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.