Salvador Dali and The Marx Brothers, Together Again for the First Time
“I see Harpo battling a lively crayfish that jumps in a pan of boiling water to protect himself. Harpo opens an umbrella and a chicken explodes on all the onlookers. He look at all of the chicken pieces dispersed everywhere and puts each piece carefully on a saddle that he uses as a plate…a saddle not for a horse…but for a giraffe!”
Even 82 years later, you can practically hear Mayer, slightly garbled by the cigar in his mouth, bellow, “NEXT!”
But unlike Dali’s most mind-bending imaginings, this scene actually happened. After making a narrow escape from Spain with his wife Gala, the iconically mustachioed painter of droopy clocks landed in Paris. There he crossed paths with the Marx Brothers, at a party during their press tour for A Night At The Opera.
Despite not having a common language, Dali and Harpo formed an instant communion. They exchanged correspondence, and Dali decided to come to Los Angeles to paint Harpo, his new muse.
What followed was a strange, apocryphal chapter of near-film history. Dali wandered the Southwest deserts, dreaming up a film called “Giraffes on Horseback Salad.” It would tell a surrealist love story between the worlds of imagination and common sense. And also, it would star the Marx Brothers.
Unfortunately–if unsurprisingly–the film never got made. But pop culture historian Josh Frank, writer of books on Saturday Night Live and the Pixies, determined to bring it into the world. So he dug up Dali’s notes, corralled contemporary absurdist Tim Heidecker and his writing stable, and found a visionary Spanish illustrator to turn this mythical movie into a real graphic novel.
The result is Giraffes on Horseback Salad, and it is much too big a feast to be called a salad. Bookended with actualia like the full history of Harpo and Salvador’s friendship, and Dali’s original treatment, it contains a fully realized vision of what the movie could have been.
The story is index-card simple: Jimmy, an ambitious businessman, is going to dinner at a club with his type-A social status-monger fiancée Linda. Only that night the club is visited by a dreamlike figure called “The Surrealist Woman.” Jimmy falls in love and pursues her. An angry, jilted Linda pursues him, hellbent on revenge. “Helping” at every stage are the Marx Brothers.
And, truthfully, it’s a cardboard plot: They fall in love nearly instantly, Jimmy’s fiancée is two-dimensionally shrewish (I’ve never seen so many variants on “angry female face”), and the tensions at the end literally wrap up in a song. Yes, like in any good Marx Brothers picture, there are musical numbers.
But who cares: It’s the Marx Brothers romping through a Salvador Dali world. And on that front, it delivers. The nonstop patter of verbal anarchy, conjured perfectly by Heidecker and writing staff, melds ingeniously with Dali’s visual insanity.
In some cases, this even allows leaps of Marxian wit beyond what the Brothers could do in the movies. At one point, the Surrealist Woman is planning a party and wants to spend it reclining, Roman emperor style. She tells the Marx Brothers, now her party planners, to order a larger bed, leading to this exchange:
Groucho: Add to the list a hundred-foot bed.
Chico: But boss, how will I fit that in the taxi?
Groucho: Good point. Find a hundred-foot taxi as well.
This creative partnership works well, too, in the many, many party scenes that fill the book and are a treat to just devour with your eyes. Nominally, they’re about the love triangle churning on. But the main action is the Marxes gleefully failing to do any of their jobs or make even an iota of sense –with Linda’s icy glares replacing Margaret Dumont’s eye-rolls.
And then there’s the movie’s final set-piece courtroom scene– where Surrealism is effectively put on trial and both sides are represented by dueling lawyers Groucho and Chico. It’s a sequence so packed with verbal hijinks it could have been its own Marx Brothers movie, but there’s one quick aside that once again exemplifies the absurdist mind-meld:
Groucho: That’s irrelevant!
Chico: [POINTING OUT THE WINDOW AT A PINK ELEPHANT STANDING ATOP A TALL NEW YORK BUILDING] No, that’s ‘er-elephant!
Illustrator Manuela Pertega fully delivers on the premise, too, commanding an astonishing set of registers. Pertega puts us in the stiff, black-and-white “1930s movie” style of Jimmy’s office, brings us joyfully lithe and vital Marx Brothers hamming, and explodes double-page layouts with faithfully Dali-esque oozing, melting, image orgies.
If there’s a Nobel Prize for Unearthing Unlikely-Yet-Perfect Creative Collaborations, Josh Frank and company should get it. The team he assembled to produce this must-have book for lovers of film, comedy, and lunacy has put together a work as indelible as the hypothetical one that Louis Mayer sent reeling onto its keester.
(Quirk Books, March 2019)