They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969) Sydney Pollack

Yowza! Yowza! Yowza! yells out the M.C. (Gig Young) in Sydney Pollack’s bleak but excellent film version of Horace McCoy’s depression noir novel. It is 1932 and dance marathons a phenomena that began in the 1920′s lays the background for this dark tale of losers hanging on to impossible dreams. Like Nathaniel West novel, “Day of the Locust” the characters all have unreachable dreams of being in the movies. The contests were long grueling endurance test going on for weeks, and even months at a time before there was only one couple left standing and declared the winner.  McCoy’s novel presents a notable account of what these contests entailed. Hard pressed folks out of work and luck, entered these marathon sessions at their own risk. Promoters created jobs for many other people like nurses, doctors, janitors, announcers, and the contestants were fed and had a place to stay for the length of the contest. McCoy’s 1935 novel, not surprisingly, was ignored by the public when first published. In 1969 it was made into a magnificent movie starring Jane Fonda, Susannah York, Michael Sarrazin and Gig Young. Not a Hollywood novel per say, the story deals more with people drawn to Hollywood but unable to break in remaining on the peripheral of the business. 

In flashback Robert (Sarrazin) is recollecting a crime he committed as the story unfolds. As a young boy he experienced the death of a horse his father shoots to put out of its misery after breaking a leg. As an adult Robert a wannabe film director wanders into a dilapidated ballroom situated along the Pacific where a dance marathon is just getting underway. Unwittingly, Robert is enlisted as a partner for Gloria (Fonda) a hard, bitter, cynical woman with movie magazine dreams of breaking into the movies. Gloria’s last hopes seem to lie in being discovered though at this point she looks tired and older than her years.  As the marathon drags on and couples fall by the wayside Gloria’s desperation deepens and seeing death as her only way out. She convinces Robert to help her put an end to her bitter misery as she pulls a gun out of her bag.

 The cast includes a who’s who of desperate characters; there is Alice (Suzannah York) a Jean Harlow wannabe and her partner Joe, a would-be actor, James (Bruce Dern) and his pregnant wife (Bonnie Bedelia), and Harry (Red Buttons) a middle age sailor and his partner. The marathon is a grueling affair with only 10 minute breaks every two hours for sleep bathroom and any other breaks needed. Running the entire circus is the sleazy master of ceremonies, Rocky, Gig Young in the performance of his life. Throughout the film he entices the on looking crowd about “these wonderful, wonderful kids! Still struggling! Still hoping, as the clock of fate ticks away, the dance of destiny continues…!” 

McCoy’s novel reads like a screenplay (I read this back in ’69 or ’70) similar in structure to “The Maltese Falcon” or more recently Robert B. Parker’s “Spenser” novels. Adapted for the screen by James Poe and Robert E. Thompson the film keeps intact McCoy’s dark scenario though the screenwriters did flesh out some characters, like Rocky and even added a few new ones. 

Pollack gives us no light at end of the tunnel. The film is an existential nightmare. However, it was this philosophical view that made Roger Vadim convince his then wife Jane Fonda to take the role after she had previously turned Pollack down when the role was first offered. For Fonda, it was a career changing part. Up to this point her roles was generally light comedies or sexy semi dressed pinups, many in her husband’s own films. Here Fonda had a role she could sink her acting chops into. As Gloria, quick with the quips, hard edged, learning long ago to expect little and get even less. Gloria is a complex character with many shades and all of them are dark and desperate. Arguably, this may be the finest performance of her career. Fonda is not alone in giving a good performance, the entire cast is at their best, Suzannah York, Michael Sarazzin, Red Buttons and Bonnie Bedelia are very fine.   

With “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” Pollock depicts an atmosphere of desperate lives filled with foul air, stale beer, cheap sex, sleepless nights and endless despair.

****

Barefoot in the Park (1967) Gene Saks

 

In 1962, “Barefoot in the Park” was the Broadway second production for a fairly new playwright at the time by the name of Neil Simon. Simon already had a previous hit show with “Come Blow Your Horn” and a well-earned reputation as one of the team full of writers on  the classic TV show “Your Show of Shows”, whose madhouse stable included  Neil’s brother Danny, Mel Brooks, Mel Tolkin, Carl Reiner and Larry Gelbart. The play starred a young upcoming actor by the name of Robert Redford along with Elizabeth Ashley as his kooky wife Corie. This would be Redford’s last Broadway play having previously appeared in “Sunday in New York”, “Tall Story” and a couple of others.  Also in the cast were Mildred Natwick as Corie’s mother and Herb Edelman as the Telephone Man, both would repeat their roles in the 1967 film. The stage version of “Barefoot in the Park” was a huge success running for more than three years. It was  Mike Nichols first Broadway production as a director and the beginning of a string of theatrical hits. At one point, Nichols had four plays he directed running on Broadway simultaneously, “Barefoot in the Park”, “Luv”, “The Odd Couple” and “The Apple Tree.” Nichols first taste of success came as half of the sophisticated comedy team of the 1950’s Nichols and May (Elaine May) who earlier had their own on stage success on Broadway with “An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May.”

    At the time, it was a common practice that the movie version of a play could not be made until the Broadway production closed or was close to its final performance. The fear was that if people saw the movie the play would lose its audience. Subsequently, “Barefoot in the Park”, the movie opened at Radio City Music Hall in May 1967 one month prior to the closing of the play.

Redford had been a frequent visitor to the world of TV shows and had already made a few films (War Hunt, Inside Daisy Clover, This Property is Condemned, The Chase) though with little impact on his career.  Therefore, it is surprising that he actually received top billing over Jane Fonda in the film who was already a more established star having appeared in both European films, most by her then husband Roger Vadim (Circle of Love, The Game is Over), and in U.S. films (Sunday in New York, The Chase, Walk on the Wild Side, The Chapman Report, Cat Ballou). Nichols was passed over to direct in favor of the more vanilla Gene Saks, a Broadway veteran director himself. Simon adapted his own play for the screen, his first.

    The film is sort of an earlier version of “The Odd Couple”, focusing on opposites, in this case newlyweds Corie Bratter (Fonda), an unconventional free spirited young woman and her husband, the uptight legal eagle Paul (Redford).  If this sounds familiar, that is because, yes, Corie and Paul are the original “Dharma and Greg.” After a honeymoon spent at the Waldorf where Corie embarrasses a stodgy Paul, heading to the elevator as he goes off to work, by insinuating she is a hooker he spent the night with (Fonda is standing outside their hotel room dressed in only the top half of a man’s pajamas). Corie goes off and rents a top floor apartment in Greenwich Village. Paul, the ever constipated young lawyer isn’t that crazy about having to climb several flights of stairs to reach the apartment, nor is he happy about the hole in the skylight where a cold front followed by snow easily passes through. Then there is the eccentric neighbor who can only access his attic apartment by going through the Bratter’s apartment.  Corie, on the other hand sees it all as an adventure. When Corie attempts to seduce Paul for a little romantic interlude that first evening in the new apartment, he is too occupied with his first big legal case and the cold air coming in from the skylight. Before you can say sing the first verse of Tammy Wynette’s D-I-V-O-R-C-E, Corie is declaring the marriage a failure.

    It is all very light, sit-comish and unbelievable. That said, Fonda and Redford make a good team; their charisma together is plainly evident and the film is fun. Admittedly, I have a soft spot for this film, one of only three I ever saw at Radio City Music Hall. It remains a guilty pleasure.

Redford came away from this film a movie star; set to explode into superstardom a couple of years later with “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” At this point in her career, Fonda’s dramatic roles (The Chase, Walk on the Wild Side, The Chapman Report) did nothing to dispel the notion that she did not have any depth as a dramatic actress. Her European films were known more for their sexiness and nudity than for her talent as an actress. This would all change in a couple of years, after one more film with Vadim (Barbarella) Fonda would display her serious acting chops in “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” for which she would receive her first Academy Award nomination.  It would take almost 10 years before she would return to a comedic role in “Fun with Dick and Jane.” The supporting cast is also entertaining with Mildred Natwick as Corie’s mother, Charles Boyer as the eccentric attic living neighbor and Herb Edelman providing some laughs as the telephone repairman.

   This was Gene Saks first film and like 99% of his films they are adaptations of stage plays, and like most of his other films they are all stage bound. The film is not cinema; it is a pop corn movie and in between the tired jokes about climbing five flights of stairs to reach the apartment there remains a bit of charm to the movie. The two leads win you over.

I use to like Neil Simon more than I do now. Other than “The Odd Couple”, “The Goodbye Girl” and “Laughter on the 23rd Floor”, I find much of his work tired and generally less funny than I use too.  I imagine much of today’s audience would find the film a little too cute, dated or both, still if compared to some of the so-called romantic comedies that the studio’s release today, this film looks good. For one thing too many of the “romantic” comedies today seem to be funny at the expense of the female character’s integrity where they are either desperate (Knocked Up) or bitchy (The Proposal) or just plain stupid (All About Steve).  While I generally enjoyed “The Proposal”, the scene where Sandra Bullock had to get down on her knees in the middle of a Manhattan street to propose was pretty degrading. If nothing else, Simon was never degrading to any of his characters.

   As a play,  “Barefoot in the Park” was revived on Broadway in 2006 with Amanda Peet, Patrick Wilson in the newlywed roles and with Jill Clayburgh as Corie’s mom and Tony Roberts as Victor Velasco, the eccentric neighbor in the leading roles. It ran for only 109 performances.

***