The iconic surrealist artist Salvador Dalí was obsessed with the anarchic harpist Harpo Marx and wrote a screenplay for what he hoped would become a Marx Brother movie. Or Dalí didn’t hope, as he considered the screenplay art enough. The upcoming graphic novel Giraffes on Horseback Salad pieces together what some papers have called one of the greatest movies never made. Written by Josh Frank, Giraffes on Horseback Salad comes out from Quirk Publishers on March 19.
“Grab some popcorn and take a seat,” reads the official book synopsis. “The curtain is about to rise on a film like no other! But first, the real-life backstory: Giraffes on Horseback Salad was a Marx Brothers film written by modern art icon Salvador Dalí, who’d befriended Harpo. Rejected by MGM, the script was thought lost forever. But author Josh Frank the author of three previous books about “lost stories,” could not leave that alone.
“I decided to track it down,” Frank, who wrote Fool the World: The Oral History of a Band Called Pixies, and In Heaven Everything Is Fine, said in a press statement. “I found bit and pieces of Dalí’s screenplay in different languages in several European archives. I had them translated into English and then decided to finish the screenplay.”
Frank also found a “modern day Spanish surrealistic artist,” Manuela Pertega, to illustrate it and recruited a surrealistic comedian, Tim Heidecker, one half of the comedy team Tim & Eric, with Eric Wareheim. Giraffes on Horseback Salad is the first official new Marx Bros. project approved by the Marx Bros. estate in decades, and is thus considered canon.
The actual screenplay for Giraffes on Horseback Salad, also called The Surrealist Woman, was found among Dalí’s personal papers In 1996. It is described as a love story between a Spanish aristocrat named “Jimmy” (to be played by Harpo) and a “beautiful surrealist woman, whose face is never seen by the audience.” The screenplay includes scenes of giraffes wearing gas masks on fire, a biblical fire, bike riders balancing loaves on their heads and Harpo capturing “the eighteen smallest dwarfs in the city” with a butterfly net, only to have Groucho crack nuts on their heads.
Dalí wanted the movie to explore the “continuous struggle between the imaginative life as depicted in the old myths, and the practical and rational life of contemporary society.” Dalí hoped to get Cole Porter to score the film. Groucho Marx reportedly felt Giraffes on Horseback Salad wasn’t funny, and this from a guy who once shot an elephant in his pajamas. The comic team’s champion Irving Thalberg, who produced A Night At The Opera and A Day At The Races, died the previous September. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the studio the Marx Brothers were signed with, considered the production too expensive and the screenplay too surreal.
The Marx Brothers appreciated art. The crime at the center of their 1930 film Animal Crackers was art theft, and forgery. Harpo collected art and painted. He started when he was in his 30s but had to stop because of his busy entertainment career. Harpo went back to painting after suffering his second heart attack, and donated his works to hospitals and charities. As a film performer, he was himself a surrealistic artist, with tattoos that roared and a coat which could keep coffee steaming hot. It was the surrealism of the Marx Brothers films which first caught Dalí’s eye.
Dalí saw the Marx Brothers as filmic members of the Surrealist movement. For Christmas in 1936, he sent Harpo a harp wrapped in cellophane with strings made of barbed wire harp with barbed wire for strings and assorted silverware on its frame. Harpo sent the artist a photo of himself with his fingers destroyed by trying to play it, and an offer to sit for a sit and a smear. “Harpo Marx is Surrealist in everything,” Dalí declared to the press. “Dalí was in love with my brother, in a nice way,” Groucho noted.
“I met Harpo for the first time in his garden,” Dalí remembered about his first meeting with the silent Marx Brother in a 1937 issue of Harper’s Bazaar. “He was naked, crowned with roses, and in the center of a veritable forest of harps (he was surrounded by at least five hundred harps). He was caressing, like a new Leda, a dazzling white swan, and feeding it a statue of the Venus de Milo made of cheese, which he grated against the strings of the nearest harp. An almost springlike breeze drew a curious murmur from the harp forest. In Harpo’s pupils glows the same spectral light to be observed in Picasso’s.”
Dalí was an influential filmmaker. He collaborated with director Luis Buñuel on the increasingly inspirational 1929 film Un chien andalou and its follow up L’Age d’Or. He worked with Walt Disney on the 1946 animation and live action short Destino, which was never completed. He designed the nightmare sequence for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 psychological thriller Spellbound. Salvador Dalí, born in 1904 in Catalonia, Spain, also brought Hollywood the idea for a movie starring a wheelbarrow.
Giraffes on Horseback Salad isn’t the only lost film in the Marx Brothers’ history. Some Like It Hot director Billy Wilder wanted to put his stamp on the Marx Brothers film legacy with a movie which would have been called A Day At The United Nations in 1960. He and I. A. L. Diamond co-wrote a 40-page treatment. The film couldn’t get insured because Chico was ill.
Giraffes on Horseback Salad will be available from Quirk Publishers on March 19.
Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.