“I may not know a winner when I see one, but I sure know a loser.”
During the Depression, a group of down-on-their-luck contestants — including Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, Red Buttons, Susannah York, Bruce Dern, and Bonnie Bedelia — compete in a brutal dance marathon hosted by Gig Young.
Although Peary designates Pennies From Heaven (1981) “the grimmest of all movie musicals”, surely Sidney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? tops that film’s melancholia factor to earn a designation as “the grimmest of all Depression-era films”. Indeed, this notoriously bleak adaptation of Horace McCoy’s 1935 novel is, as noted by DVD Savant, a “depressing but riveting… emotional meat grinder”. We know very little about the host of characters populating the screen other than the following cursory information: Fonda is from Kansas, Bedelia is pregnant, Sarrazin is a drifter, aging Buttons is a former dance marathon winner, and York is desperate for a chance to make it big in Hollywood; what they all have in common, however, is a willingness to put their health and sanity on the line for three meals a day and the remote possibility of fringe benefits. Remarkably, we can’t help staying gruesomely fascinated by these characters’ fates even as we know (either from gut intuition, or from previous viewings of the film) that little good will come to them. The metaphor of Dance Marathon-as-Life — both are nasty and brutish, and then you die (or lose) — is apparent, but is so effectively framed as a bleakly vibrant history lesson that it’s easy to forget we’re watching anything other than a unique human drama playing out in front of our eyes. They Shoot Horses… isn’t for the faint of heart, and won’t likely be a repeat favorite — but it’s certainly must-see viewing at least once for all film fanatics.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Gig Young’s Oscar-winning performance as Rocky
- Jane Fonda as Gloria (nominated by Peary for an Alternate Oscar as Best Actress of the Year
- Red Buttons as Sailor
- Fredric Steinkamp’s relentless editing
Yes, for its historical significance and undeniable impact. Nominated as one of the Best Pictures of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars book.