This film should come with a warning label: “Do not watch if you are already in a suicidal state.” Seriously, I’ve seen some downer movies in my time, but as far as gutwrenching, exhausting, draining, and depressing movies go, this has to be up near the top of the list. That’s not to say it’s not good; in fact, if it weren’t tightly scripted, memorably shot, and compellingly performed, it wouldn’t be nearly as successful as it is at provoking the kind of visceral disgust that it does – there are images and themes and lines of dialogue that I still can’t wrest from my brain a week later, even though, in some cases, I would like to.
It’s the 1930s, the height (or depth) of the Depression, and a bunch of desperate people gather in Los Angeles to compete in a dance marathon. Whichever couple could manage to stay on their feet the longest without passing out and getting tapped out by the judges would win $1500 – not to mention that the radio station sponsoring the event was providing three meals a day to the contestants, not too shabby an incentive itself. At least at first.
Among the participants we get to know over the course of the first several hours of the competition are a cynical but driving young woman played by Jane Fonda, the drifter she takes as her partner when her initial parter is disqualified right off the bat for being sick, a young pregnant couple who just arrived in LA after riding the rails from the midwest, a wanna-be glamorous actress, and a middle-aged sailor. We zero in most on Fonda and her partner, but we learn very little more about their past or their lives outside the marathon – in fact, there basically IS nothing beyond the marathon, which becomes a metaphor for life itself.