Sunday, 5 May 2019

Giraffes on Horseback Salad: Salvador Dali meets The Marx Brothers

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Comically surreal: how Dali’s film with Marx brothers came to life
Lost screenplay by the Spanish surrealist and comedy stars recreated as a graphic novel after painstaking research

Vanessa Thorpe
The Guardian
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.
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Detail from Giraffes on Horseback Salad by Josh Frank, illustrated by Manuela Pertega

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.
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Detail from Giraffes on Horseback Salad 

“I have never had a response like this to anything else. Fans have been coming to it in their droves,” Texan writer Josh Frank said this weekend before the British launch this week. “I wanted to do something involving people I admired, so I started looking through lists of the greatest unmade movies and lots of them were incredibly intriguing, like a Werner Herzog film about Mexico and a Stanley Kubrick Napoleon biopic that never happened. But one leaped out, especially since I wanted to tell an interesting backstory as well.”
A Dali sketch for the proposed film

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.
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Detail from Giraffes on Horseback Salad

“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!”.
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Dali sketches Harpo

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.
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And again - but it's the barbed wire surrealist harp this time...

In the early 1990s, a New York theatre collective put together a speculative show inspired by the abortive project, but no one had details of the actual screenplay, thought to have been found later in draft form in 1996.
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Dali's sketch of Harpo with a crustacean on his head

“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.”
Potrait of Harpo Marx with Flaming Giraffes, 1937

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.
A detail from Giraffes on Horseback Salad 

“They sent over 850 copied pages and I looked through for any mention of ‘Harpo’ or of ‘Marx’. At last, 834 pages in, Frank spotted the word Marx and so had those pages translated. “I was excited by the story I found, knew I needed more and there were further documents in the archive at the Pompidou Centre in Paris.”
Dali's sketch of Groucho as Shiva of the business world

Armed with 60 pages from France, Frank began working, while knowing that without the support of the Dali Foundation and the Marx estate it would all be for nothing. “I learned a lot more about Dalí’s life,” he said. “It was a very vulnerable time for him. I could see the film would have said a lot about what he was going through.
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Harpo playing the barbed wire harp tuned with spoons that Dali sent him

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”.
Dinner in the desert lit by giraffes on fire...

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.”
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Harpo and Dali

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.”
Detail from Giraffes o Horseback salad

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.”
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Detail from Giraffes on Horseback Salad

This month, two Marx Brothers films that do work are being screened: at Barbican Cinema on 9 May and Camden’s JW3 on 12 May, with a panel discussion with Frank and Pertega.

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/may/05/marx-brothers-salvador-dali-lost-film-made-into-graphic-novel

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