Giraffes on Horse­back Sal­ad: Dali, The Marx Broth­ers and the Great­est Movie Nev­er Made

  • Review
By – October 28, 2019

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.

Discussion Questions