' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

Friday, May 04, 2012

Friday's Old Fashioned: They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

Long before The Hunger Games, there was the La Monica Ballroom Dance Marathon of 1932, bringing together numerous disparate, desperate contestants in the midst of The Great Depression in the hope of claiming the $1500 prize and perhaps the start of a new and better life. But as the hours give way to days and the days give way to weeks that hope gives way to exhaustion and sleep deprived confusion and eventually the cash seems less vital than survival, just making it through to the end, retaining the ability to breathe oxygen, appearance and loyalty and sanity be damned. Come to think of it, their plight is more than a little symbolic of what so many were forced to endure during that most terrible chapter of our nation's history.

Our strident surrogate is Gloria (Jane Fonda, not taking s***) whose partner for the dance is disqualified at check-in by the medical staff on account of a scary sounding cough. This is a problem because dance marathon rules require everyone to have a partner. The quick thinking Master of Ceremonies Rocky (Gig Young) spies young Robert (Michael Sarrazin), fresh out of jail on account of a clouded event shown in snippets of flashback here and there, who has just cluelessly wandered in from the Santa Monica Beach and suggests Gloria take a chance on him. She does. This is helpful because they can chat about their respective pasts to bring both them and us up to speed.

Other contestants are introduced. Alice (Susannah York), in her dress that is just the cat's pajamas, fancies herself a Jean Harlow heir and has dragged Joel (Robert Fields), himself a wannabe actor, into the contest as much to get "noticed" as to win. James (Bruce Dern) squires his pregnant wife Ruby (Bonnie Bedelia). Navy man Harry Kline (Red Buttons) at first appears a salty rube only to gradually reveal a somewhat more charitable heart if also an actual heart that may be a bit iffy. But they are all at the whim of Rocky ("Wowza! Wowza! Wowza!") who knows the contest is not simply about the contestants but about the audience who are there to wager and be entertained. After all, this is a respite for them too. And so he will manipulate - thieving Alice's dress - and make up the rules as he goes - implementing a race between couples around the dance floor at varying intervals. Why he even decides orders one of the couples to tie the knot in the midst of competition ("after the marathon's over you can get divorced").

They are given breaks to bunk up, eat and drink, shower, be tended to by a team of nurses, and each break is broken up by a dance marathon equivalent of an air raid siren. Allegiances are formed, ripped asunder and re-formed. Director Sydney Pollack and his editor Frederic Steinkamp (both nominated for Oscars) do an incredible job of shortening the sequences on the actual dance floor as the film progresses, thereby underscoring that even as the stakes of the marathon itself increase, the result becomes less and less important. The finish line blurs. The viewer will come to dread the air raid siren as much as the contestants. Must go on.........can't go on.

The film makes no point to hide its allegory and one can easily see Gloria, a dust bowl survivor, escaped from Texas, feeling as if the dust bowl still goes on, even on the shores of the Pacific - which, in the brief moments it is seen, seems unwelcoming and not indicative of its name. The most startling sequence is also a show-stopper (in the best and worst way) with Rocky being summoned to a shower where Alice has quietly cracked up, peering at him through the rippling water, refusing to leave it as if it were a protective blanket, her body numb and her eyes......gone. Just gone. Those eyes will stay with you long after you have mailed the movie back to Netflix, evoking the uselessness of her Hollywood dreams. And if those dreams are useless, then what? Yeah. Might as well just stay the shower.

The end is inevitable when taken in the context of the film's title and the images from Robert's past we return to here and there, yet Fonda, ever rock-solid, rooted in pissed off principle, still somehow makes you suspect it might be avoidable. Alas, it is not. "The dance destiny of goes on," says Rocky, and that's how the movie ends. The dance of destiny going on and on and on and on and suggesting that for those most afflicted by the Depression, destiny, contrary to a well-peddled belief, is a matter of chance, not of choice.

Except in the case of Gloria. Harsh as it may be, it's a choice. Respect.


Andrew K. said...

When I reassess my top 100, I want to add this to it but to do that I'd have to re-watch it and I just feel like I couldn't bear to.

I don't even have anything coherent to say, just - damn - this heavy and devastating and unrelenting.

Nick Prigge said...

I hear ya. Quality, quality film but one of those films that might go on the Brilliant But I'd Rather Not Watch It Again Because It's So Unbearable list.