They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy takes the reader into one of America’s darkest corners. Written in 1935, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They is the story of Gloria and Robert, two young people who came to Hollywood to get into movies, Gloria as and actor, Robert as a director. Down on their luck like so many, they enter a dance marathon, to win some money, to get discovered, to have three decent meals a day.
Dance marathons were a brief craze in the 1930’s. Couples entered and danced, or at least kept moving, as long as they could. The last couple standing won the prize money. They could go on for weeks, even months. Along the way a couple could be sponsored by local business, win various competitions, get discovered by a Hollywood agent. At the very least they had a roof over their heads and three meals a day which was more than many people had in 1935 America.
You’ve already guessed that this is not a happy story, even if you haven’t seen Jane Fonda in the Sydney Pollack film version. That said, there is still much to recommend in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? McCoy knows his subject; I imagine he attended a dance marathon even if he was never in one. It should be pointed out that They Shoot Horses Don’t They takes place in the present; it’s not historical fiction, so what we get from McCoy is not filtered through the lens of time, it’s what at least one man really thought and felt about the subject. The behind the scenes workings of the dance contest McCoy portrays give the reader a fascinating insider’s perspective on dance marathons, 1930’s Los Angeles and the bottom rungs of the entertainment business. McCoy’s characters are memorable, and his writing hard boiled, very hard boiled, perfect for a film noir story like this. The story has resonance for contemporary America and the current craze for reality television. How far are we from staging a dance marathon for television?
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? did not do well in it’s initial printing, selling fewer than 3,000 copies. It was forgotten for decades until the French Existentialists re-discovered the book. Sydney Pollack directed the film version, which is terrific, one of the few times the movie is arguably better than the movie. It’s also got the most disturbing movie trailer I’ve ever seen. The last 30 seconds or so are amazing.
You certainly couldn’t make this movie today, even on HBO
I first ran this review on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2008. I have to admit, I’m embarrassed by it, today. What a cliche ridden mess. But it’s a good book and a great movie, and maybe I can steer someone towards one of them so here it is.