Category Archives: McCoy Horace

I Should Have Stayed Home: Horace McCoy (1938)

“This is Hollywood, old man,” he said, “where morality never crosses the city limits.”

Last year, I read and enjoyed Horace McCoy’s (1897-1955) masterpiece They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? This was one of those novels I’d intended to read for some time, a title that had crossed my path more than once, so when I saw I Should Have Stayed Home by the same author, I knew I had to read it. When I say that the two novels are connected, I Should Have Stayed Home does not carry the punch of McCoy’s masterpiece. How could it? Nonetheless I Should Have Stayed Home is another look at exploitation–and once again it’s the exploitation of young would-be actors and actresses who’ve arrived in Hollywood and are desperate to be discovered. The big question in both books is how far are they prepared to go for fame, but while Gloria and Robert in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? opt for a dance marathon, Mona and Ralph in I should Have Stayed Home are still hoping for bit parts that segue into brilliant careers.

I should have stayed homeThe story is told by Ralph a young, naïve small town theatre actor from Georgia lured to Hollywood by a talent scout who promised a screen test. Once there, the promised screen test was taken, but there were no calls and now he lives in a small bungalow, barely able to make the rent, with bit part actress, Mona. Disillusionment has begun to set in but it’s not deep enough to make Ralph return home. While he acknowledges that Hollywood is “the most terrifying town in the world,” he’s not ready to give up, and that’s partly because he’s sent letters home bragging about his Hollywood success. With lies, he’s fabricated a scenario of success, and now he’s done that, he keeps hoping for that big break so that he won’t have to go home and admit the truth. Once again, McCoy paints a very bleak picture of Hollywood:

Feeling the way I did, alone and friendless, with the future very black, I did not want to get out on the streets and see what the sun had to show me, a cheap town filled with cheap stores and cheap people, like the town I had left, identically like any one of ten thousand other small towns in the country–not my Hollywood, not the Hollywood you read about. This is what I was afraid of now, I did not want to take a chance on seeing anything that might have made me wish I had stayed home, and this is why I had waited for the darkness, for the night-time. That is when Hollywood is really glamorous and mysterious and you are glad you are here, where miracles are happening all around you, where today you are broke and unknown and tomorrow you will be rich and famous.

When the novel begins, the days of not being called for a part have morphed into a crisis. Mona and Ralph’s friend, Dorothy–who lives in the same bungalow complex–has been arrested for shoplifting and sentenced to the women’s prison at Tehachapi for three years:

She had come out to Hollywood to crash the movies too, but she had crashed a department store instead.

Dorothy’s arrest sets off a chain of events that mark a turn in Ralph’s fortunes and also a bitter shift in Mona’s attitude, but whether these are good or bad changes remains to be seen. As a naïve and sexually inexperienced protagonist, Ralph doesn’t understand a great deal of what goes on behind closed doors, and he certainly is no match for the man-eating, wealthy socially prominent, nymphomaniac” Mrs Smithers, an obnoxious woman who uses a series of men as her gigolos. As Mona, who is a big sister figure to Ralph warns:

As innocent as you are, a woman would have to start taking your pants off before you got suspicious.

After a few hours in the company of Mrs. Smithers, Ralph realizes that “nobody can beat the movie game without help–and the quicker you play ball, the quicker you succeed.”  

The story includes rumblings of trouble in Hollywood. In one scene, an actress mentions the Scottsboro Boys, so this places the story in 30s. There’s also discussion about the Communist party, the Anti-Nazi league, censorship, blacklisting & anti-union sentiment. In one scene, for example, a publicist walks off his job over the film The Road Back (1937)–a very real film based on a novel by Erich Marie Remarque:

“This was in the Los Angeles Times yesterday” he said. ‘”This is from the movie column in that great reactionary journal. Listen ‘The German Consul, incensed at final scenes in The Road Back’–that’s one of our big pictures–‘incensed at final scenes in The Road Back, showing German youngsters being drilled as soldiers, has induced Universal to revise the film’s editing. At the same time, the studio will try to work in some more love interest.’ He took a few more sips of his coffee, looking at me. “That’s why I quit,” he said. Wouldn’t you?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t see anything in that article to make you quit.”

“You don’t? Haven’t you seen any of those pictures in Life or Fortune about all the German youth being drilled in uniforms with guns and wearing signs across their breasts: “We were Born to Die for Hitler?”

“I don’t believe so,” I said.

“Well it’s true anyway. That Hitler’s going to start another war and why should the German consul get his bowels in an uproar because we show German kids drilling? I didn’t get sore about that, you understand, because the German consul’s bowels are always in an uproar about something. What I got sore about was the studio letting him tell ’em where to get off.”

I should Have Stayed Home was written in 1938. That was 5 years after Goebbels had Remarque’s books publicly burned and the year Remarque, who was living in Switzerland, had his German citizenship revoked, and it’s interesting to see McCoy infuse his novels with topical subjects.  This is a weaker novel than They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Ralph isn’t a strong enough character to carry the narrative, but it’s still a prescient tale of exploitation and corruption, and the insider’s view of the flexible politics of the studios gives great insight to Hollywood of the 30s. Review copy.

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Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye: Horace McCoy (1948)

“She was tremendous, all right, but at the wrong time and in the wrong places.”

The next time someone starts waffling on about the ‘good old days,’ tell them to go read Horace McCoy’s novel, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye. That should take care of their nostalgia. Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, full of bleak despair and the illusion that the big time is right around the next corner for its doom-laden characters, reminds us that violence has always existed in the spectrum of human behaviour.  

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is narrated by Ralph Cotter, a hardened convict who’s serving time, and when we meet  him, he’s just about to break out of jail with fellow prisoner Toko. McCoy’s details convey the horror of convict life: the frantic queues for the toilets, the over-worked chemical privys, rotten smells, hints of prison rape, and the way in which Cotter addresses the guards as “my liege,” “me-lord,” “Sire,” “master” and “majesty.” Cotter wakes up on the morning of the prison break chained to his bunk in a fetid crude dorm room along with 71 other prisoners. Toko’s sister, Holiday, has bribed someone to hide weapons in the cantaloupe patch where the prisoners work unchained, and she’s included Cotter in the escape plan simply because she’s concerned that Toko doesn’t have the guts to carry it through.

McCoy grounds the book in 1933 with the Akron disaster, so we are firmly in the gangster era. The book starts strongly with Cotter playing it cool as the day begins. Toko, a bundle of nerves, almost blows the plan, but Cotter desperate to escape (and just what is going on with the “sickly sodomist“in the next bunk?) carries the day, and in a blaze of machine gun fire, Cotter makes his escape. So what does Cotter, a man who thinks Karpis, Baby Face Nelson and Dillinger are all amateurs, do with his freedom? The novel continues with the saga of Cotter’s post prison life on the run, and it isn’t pretty. The problems begin with the debt Cotter has accrued from the club-footed garage owner, Mason, the man who supplied the getaway car and the guns, and the problems continue with Toko’s sister, machine-gun toting, bed-hopping, “pure animal” Holiday. Cotter embarks on a brutal crime spree, and a brush with two crooked cops only fuels his desire for money. Along the way, there’s blackmail, vicious heists committed with stunning violence, and no less than two duplicitous women.

McCoy crafts Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye in such a way that we begin not knowing just what Cotter is capable of. All he wants is freedom and fresh air for a change, but as the novel wears on, Cotter’s savagery is gradually revealed through his numerous cold-blooded killings. There are no good guys here. Everyone does what they can to get ahead and if that means slaughtering or sleeping your way to a few extra bucks, then McCoy’s characters are fine with that. While Cotter is clear-minded and direct with his criminal actions, he’s a little messed up when it comes to women, and to complicate matters there are two very different women who think they own a piece of Cotter. Here’s the sexually rapacious Holiday and Cotter:


She grabbed me by the shoulders of my coat, clutching the padding and poking her face almost against mine. “What’s the matter? You run out of places to go?”

“Please…” I said. “I’ve had enough melodrama for one day.”

“Me sitting here in this stinking apartment all day…”

“Please,” I said, “I’m exhausted.”

“Oh, so you’re exhausted! From what! Being lumped up in the sack with that bitch all afternoon?”

“Please,” I said. “I’m hot and sweaty and in no mood to fight.” I tried to take her hands off my shoulder but she was holding too tightly. Her eyes were wide and rabid and her lips were thin. “I’ve been with Mandon. You’re the only bitch I’ve seen today. Honest.”

She snorted and then without warning she clawed at my face. I caught this hand and knocked the other one from my shoulder and slapped her across the nose. But she wanted to be tough. She growled in her throat and raised both arms to grab me around the neck, and I slugged her on the side of the head, knocking her down. I reached and lifted her dress and tugged at it between my hands and finally managed to tear off a hunk. She lay on her back, looking up at me, her eyes smouldering, fully conscious, but saying nothing. With the hunk of her dress, I wiped the spittle from my face, and then threw the rag at her and went into the bedroom, closing the door.

Goddamn it, I thought regretfully; but this clawing business had to stop and that was the only way to stop it, the only way. She’s a goddamn savage, this dame is, a real primitive, and the only way to teach her something is to knock her on her ass. Well, she’s sure as hell come to the right place….

Cotter and Holiday make a hellish team: he solves his problems with violence, and she seals her deals with sex.  

While not as disciplined a novel as They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (there’s some redundancy), Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is a classic American noir, packed with hard-boiled desperate characters, but there’s something very different about McCoy. Here’s a scene of Cotter in a gay bar. At first he feels uncomfortable and then has a significant moment of revelation:

The noxiousness and disgust I had felt a few moments earlier were gone, my own strength and virility, of which I was so proud when I entered, with which I could prove our difference, now served to emphasize our sameness. We all had a touch of twilight in our souls; in every man there are homosexual tendencies, this is immutable, there is no variant, the only variant is the depth of the latency, but in me these tendencies were not being stirred, even faintly, they were there, but this was not stirring them. No. The sameness was of the species, of the psyche, of the  … They were rebels too, rebels introverted; I was a rebel extroverted–theirs was the force that did not kill, mine was the force that did kill…

Quite a statement for a book published in 1948, and another reason I love noir for its presentation of an alternate world in opposition to mainstream society. For film buffs, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye was made into a film starring James Cagney and one of my favourite lost Hollywood stars, Barbara Payton.

Review copy from the publisher, Open Road Media

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They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? : Horace McCoy (1935)

I saw the film, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? some time ago, and due to my film-book obsession, it was just a matter of time before I sought out the source material. I wondered whether the visual advantages of the film would overrule the novel, but no, for its intense, unrelenting bleak depiction of a luridly exploitive dance marathon in 1930s California, the book outweighs the film. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy (1897-1955) is considered his masterpiece, and after finishing the novel, it’s easy to see why. This is a fairly short novel, and the title makes sense by the time the book concludes.

Robert Syverten is walking down Melrose Boulevard with seven dollars in his pocket when he meets Gloria Beatty. He’s just left the Paramount studio lot after being rejected, yet again, for a part as an extra in a von Sternberg film. Although the name of von Sternberg’s “Russian picture” isn’t mentioned, the date 1935 appears later in the novel. Von Sternberg made The Scarlet Empress in 1934, and Crime and Punishment in 1935, so if McCoy referred to the latter film, then that’s a significant allusion given the events that take place.

Both Robert, originally from Arkansas and Gloria, from West Texas are trying to get bit parts and break into film, and since they are both meeting with little success, they appear to have something in common. They strike up a conversation and then Gloria suggests that they join a dance marathon.

“A girlfriend of mine has been trying to get me to enter a dance marathon down at the beach,” she said. “Free food and free bed as long as you last and a thousand dollars in you win.”

“The free food part of it sounds good,” I said.

“That’s not the big thing,” she said. “A lot of producers and directors go to those marathon dances. There’s always the chance they might pick you out and give you a part in a picture … What do you say?”

Gloria overrules Robert’s initial objections, and so they sign up for the 2500 hour marathon which is held at the beach on an amusement pier. 144 couples begin the marathon, but 61 dropped out the first week. The conditions are horrendous, and this is, of course, an indication of just how many desperate young people are willing to risk their health for $1000.

The rules were you danced for an hour and fifty minutes, then you had a ten minute rest period in which you could sleep if you wanted to. But in those ten minutes you also had to shave or bathe or get your feet fixed or whatever was necessary.

Some of the couples in the marathon are professionals and so they have tips for how to maximise the ten minute breaks. As the vicious contest continues, there’s a sense of brewing violence. Tempers are short, exhausted partners begin squabbling and the men organising the marathon arrange a number of questionable publicity stirring events to boost attendance. One of the worst aspects of the dance marathon is the derby–this is a nightly event which exists simply to cut remaining couples. It’s a brutal rapid walk-around the dance floor with the last couple being eliminated, and many others collapsing and seeking medical help in the “pit.”

“Two minutes to go,” Rocky announced. “A little rally, ladies and gentleman–” They began clapping their hands and stamping their feet, much louder than before.

Other couples began to sprint past us and I put on a little more steam. I was pretty sure Gloria and I weren’t in last place, but we had both been in the pit and I didn’t want to take a chance on being eliminated. When the pistol sounded for the finish half the teams collapsed on the floor. I turned around to Gloria and saw her eyes were glassy. I knew she was going to faint.

“Hey…” I yelled to one of the nurses, but just then Gloria sagged and I had to catch her myself. It was all I could do to carry her to the pit. “Hey!” I yelled to one of the trainers. “Doctor!”

Nobody paid any attention to me. They were too busy picking up the bodies. The customers were standing on their seats, screaming in excitement.

The curious thing is that while Robert was reluctant to join the marathon in the first place, he very quickly becomes the team’s cheerleader. Gloria sinks into pessimism and despair, refusing to talk to the sponsors,  and while one of her main (and pitifully sad) reasons for joining was to meet ‘movie people,’ when anyone famous attends, their presence serves to create Gloria’s anger and resentment. Gloria sees life as hopeless, and the contest as a meaningless diversion from their fate:

“This whole business is a merry-go-round. When we get out of here we’re right back where we started.”

“We’ve been eating and sleeping,” I said.

“Well what’s the good of that when you’re just postponing something that’s bound to happen.”

Unfortunately, Robert doesn’t realise that Gloria is one of the “Kamikaze women” we find in Woody Allen films, and as a character says in Husbands and Wives (1992)

 “I’ve always had this penchant for what I call Kamikaze women….I call them Kamikaze because they crash their plane into you. You die with them.”  (Professor Gabe Roth played by Woody Allen)

Within minutes of meeting Robert, Gloria mentions that she tried to kill herself with poison. A warning for any man who’s listening. This is a woman with a serious death-wish:

“It’s peculiar to me,” she said, “that everybody pays so much attention to living and so little to dying. Why are these high-powered scientists always screwing around trying to prolong life instead of finding pleasant ways to end it? There must be a hell of a lot of people in the world like me who want to die but haven’t got the guts–“

The only time Gloria shows any fight is when she meets a couple of do-gooders from The Mothers’ League for Good Morals. In a wonderful showdown, Gloria tells the women where they can shove their good intentions:

“It’s time somebody got women like you told,” Gloria said, moving over and standing with her back to the door, as if to keep them in, “and I’m just the baby to do it. You’re the kind of bitches who sneak in the toilet to read dirty books and tell filthy stories and then go out and try to spoil somebody else’s fun-“

Anyone who’s enjoyed the film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? needs to read the novel from which the film sprang. Dancing is a social and cultural mechanism for romance & courtship and here it’s degraded into brutal, demeaning savagery, and the voyeuristic public’s taste for destruction harks to the modern-day excesses and morally questionable abuses of reality television.  While McCoy’s novel is ostensibly about a vicious dance marathon in which the suffering of a few becomes entertainment for the masses, Gloria understands that the marathon–the desperate struggle to survive and the demeaning obsequiousness they must show towards the audience and the sponsors are symbolic of the struggles of a bitter, hard-scrabble, poverty-stricken life from which there’s only one escape….

Review copy from Open Road Media

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