‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They’ by Horace McCoy – Life is a Dance Reality Show

‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They’ by Horace McCoy    (1935) – 122 pages

 

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Dance marathons were an early form of ‘Reality’ show.  These dance shows began as a lark in the Twenties, but when the bottom fell out of the United States economy they turned into grim contests of survival. Contestants would dance for months to the point of total exhaustion only to find that the contest was rigged against them in the first place.

Horace McCoy at one point worked as a bouncer for one of these dance marathons in Santa Monica, California.  Later he put this experience to use writing a script called ‘Marathon Dancers’.  None of the Hollywood studios bought it, so he turned it into the short novel ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’

‘They Shoot Horses Don’t They?’ is the bleakest of all American novels, yet it captures all the color and sleaze and sexual undertones of these dance contests.  And there were sexual undertones as the churches and other moral leagues were always trying to shut these marathons down.

Our main couple in ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’, Robert and Gloria, are both Hollywood hangers on; both have had bit parts in movies.   Robert still has hopes of making it in the movie business, but Gloria is cynical.  She came to Hollywood after a failed suicide attempt, taking poison.  Robert sizes up her movie star potential.  “She was too blonde and too small and looked too old.”

They heard that a lot of Hollywood producers and directors go to these marathon dances looking for new talent, so they pair up and enter the contest. We meet some of the other competitors each with their own desperate story.  Gloria gets in trouble for urging an obviously pregnant contestant to get an abortion.  We also meet the sleazy guys who run the operation

The audience members come to watch the dancers, and each has their own favorites among the contestants.  If a pair of dancers is well-liked, a local business might sponsor them with shirts bearing their logo.  The marathon bosses try to get one of the couples to marry during the contest as a publicity stunt.

dance_marathons‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’ is noir fiction with a vengeance.  I can’t imagine a darker story about humans’ plight here on earth than this one.

Fourteen years after Horace McCoy died, ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’ was finally turned into a movie starring Jane Fonda and Michael Sarrazin. I watched the movie as part of the preparation for writing this article.  The movie is quite faithful to the book with a few minor alterations and is a fine example of what Hollywood can do if it tries.

 

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9 responses to this post.

  1. I *love* the cover, that is a treasure!
    BTW over at our collaborative blog about Zola Jonathan is collecting different cover designs for Zola’s novels, and has a fine collection of what he has titled ‘Lurid, Gaudy or Tasteless Covers – which are the efforts of some enterprising publisher to label Zola’s novels ‘noir’, I think.
    See http://readingzola.wordpress.com/2014/04/13/lurid-gaudy-or-tasteless-covers/

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    • Hi Lisa,
      I really like those lurid, gaudy or tasteless covers of Zola novels, and I especially like the way they are presented on that blog. Well done! I hope more people will follow up on your link. These covers make me want to read Zola right now.
      My problem with modern covers is that they are just too tasteful. Give me these old tasteless covers any day.

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      • *chuckle*
        I think modern covers are mostly bland, though I do love the OUP Zolas which feature lovely French impressionist paintings. Some of the Penguin classics are lovely too.
        But most of them are inane. I’m looking at one now, a woman’s legs, wet, with her skirt clinging to her, and it seems to have no meaning at all.

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  2. This sounds wonderful. I had no idea that there was a book. I saw the movie with Jane Fonda, and it is excellent. Here’s an older book to look up…

    And believe me, I need it. I’m reading contemporary fiction this month because I’m appalled that I’ve missed out on so much, but I’m beginning to feel a little discombobulated. I don’t usually make it into this century!

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    • Hi Kat,
      I’m not sure many of these noir novels were ever considered literature, but I do believe their status is going up. For my next novel, I’m planning to read Megan Abbott who is considered a noir writer but who is also contemporary. Best of both worlds, perhaps?
      I wish Hollywood still made movies like they did when Jane Fonda was in her prime. Movies weren’t so formulaic back in those days.

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  3. I’ve referred to this in the past as the ristretto of noir. It’s concentrated noir, and in my view a masterpiece. It is as you say a darker story than this one. It’s a savage book. I’m a huge fan of it.

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    • Max,
      I just looked up ristretto. I had never heard of the expression before, and now I see it is
      a strong shot of expresso coffee. Thanks for introducing me to a new word!

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  4. Oops, hit send too early. I was going to add, I do think you really capture it here. Nice review as ever.

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