An Untimely Review of a Comic Adaptation of a Lost Film

Years ago, as I began diving head-long into researching surrealism for my thesis and in preparation to take my comprehensive exams, I happened across a reference that delighted and haunted me: during Salvador Dalí’s mid-1930s’ sojourn in the United States he met Harpo Marx and together they collaborated on a Marx Brothers film idea. The meager sources I ever found that reference it rarely go beyond what I just wrote. (Elliott King’s eight-page overview of this collaboration is the best I have come across.)

A highly accurate Venn diagram of my interests.

Anyone who knows me can see where this is going: I am a huge Marx Brothers fan, as well as an ardent scholar and lover of Surrealism. So the fact that somewhere in the world existed a Surrealist interpretation of the Marx Brothers fascinated me, and I had to know more!

Time passed, and this little nugget of information never left my brain. I would mention it when teaching Surrealist film, and in that moment would briefly think about tracking down more information…and then forget.

Imagine my surprise and excitement, then, when it was announced in 2018 that writer Josh Frank and the artist Manuela Pertega (along with assistance from Tim Heidecker, of Tim and Eric fame), were collaborating on a graphic novel adaptation of Dalí’s Marx Brothers film scenario. The finished book, Giraffes on Horseback Salad was published by Quirk Books in February 2019, and it is a fascinating attempt to bring this lost film to life.

To properly engage with this unique hodgepodge of a book, it is best to approach it from three different perspectives: as a graphic novel, as emblematic of Surrealist ideas, and as a Marx Brothers vehicle.

As a comic, the book succeeds on all levels. Pertega’s art is wonderful, and does a brilliant job of blending a 1930s Hollywood-aesthetic with very Dalíesque stylistic touches when needed (ants, crutches, gelatinous trails, and so on). She also calls back to the use of black-and-white combined with a pointed use of color made famous by the 1939 version of The Wizard of Oz. Here, the adaptation uses primarily grey tones – grisaille – to denote “normal” reality, while also evoking films of that era. As things turn toward a Surreality, however, color infuses the pages more and more.

Page 105 from Giraffes on Horseback Salad.
Page 105 from Giraffes on Horseback Salad. Art by Manuela Pertega.
Page 142 from Giraffes on Horseback Salad.
Page 142 from Giraffes on Horseback Salad. Art by Manuela Pertega.

As a work of Surrealism, this adaptation is revealing: without spoiling too much, the story hinges on the Surrealist Woman, an inspired and inspring muse, as the catalyst for the main character’s transformation. Many scholars, particularly Whitney Chadwick, have written about the Surrealists’ (primarily male) focus on the female muse as a progenitor of Surrealism. My initial reaction was that this felt very expected, both from Dalí’s overall ouevre and life (his devotion to his wife, Gala, is clearly a reference here) and that of a more “palatable” presentation of Surrealist ideals to a film-going audience.

What was surprising was how far this adaptation takes other core Surrealist principles: the conflict between social conformity and individual exploration is broached, as is the Surrealist muse as a figure with special abilities to contradict norms (rather than a shallow, one-dimensional figure meant only to inspire the male protagonist).

Jimmy transforms into Harpo.
Jimmy torn between his old and new identities. Art by Manuela Pertega.

Perhaps the most striking quality to the adaptation – and what makes me most regret it never actually came to fruition – was the portrayal of the main character, Jimmy. At the beginning, Jimmy is a workaholic financier and inventor whose life revolves around social expectations. It is clear from documents Frank uncovered, that Harpo Marx was meant to play Jimmy; if so, audiences would likely have been shocked by the initial appearance by the actor, and we can only imagine he would have been nearly unidentifiable in the role. Pertega portrays Jimmy as a debonair, classic Hollywood leading man. Yet, the more he comes into contact with the Surrealist Woman – and by extension, Surrealism – the more disheveled he becomes until, ultimately, his acceptance of Surrealism turns him into the Harpo we all know and love. To me, this is the most powerful combination of Surrealism and the Marx Brothers in the entire work.

Yet, it is this final aspect of the adaptation – as a Marx Brothers vehicle – that the book is ultimately least successful. Most of the standard Marx Brothers’ “gags” fall flat. Granted, capturing their anarchic sensibility in comics is incredibly hard to do. Lord knows I’ve even tried it. Perhaps the closest anyone has gotten successfully is the Groucho-inspired Lord Julius in Dave Sims’s Cerebus the Aardvark. But most often, the rhythm and pacing feels off when “classic” Marx Brothers arise. Ironically, they work best when they subvert these based on reader’s expectations of how the humor works.

Detail of four panels from page 115 showing Groucho putting a stop to a joke by Chico.
Detail of page 115. Art by Manuela Pertega.

Regardless, Frank and Pertega’s devotion to what would and should be included in a Marx Brothers film is staggering, even when it does not work at all in the comics medium, such as the inclusion of several song sequences. In his introduction, Frank notes that when undertaking this project, he considered how best to go about it:

I also established the “rules” of the adaptation. This step was important because if I was going for authenticity, I needed to create guidelines. Who was “making” this movie? Was it Dalí in the 1930s, or was it someone like the Zucker Brothers, Judd Apatow, or even Quentin Tarantino today? Although the latter option intrigued me, the choice was obvious: the movie had to be produced in 1937 by MGM, and the only way to do it right would be to bring Irving Thalberg, head of production and cofounder of MGM, back to life long enough to green-light the idea and oversee production.

Frank, Josh, Manuela Pertega, and Tim Heidecker. Giraffes on Horseback Salad: Salvador Dali, the Marx Brothers, and the Strangest Movie Never Made. Quirk Books, 2019: 11.

Thus, this adherence to what the film could have been rather than reinterpreting it for modern audiences is both its greatest achievement and its greatest failing. As an historical document, this book is a wonder, and it satisfied that longing I had to know more about this little-known project. Frank went to great lengths to gather as much detail as possible, even uncovering the most extensive treatment of the film in an archive in Paris and having it translated from French into English for him to work from. Moreover, Frank includes a shorter English-language scenario at the end of the book (he suspects this is the several-page treatment that Dalí and Harpo presented to MGM when attempting to sell the film idea).

All that to say, Giraffes on Horseback Salad is a visually lush graphic novel, a great Surrealist story, and an okay Marx Brothers vehicle. If it had ever been intended as just a collaboration between Harpo and Dalí, and it may have been in essence, the overall story itself is inspired. Where it lags is with the necessary inclusion of Groucho and Chico, as much as it pains me to say that. I do not want to imply that only Harpo is the most Surrealist of the trio! (Since clearly both Harpo and Dalí felt this was so.) I have long held that one of the best mainstream portrayals of Surrealism’s subversion of social norms comes in this hilarious moment from A Night at the Opera when Chico happens upon Groucho standing next to a prone body:

The sequence just before the famous “Sanity Clause” scene in Night at the Opera (1935).

I would argue that the way Groucho and Chico react to the knocked out opera singer lying there relates to Surrealist considerations of societal norms. Not only does Groucho break social expectations by placing his foot on his body, but Chico’s explicit question to do the same (“Do you mind if I…?”) suggests a new set of Surrealist social norms that the two of them are creating together.

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