KTEP - El Paso, Texas

Salvador Dalí Meets The Marx Brothers In 'Giraffes On Horseback Salad'

Apr 7, 2019

This is a story about something that didn't happen. A movie that was never made. It was supposed to be a collaboration between the Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí and the Marx Brothers.

YouTube

Dalí was the toast of the town in 1970 when he appeared on the Dick Cavett TV show. Elegantly dressed in a burgundy velvet sport coat and sparkly vest, this titan of the surrealist movement strode on stage with a gold handled cane in his right hand — and on his left, a live anteater on a leash, which he promptly dumped in the lap of another guest, the actress Lillian Gish. When Gish asked him if his work had a message for people, he shot back "No message." "Could you invent one?" pleaded Cavett.

Back in 1937, Dalí was much less famous when he showed up at MGM studios with his buddy Harpo Marx to pitch a movie treatment. The Marx Brothers, on the other hand, were at the height of their popularity, thanks to their hijinks in films like Duck Soup, A Night at the Opera and Animal Crackers.

But studio head Louis B. Mayer didn't particularly like the Marx Brothers or know what to make of Salvador Dalí, and so he killed the project the artist had titled Giraffes on Horseback Salad. Now, writer Josh Frank has turned that somewhat incomprehensible screenplay into a graphic novel. "It was crazy surreal," he says, "and totally not digestible, and Groucho said quote-unquote 'it wouldn't play.'"

And so that screenplay slipped into the realm of legendary lost treasures — that is, until Frank got wind of it, tracked it down at a museum in France, and recruited a team to help him put it together. The team included Spanish illustrator Manuela Pertega and comedian Tim Heidecker, who helped come up with gags because Dalí's production notes just said, "insert Marx Brothers routine here." Frank says the collaboration worked. "Next thing you know, I'm creating a new piece of Marx Brothers art for the world, and it's a dream come true."

But we've put the cart before the giraffe here. Let's back up. First, what's with that name? Frank hasn't a clue. "Asking me what Giraffes on Horseback Salad means is asking me, 'lobsterphone,' you know?" he laughs. "However, what I've always thought, ever since I first heard that name, is that to me it's the perfect name for a Marx Brothers movie written by Salvador Dalí. Because it has that — A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races, Giraffes on Horseback Salad. It works somehow."

Next, the plot — such as it is. A businessman named Jimmy finds his well ordered upper-crust life turned inside out when he meets the Surrealist Woman. She's a stunning shape-shifter who discombobulates the world around her. Eventually she's arrested for her surrealist crimes and winds up in court where the mayhem of the Marx Brothers ultimately liberates her. These moments are depicted in the book as the trippiest of swirling LSD experiences.

The adventures of the Surrealist Woman.
Quirk Books

And finally, just how did Salvador Dalí end up teaming up with the Marx Brothers in the first place? "When he first saw a Marx Brothers movie, it put him in a trance, because he felt he was watching the human embodiment of surrealism in its purest form," Frank says. "All of the Marx Brothers, but specifically Harpo, because Harpo was unbridled, almost animalistic, so he loved Harpo."

Harpo, who never spoke on screen, was probably the zaniest member of the family, known for playing the harp and pulling items from under his trench coat — like 300 knives or a hot cup of coffee or a blowtorch — and of course, honking his horn. He was in Paris in 1936 on a publicity tour for A Night at the Opera when he met Dalí. Even though they didn't have a language in common, the pair clicked, and Dalí decided to incorporate the Marx Brothers into the movie treatment he was working on.

Harpo Marx with the surrealist harp sent to him by Salvador Dalí.
Marx Family

Harpo's son Bill Marx remembers being maybe 7 or 8 when he came across a Xerox copy of Giraffes. "And I started reading it, and I really couldn't make heads or tails of it," he says. Bill, a musician and composer, was too young to remember when Dalí came to the States to paint his dad and pitch his film. But there were telltale signs of the friendship — like the Dalí pen and ink sketches hanging in his bedroom growing up. There were also stories about the full-sized surrealist harp Dalí had sent to Harpo. It came wrapped in cellophane, with the harp frame dripping forks and spoons and barbed wire replacing the strings. But Bill Marx says they didn't have the instrument very long. "My mother, who was very practical, she said I'm sorry, I can't look at this anymore, and she threw it in the garbage." Just imagine if there was some lucky dumpster diver that day.

Harpo was also an accomplished painter, producing some 300 works, and Dalí sat for him during his California trip. Bill Marx say his dad's time with the artist may have been brief, but it's effect on both of men was long lasting. Author Josh Frank agrees. "So this whole meeting of these two strange and wonderful minds, I really felt even though it was a short amount of time they were together that they profoundly affected each other because Harpo went on to continue painting and take it even more seriously."

And, says Frank, Dalí was also left inspired — but ultimately unfulfilled too. "This short time he had with Harpo was, I feel like, a really great lost moment that created a work of art that until now has not really been able to be seen."

Dalí envisioned a huge Hollywood production for Giraffes on Horseback Salad, complete with music by Cole Porter. While the project never did get the green light, there is a now a soundtrack to go along with the graphic novel — including music, complete with a faux Groucho. And so just maybe, up in some dreamy surrealist heaven, the real Groucho — along with Harpo, Chico and Salvador Dalí — is smiling down.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

This is a story about something that didn't happen - a movie that was never made. It was supposed to be a collaboration between the surrealist artist Salvador Dali and the Marx Brothers, which is amazing. And now it's getting, thankfully, a second look. NPR's Peter Breslow picks up the story.

PETER BRESLOW, BYLINE: Salvador Dali was the toast of the town in 1970 when he appeared on "The Dick Cavett TV Show."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DICK CAVETT SHOW")

DICK CAVETT: Will you welcome, please, Salvador Dali?

(APPLAUSE)

BRESLOW: Elegantly dressed in a burgundy velvet sport coat and sparkly vest, this titan of the surrealist movement strode on stage with a gold-handled cane in his right hand and, on his left, a live anteater on a leash. Then he took a question from another guest that night, actress Lillian Gish.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DICK CAVETT SHOW")

LILLIAN GISH: Have you, from the beginning of your work, a message to give to the people that we, perhaps, don't understand?

SALVADOR DALI: No message.

GISH: No message.

DALI: No message.

(LAUGHTER)

CAVETT: Could you invent one?

(LAUGHTER)

BRESLOW: Back in 1937, Dali was much less famous when he showed up at MGM Studios with a movie treatment to pitch with his buddy Harpo Marx. The Marx Brothers, on the other hand, were at the height of their popularity in the '30s, thanks to their high jinks in films like "Duck Soup," "A Night At The Opera" and "Animal Crackers."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ANIMAL CRACKERS")

GROUCHO MARX: (As Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding, singing) Hello, I must be going. I cannot stay. I came to say I must be going. I'm glad I came. But just the same, I must be going. La, la.

BRESLOW: But studio head Louis B. Mayer didn't particularly like the Marx Brothers or know what to make of Salvador Dali, and so he killed the project the artist had titled "Giraffes On Horseback Salad." Now writer Josh Frank has turned that somewhat incomprehensible screenplay into a graphic novel.

JOSH FRANK: It was crazy surreal and totally not digestible. And Groucho said, quote-unquote, "it wouldn't play."

BRESLOW: And so that screenplay slipped into the realm of legendary lost treasures. That is, until Frank got wind of it, tracked it down at a museum in France and recruited a team to help him put it together, including Spanish illustrator Maneula Pertega and comedian Tim Heidecker. He helped come up with the gags because Dali's production notes just said, insert Marx Brothers routine here. Josh Frank says the collaboration worked.

FRANK: Next thing you know, I'm creating a new piece of Marx Brothers art for the world. And it's just a - it's a dream come true.

BRESLOW: But we've put the cart before the giraffe here. Let's back up. First, what's with that name? Frank hasn't a clue.

FRANK: Asking me what "Giraffes On Horseback Salad" means is asking me lobster phone (laughter) you know, it's like - however, what I've always thought ever since I first heard that name is that, to me, it's the perfect name for a Marx Brothers movie written by Salvador Dali because it has that, "A Night At The Opera," "A Day At The Races," "Giraffes On Horseback Salad." You know, like, it works somehow.

BRESLOW: Next, the plot, such as it is - a businessman named Jimmy finds his well-ordered, upper-crust life turned inside out when he meets the surrealist woman. She's a stunning shapeshifter who discombobulates the world around her. Eventually, she's arrested for her surrealist crimes and winds up in court where the mayhem of the Marx Brothers ultimately liberates her. These moments are depicted in the book as the trippiest of swirling LSD experiences. And finally, just how did Salvador Dali end up teaming up with the Marx Brothers in the first place?

FRANK: When he first saw a Marx Brothers movie, it put him in a trance because he felt like he was watching sort of the human embodiment of surrealism in its purest form - all of the Marx Brothers but specifically Harpo because Harpo was just unbridled, almost animalistic. So he loved Harpo.

BRESLOW: Harpo, who never spoke on screen, was probably the zaniest member of the family, known for playing the harp, pulling items from under his trenchcoat, like 300 knives or a hot cup of coffee or a blowtorch, and, of course...

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN)

BRESLOW: ...Honking his horn.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN)

BRESLOW: He was in Paris in 1936 on a publicity tour for "A Night At The Opera" when he met Salvador Dali. Even though they didn't have a language in common, the pair clicked. And Dali decided to incorporate the Marx Brothers into the movie treatment he was working on.

BILL MARX: Good day, everybody. My name is Bill Marx. And I'm the son of Harpo Marx. When I was about 7 or 8, I came across a Xerox copy of a treatment that was entitled "Giraffes On Horseback Salad." And I started reading it. And I really couldn't make heads or tails of it.

BRESLOW: Musician and composer Bill Marx was too young to remember when Salvador Dali came to the states to paint his dad and pitch his film. But there were telltale signs of the friendship, like the Dali pen-and-ink sketches hanging in Marx's bedroom growing up. There were also stories about the full-sized surrealist harp Dali had sent to Harpo. It came wrapped in cellophane with the harp dripping forks and spoons and barbed wire replacing the strings. But Bill Marx says they didn't have that instrument very long.

B MARX: Because my mother, who is very practical - she said, I'm sorry. I can't look at this anymore. And she threw it in the garbage.

BRESLOW: Just imagine if there were some lucky dumpster diver that day. Harpo was also an accomplished painter, producing some 300 works, and Dali sat for him during his California trip. Bill Marx says his dad's time with the artist may have been brief, but its effect on both men was long-lasting. Author Josh Frank agrees.

FRANK: So this whole meeting of these two strange and wonderful minds - I really felt like even though it was a short amount of time that they were together, they profoundly affected each other because Harpo went on to continue painting and take it even more seriously.

BRESLOW: And, says Frank, Dali was also left inspired but ultimately unfulfilled, too.

FRANK: The short time he had with Harpo was, I feel like, a really great, lost moment that created a work of art, that, you know, until now, has not really been able to be seen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SURREALIST WOMAN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) She's just returned from a long engagement in France and a short marriage in Spain. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the Surrealist Woman.

BRESLOW: Salvador Dali envisioned a huge Hollywood production for "Giraffes On Horseback Salad," complete with music by Cole Porter. While the project never did get the green light, there is now a soundtrack to go along with the graphic novel, including music complete with a faux Groucho. And so just maybe, up in some dreamy, surrealist heaven, the real Groucho, along with Harpo, Chico and Salvador Dali, are smiling down.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SURREALIST WOMAN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Oh, I love a good song. If I hear one, I'll let you know.

BRESLOW: Peter Breslow, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.