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Horace McCoy (1897-1955)


American mystery writer, whose novels, written in the "hard-boiled" vein, documented the Great Depression. Horace McCoy's characters, from idealistic reporters to criminal masterminds, struggle in vain against the society. His best known novel is They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1935), which was made into a movie in 1969, directed by Sydney Pollack. The story depicted a tragedy during a marathon dance contest in the 1930s. Gloria, one of the participants, looks forward to death as a release from the misery of life, and her partner Robert, overcome by desperation, grants her wish.

"There can only be one winner, folks, but isn't that the American way?" (Gig Young in the film They Shoot Horses, Don't They?)

Horace McCoy was born in a cabin near Pegram, Tennessee (in some sources Nashville), the son of James Harris and Nancye (Holt) McCoy. His parents McCoy once described as "book-rich and money-poor." His father was a country school teacher, then a conductor. McCoy was educated in schools in Nashville. At the age of 16 he left school, and worked as a mechanic, traveling salesman, and cab driver in New Orleans' Storyville redlight district. During World War I McCoy served in the United States Army Air Corps. He flew several missions behind enemy lines as a bombardier on de Haviland bombers and reconnaissance photographer, and was wounded several times. The French government awarded him the Croix de Guerre for heroism. In 1921 he married Loline Scherer; they had one child. The marriage ended in divorce. McCoy's second wife was a woman described as "a Dallas socialite"; the marriage was annulled at her parent's demand. In 1933 McCoy married Helen Vinmont, they had two children.

Between 1919 and 1930 McCoy worked as a sports editor for Dallas Journal in Texas. He was also co-founder of Dallas Little Theatre. In the late 1920s he started to get his short stories published in such magazines as Detective-Dragnet and Detective Action Stories. In December 1927 Black Mask published 'The Devil Man,' the first of McCoy adventures, which the editor  Joseph T. Shaw bought. Beginning from 'Dirty Work,' several of these pieces, written in terse style, featured Jerry Frost, a flying Texas Ranger, one of the "Hell's Stepsons". After Dallasine, a periodical he edited was closed, McCoy continued writing for the pulps, contributing to such magazines as Action Stories, Battle Aces, and Western Trails.

During the Depression McCoy often hit bottom. In 1931 he went to Los Angeles with Oliver Hinsdell, the director of the Dallas Little Theatre, and tried to became an actor, without much luck. For a period he was homeless as he had no work. At the Santa Monica pier he found a job as a bouncer at a marathon dance contest.McCoy also appeared in some films, but received no billing. These years provided material for his first novel They Shoot Horses, Don't They? The protagonist is a young woman named Gloria Beatty, a doomed figure from the beginning of the book. "There must be a hell of a lot of people in the world like me," she tells her partner Robert in the dance marathon, "who want to die but haven't got the guts." 

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969), directed by Sydney Pollack. To catch the Depression mood, Pollack showed his cast movies from the 1930s. Gig Young's part, as Rocky the announcer, had been written for Lionel Stander, but Young won an Academy Award as best supporting actor. It marked the peak of a career that ended in tragedy when he murdered his fifth wife and shot himself in 1978. Pollack filmed the sixty-four day dance marathon largely in script sequences at Lick Pier, where the marathon set was an exact replica of the old Aragon Ballroom at Ocean Park. Jane Fonda's performance is considered remarkable. The rights of the novel were first purchased by Charles Chaplin, whose films often had dance scenes. In France, McCoy was classed after the book with Hemingway and Faulkner; Sartre and de Beauvoir praised it as the breakthrough existentialist novel to come out of America. The story operates on many levels. On the physical level it is a Darwinist struggle for survival, and on social level it unblinkingly reveals the mechanism of a laissez-faire system. After 879 hours, the protagonists emerge from the dance hall, to look at the ocean, but it doesn't raise any hopes or dreams. The self-destructive Gloria is an existentialist hero, whose choices are always ultimate: "It's peculiar to me," she says, "that everybody pays so much attention to living and so little dying. Why are these highpowered scientists always screwing around trying to prolong life instead of finding pleasant ways to end it?"

McCoy's two other novels from the 1930s were also based on his personal experiences. In I Should've Stayed Home (1938) a movie extra, named Mona Matthews, dreams of Hollywood stardom, but she is cast out because she looks too old. Her roommate, Ralph Carston, hopes that "... miracles happen, and maybe today, maybe the next minute some director would pick me out passing by..." No Pockets in a Shroud (1937) portrayed a crusading journalist who wages a lone war against corruption. Mike Dolan misses the old days, when "a newspaper was a newspaper and called a sonofabitch a sonofabitch..." He wants to clean the city – "and let the devil take the hindmost". "'For God's sake, don't keep telling me I'm a reformer,' Dolan said angrily. 'People can do anything they like right out in the middle of the street for all I care. That's unimportant. But what is important is printing some news about these political highbinders and about the big-time thieves... why, even the goddamn Governor of this state is crooked, and you know it.'" (from No Pockets in a Shroud) Dolan launches a magazine that tells the stories other papers will not print. Eventually he meets his fate in a dark alley.

When in postwar France McCoy's reputation was high, but in his own country he was not hailed as the master of modern fiction. Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1948), a classic of noir, was written partly due to his applause from abroad. The story is narrated by the amoral protagonist, Ralph Cotter. "A hell of a lot of good my intellect was doing me locked up in this nidus of stink with offal like these, a hell of a lot of good, and hearing for month after month after month of the achievements of bums like Floyd and Karpis and Nelson and Dillinger, who were getting rich off cracker-box banks, bums who had no talent at all, bums who could hardly get in out of the rain" Cotter escapes from a prison farm, and gets involved with dangerous women, corrupt establishment with crooked cops and layers. "At last I was safe and secure in the blackness of the womb from which I had never emerged," McCoy ends the story, which inspired a James Cagney film in 1950.

However, Cagney did not manage to repeat his electrifying performance as a psychotic criminal from his earlier film, White Heat (1949). When Signet published an abridged paperback edition of the novel in 1949, the blurb declared: "Horace McCoy has been around. He's been a taxi driver, a war pilot, a wrestler, a body guard, a bouncer, a newspaperman, and a highly successful screen writer."

In Hollywood McCoy wrote westerns and crime melodramas for Columbia Pictures and then Paramount, Warner Bros., Republic, and other studios. The majority of McCoy's screen work is modest, but the same could be said of a number of migrant writers, who went to Hollywood in the 1930s – John O'Hara, Nathanael West, William Faulkner, James M. Cain, Aldous Huxley, and Evelyn Waugh. "There is no reward for aesthetic virtue here," James M. Cain once stated, "no punishment for aesthetic crime."

The best film based on McCoy's book, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, was made fourteen years after the author's death. Although McCoy's picture of Hollywood was as disillusioned as it was in Nathanael West's novels, he was also affected by the creative side of the film town. "On Vine Street I went north towards Hollywood Boulevard, crossing Sunset, passing the drive-in stand where the old Paramount lot used to be, seeing young girls and boys in uniform hopping cars, and seeing too, in my mind, the ironic smiles on the faces of Wallace Reid and Valentino and all the other old-time starts who used to work on this very spot, and who now looked down, pitying these girls and boys for working at jobs in Hollywood they might was well be working at in Waxahackie or Evanston or Albany..." (from I Should Have Stayed at Home, 1938)

Her Resale Value (1933) was one of the first films to carry McCoy's writing credit. John Thomas Neville adapted McCoy's screen story. "... a loosely knit story which never builds to much suspense," said the Variety. The Trial of the Lonesome Pine (1936), which McCoy adapted with Harvey F. Thew from a novel by John Fox Jr, was a remake of a 1916 Cecil B. De Mille movie. Noteworthy, it was the first outdoor film to be shot in three-colour Technicolor. Henry Fonda and Nigel Bruce were casted as feuding Blue Ridge Mountaineers and Fred McMurray was a railway engineer. Mostly McCoy wrote for B movies, but one of the exceptions was Gentleman Jim (1942), co-written with Vincent Lawrence. This fictionalized bio of James J. Corbett, a former bank clerk, who became one of the famous figures in boxing, had Errol Flynn in the title role. Ward Bond played the legendary champ John L. Sullivan.

In 1933 McCoy became a $50-a-week contractee at Columbia Pictures. From the mid-1930s on, McCoy worked with such major directors as Henry Hathaway, Raoul Walsh, and Nicholas Ray, and with lesser known professionals. After a period of unemployment, McCoy signed a contract with Paramount Pictures in 1937. During this perid he collaborated with William R. Lipman on several scripts, but they received only once credit for an original screenplay.

Hunted Men (1938) was a competent second feature directed by Louis King. A racketeer (Lloyd Nolan) kills a doublecrosser, and uses a private home as a hideout. Outwitted by the head of the house, he ultimately sacrifices himself. "Among the many points in the film's favor, foremost was the refusal to compromise with a happy ending by scenarists William R. Lipman and Horace McCoy, even though Nolan's portrayal was sympathetic. His performance, and the writing of his role, delved considerably more deeply that most routine hoodlum characterizations, and did so without resorting to any psychological Freudian flummery – that would be foisted upon moviegoers somewhat later." (Don Miller in B Movies, 1973) McCoy co-wrote with Lipman also James Hogan's Texas Rangers Ride Again (1940), about Modern Rangers of the 1930s, who capture cattle rustlers. Wild Geese Calling (1941) was a Western but set in Alaska, starring Joan Bennett and Henry Fonda. McCoy's screenplay was based on a novel by Stewart Edward White

Nicholas Ray's The Lusty Men (1952) was a semi-documentary drama about a pair of rider friends on a rodeo tour. Robert Mitchum wants to settle down, but his friend, Arthur Kennedy, wants to continue in the ring. Susan Hayward domesticated the caravan life-style. Nicholas Ray hired McCoy and Niven Busch to write the screenplay. "They were at the opposite ends of the lot and they kept walking right through each other", Mitchum recalled in an interview. "They passed each other going out of the gate. So Nick and I, both stoned, worked out the script." (Mitchum: In His Own Words: Interviews with Robert Mitchum by Charles Champlin et al., 2000) McCoy had been a rodea aficionado since boyhood and was able to add convincing details on a skeleton of a plot.

In the routine Western Montana Belle (1952) Jane Russell played Belle Star. McCoy shared writing credits with M. Coates Webster, Howard Welsch, and Norman S. Hall. The film was completed several years before its release by Republic and was bought from that company for RKO by Howard Hughes, who had Russell under contract.

Between I Should've Stayed Home and Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye McCoy wrote no novels. He suffered a heart attack during the summer of 1948, but after recovering he was consistently employed and he began to make money with his screenwriting. Scapel (1952), his last published novel, followed in the footsteps of the enourmosly popular medical novelist Frank Slaughter. Filmed under the title Bad For Each Other (1953) by Irving Rapper, it told of an ex-army doctor (Charlton Heston), who must choose between and his idealism and posh social life in a Pennsylvania mining town. McCoy wrote the screenplay with the bestselling novelist and his friend Irving Wallace. In general, the reviews were good: "Take the fleeting glimpses of the hero's grimy home town, a hard-bitten mining community near Pittsburgh. Although his glittering new orbit seems rather shrilly symbolical and one-dimensional, the incidents are often laced with caustic, perceptive dialogue. Several scenes, wherein Mr. Heston, his nurse assistant and an older society practitioner ironically gauge their significance in the profession, are excellent." (The New York Times, December 24, 1953)

McCoy died of a heart attack on December 15, 1955, in Hollywood. He had suffered from a heart ailment already for some years. His last produced screenplay was Texas Lady, released by RKO Radio a month before his death. Posthumously published Corruption City (1959) was originally a treatment for Paramount, filmed by William Dieterle as The Turning Point (1952). Edmond O'Brien was a young upright lawyer, who is appointed by the state governor to smash a crime syndicate. William Holden played a cynical journalist; both he and the lawyer are romantically linked to the same woman. O'Brien's father (Tom Tully) is a former policeman who proves to have been on the payroll of the mob.

For further reading: The Life and Writings of Horace McCoy by John Thomas Stuark (University of California, 1976); Horace McCoy by Mark Royden Winchell (paperback, 1982); Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers, ed. by John M. Reilly (1985); Hardboiled in Hollywood by David E. Wilt (1991); Encyclopedia of Pulp Fiction Writers by Lee Server (2002); 100 American Crime Writers, ed. by Steven Powell (2012); Characters and Plots in the Novels of Horace McCoy by Robert L. Gale (2013); Scoundrels & Spitballers: Writers and Hollywood in the 1930s by Philippe Garnier (2020) - See also 'hard-boiled' writers: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Jonathan Latimer, Mickey Spillane

Selected bibliography:

  • They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, 1935
    - Ammutaanhan hevosiakin (suom. Heikki Salojärvi, 1978)
    - Film 1969, prod. American Broadcasting Company (ABC), Palomar Pictures, screenplay James Poe, Robert E. Thompson, dir. by Sidney Pollack, starring Jane Fonda, Gig Young, Susannah York, Red Buttons, Bruce Dern
  • No Pockets in a Shroud, 1937
    - Film: Un linceul n'a pas de poches, 1974, prod. Balzac Films, S.N. Prodis, screenplay Jean-Pierre Mocky, Alain Moury, dir. Jean-Pierre Mocky, featuring Jean-Pierre Mocky, Michel Serrault, Sylvia Kristel, Jean Carmet, Michel Constantin, Michel Galabru
  • I Should Have Stayed Home, 1938
    - Tapahtui Hollywoodissa (suom. Toini Aaltonen, 1994)
  • Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, 1948
    - Film 1950, prod. Warner Bros. Pictures, William Cagney Productions, screenplay Harry Brown, dir. by Gordon Douglas, starring James Gagney, Barbara Payton and Helena Carter
  • Scapel, 1952
  • Corruption City, 1959
    Film: The Turning Point, 1952, prod. Paramount Pictures, story Warren Duff, Horace McCoy, dir. William Dieterle, starring William Holden, Edmond O'Brien and Alexis Smith
  • I Should Have Stayed Home, 1978 (screenplay, ed. Bruce S. Kupelnick)
  • Somewhere in Mexico: The Complete Black Mask Cases of Jerry Frost, Volume 1, 2022 (illustrator: Jes Schlaikjer; introduction: John Wooley)
  • Screenplays/stories alone or with others (several scripts with William R. Lipman):

  • Soldiers of the Storm, 1933
    - with Thomson Burtis, Charles R. Condon, dir. D. Ross Lederman, starring Regis Toomey, Anita Page and Barbara Weeks
  • Dangerous Crossroads, 1933
    - with Lew Levenson, dir. Lambert Hillyer, starring :Charles 'Chic' Sale, Jackie Searl and Diane Sinclair
  • Her Resale Value, 1933
    - with John T. Neville, dir. B. Reeves Eason, starring June Clyde, George J. Lewis and Noel Francis
  • Fury of the Jungle, 1933
    - with Ethel Hill and Dore Schary, dir. Roy William Neill, starring Donald Cook, Peggy Shannon and Alan Dinehart
  • Hold the Press, 1933
    - dir. Phil Rosen, starring Tim McCoy, Shirley Grey and Henry Wadsworth
  • Speed Wings, 1934
    - dir. Otto Brower, starring Tim McCoy, Evalyn Knapp and William Bakewell
  • Postal Inspector, 1936
    - with Robert Presnell, Sr., dir. Otto Brower, starring Ricardo Cortez, Patricia Ellis and Michael Loring
  • The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, 1936
    - with Grower Jones and Harwey Thew, dir. Henry Hathaway, starring Sylvia Sidney, Fred MacMurray and Henry Fonda
  • Fatal Lady, 1936
    - with Samuel Ornitz and Harry Segall, dir. Edward Ludwig, starring Mary Ellis, Walter Pidgeon and John Halliday
  • Parole!, 1936
    - with others, dir. Lew Landers, starring Henry Hunter, Ann Preston and Alan Dinehart
  • Dangerous to Know, 1938
    - with William R. Lipman, based on the play On the Spot by Edgar Wallace, dir. Robert Florey, starring Anna May Wong, Akim Tamiroff and Gail Patrick
  • Hunted Men, 1938
    - with William R. Lipman, dir. Louis King, starring Lloyd Nolan, Mary Carlisle and Lynne Overman
  • King of the Newsboys, 1938
    - with others, dir. Bernard Vorhaus, starring Lew Ayres, Helen Mack and Alison Skipworth
  • Prison Farm, 1938 (uncredited)
    - dir. Louis King, starring Shirley Ross, Lloyd Nolan and John Howard
  • Persons in Hiding, 1939
    - with William R. Lipman, book: J. Edgar Hoover, dir. Louis King, starring Lynne Overman, Patricia Morison and J. Carrol Naish
  • Undercover Doctor, 1939
    - with William R. Lipman, book: J. Edgar Hoover, dir. Louis King, starring Lloyd Nolan, Janice Logan and J. Carrol Naish
  • Parole Fixer, 1939
    - with William R. Lipman, book: J. Edgar Hoover, dir. Robert Florey, starring William Henry, Virginia Dale and Robert Paige
  • Television Spy, 1939
  • - with others, dir. Edward Dmytryk, starring William Henry, Judith Barrett and William Collier Sr.
  • Island of Lost Men, 1939
    - with William R. Lipman, play: Norman Reilly Raine, Frank Butler, dir. Kurt Neumann, starring Anna May Wong, J. Carrol Naish and Eric Blore
  • Women Without Names, 1940
    - with William R. Lipman, based on a play by Ernest Booth, dir. Robert Florey, starring Ellen Drew, Robert Paige and Judith Barrett
  • Texas Rangers Ride Again, 1940
    - with William R. Lipman, dir. James P. Hogan, starring Ellen Drew, John Howard and Akim Tamiroff
  • Queen of the Mob, 1940
    - with William R. Lipman, book: J. Edgar Hoover, dir. James Hogan, starring Ralph Bellamy, Jack Carson and Blanche Yurka, 1940
  • Western Union, 1941 (uncredited: contributor to dialogue)
    - novel by Zane Grey, dir. Fritz Lang, starring Robert Young, Randolph Scott and Dean Jagger
  • Wild Geese Calling, 1941
    - novel by Stewart Edward White, dir. John Brahm, starring Henry Fonda, Joan Bennett and Warren William
  • Texas, 1941
    - with Lewis Meltzer and Michael Blankfort, dir. George Marshall, starring William Holden, Glenn Ford and Claire Trevor
  • Valley of the Sun, 1942
    - based on a story by Clarence Budington Kelland, dir. George Marshall, starring Lucille Ball, James Craig and Cedric Hardwicke
  • Gentleman Jim, 1942
    - with Vincent Lawrence, dir. Raoul Walsh, starring Errol Flynn, Alexis Smith and Jack Carson
  • Flight for Freedom, 1943
    - with Jane Murfin, Oliver H.P. Garrett, S.K. Lauren, dir. Lothar Mendes, starring Rosalind Russell, Fred MacMurray and Herbert Marshall
  • Appointment in Berlin, 1943
    - with Michael Hogan and B.P. Fineman, dir. Alfred E. Green, starring George Sanders, Marguerite Chapman and Onslow Stevens
  • There's Something about a Soldier, 1943
    - with Barry Trivers, dir. Alfred E. Green, starring Tom Neal, Evelyn Keyes and Bruce Bennett
  • The Fabulous Texan, 1947
    - with Lawrence Hazard and Hal Long, dir. Edward Ludwig, starring Bill Elliott, John Carroll and Catherine McLeod,
  • Montana Belle, 1949
    - with others, dir. Allan Dwan, starring Jane Russell, George Brent and Scott Brady
  • The Fireball, 1950
    - with Tay Garnett, dir. Tay Garnett, starring Mickey Rooney, Pat O'Brien and Beverly Tyler
  • Bronco Buster, 1952
    - with Lillie Hayward and Peter B. Kyne, dir. Budd Boetticher, starring John Lund, Scott Brady and Joyce Holden
  • The Lusty Men, 1952
    - with David Dortort and Claude Stanush, dir. Nicholas Ray, starring Susan Hayward, Robert Mitchum and Arthur Kennedy
  • World in His Arms, 1952
    - with Borden Chase, screenplay based on a novel by Rex Beach, dir. Raoul Walsh, starring Gregory Peck, Ann Blyth and Anthony Quinn
  • The Turning Point, 1953
    - with Darren Duff, dir. William Dieterle, starring William Holden, Alexis Smith, Edmond O'Brien
  • El Alaméin, 1953
    - with Herbert Purdom, George Worthing Yates, dir. Fred F. Sears, starring Scott Brady, Edward Ashley and Robin Hughes
  • Destinées, 1954
    - with others, prod. Franco London Films, Continental Produzione (France & Italy), dir. Christian-Jaque, Jean Delannoy, Marcello Pagliero
  • Bad for Each Other, 1954
    - with Irving Wallace, dir. Irving Rapper, starring Charlton Heston, Lizabeth Scott and Dianne Foster
  • Dangerous Mission, 1954
    - with Charles Bennett, W.R. Burnett, James Edmiston, dir. Louis King, starring Victor Mature, Piper Laurie and William Bendix
  • Rage at Dawn, 1955
    - with Frank Gruber, dir. Tim Whelan, starring Randolph Scott, Forrest Tucker and Mala Powers
  • The Road to Denver, 1955
    - with Allen Rivkin, dir. Joseph Kane, starring John Payne, Lee J. Cobb and Mona Freeman
  • Texas Lady, 1955
    - dir. Tim Whelan, starring Claudette Colbert, Barry Sullivan and Ray Collins

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