When Harpo Met Dali: Giraffes On Horseback Salad

by Rachel Bellwoar

What are the chances that Harpo Marx (of Marx Brothers fame) would run into the Surrealist painter, Salvador Dali, in Paris? Odds notwithstanding, it happened in 1936, and if MGM had agreed to green light the project, there might’ve been a movie to come out of the deal. The studio turned Marx and Dali down and Dali’s script – Giraffes on Horseback Salad– was long thought to be lost, but thanks to some digging by pop-culture archaeologist, Josh Frank, that’s all changed. Giraffes on Horseback Salad is the graphic novel result.

Featuring the Marx Brothers, and staged as a movie premiere for readers to attend, the story behind this book’s creation almost rivals the book itself and, rather than wait to the end to bring readers up to speed, Frank opens with a history of how it got made, including some background on Dali and the friendship he struck up with Harpo. Not only are you left itching to see how this labor of love measures up, but you really get to appreciate all the patience and hard work that went into putting this book together. Frank presents it all as being very achievable, too.

When he needed help translating a document, he put an ad out on Craigslist. To communicate with artist, Manuela Pertega, they used Google Translate. Comedian, Tim Heidecker (Tim & Eric) was brought in to help Frank craft some of the dialogue and gags (there’s also a list of gags Dali came up with that doubles as a checklist for readers to look for in the text). Giraffes exists because Frank followed his passion and never hesitated to reach out to people for help. He not only makes research look possible for anyone to try, he shows that research can be fun.

None of this is any guarantee, however, that Giraffes on Horseback Salad will translate well as a graphic novel. It eliminates the chore of trying to recast or do the story without the Marx Brothers, but can their brand of comedy be captured on paper, when it’s so verbal and visual? The answer is surprisingly yes (and there are songs, that’s how much Frank and his music collaborator, Noah Diamond, don’t cut themselves any slack, with recorded versions available online if you purchase the book). Barely have Chico and Groucho entered the scene than they’re sparring with each other and they’re lines you can believe they would’ve said in one of their films. A lot of comic timing can be inferred from how close or far away Pertega draws them, too, or whether they’re sharing the same panel or separated.

Giraffes on Horseback Salad is also a curiosity for casting Harpo, the silent Marx Brother, in a speaking role. Harpo would’ve played Jimmy, a man torn between life with a fiancée whose obsessed with money and reputation or a life with the Surrealist Woman, whose arrival is marked by the appearance of color. In order to depict Jimmy’s conflict Pertega has his shadow look like the Harpo we’re used to seeing, all curly haired and top hatted (she also does this in a scene meant to evoke the mirror sequence from Duck Soup and I Love Lucy). You wouldn’t necessarily pick Jimmy and Harpo out as the same guy (and, if there’s a drawback to Horseback, it’s that Harpo feels missing from the story, even though he’s technically there). It’s interesting, too, because while there are quotes from Dali that indicate he intended Harpo for the role, in the script pages at the end Harpo and Jimmy are separate characters (unless Dali wanted him to play dual roles).

A major coup for lovers of film history and the Marx Brothers, Giraffes on Horseback Salad goes on sale March 19th from Quirk Books.

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