5 May 2019
Giraffes on Horseback Salad, an improbable project dreamed up by the most unorthodox of creative talents, Salvador Dalí and the Marx Brothers, still features regularly on lists of the most tantalising movies never made.
But now the feature film that would have marked the only collaboration between the great Spanish surrealist and the most popular screen comedians of the era has finally come to life in the pages of a graphic novel.
Dalí had put the screenplay together in 1937 for the Hollywood studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer – with his friend Harpo Marx, the “silent” Marx brother, who was then much more famous than the artist. A run of hit Marx Brothers comedies, A Night at the Opera, Duck Soup and Animal Crackers, had established them at the top of showbusiness.
“Harpo will be Jimmy, a young Spanish aristocrat who lives in the US as a consequence of political circumstances in his country,” Dalí wrote in his notes for the film. Among several impractical visual ideas were flaming gas masks worn by giraffes, and an exploding chicken, pieces of which would be placed on “a saddle that he uses as a plate, a saddle not for a horse, but for a giraffe!”.
Frank’s literary detective work began when he looked into Dalí’s original script six years ago, when internet searches produced not much more than the title, itself a combination of the wacky irreverence of the Marx Brothers’ humour and the unlikely juxtapositions of Dalí’s art. Frank also found an alternate title: The Surrealist Woman.
“I started to wonder if it was just a myth, but the thought that I could be the guy who got this lost movie out there at last really appealed to me,” said the 44-year old from Austin. “It was a beautiful delusion of grandeur really. I couldn’t let it go because if I had enough material I could finish both a Dalí artwork and a Marx brothers film some 60 years after their last cinematic releases.”
The Dalí Foundation in Spain confirmed that the artist had written about the project, but his books were out of print. The only two they had were in Portuguese.
The central theme of the film, Dalí wrote, would have been “the continuous struggle between the imaginative life as depicted in the old myths and the practical and rational life of contemporary society.” Frank carefully created a screenplay from the artist’s notes: a love story between a Spanish aristocrat named Jimmy and a “beautiful surrealist woman, whose face is never seen by the audience”.
His proposal for a graphic novel was welcomed by the Dalí and Marx estates, so Frank approached a young Spanish artist, Manuela Pertega, to illustrate it. “I knew I need an illustrator who understood Dalí. Manuela was excited because she grew up near where he was born.”
At points in the screenplay Dalí had simply written “insert Marx Bros routine”, so to provide suitable comic antics Frank went to American comedian Tim Heidecker: “I ended up working with him in a writers’ room in Burbank and filling in all those moments in the script. It was great.”
Now there is even a soundtrack for the film that never was. Frank has written lyrics for the songs that might have been, and a recording will be released on 21 June.
The original film was axed by studio head Louis B Mayer in 1937. The script also disappointed Groucho Marx, who said: “It won’t play.”