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Film: They Shoot Horses Dont They

"People are the ultimate spectacle."

A 1969 film based on the Horace McCoy novel of the same name, directed by Sydney Pollack, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? focuses on the participants in a grueling dance marathon in 1932, at the height of The Great Depression.

Would-be director Robert Syverton (Michael Sarrazin) wanders into the La Monica Ballroom in Santa Monica as contestants are being signed in for a dance marathon with a cash prize of $1,500. When the partner of cynical aspiring actress Gloria Beatty (Jane Fonda) is disqualified for having a cough that could be a sign of tuberculosis, Rocky (Gig Young), the fast-talking MC of the marathon, recruits Robert as Gloria's new partner. Other contestants include middle-aged sailor Harry Kline (Red Buttons), aspiring actress Alice (Susannah York) and her partner Joel (Robert Fields), and farm worker James (Bruce Dern) and his heavily pregnant wife Ruby (Bonnie Bedelia).

The rules are simple: they dance round the clock with ten minute breaks every two hours (contestants have to learn to "sleep" standing up), and the last couple standing wins the cash prize. The marathon drags on for days, then weeks, and the contestants' tempers quickly fray. Gloria and Robert attract the attention of local widow Mrs. Laydon (Madge Kennedy), who persuades a local ironmonger to sponsor them in exchange for wearing sweatshirts advertising their business. However, Gloria becomes jealous of the attention Robert is giving Alice, and exchanges partners with her. This proves short-lived as Joel receives a job offer and Gloria pairs off with Harry.

Rocky keenly exploits the dancers' various vulnerabilities for audience amusement, and periodically organises hellish "derbies" in which the contestants must complete several circuits of the ballroom, with the last three couples automatically eliminated from the overall marathon. During once such derby, Harry suffers a fatal heart attack and is dragged across the finish line by Gloria; his dead body falls into Alice's arms, causing her to suffer a nervous breakdown and withdraw from the competition, re-uniting Robert and Gloria as dancing partners. Rocky tries to persuade them to be married on the dance floor, but when Gloria refuses and states her determination to win the competition, Rocky makes a devastating revelation.

The film was a hit with critics and audiences, though it holds the dubious distinction of receiving the highest number of Academy Award nominations without being nominated for Best Picture, with nine (it won just one: Best Supporting Actor for Gig Young as Rocky). The film's title is perhaps more widely known than the film itself, with many works named by variants of "They Shoot ____, Don't They?", whether or not the plot bears any resemblance to that of the film. (This website, for example.)


This film provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Accidental Misnaming: Within seconds of introducing himself to Rocky, Robert is already being called "Richard" by the indifferent MC.
  • Adaptational Attractiveness: In Horace McCoy's novel, Robert says of Gloria, "I could see why Gloria didn't get registered by Central. She was too blonde and too small and looked too old. With a nice wardrobe she might have looked attractive, but even then I wouldn't have called her pretty." In the film, she is played by Jane Fonda, who matches no part of that description.
  • Casting Couch: Early in the marathon, Gloria aggressively seduces a more than willing Rocky to improve her chances of winning the marathon.
  • Catch Phrase: Rocky is very fond of peppering his speeches to the audience with the word "Yowza!"note 
  • Dancing Is Serious Business
  • Despair Event Horizon: Gloria crosses this when she learns that, in practice, there might as well not be a cash prize for the winners of the dance marathon. Her aspirations as an actress have never been realised, and she has spent the last several weeks chasing another illusion, which prompts her to commit assisted suicide with Robert's help.
  • Downer Ending: Robert and Gloria drop out of the marathon after learning that they will receive almost no money even if they do win. Finally pushed over the brink of despair, Gloria tries to shoot herself, but cannot pull the trigger and asks Robert to do so for her. He does, and is arrested for her murder. It is implied, though not stated, that he is hanged for the crime. Meanwhile, the remaining marathon contestants are almost dead on their feet, none of them aware that the cash prize they are chasing might as well not exist for all they'll see of it.
  • Flash Forward: Where the novel is told mostly in flashback, the film instead uses flash forwards to show what happens to Robert after he and Gloria drop out of the dance marathon (he is hanged for Gloria's murder).
  • Go Out with a Smile: As she dies, Gloria's expression is at perhaps its most serene in the entire film.
  • I Cannot Self-Terminate: Gloria is suicidally depressed even at the beginning of the film, but when she actually has the gun in her hand, she can't pull the trigger, and must ask Robert to shoot her instead.
  • Jade-Colored Glasses: Gloria sports a very thick pair of these as a result of having her aspirations as an actress ground into the dust by harsh reality.
  • Mercy Kill: Gloria's murder at Robert's hands is portrayed as this; she is finally convinced she has no reason to go on living in a world that apparently has no place for her.
  • Product Placement: Some of the dancers are sponsored by local businesses, who give them clothes with advertisements on them to wear during the marathon.
  • Questioning Title: The answer, it seems, is "Yes, they do, but that's no excuse to shoot people."
  • Read The Fine Print: Had the poor, hungry, and desperate contestants in the marathon known when they signed up that various food, medical, and other expenses would be deducted from the $1,500 cash prize awarded to the winning couple, it is doubtful any of them would have signed up in the first place.
  • Real Song Theme Tune: The film's theme tune is "Easy Come, Easy Go", a Depression-era standard by Johnny Green and Edward Heyman.
  • Shaggy Dog Story: Although the real story is the shattering of the last remnants of Gloria and Robert's sense of hope for the future, the dance marathon functions as a shaggy dog story. When the film ends, there are still seven couples left, and we never find out who wins.
  • Spared by the Adaptation:
    • In the novel, Mrs. Laydon, Robert and Gloria's sponsor, is killed by a stray bullet when a fight breaks out in the bar of the ballroom. She survives in the film.note 
    • After a fashion, the marathon itself; in the novel, it is shut down after the fight in the ballroom, but it is still going at the end of the film.
  • Thousand-Yard Stare: Alice ends up with one of these after her close encounter with Harry's dead body following one of the derbies. She proceeds to take a shower fully clothed, and finally breaks down completely and is forced to drop out of the marathon.
  • Time-Compression Montage: After the main characters of the film are established and the dance marathon begins in earnest, there is a montage of shots of the dancers on the floor, Rocky excitedly talking into the microphone, and audience members coming and going as hours turn into days, and days turn into weeks, and still the marathon continues.
  • Title Drop: As the police are arresting Robert for Gloria's murder, they ask him why he did it. When his first answer, "She asked me," does not satisfy them, he remembers seeing his grandfather put a wounded horse out of its misery (seen in a stylised flashback during the opening titles) and answers with the film's title.

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