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