Review – Giraffes on Horseback Salad
No, I didn’t have a stroke writing the headline above. That’s the actual name of a book I just read, or graphic novel, or historical record. It’s sorta difficult to define, but bear with me.
As you may already be aware, I’m a fan of Salvador Dali. Love his work, visited his museum in St. Petersburg, Florida (on the grand re-opening in 2011), and have read his auto-biography twice. And as with most creative people I admire who are no longer with us, I’m sad when I think that I’ll never see anything new from them.
But then I found Giraffes on Horseback Salad: The Strangest Movie Never Made. Saddle up, reader, this is going to be fun.
Back in the 1930s, Salvador Dali visited the United States to get away from the civil war going on in Spain. It’s assumed that while in New York City, he caught a Marx Brothers movie at one of the theaters near his hotel. What he found was that the Marx Brothers were the cinematic equivalent of surrealism, at least, that’s how he interpreted their chaotic brand of comedy. He traveled to California and eventually met Harpo, the quiet Marx brother.
Dali and Harpo hit it off immediately despite the fact that they couldn’t understand one another. Harpo couldn’t speak Spanish and Dali couldn’t speak English, but their affection transcended language. Harpo was a novice painter and idolized Dali, while Dali wanted to expand his creativity and felt that Harpo was the perfect catalyst for his vision. They began meeting at Harpo’s house (there’s a great photo of Dali and Harpo painting portraits of one another). What they decided was to create a movie that combined Dali’s surrealistic visuals with the comedy of the Marx Brothers. Harpo would star, Dali would write and create set design. All they needed was a studio to bankroll them.
Despite having both of these names attached to the script, MGM Studios wasn’t interested. Dejected, Harpo and Dali eventually parted ways.
Dali never completed a full script. The rumors were that he had created a four-page treatment, along with some sketches and ideas for musical numbers. Unfortunately, those pages went missing and the story became one of those industry legends that gets talked about every now and then.
Then came Josh Frank. He calls himself a sort of pop-culture archaeologist. He heard about this famous, lost treatment and was intrigued. What could have happened to it? Where should he start looking? He found an interview with Dali where he briefly discussed the idea. That sent him on a multi-year journey to track down any and all traces. He finally got lucky and discovered a museum in France that had a copy of the treatment in their archives. Frank got a copy via email, then had to find someone who could translate it for him.
What he ended up with wasn’t much…a vague outline containing a list of the characters with a brief bio and a few gags. So he continued to search. At another museum he found a notebook with more details, like additional gags, rough sketches of some of the sets, ideas for songs, and random doodles in the margins. It wasn’t a full script, or even a fully formed idea, but it was something to start with.
Frank then worked with another writer, Tim Heidecker, to flesh things out. They used Dali’s notes to create a full script. They tried to stay as true to Dali’s vision (as best they could interpret it). Once they were satisfied, they found a Spanish artist, Manuela Pertega, who was influenced by Dali and asked her to illustrate their script, thus creating more of graphic novel than an actual book. The results are fantastic. At least, if you enjoy the Marx Brothers’ comedy and Dali’s surrealistic vision.
The story, more of less, is about a rich and powerful businessman who feels confined by his rational life. He wants more, something different, something other than the trappings of money and structure. He meet the Surreal Woman, a wealthy heiress that has the ability to transform reality into her dreams….or maybe she turns her dreams into reality. Could go either way. In her, the protagonist, Jimmy, finds what he’s been missing. But there are obstacles to overcome…like Jimmy’s fiance, the police, and the chaos created by Groucho and Chico Marx.
Does it make much sense? No. I can understand why the studio passed on this one. Sure, it’s basically a boy-meets-girl story, but what Dali envisioned would have been impossible to put on film in the 1930s. Modern CGI could pull it off, but back then they simply didn’t have the means. And the truth is, even Groucho wasn’t interested once Harpo told him about it.
Of course, there’s more to the book than just the movie idea. Frank discusses the process for tracking down all the information and then creating a completed script. There’s also an essay by Harpo’s son who writes about his father’s relationship with Dali.
This book isn’t going to be for everyone. It’s weird, silly, surreal, and strange, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. If you are interested in film history, Dali, the Marx Brothers, or pop-culture anthropology, then you might want to check it out. If nothing else, it shows that we all need a little surrealism in our lives.