting cast is also a dynamite assortment as well. Rounding out the cast are Bonnie Bedelia (Die Hard), Bruce Dern (The ‘Burbs-YES!), Robert Fields, Michael Conrad (The Longest Yard), and Allyn Ann McLerie (The Way We Were.) All thing said, a stellar cast that puts on an incredible show. Some of the best dramatic acting I have seen, and I’ve seen a lot of movies, you know. They Shoot Horses was directed by Sydney Pollack, who also directed such hits as The Way We Were, Out of Africa, Tootsie, and one of Matt’s all time favorites, The Firm. What does all that mean? It means not only are you getting great acting, but you’re getting great directing too! Now, I saved the best for last with this whole cast/crew chit chat. One of my favorites, Al Lewis, gets serious screen time in this flick. Yeah, Grandpa Munster himself! Yes! Al Lewis rocks, plain and simple. If you want more of Al Lewis, check out Married To The Mob, Car 54: Where Are You, and the Munster movies as well. I know most of you guys don’t care, but I love Al, and it’s great to see his work!
Allow me to make my closing statements. They Shoot Horses was nominated for nine Academy Awards, with Gig Young winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Other nominations included Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Director. The film also won a Golden Globe for Young, and Fonda took home the New York Critic’s Award. What am I trying to say? That I’m alone in thinking that They Shoot Horses is one of the best dramas out there, and while it is somber and dark, it’s worth a look. I am glad Anchor Bay gave this title a chance, and gave it a great treatment to boot. So at least rent this flick. And always remember, Yowza, Yowza, Yowza!
Video: How does it look?
When I got this disc, I was expecting a nice visual transfer, but what I got was not nice. It was amazing! The picture is dead on, with great color work and black levels. No artifacts or shimmering to be found on this one. A great transfer for an often overlooked title!
Audio: How does it sound?
Music and dialogue go together smoothly in this one, and one never detracts from the other. Not many effects, so your system won’t go into hyperspeed, but a nice mix for this type of movie.
Supplements: What are the extras?
You get the theatrical trailer, as well as a nice six minute featurette focusing on behind the scenes work. Not a bad little pack of extras!