“Knowing that humans were capable of such unruliness and insanity, the gods came up with solution, an organized chaos that they would unleash… in human form.” So begins the prolonged phantasmagorical endeavor that is Giraffes on Horseback Salad, the never-made screenplay written by none other Salvador Dalí to star the anarchic comedy stylings of the Marx Brothers. The potential film — as noted in extensive historical notes — never made it past the early stages, with its content too bizarre for the staid Hollywood honcho’s to consider translating it to the silver screen. Even Groucho Marx, whose own comedic sensibilities were often turbulently ironic, thought the project was too much for the comedy team to execute to their best ability.
But we live in strange times. And strange times demand strange art.
Resurrected from obscurity nearly eight decades later by “forgotten pop culture archeologist” Josh Frank — along with comedian Tim Heidecker and artist Manuela Pertega — take what might have been Dalí’s folly and create a singular graphic novel reading experience. The total is a mixed bag, to be sure, but one that is constantly visually interesting as a contemporary object but also as an ode to Hollywood ephemera.
Like much of Dalí’s work, or indeed The Marx Brothers’ oeuvre, Giraffes on Horseback Salad is difficult to categorize. As a coherent narrative, there’s nary a focus. As a screenwriter, Dalí was interested more in breaking the rules of story structure than building an actual blueprint for a viable film. The proposed film’s alternative title—The Surrealist Woman—expresses the dueling forces at work here: the avant garde push to test the boundaries of a medium versus the need to be funny. Dalí was the former, the Brothers Marx, the latter. Could this combination have been the perfect shidduch for audiences looking for something non-formulaic even back in the 1930s? The answer is…
… It’s hard to say. As rendered by the creative team for this unique volume, The Marx Brothers were certainly one of the most capable vehicles for personifying Dalí’s personal pursuit of artistic insurrection. Using the graphic novel format was certainly an inspired choice. Pertega’s layouts are stunning, varying between classic comic book storytelling structures (linear panels) and colorful full-page spreads where every single inch of white space is dedicated solely to convey the absolutely bonkers vision that Dalí might have had in mind while writing his never to be filmed script.
As a Marx Brothers fan myself (Duck Soup shall forever remain one of my favorite films), reading this volume was a strange experience. There were moments that felt absolutely inspired and others that fell flat. History shows that Dalí was closest to Harpo, the reality-bending mime of the group. Yet, Harpo is almost a no-show here, which is in itself quite odd. Frank and Heidecker do an admirable job translating Dalí’s notes into a workable script, and the end result is entertaining. But be aware that this project never reaches the heights of the Marx Brothers’ absolute brilliance. Of course, not much else can reach that peak either.
For fans of the Marx Brothers, or simply an oddity that is worth examination, Giraffes on Horseback Salad is a welcome exit from reality.