When we look at Hollywood films of the thirties, bursting with optimism and opulence, and then hear of the personal hell that many of its creative personnel went through, it becomes increasingly difficult to understand that world in 1995. "Shall We Dance" and "You Only Live Once" were both released in 1937, but what a difference between the glistening vision of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and the harsh reality faced by Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney. "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" was considered far too grim for Depression-weary audiences, so it wasn't until 1969 that Sidney Pollack took a chance at making a movie from the Horace McCoy novel classified as unfilmable since its publication in 1935.
By that time, its star Jane Fonda had made about sixteen films in her nine-year career and was considered a light comedienne at best and a serious actress by no one. In fact, although she went on to make twenty more films, "They Shoot Horses" is the only Fonda movie in which she successfully escaped her own strong persona. In the despair-ridden Gloria, there is not a trace of the self-possession and determination which saturates all of Fonda's other celluloid creations. For this one movie, Fonda let go of every familiar mannerism, every inflection, every gesture and sunk herself so deeply into the doomed soul of another person, that it is virtually impossible to believe she is not the character she portrays.
Like the entire premise of the film, Gloria allows herself to be eaten alive and we can not tear our eyes away from her self-destruction for an instant. As a dancer in a fleapit marathon, Gloria drags her susceptible partner (sensitively played by Michael Sarrazin) into hell. She is a loser and she knows it, dissolving her aching need for human warmth with ferocious self-hatred. Gig Young, a representative of another era of Hollywood, was not welcomed by other members of the young cast in the key role of the seedy master of ceremonies, but he is ideally cast and won an Oscar for his beautiful textured work. Brilliant performances are also contributed by Susannah York as a would-be starlet in a flimsy gown, by Red Buttons as an old-time competitor and by Bruce Darn and a youthful Bonnie Bedelia as a broke and exhausted couple, trying to pay for the birth of their first baby.
But this dance of economic survival evolves into a dance of death for some, and as such, is the perfect symbol for an era of broken dreams and empty pockets. Elusive stardom is never far from the minds of the participants or from the audiences of a future time who remain vulnerable to Hollywood's siren song.
Copyright 1995 Monica Sullivan
"Movie Magazine International" Movie Review Index
"Movie Magazine International" Home Page