They Shoot Horses, Don't They? Essay - Critical Essays

Horace McCoy


Horace McCoy’s THEY SHOOT HODRES, DON’T THEY? is an excellent example of the tough-guy fiction that flourished during the 1930’s. Full of violence, sex, and hard-boiled talk, McCoy’s five novels resemble the works of Hammett, Chandler, Cain, and B. Traven.

Robert, the young narrator who aspires to become a film director like Eisenstein, is no hoodlum. His tough tone simply reflects the effect a brutalizing experience has had upon him. An unemployed film extra in the middle of the depression, Robert meets Gloria, a not very attractive, unemployed extra who persuades him to enter a marathon dance contest as her partner. Both have come to Hollywood, glamour capital of the world, from small Southern towns, lured by the American dream of sudden success. After an unsuccessful suicide attempt before she left home, Gloria is now being “razzed” by an expert, God; but she lacks the courage to kill herself. Her verbal signature throughout the contest is some variation on the refrain, “I wish I was dead.” Opposed to this total despair is Robert’s typical American optimism, but he ends a victim of Gloria’s nihilistic vision. Robert and Gloria exist only in terms of their situation as contestants; they have almost no past, and their future is violent death.

The contest is held on an amusement pier in an old building that was once a public dance hall. One hundred and forty couples enter: professional marathon dancers and amateurs, like Robert and Gloria. Floor judges, nurses, and a house doctor are in attendance; contestants are allowed to continue only if they are in good physical condition. The dancing area is thirty by one hundred feet; there are loge, circus, or general admission seats, and a bar. Contestants dance in one-hour-fifty-minute periods; during the ten-minute rest intervals between each, they sleep, eat, shave, bathe, excrete, change clothes. The trick is to learn to do several things at once. After the first week, contestants need not dance, they must simply keep moving; all employees of the hall must constantly be in motion. Local sponsors of individual couples provide equipment and costumes, the company name across the chest, the contestant’s number on his back. Thus, Robert and Gloria become “Jonathan Beer.” Specialty numbers draw a shower of silver; but one couple, who do a lifeless tap dance, declare that you are better off without a specialty. In the derby, a nightly fifteen-minute heel-and-toe endurance race, Robert soon stops trying to win and strives merely to keep from coming in last, to avoid being disqualified. If a dancer loses his partner, because of menstrual pains or a heart attack, for example, he may couple with another lone survivor; casualties are scarcely missed. A tub of ice water awaits those who faint; thus is Robert shocked out of a dream of being a film director. The main inducement for staying in the contest is that one knows from where his next meal is coming; food and bed are free as long as the contestant endures. For the winning couple, the purse is one thousand dollars, and every one has the same chance, according to Rocky Gravo, the master of ceremonies. There is also the chance of being “discovered” by a motion-picture producer, though after the second day, each contestant resembles a zombie. It is a contest of “endurance and skill”; one must have the skill to endure.

Gloria’s attitude is overwhelmingly cynical. She and Robert are on a merry-go-round; when the dance is over, they will get off where they got on. Eating and sleeping are merely a postponing of death. Responding to Robert’s expression of sympathy for one of the dancers who is arrested as a fugitive murderer, Gloria suggests that they are all condemned fugitives. “Socks,” the promoter, appreciates the publicity; anything that draws the crowds is good. He asks Gloria and Robert to get married on the dance floor as a “high class” entertainment feature; they can get a divorce after the contest closes. Gloria refuses; Robert is afraid the angry promoter will disqualify them. Gloria, who wishes she had never been born, encourages one of the dancers who is pregnant to abort the child because it will only end up the same way.

In the 1920’s and the 1930’s, dance marathons, an import from...

(The entire section is 1749 words.)