The cover of “Giraffes on Horseback Salad” calls it “The Strangest Movie Never Made!”
So, how to present an unearthed screenplay conceived by comic icon Harpo Marx (yes, the Harpo most of us know from his mirror scene in a Hollywood hotel with Lucille Ball on a classic episode of “I Love Lucy”) and surrealist painter Salvador Dalí (yes, the Dalí most of us know from that timepiece he painted melting across that tree limb from his 1931 masterwork “The Persistence of Memory”)?
Maybe the answer lies in understanding that surrealism argues that there is a moment in any creative process when uncertainty must be thoroughly embraced and intensified. Randomness and the unconscious are rife.
Maybe the answer lies in Dalí’s comment in his famous article “Surrealism in Hollywood” published in Harper’s Bazaar in 1937: “Nothing seems to be more suited to be devoured by the surrealist fire that those mysterious strips of ‘hallucinatory celluloid’ turned out so unconsciously in Hollywood, and in which we have already seen appear, stupefied, so many images of authentic delirium, chance and dream.”
That seems to be the intent of the three contributors to this “hallucinatory” graphic novel that sets out to bring us a “new” version of a screenplay that originally had only the fingerprints of Harpo and Dalí on it, a screenplay that came out of an unimaginable friendship between the two artists.
And what would that original script and Dalí’s own notes and sketches be about? A young entrepreneur in the 1930’s who’s shown an artistic self as he searches for “The Surrealist Woman.” It’s all fraught with the surrealist “images of authentic delirium, chance and dream” that Dalí mentions in his famous explanation of his movement. It is about the creative process. It is about war. It is about love being “the greatest weapon of all.”
Its plot is set in 1930’s New York City – and eventually the entire world – and involves Jimmy, a visionary businessman, and his ongoing encounters with “The Surrealist Woman,” despite his very rich and utterly self-absorbed society girlfriend and fiancée, Linda. As Jimmy’s relationship with “The Surrealist Woman” catches fire, the “real” world he inhabits is turned on its ear: pyramids flood as Venice dries up; all the streets of Paris abruptly head in one direction. And Jimmy morphs into Harpo Marx!
While some of the plot invented by them is somewhat forced, the “new” authors have been wise enough to make two choices. The first was to engage an illustrator whose graphic style melds exquisitely with the subject matter. Manuela Pertega draws “The Surrealist Woman” as a constantly shifting (“melting,” perhaps) entity. The same must be said for her illustrations, which are rarely bound by the traditional frame: they extend over pages if need be. Color sometimes makes its way out of the ordinary blacks and grays (of a 1930’s film?).
The second choice was to include Groucho and Chico as characters. Their offhand, wacky commentary about the “unreal” world they inhabit is always very welcome: Groucho, holding a lobster phone (don’t ask), to Chico: “Is this a freshwater lobster?” Chico’s response: “No, it’s long distance.” Chico commenting on a wall of hands (really, don’t ask): “It’s real handy.” Groucho, on the escalator he has just invented: “I call it the Fred Astairecase because it treads so lightly.”
Aside from their graphic novel, Josh Frank and Tim Heidecker have also included anecdotes about the actual Dalí/Marx Brothers film project, as well as Dalí’s “lost” script and sketches for the project.
It’s hard to believe any Hollywood studio would have produced “Giraffes on Horseback Salad.” It’s a treat, though, to have Frank and Heidecker’s contemporary graphic novel iteration. It is a Marx Brothers movie all right – just one very much on acid.
Steven Whitton is a retired Professor of English.