Reality show, pre-TV era

February 28, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy. 1935 French title: On achève bien les chevaux.

Now I know you can be nice and be a murderer too. Nobody was ever nicer to a girl than I was to Gloria, but there came the time when I shot and killed her. So you see being nice doesn’t mean a thing. …

The man speaking that way is Robert Syverten. He’s in court waiting for the verdict in his trial for murder and he relates what led him there.

We’re in 1935, in California. Robert accidentally meets with Gloria. She’s an aspiring actress and not surprisingly, she’s broke. He’s an aspiring film director, and not surprisingly, he’s broke. They have cinema and poverty in common. They need food and being noticed by someone influent in the film industry. Gloria suggests that they take part in a dance marathon as the organizers provide the participants with free food and there are cinema people in the audience. The rules of the dance marathon are quite simple: you dance non-stop, or at least, you have to keep moving.

One hundred and forty-four couples entered the marathon dance but sixty-one dropped out for the first week. The rules were you danced for an hour and fifty minutes, then you had a ten-minute rest period in which you could sleep if you wanted to. But in those ten minutes you also had to shave or bathe or get your feet fixed or whatever was necessary.

As if dancing wasn’t providing the spectators with enough entertainment, derbies are organized to spice it up.

‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ Rocky announced, ‘most of you are familiar with the rules and regulations of the derby – but for the benefit of those who are seeing their first contest of this kind, I will explain so they will know what is going on. The kids race around the track for fifteen minutes, the boys heeling and toeing, the girls running or trotting as they so desire. If for any reason whatsoever one of them goes in the pit – the pit is in the centre of the floor where the iron cots are – if for any reason one of them goes in the pit, the partner has to make two laps of the track to count for one. Is that clear?’

Doesn’t it sound awful? Robert describes the marathon, the atmosphere. He explains the little tricks Gloria and he gathered to survive and keep going.

Gloria and I had been tipped off by some old-timers that the way to beat a marathon dance was to perfect a system for those ten-minute rest periods: learning to eat your sandwich while you shaved, learning to eat when you went to the John, when you had your feet fixed, learning to read newspapers while you danced, learning to sleep on your partner’s shoulder while you were dancing; but these were all tricks of the trade you had to practise. They were very difficult for Gloria and me at first. I found out that about half of the people in this contest were professionals. They made a business of going in marathon dances all over the country, some of them even hitchhiking from town to town. The others were just girls and boys who came in like Gloria and me.

mcCoy_HorsesThe style is very cinematographic something you could expect from a book that was first written as a scenario. I saw the place and the people in my mind. We follow Robert and Gloria along the way, see their interactions with other contestants and some spectators. We have a glimpse at their lives. Most of them are poor fellows who are after the prize. I was surprised to read about “professional” marathon participants. I wondered how desperate someone could be to enrol more than once in that kind of circus. The first time is an error of judgement, the others border to stupidity or desperation.

I found incredible that such shows existed. He talks about the other contestants, the anchor men and the spectators. People paid to see this and it was advertised in newspapers. Companies sponsored couples, giving them clothes and shoes with their logos. In the afterword, it is said that Horace McCoy had worked as a bouncer for such a contest. He knows what he was writing about. I could say I can’t believe such degrading events existed but living in the era of reality shows on TV, I’m perfectly aware that some fellow humans would do anything for fame and money. I still don’t know who I pity most: the participants who are desperate enough to accept this or the spectators who pay to see this show. There’s no end to human voyeurism.

In addition to the vivid picture of the contest, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is also a psychological novel and the relationship between Robert and Gloria is central in the story. The dancers stay inside of the building and after a while, Robert would do anything for a bit of sun. They are well-fed but lack of sleep. As exhaustion gets at the dancers, the atmosphere heathens. As days pass, the relationship between Gloria and Robert deteriorates. She’s moody, impolite and more importantly, she’s gloomy. She wants to die but doesn’t have the courage to commit suicide. She’s spiteful and keeps moaning about being alive. She’s obnoxious. Her temper weighs on Robert’s patience. She’s the kind of person you don’t want chained to your ankle because you know she’d make you sink and drown. She adds mental fatigue to Robert’s physical exhaustion from the dancing. She wears him down until he relieves her from her life. Out of mercy. They shoot horses, don’t they?

The novel isn’t suspenseful, you know from the beginning what Robert did. It’s worth reading for the description of the dance marathon, the side characters and the ups and downs of the contest. Robert is a good guy who found himself in a wearying situation. Gloria is a curse and despite the warning bells ringing in his head, he sticks to her. I wondered why he didn’t drop out of it and let her fend for herself. I guess he was still hoping for a positive outcome, money or a push for his career. It’s a good example of how we are led to acting out of character or are swept along a path that we didn’t really choose. It’s Great Depression in all its glory, economical and mental.

I have to thank Guy and then Caroline for reviewing this book. Their posts are here and here.

  1. March 1, 2014 at 2:05 am

    Thanks for the mention Emma–these are some grim lives with very few choices. I liked the way the author shows how the judgement (and mental health) of the participants waver as the contest continues


    • March 1, 2014 at 10:01 am

      That’s exactly it. You see as exhaustion clouds their judgement. You stand by the sidelines and watch them make poor decisions. You’d want to pull Robert out of it as fast as possible.


  2. March 1, 2014 at 9:41 am

    Wonderful review, Emma. I agree with you that it is sad that such events existed. I didn’t know that the author of the book worked in one such event. It must have been so hard for Robert to kill the one person whom he loved. Such a dark and bleak story.


    • March 1, 2014 at 10:04 am

      That’s one of the interesting point of the story. He doesn’t even love Gloria. They’ve been thrown together by chance. It’s more a curse than anything else. It’s fascinating to witness how Robert doesn’t manage to shake her off, despite the fact that he’s well aware she’s dragging him down.


  3. March 1, 2014 at 5:08 pm

    Thanks for mentioning my post. I still remember when I watched this as a teenager with my mother. We both spoke about nothing else for days. Exploiting other people’s poverty and need in such a way. Maybe these shows don’t exist anymore but there are still a lot of things with a similar approach. I really liked the book a lot, although it’s bleak.
    Sleep deprivation is torture method so I could easily understand how they were getting more and more deluded.


    • March 2, 2014 at 1:24 pm

      I didn’t know you could watch this on TV. I’ve asked my father if he remembers such a program but he doesn’t. Was it on the Swiss TV?
      Now you’ve got these awful things with young people locked up in an appartment or doing whatever outdoors in survival conditions.
      I can understand the characters in McCoy’s book: free food was enough to motivate them. What I’ll never understand it people who put themselves in uncomfortable or ridiculous or dangerous situations just to be on TV and in trashy newspapers.

      I liked this book a lot too.


      • March 2, 2014 at 6:22 pm

        That was a misunderstanding. The movie based on the book was on TV. Not the show. Sorry for the mix up.


        • March 2, 2014 at 6:58 pm

          Ah, all right. My dad remembered the film too.


  4. Brian Joseph
    March 2, 2014 at 5:07 pm

    Great commentary Emma.

    I have wanted to read this one for a long time. Your review, as well as Guy’s and Caroline’s make me want to do so even more.

    My father used to tell me that such contests were indeed very popular in the 1930s. It is amazing how in this respect, people seemed so insensitive to one another. It really was not all that long ago. I have never watched a present day reality contest show but I have to think that they are not exactly this exploitative? I admit that I may be wrong.


    • March 2, 2014 at 7:06 pm

      It’s a short read, Brian. (especially compared to Trollope!)
      The exploitation of man by men takes the most absurd forms. I don’t watch these shows either but it’s hard to avoid hearing from them in the news. The one where the participants are left alone in some hostile wilderness seems a lot like these dance marathons to me.


  5. March 4, 2014 at 4:00 pm

    For me this is probably the finest noir novel there is. I did find it suspenseful, the reading out of the judgment between chapters, the knowledge of where it was going but not why.

    Vishy spoke of love, but it’s really more pity isn’t it? As the title says, and as you quote, they shoot horses, don’t they? Gloria is hopeless and wants to die. Robert puts her out of her misery. The fact they both come to those places is what makes it so bleak.

    I sometimes refer to this novel as the ristretto of noir. It’s concentrated noir, boiled right down to its essence. A small masterpiece. Lovely review, and I agree that modern reality shows are a blatant parallel.


    • March 5, 2014 at 12:37 am

      Yes, for me too, it’s only pity or empathy. He just wants to give her what she wants. His judgment is weakened by the dance marathon. Without the exhaustion and the weird time spent with her in a closed space, he would never have done it.

      I like your ristretto analogy. I’m not sure I’ve read enough noir to label it the epitome of Noir. I agree with you it seems to have the right dose of everything: suspense, crime, fate, psychology…

      We think reality TV is a new concept but all the methods to humiliate and exploit other human beings have probably already been tried. We just forget.


  1. November 13, 2014 at 12:02 am
  2. November 5, 2016 at 3:08 pm

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