It took decades for Disney to bring Destino, Salvador Dali’s Surrealist screenplay, to animated life (I blogged about it here) but for movie buffs the unHoly Grail of Dali’s film work has to be Giraffes on Horseback Salad, a treatment Dali worked on as a starring vehicle for Harpo Marx. The seemingly anarchic, gleefully rambunctious Marxes seemed like a perfect fit for Surrealism; both the brothers and Dali were arguably at their creative peaks in the 1930s, when Giraffes first took what little shape it had. But were they really a good match? Could they be? Let’s see one possibility…
We have only notes and sketches showing what Dali envisioned; whether there ever was a complete script is not clear. A young man, Jimmy, is living a frenetic life of work and idle pleasure, but he is drawn into the mysterious presence of the Surrealist Woman, who transforms life around her but is herself enigmatic and vaguely defined. Groucho, Harpo, and Chico are her assistants, who are not always helpful, but they provide the personality the Surrealist Woman lacks. Jimmy’s life is thrown into chaos, with profound consequences for him.
As the notes progressed, Dali moved Harpo from a sidekick role to center stage: Harpo would be Jimmy, with his usual personality manifesting itself very rarely, as a new personality that is revealed in Jimmy through his experience with the Surrealist Woman. Clearly, this is a terrible idea. Harpo’s silence was integral to his persona; to change him into a bland, shallow romantic lead would have sunk the film from the start. It would keep Harpo at center stage, as Dali intended, but to what end?
Writer Josh Frank has been a Marx Brothers fan since childhood; this book is his own what-if: an expansion and completion of Dali’s unfinished idea. Frank began by imaging that Irving Thalberg, the brilliant MGM producer whose death in 1936 at only 37 years old, did not die. Thalberg had carefully cultivated the Marx Brothers at MGM, taking their frenetic humor and meeting a more traditional movie musical halfway; no one else would take such care with the Marxes after that. Frank makes a logical assumption, namely that Thalberg would insist on songs in the film, and provides some pretty credible lyrics. He teamed up with comedian and writer Tim Heidecker, who worked to give detail to Dali’s often-allusive and elusive notes. They found a Spanish artist, Manuela Pertega, to render the script into graphic novel form.
You might say this is not what Dali and Harpo intended, and you’re likely correct, but Hollywood usually did that. I once described the MGM approach as “pin the story to the wall and throw writers at it.” This is not the film that would have come out, but that’s all right. It is surprisingly filmable, even by the standards of the time; today, with CGI, there’s nothing here to make a special effects company break a sweat. There is also nothing as daring as Dali and Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929), which remains the definitive Surrealist film. Frank and Heidecker attempt to keep Groucho and Chico in their usual characters, though too many of the jokes feel like retreads of familiar Marx material. Harpo, as I noted, was not so lucky.
Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed the book, and its brief glimpse into an alternate world. Consider it a work of fantasy, a pastiche (which it certainly is) and even a spoof. Anyone can write a Marx Brothers movie, but it takes just the right mind – which Dali did not have – to write a great one.
It’s a good question whether Surrealism could be put on film today. Though we have the technical skill, the mindset has changed; codes of morality and cultural assumptions have been rewritten extensively in the passing decades, and humor has changed with them. We love the Marxes because their humor was unique. A survey of other madcap comedies of the period, such as W. C. Fields’ “Million Dollar Legs” (1932) or Wheeler & Woolsey’s “Diplomaniacs” (1933) will bring a lot of laughs, and a deepened appreciation of the Marxes and their writers. Had MGM gone with Giraffes in some form, it would likely not be this one, and that’s okay.