They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (film)
|They Shoot Horses, Don't They?|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Sydney Pollack|
|Produced by||Robert Chartoff|
|Screenplay by||Robert E. Thompson|
|Based on||They Shoot Horses, Don't They?|
by Horace McCoy
|Music by||Johnny Green|
|Cinematography||Philip H. Lathrop|
|Edited by||Fredric Steinkamp|
|Distributed by||Cinerama Releasing Corporation|
|Box office||$12.6 million|
They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is a 1969 American psychological tragedy film directed by Sydney Pollack, and starring Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, Susannah York, Red Buttons, Bruce Dern, Bonnie Bedelia, and Gig Young. Based on Horace McCoy's 1935 novel of the same name, the film focuses on a disparate group of individuals desperate to win a Depression-era dance marathon and an opportunistic emcee who urges them on.
They Shoot Horses, Don't They? was released theatrically in the United States on December 10, 1969, and also premiered at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival. The film became a critical and commercial success, grossing $12.6 million on a budget of $4.86 million, becoming the seventeenth highest-grossing film of 1969. Reviewers praised its direction, screenplay, depiction of the depression era, and performances (most notably of Fonda, York and Young). It received nine nominations at the 42nd Academy Awards including; Best Director, Best Actress (for Fonda), Best Supporting Actress (for York), Best Adapted Screenplay, with Young winning for Best Supporting Actor. As of 2020, it holds the record for most nominations without one for the Best Picture.
Robert Syverton, who had once dreamed of becoming a great film director, recalls the events leading to an unstated crime. In his youth, he saw a horse break its leg, after which it was shot and put out of its misery. Years later, in 1932 during the Great Depression, he wanders into a dance marathon about to begin in the shabby La Monica Ballroom, perched over the Pacific Ocean on the Santa Monica Pier in Southern California. Robert soon finds himself recruited by Rocky, the contest's promoter and emcee, as a substitute partner for a cynical malcontent named Gloria Beatty, after her original partner is disqualified due to bronchitis.
Among the other contestants competing for a prize of $1,500 in silver dollars are retired sailor Harry Kline; Alice, an emotionally-fragile aspiring actress from London, and her partner Joel, also an aspiring actor; and impoverished farm worker James and his pregnant wife Ruby. Early in the marathon the weaker pairs are eliminated quickly, while Rocky observes the vulnerabilities of the stronger contestants and exploits them for the audience's amusement. Frayed nerves are exacerbated by the theft of one of Alice's dresses and Gloria's displeasure at the attention Alice receives from Robert. In retaliation, she takes Joel as her partner, but when he receives a job offer and departs, she aligns herself with Harry.
Weeks into the marathon, in order to spark the paying spectators' enthusiasm, Rocky stages a series of derbies in which the exhausted contestants, clad in track suits, must race around the dance floor, with the last three couples eliminated. Harry has a fatal heart attack during one of the races, but the undeterred Gloria lifts him on her back and crosses the finish line. Harry dies as Gloria drags his body along the floor. After Harry's body collapses, Rocky assures the audience that he is merely suffering from heat exhaustion, and the unknowing crowd cheers for him as medics remove his corpse from the dance floor. The incident causes Alice to have a nervous breakdown, and she is dropped from the contest. Lacking partners, Robert and Gloria again pair up.
Rocky suggests the couple marry during the marathon, a publicity stunt guaranteed to earn them some cash, in the form of gifts from supporters such as Mrs. Laydon, a wealthy woman who has sponsored them throughout the contest. When Gloria refuses, he reveals the contest is not what it appears: Expenses will be deducted from the prize money, leaving the winner with close to nothing. Shocked by the revelation, Robert and Gloria drop out of the competition. While packing up her things, Gloria searches for one of her silk stockings; when Robert finds it but accidentally tears it handing it to her, she breaks down sobbing.
The two leave the dance hall and stand on the pier, overlooking the ocean. Gloria confesses how empty she feels, and that she is tired of her life. She takes out a gun and points it at herself, but cannot bring herself to pull the trigger. Desperate, she asks Robert, "Help me." He obliges, and shoots her in the head, killing her. When questioned by the police as to the motive for his action, Robert responds: "They shoot horses, don't they?" Meanwhile, the marathon, having now gone on for more than 1,491 hours, continues with its few remaining couples, including James and Ruby.
- Jane Fonda as Gloria Beatty
- Michael Sarrazin as Robert Syverton
- Susannah York as Alice LeBlanc
- Gig Young as Rocky Gravo
- Red Buttons as Harry Kline (Sailor)
- Bonnie Bedelia as Ruby Bates
- Michael Conrad as Rollo
- Bruce Dern as James Bates
- Al Lewis as Turkey
- Robert Fields as Joel Girard
- Severn Darden as Cecil
- Allyn Ann McLerie as Shirl
- Madge Kennedy as Mrs. Laydon
- Jacquelyn Hyde as Jackie
- Felice Orlandi as Mario
- Arthur Metrano as Max
In the early 1950s, Norman Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin were looking for a project on which to collaborate, with Lloyd as director and Chaplin as producer. Lloyd purchased the rights to Horace McCoy's novel for $3,000 and planned to cast Chaplin's son, Sydney, and newcomer Marilyn Monroe in the lead roles. Once arrangements were completed, in 1952 Chaplin took his family on what was intended to be a brief trip to the United Kingdom for the London premiere of Limelight. During this trip, in part because Chaplin was accused of being a Communist supporter during the McCarthy era, FBI head J. Edgar Hoover negotiated with the Immigration and Naturalization Service to revoke his re-entry permit and the film project was cancelled. When McCoy died sixteen years later and the rights to the book reverted to his heirs, they refused to renew the deal with Lloyd, since nothing had come of his original plans.
A script was written by James Poe, who wanted to direct. The rights were bought by Palomar Pictures, whose president was then Edgar Scherick. Scherick offered the project to the producing team of Bob Chartoff and Irwin Winkler, who were enthusiastic, but felt the script needed a rewrite and that they would struggle to make the film for Scherick's desired budget of $900,000. They also had concerns about Poe's ability as a director and worried that he was too arrogant.
Mia Farrow was interested in starring but Scherick felt her fee of $500,000 was too expensive. Eventually it was agreed to show the script to Jane Fonda, who was interested. Michael Sarrazin was borrowed from Universal to play the male lead. Scherick eventually agreed to raise the budget to $4 million. Martin Baum became head of ABC Pictures and Winkler says Baum arranged for Scherick to be fired. Baum wanted the second female lead to be played by Susannah York though Poe had promised the role to his then-girlfriend. Winkler says it was Baum who suggested Red Buttons and Gig Young, and pushed for Poe to be fired. The producers were reluctant especially as Jane Fonda liked Poe and had director approval. Winkler arranged for Poe to direct a screen test for Bonnie Bedelia with Fonda; the test did not go well and Fonda became less enthusiastic about Poe's capabilities as a director. Poe was fired from the project.
The main candidates to replace Poe were William Friedkin, Sydney Pollack and Jack Smight. According to Winkler, Smight wanted $250,000, Friedkin wanted $200,000 and Pollack was willing to do it for $150,000. Pollack got the job.
Meeting with Pollack to discuss the script, she was surprised when he asked for her opinion. She later said, "It was the first time a director asked me for input on how I saw the character and the story." She read the script with a critical eye, made notes on the character and later observed in her autobiography, "It was a germinal moment [for me] ... This was the first time in my life as an actor that I was working on a film about larger societal issues, and instead of my professional work feeling peripheral to life, it felt relevant." Troubled about problems in her marriage at the time, she drew on her personal anguish to help her with her characterization.
Pollack had the script rewritten by Robert Thompson.
During filming there was an issue with Susannah York who wanted a guarantee she would be able to make Country Dance. When this was not forthcoming it seemed she would have to be replaced and Pollack suggested Sally Kellerman. However York relented and agreed to make the film.
The film is notable for using the technique of flashforwards (glimpses of the future), not commonly used in movies. They are used in the last 18 minutes of the film, as passages appear denoting the fate of Robert, just before the tragic shock ending. Costar Gig Young was noted for his deep characterization of Rocky: he patterned his character after the bandleader and radio personality Ben Bernie, and used Bernie's famous catchphrase, "Yowza! Yowza! Yowza!", for the character in the film.
The film's soundtrack features numerous standards from the era. These include:
- "Easy Come, Easy Go" by Johnny Green and Edward Heyman
- "Sweet Sue, Just You" by Victor Young and Will J. Harris
- "Paradise" by Nacio Herb Brown and Gordon Clifford
- "Coquette" by Johnny Green, Carmen Lombardo, and Gus Kahn
- "The Japanese Sandman" by Richard A. Whiting and Ray Egan
- "By the Beautiful Sea" by Harry Carroll and Harold R. Atteridge
- "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler
- "The Best Things in Life Are Free" by Buddy DeSylva, Lew Brown, and Ray Henderson
- "Body and Soul" by Johnny Green, Edward Heyman, Robert Sour, and Frank Eyton
- "I Cover the Waterfront" by Johnny Green and Edward Heyman
- "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" by Jay Gorney and E. Y. Harburg
- "I Found a Million Dollar Baby (in a Five and Ten Cent Store)" by Harry Warren, Billy Rose, and Mort Dixon
- "Out of Nowhere" by Johnny Green and Edward Heyman
- "California, Here I Come" by Buddy DeSylva, Joseph Meyer, and Al Jolson
The ballroom band consisted of several professional jazz musicians, all uncredited. The band was led by Bobby Hutcherson and included Hugh Bell, Ronnie Bright, Teddy Buckner, Hadley Caliman, Teddy Edwards, Thurman Green, Joe Harris, Ike Isaacs, Harold Land and Les Robertson.
The film opened December 10, 1969 at the Fine Arts Theatre in New York City.
The film was a box office success, grossing $12.6 million in the United States and Canda on a $4.86 million budget, generating theatrical rentals of $5.98 million making it the 16th highest-grossing film of 1969. It grossed $28,000 in its opening week.
Roger Ebert gave the film four stars out of four and named it as one of the best American movies of the 1970s:
They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is a masterful re-creation of the [dance] marathon era for audiences that are mostly unfamiliar with it. In addition to everything else it does, "Horses" holds our attention because it tells us something we didn't know about human nature and American society. It tells us a lot more than that, of course, but because it works on this fundamental level as well it is one of the best American movies of the 1970s.
The movie is far from being perfect, but it is so disturbing in such important ways that I won't forget it very easily, which is more than can be said of much better, more consistent films ... The movie is by far the best thing that Pollack has ever directed (with the possible exception of The Scalphunters). While the cameras remain, as if they had been sentenced, within the ballroom, picking up the details of the increasing despair of the dancers, the movie becomes an epic of exhaustion and futility.
Variety said, "Puffy-eyed, unshaven, reeking of stale liquor, sweat and cigarettes, Young has never looked older or acted better. Fonda ... gives a dramatic performance that gives the film a personal focus and an emotionally gripping power."
TV Guide rated the film four out of a possible four stars and said,
Although it is at times heavy-handed, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is a tour de force of acting. Fonda here got her first chance to prove herself as a serious, dramatic actress ... Young is superb in his role, a sharp switch from his usual bon vivant parts ... Pollack does one of his best jobs of directing, even if his primary strength lies in his rapport with actors. The look of the film is just right and Pollack skillfully evokes the ratty atmosphere amid which explosive emotions come to a boil ... [It] remains a suitably glum yet cathartic film experience.
They Shoot Horses, Don't They? was released on DVD by Anchor Bay Entertainment in 1999. It was later reissued on DVD by MGM Home Entertainment on October 19, 2004. Kino Lorber released the film for the first time on Blu-ray on September 5, 2017.
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In later years, Turner Classic Movies observed, "By popularizing the title of McCoy’s novel, [the film] gave American argot a catch-phrase that's as recognizable today as when the movie first caught on."
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