Sunday, June 21, 2009

They Shoot Horses Don't They?

Saturday morning, and in search of a small (i.e lightweight) book to read on the train, I dug out my copy of Horace McCoy's classic, first published in 1936 in the midst of the great depression.

It's a curious minor work; part experimental fiction and part dime store trash. At 122 pages it's also short in way that most novels today (sadly) aren't.

It's a simple sad tale of two out of work actors, Michael who narrates the story, and Gloria a young woman he meets in Los Angles. Very short of money "the free food part of it sounds good"and tired of unemployment (in Gloria's case tired of life) they enter a dance marathon to be held "on the amusement pier at the beach in an enormous old building that had once been a public dance hall."

The rules are simple, couples enter the competition for free and dance until they drop. The last couple remaining gets to share $1000, which wasn't a huge amount of money even back then. To prevent the contest ending too early, there is a 10 minute rest break after every 1 hour and 50 minutes. It's the 10 minute breaks that ensure the contest lasts for weeks, and as the hours roll by, we learn how the serious competitors train themselves to sleep on their partner's shoulder, eat whilst on the toilet, and how zombie like swaying counts as "dancing." Gritty stuff eh? The whole set-up is horrible, accurate, and of course a wonderful analogy for the condition of the United States in the years after the Wall Street crash of 1929.

Adapted (considerably) by scriptwriters James Poe and Robert E Thompson, in 1969 it was turned into a brilliant film directed by 35 year old Sydney Pollack. Jane Fonda was nominated for the Oscar and should have won it for her portrayal of Gloria, a young woman suffering dreadful depression after an abusive childhood and equally abusive marriage.

The major difference between novel and film is the way the film introduces some vivid 'minor' characters such as Sailor and Alice, and has a major part for the M.C. "Rocky" brilliantly played by Gig Young who, along with Fonda, carries the film. The major omission compared to the book is the violence that frequently occurs both on the dancefloor and, surprisingly, in the audience itself - there is a vicious fight and a shooting that kills two people and results in the marathon dance contest being shut down by the authorities. In the film the contest is still going on when the end credits roll.

I rather enjoyed the way that nothing dates like slang and high fashion, so much so that without context some dialogue becomes impossible to understand in 2009. For instance:

"I don't think it's very nice of you to razz me," I said to Gloria. "I don't ever razz you."

Razz could mean hit or grope or irritate or criticise or even betray. In fact it means tease.

Some intelligent-foolish people truly believe that life was better in some ill defined period known as "the good old days."

Anyone who spends an hour or two reading "They Shoot Horses Don't They?" can only conclude the good old days were fucking horrible.



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