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Film / They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

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"People are the ultimate spectacle."

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

Robert Syverton (Michael Sarrazin), an unemployed young man and aspiring film director, wanders into the shabby Pacific Ballroom on the Santa Monica Pier just as contestants are getting signed up for the marathon, which has a cash prize of $1,500. When the partner of cynical would-be 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 to be her new partner. Among the other contestants are middle-aged retired 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 iron-tonic company to sponsor the couple 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 abandons Gloria, who 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 one such derby, Harry suffers a heart attack and is dragged by Gloria across the finish line, where his presumably-dead body falls into Alice's arms; this causes her to suffer a severe nervous breakdown and withdraw from the competition, thereby re-uniting Robert and Gloria as dancing partners. Rocky then attempts to persuade the pair to get publicly married on the dance floor, but after Gloria refuses and states her determination to win the marathon, the MC 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 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 the 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.
  • Adaptation Expansion: The only dancers besides Robert and Gloria to get much time in the spotlight in the novel are James and Ruby. The characters of Alice and Harry were invented for the film.
  • Anachronic Order: Averted in real life. The film was shot almost entirely in sequence, to better depict the characters' increasing fatigue and dishevelment.
  • Bait-and-Switch Comment: While Rocky is reminiscing about his childhood with his Fake Faith Healer father:
    Rocky: You know something, Turkey? My old man never got out of the fourth grade. But when it came to people... he didn't know his ass from his elbow.
  • Blowing a Raspberry: Done by Rocky at one point as part of his MC patter.
    Rocky: But what do we say about the Depression? [raspberry] That's what we say about the Depression!
  • Casting Couch: Gloria aggressively seduces a more-than-willing Rocky to improve her chances of winning the marathon. She also does it out of revenge, thinking that Robert, who is cracking her prickly exterior, cheated on her with Alice.
  • Character Catchphrase: Rocky is very fond of using the word "Yowza!" in his patter to the audience.note 
  • Composite Character: Rocky in the film is a composite of the novel's Rocky (the MC) and Socks (the promoter).
  • Crapsack World: It would be difficult indeed to argue that the characters don't inhabit one of these. With the United States deep in the vise-like grip of The Great Depression, the contestants are not just unemployed and penniless, but, with very few exceptions (such as Gloria's sometime dance partner Joel), unlikely to find steady work any time soon, and many of them only signed up for the marathon for the free food (one of them drops out at the very first break, snarking that maybe he'll try flagpole sitting next). As days turn into weeks, the contestants suffer various levels of physical and mental breakdown, while Rocky exploits them for the entertainment of the paying spectators. Finally, unbeknownst to any of dancers, expenses will be deducted from the winners' cash prize, leaving them with almost nothing.
  • Dancing Is Serious Business: Deconstructed through a depiction of the brutal and exploitative dance marathons which actually did take place during the Great Depression. The contestants are literally dancing for their very livelihoods in many cases, with no gainful employment available to give them a more stable source of income.
  • Death Seeker: Gloria is suicidal even at the beginning of the film.
  • 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.
  • Diegetic Soundtrack Usage: At one point "Easy Come, Easy Go" is performed in-universe by a singer/pianist during the marathon.
  • 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 but continue grimly on, unaware that the cash prize they're killing themselves for might as well not exist for all they'll see of it.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Harry is primarily addressed as "Sailor" by the other characters.
  • 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 sentenced and presumably hanged for Gloria's murder).
  • Hollywood Heart Attack: Harry does the classic gasping-and-chest-clutching version.
  • 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 bring herself to pull the trigger, and begs Robert to shoot her instead. He does.
  • Immoral Reality Show: The marathon is basically one of these, as is lampshaded in-universe by Rocky after he admits to having stolen and destroyed Alice's second gown.
    Robert: But why?
    Rocky: For the good of the show. That's what we're all interested in, isn't it? The show.
    Robert: No, it's a contest. Isn't that what it's supposed to be? Isn't that what you advertised? A contest!
    Rocky: Not for them [the audience]. For you, maybe, but not for them. You think they're laying out two bits a throw just to watch you poke your head up into the sunlight? Or Alice look like she just stepped out of a beauty parlor? They don't give a damn whether you win, or James and Ruby, or Mario and Jackie, or the Man in the Moon and Little Miss Muffet. They just want to see a little misery out there, so they can feel a little better, maybe. They're entitled to that.
  • 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.
  • The Living Dead: Robert mentions having played a dead French villager in a film called Fallen Angels.
  • Making Love in All the Wrong Places: Alice coaxes Robert into a prop room to do this during a rest period, but the alarm calls them back to the marathon before they can get very far.
  • 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.
  • Monochrome Past: The opening-credits flashback of Robert as a child seeing his grandfather shoot an injured horse is shown with a washed-out sepia tint.
  • One Scene, Two Monologues: Gloria and Joel engage in this while they're temporarily paired up together (she reminiscing about an aunt she lived with who ran a boarding house and refused to let her keep a dog, he talking about an assistant director who's supposed to be in the audience and possibly has a job for him on a movie shoot). She jolts him to attention with a comment about how she'd threatened to tell her aunt's husband she was "screwing one of the boarders".
    Gloria: ...But he was, uh, he was sick inside or something.
    Joel: Her husband?
    Gloria: No.
    Joel: Oh, the boarder.
    Gloria: No, for Christ's sake, the dog.
  • Pretty Little Headshots: Gloria, despite being shot from point-blank.
  • Product Placement: In-universe. 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 question itself, both within the film and as its title, is completely rhetorical.
  • 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.
  • "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. Not that it matters since they'll get almost no money.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Rocky's "Yowza!" catchphrase is borrowed from Depression-era bandleader Ben Bernie.
    • When Rocky bars Gloria's partner from the marathon for health reasons, she points at Ruby and snaps "What about her? If she ain't pregnant, I'm Nelson Eddy."
    • While signing up for the marathon at the beginning, Alice mentions she's an actress and Rocky asks if she's "got an act or a bit". When she obliges by reciting part of a monologue from Saint Joan, he cuts her off, saying it's "too highbrow".
    • Later, Rocky asks the audience to give a hand to Joel and Alice — "our own Ramon Novarro and Jean Harlow" — following their (off-screen) performance of "a scene direct from that Broadway smash, Private Lives".
    • At one point Rocky announces to the crowd that movie director Mervyn LeRoy is in attendance.
      Rocky: How about it, Mr. LeRoy? Almost as much excitement here as in Little Caesar, right?
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: The cheery, peppy music that accompanies the grueling derby race.
  • Source Music: Almost all the music in the film is provided in-universe by the ballroom orchestra and other performers at the marathon. The main exception is the instrumental arrangement of "Easy Come, Easy Go" heard during the opening credits.
  • 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's still going at the end of the film.note 
  • Thousand-Yard Stare: Alice ends up with one of these after her close encounter with Harry's presumably-dead body following his heart attack during 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 short clips of the dancers on the floor, the band playing, 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 having seen his grandfather put a wounded horse out of its misery as a boy (shown in a stylized flashback during the opening credits) and answers with the film's title.
  • Tuckerization: Among the sponsors of the dancing couples are "Winkler's Travel Agency" and "Sills Collection Agency", named for producers Irwin Winkler and Theodore B. Stills.