They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (film)

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They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
They horses.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Sydney Pollack
Produced by Robert Chartoff
Irwin Winkler
Screenplay by Robert E. Thompson
James Poe
Based on They Shoot Horses, Don't They? 
by Horace McCoy
Starring Jane Fonda
Michael Sarrazin
Susannah York
Gig Young
Music by Johnny Green
Cinematography Philip H. Lathrop
Edited by Fredric Steinkamp
ABC Pictures
Palomar Pictures
Distributed by Cinerama Releasing Corporation (1969, original) MGM (2004, DVD)
Release dates
  • December 10, 1969 (1969-12-10)
Running time
120 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $4.86 million[1]
Box office $12,600,000[2]

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is a 1969 American drama film directed by Sydney Pollack. The screenplay by James Poe and Robert E. Thompson is based on the 1935 novel of the same name by Horace McCoy. It focuses on a disparate group of characters desperate to win a Depression-era dance marathon and the opportunistic emcee (MC) who urges them on to victory. It stars Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, Susannah York, Bruce Dern, Bonnie Bedelia, and Gig Young. Fonda, Young and York won awards for their performances.


Robert Syverton (Michael Sarrazin), who once dreamed of being a great film director, recalls the events leading to an unstated crime. In his youth, he saw a horse break its leg, after which it was shot and put out of its misery. Years later, in 1932 during the Great Depression, he wanders into a dance marathon about to begin in the shabby La Monica Ballroom, perched over the Pacific Ocean on the Santa Monica Pier, near Los Angeles. He is recruited by MC (Master of Ceremonies) Rocky (Gig Young) as a substitute partner for a cynical malcontent named Gloria (Jane Fonda), when her original partner is disqualified because of an ominous cough.

Among the other contestants competing for a cash prize of $1,500 are Harry Kline (Red Buttons), a middle-aged sailor; Alice (Susannah York) and her partner Joel (Robert Fields), both aspiring actors; an impoverished farm worker James (Bruce Dern) and his pregnant wife Ruby (Bonnie Bedelia). Early in the marathon the weaker pairs are eliminated quickly, while Rocky observes the vulnerabilities of the stronger contestants and exploits them for the audience's amusement. Frayed nerves are exacerbated by the theft of one of Alice's dresses and Gloria's displeasure at the attention Alice receives from Robert. In retaliation, she takes Joel as her partner, but when he receives a job offer and departs, she aligns herself with Harry.

Weeks into the marathon, in order to spark the paying spectators' enthusiasm, Rocky stages a series of derbies in which the exhausted contestants, clad in track suits, must race around the dance floor, with the last three couples eliminated. Harry has a fatal heart attack during one of the races, but the undeterred Gloria lifts him on her back and crosses the finish line. Harry dies as Gloria drags him. Alice, seeing this and at the end of her rope, has a breakdown and is taken away. Lacking partners, Robert and Gloria again pair up.

Rocky suggests the couple marry during the marathon, a publicity stunt guaranteed to earn them some cash, in the form of gifts from supporters such as Mrs. Laydon (Madge Kennedy). When Gloria refuses, he reveals the contest is not what it appears. Expenses will be deducted from the prize money, leaving the winner with close to nothing. Shocked by the revelation, the couple drops out of the competition.

Gloria confesses how empty she is inside and tells Robert that she wants to kill herself, but when she takes out a gun and points it at herself, she cannot pull the trigger. Desperate, she asks Robert, "Help me". He obliges. Questioned by the police as to the motive for his action, Robert responds: "They shoot horses, don't they?"

The marathon continues with its few remaining couples, including James and Ruby. The eventual winners are not revealed.



In the early 1950s, Norman Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin were looking for a project on which to collaborate, with Lloyd as director and Chaplin as producer. Lloyd purchased the rights to Horace McCoy's novel for $3,000 and planned to cast Chaplin's son, Sydney, and newcomer Marilyn Monroe in the lead roles. Once arrangements were completed, in 1952 Chaplin took his family on what was intended to be a brief trip to the United Kingdom, for the London premiere of Limelight. During this trip, in part because Chaplin was accused of being a Communist supporter during the McCarthy era, FBI head J. Edgar Hoover negotiated with the Immigration and Naturalization Service to revoke his re-entry permit and the film project was cancelled. When McCoy died sixteen years later and the rights to the book reverted to his heirs, they refused to renew the deal with Lloyd, since nothing had come of his original plans.[3]

When Sydney Pollack signed to direct the film, he approached Jane Fonda for the role of Gloria. The actress declined, because she felt the script wasn't very good, but her husband, Roger Vadim, who saw similarities between the book and works of the French existentialists, urged her to reconsider.[4]

Meeting with Pollack to discuss the script, she was surprised when he asked for her opinion. She read the script with a critical eye, made notes on the character and later observed in her autobiography, "It was a germinal moment [for me] ... This was the first time in my life as an actor that I was working on a film about larger societal issues, and instead of my professional work feeling peripheral to life, it felt relevant." Troubled about problems in her marriage at the time, she drew on her personal anguish to help her with her characterization.[5]

Warren Beatty originally was considered for the role of Robert Syverton and Pollack's first choice for Rocky was character actor Lionel Stander.[6][7]

The film is notable for using the technique of flashforwards (glimpses of the future), not commonly used in movies. They are used in the last 18 minutes of the film, as passages appear denoting the fate of Robert, just before the tragic shock ending. Costar Gig Young was noted for his deep characterization of Rocky: he patterned his character after the great show MC/composer Ben Bernie. Young used Bernie's famous catchphrase, "Yowza! Yowza! Yowza!," for the Rocky character in the film.


The film's soundtrack features numerous standards from the era. These include:

The ballroom band consisted of several real jazz musicians, all uncredited. The band were led by Bobby Hutcherson and included Hugh Bell, Ronnie Bright, Teddy Buckner, Hadley Caliman, Teddy Edwards, Thurman Green, Joe Harris, Ike Isaacs, Harold Land and Les Robertson.[8]

A soundtrack album was released on ABC Records in 1969. It has never been reissued on CD.

Box office[edit]

The film was a box office success, grossing $12,600,000 on a $4.86 million budget, making it the 16th highest-grossing film of 1969.[2]

According to Variety the film earned $5,980,000 in theatrical rentals in North America.[9]

Critical reception[edit]

The film was screened at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival, but was not entered into the main competition.[10] In the United States, the film was applauded for portraying the Depression era.

In his review in The New York Times, Vincent Canby said,

"The movie is far from being perfect, but it is so disturbing in such important ways that I won't forget it very easily, which is more than can be said of much better, more consistent films ... The movie is by far the best thing that Pollack has ever directed (with the possible exception of The Scalphunters). While the cameras remain, as if they had been sentenced, within the ballroom, picking up the details of the increasing despair of the dancers, the movie becomes an epic of exhaustion and futility."[11]

Variety said, "Puffy-eyed, unshaven, reeking of stale liquor, sweat and cigarettes, Young has never looked older or acted better. Fonda ... gives a dramatic performance that gives the film a personal focus and an emotionally gripping power."[12]

TV Guide rated the film four out of a possible four stars and said,

"Although it is at times heavy-handed, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is a tour de force of acting. Fonda here got her first chance to prove herself as a serious, dramatic actress ... Young is superb in his role, a sharp switch from his usual bon vivant parts ... Pollack does one of his best jobs of directing, even if his primary strength lies in his rapport with actors. The look of the film is just right and Pollack skillfully evokes the ratty atmosphere amid which explosive emotions come to a boil ... [It] remains a suitably glum yet cathartic film experience."[13]

In 1996, Entertainment Weekly observed, "Sydney Pollack's dance-marathon movie has probably aged better than any American film of its time."[6]

Awards and nominations[edit]

Academy Awards

The film won one Academy Award and was nominated in eight other categories.[14]
The film currently holds the record for being nominated for the most Academy Awards (nine) without receiving a nod for Best Picture.

Golden Globes
Other awards

Cultural influence[edit]

In later years, Turner Classic Movies observed, "By popularizing the title of McCoy’s novel, [the film] gave American argot a catchphrase that's as recognizable today as when the movie first caught on."[7] The title has been imitated in various media for topics having little relation to the plot or themes of the original film. Episodes of the television series Happy Days, The Partridge Family, Webster, Due South, Family Matters, Sex and the City, Designing Women, Gilmore Girls, Class of '96, Sledge Hammer!, Ally McBeal "The Odd Couple" and Gossip Girl have used variations of the phrase for their titles. Humorist Patrick F. McManus titled one of his story collections They Shoot Canoes, Don't They?. Australian rock band TISM's 1990 album Hot Dogma includes a song titled "They Shoot Heroin, Don't They?"

The Rolling Stones used the film set as a rehearsal space, prior to a pair of shows at The Forum as part of their 1969 U.S. tour.[15]


They Shoot Horses, Don't They? was released to DVD by MGM Home Entertainment on October 19, 2004, as a Region 1 widescreen DVD.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "ABC's 5 Years of Film Production Profits & Losses", Variety, 31 May 1973 p 3
  2. ^ a b "Box Office Information for They Shoot Horses, Don't They?". The Numbers. Retrieved February 25, 2012. 
  3. ^ Steve Persall, "Everybody knows Norman", St. Petersburg Times, April 10, 2008
  4. ^ Jane Fonda, My Life So Far, Random House, 2005, pp. 202
  5. ^ My Life So Far, pp. 207–216
  6. ^ a b Entertainment Weekly, June 21, 1996
  7. ^ a b They Shoot Horses, Don't They? at Turner Classic Movies
  8. ^
  9. ^ "All-time Film Rental Champs", Variety, 7 January 1976 p 46
  10. ^ "Festival de Cannes: They Shoot Horses, Don't They?". Retrieved 2009-04-11. 
  11. ^ New York Times review
  12. ^ Variety review
  13. ^ TV Guide review
  14. ^ "NY Times: They Shoot Horses, Don't They?". NY Times. Retrieved 2008-12-27. 
  15. ^

External links[edit]