Directed by Sidney Pollack (1969)
Starring: Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, Susannah York, Gig Young
I know that we live in a world of Battle Royale and The Hunger Games right now, but I don’t think those dystopias come close to the eerie microcosm of the dance hall in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? True, kids aren’t being forced to kill one another for entertainment, but there are some weird parallels.
On the California coast in 1932, a dance marathon is held with the grand prize of $1500. It attracts a disparate group of desperate people, including Gloria (Fonda) who is partnered with Robert (Sarrazin) after he wanders into the dance hall. The marathon lasts more than forty days with only ten minute breaks every two hours. As the couples get more desperate, more of them compete for the crowd’s attention by performing talents for pennies.
Where Robert is a wanderer who happens by the coast, Gloria is a cynical woman who has had her dreams crushed by the Hollywood machine. They make a strange pair, but they get along well on the dance floor. Other colorful characters include wannabe-starlet Alice (Susannah York), her partner Joel (Robert Fields), an “ancient mariner” Harry (Red Buttons), and a young pregnant woman Ruby (Bonnie Bedelia). They are urged on by the MC (Young), a man named Rocky who is trying to pack in the crowds every day.
Like The Hunger Games, the participants success winds up depending on how well the crowd likes them as well as how long they can stay on their feet. Gloria and Robert catch the eye of a woman who can get them a sponsor, which means four dollars a day and clean socks. That doesn’t seem so important early on in the contest, but when the camera cuts to day 18, it suddenly makes sense why something as small as new socks could mean so much.
The camera movement is really spectacular in a few scenes. In order to cut down on competing couples, the contest official sets up a “derby” where they have to run around the dance floor. The woman have a harness that they use to hold onto the men and other than that, it’s just hope you don’t fall down and keep up. The camera spins around with the contestants, drifting over their desperate faces and the eager looks from the crowd. In another scene, the camera moves through the exhausted, dancing contestants before backing up to examine the scene from above. It’s downright eerie to see the party atmosphere of the decorations and the big-band, then contrast that with a scene when Gloria enters the dance hall and sees no one.
The ending might be one of my favorites in cinema, despite how heavily it was foreshadowed by the movie. Gloria becomes more and more worked up and strained during the contest, but Robert seems almost unnaturally calm in the whole situation. The ending shows how their relationship works, but also shows how cracked Robert has become.