They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? – Horace McCoy (Harper & Sons, 1934; Signet Books, 1935)
I have only now discovered Hoarce McCoy, a best-selling noir novelist who wrote in a combination of Hemingway’s minimal style and Nathaniel West’s existential angst of Hollywood back in the 1930s-50s.
McCoy was a newspaper and radio man and small theater actor/playwright from Dallas who moved to Hollywood to act and wound up as a screenwriter — most notably an uncredited hand in the script for the first King Kong. While he worked with many fine directors and wrote in many fine genres, he never produced a memorable or classic film.
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? was his first novel and put him in the limelight — the French existentialists loved him like they did Jim Thompson and James Cain. This is a very short novel, 120 pages, maybe 25-30,000 words, narrated by Robert Syverten as a memory text as he is being sentenced by a judge to death row for murdering Goria Beatty, using a .22 to her head on the Santa Monica Pier.
He meets Gloria by the Paramount Studio lot at Melrose and Western, both looking for extra work and having no luck, as they are not registered with Central Casting. His goal is to be a great director; hers is to be a grand actress even though she does not have the Hollywood looks, and may be too old to start from square one.
Gloria is a bitter, pessimisstic narcissist, bipolar before there was a word, suicidal and angry: “As long as I am a failure I’m jealous of anyone who’s a success,” she tells Robert. She thinks she can act better than most famous actresses. She comes from Texas, having run away from her abusive aunt and uncle, basically selling herself to men for food and a bed; after a failed suicide attempt, she took off for Hollywood.
Througout the story, she constantly talks about how she wants to die, how she hopes someone will kill her, how she hates life and hates everyone, etc. She talks Robert into beng her partner in a dance marathon by the Santa Monica Pier — where many couples dance for hours, days, weeks, the winner getting $1500. It is the Depression, they cannot find work, the marathon offers meals for all and cots to sleep on during breaks.
The marathon is grueling, a rackett — it draws in an audience who want to see the couples suffer. It draws Hollywood in. It is like a reality game show before TV had them. So many desperate people enter, hoping for sponsors and money, or just to get free food and a place to crash. The whole situation is depressing and brings Gloria down more and more…there is the daily derby where the couples have to trot and run like horses around the dance hall and people make bets and cheer them on, and contestants fall down and pass ouyt from exhaustion. A doctor and nurses are always on hand. Some couples do tap dances and other enetertaining tricks and have coins tossed at them for tips. It all seems rather humiliating for these struggling wannabe actors and such…and apparently these sort of events were around back in the Depression, kind of like drawf-tossing today, or people doing humiliatting things on TV in shows such as Fear Factor.
Noir elements enter: loose women, crooked show runners, a contestant who is a prison escapee and wanted killer, a murder from an argument and a stray bullet killing an innocent bystander.
And then Gloria asks Robert to end her miserable life for her, to do her a favor…he sees her as a wounded horse, and there is only one way to put a wounded horse out of misery…
Apparently Charlie Chaplain had optioned this fine terse novel in 1950 for Marilyn Monroe to star in, but when J.Edgar Hoover had Chaplain’s re-entry visa from England revoked (Hoover fingered him as a Communist sympathizer and a danger to US culture and ideals), the project was shelved and was not made intil 1969 with Jane Fonda playing Gloria. McCoy had been dead for 14 years so never saw a notable film with his name on it — this one with Fonda and Bruce Dern garnered many Oscar nominations. I have not seen it yet…
I definitely have to read Horace McCoy’s other books…