By 1937, Salvador Dali had made his way to the United States as civil war was raging in his home country. It was there that he had found a new world to explore and a new audience. I am not going to go into the details of all this as all of this has been extensively documented over the years. In addition to this, while I am an admirer of Dali, I am certainly no scholar and I will not regurgitate Wikipedia information to bolster what is merely a book review. However it was during this time that Dali had found his newest muse with Harpo Marx, a person he had felt a kindred spirit with. The American surrealist.
Dali and Harpo had spent a deal of time together and it was during this period that Dali had begun work on what was intended to be a screenplay for the Marx Brothers. Entitled Giraffes on Horseback Salad, the would be screenplay existed only as a series of notes and a treatment written by Dali. MGM had refused to produce it and Groucho had informed his brother, Harpo, that “It won’t play.” And that was the end of it.
For more than eighty years, Giraffes on Horseback Salad had remained largely a footnote in film history. It was basically mentioned in passing in a few of the Marx biographies over the years or discussed in various magazine articles, but what remained of Dali’s and Harpo’s collaboration had been locked away in handwritten notebooks at various museums throughout the world. However, in March of 2019, author Josh Frank had published a would-be reconstruction in the form of a graphic novel by Quirk Books. Josh had undertaken the herculean effort of acquiring access to these materials from the Dali museum and elsewhere in attempt to bring to life what could have been. The fragments had to be translated and then reinterpreted. Josh had entrusted the missing humor and gags to be reinvented by Tim Heidecker of Tim and Eric and the graphic novel was illustrated by Manuela Pertega of Barcelone. Manuela was chosen for her whimsical style and her connection to Spain, Dali’s homeland.
Josh Frank’s Giraffes on Horseback Salad clearly is a work of passion. This is a book that is full of amazing and intricate illustrations and is the kind of work invokes the imagination. Manuela’s illustrations are ideal for this project. She manages to convey chaos, beauty and the grotesque and is not shy to draw in the corners. The end result is dizzying, fantastic, and yet somehow frustrating. Josh had stated in his introduction his fondness of Harpo Marx, including the author’s childhood photograph of him dressed as Harpo for Halloween. Similarly, I had dressed up as Groucho in elementary school and friends thought I had dressed as Gene Shalit. My connection to the Marx Brothers I would like to think is also a passionate one. I remember reading in passing in various books about Dali’s long forgotten film treatment and I must confess I have been curious to see what could have been as well. I think the end result may not have worked as a film. In all honesty, I am sure of it. The Marx Bros. Are very much material phantoms and the reason why their brand of humor works is they wander in to the real world and upset the apple cart. We have Chico the hustler, Groucho’s weaponized sarcasm, and Harpo being an agent of chaos. As a team they were explosive and had a way of cutting through the bullshit of the real world. In Dali’s vision, the apple cart has already been upended and the Marx Bros. Are relegated as almost mere phantoms or heralds of the coming of The Surreal Woman. The frantic energy is there but at the end of the day this is really Dali’s show. That being said, while the humor gets lost among the madness coupled with a few unfortunate anachronistic jokes that fall flat, the end result is rather fascinating and each page comes to life. My suggestion is to take your time with this book because every page and panel has something new to discover. Kudos to Josh Frank and Manuela Pertega for rescuing Giraffes from its sarcophagus. While I may agree with Groucho that the movie “won’t play,” this is the kind of book that deserves to be revisited.