(director/writer/producer: Sydney Pollack; screenwriters: from the book by Horace McCoy/James Poe/Robert E. Thompson; cinematographer: Philip H. Lathrop; editor: Frederic Steinkamp; music: Johnny Green; cast: Jane Fonda (Gloria), Bruce Dern (James), Gig Young (Rocky), Michael Sarrazin (Robert), Susannah York (Alice), Red Buttons (Sailor), Bonnie Bedelia (Ruby); Runtime: 121; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Robert Chartoff/Irwin Winkler; MGM/Anchor Bay Entertainment; 1969)

“Overly melodramatic.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Sydney Pollack adapts Horace McCoy’s 1935 morbid Depression era novel about a competitive ballroom dance marathon at the Aragon Ballroom in Ocean Park, California. The film examines in a cynical way the character of the poverty-stricken contestants who are only trying to survive the hard times by winning the cash prize. James Poe and Robert E. Thompson co-wrote the script with Pollack.

This overrated film was well-received when it opened, receiving nine Academy Award nominations–even for performances, which I found to be strident and too exaggerated. Gig Young won an Oscar for his role as the sleazy dance emcee promoter. It plays out as an allegory of the bitter times in the America of the 1930s. But it too obviously uses that stage to generalize about the languid conditions in the country as the participants represent a demented microcosm of the American population. It all seemed rather pretentious and the flash-back and forth narrative and the mise-en-scène seemed gimmicky.

The slimy and manipulative Gig Young, emcees the dance marathon that offers prize money of $1,500. Among the varied contestants are: Jane Fonda as an embittered survivor and constant complainer who’s partnered with a new partner when the old one departs, the defeatist ex-farmboy drifter Michael Sarrazin; a pregnant Okie farm girl (Bonnie Bedelia) and her husband (Bruce Dern); an aging but feisty sailor with a weak ticker but a veteran of the marathon scene (Red Buttons); and, an aspiring actress (Susannah York) hoping to be discovered on the floor. As the marathon unbelievably goes on for what seems like forever, with the contestants dancing around the clock taking only short breaks, emotions becomes unglued as suspicions and uncertainty fills the competitors. It all leads to a shocking crime and nihilistic finish.

The film’s best line is said by Gig Young: “There can only be one winner, folks, but isn’t that the American way?” Gig’s signature line during the course of the marathon was his mocking but rousing cheer to the contestants and paying ballroom audience to take heart: “Yowsa, yowsa, yowsa!”

“Horses” is overly melodramatic and is an especially dreary and heavy-handed pic equating the tragedy going on in the country with the hopes of those on the dance floor, yet failing to come up with anything significant to say about that period that isn’t superficial. The murderer when asked why, can only comment: “They shoot horses, don’t they?”