224 pgs. full color | $29.99 hardcover | W: Josh Frank with Tim Heidecker; A: Manuela Pertega
In 1936, the Marx Brothers triumphantly arrived in Paris for the press tour for their now-classic film A Night at the Opera. Harpo Marx, away from his soon-to-be-wife and feeling lonely, attended a party where he met Salvador Dalí, the infamous surrealist painter, living in France to escape the violence of civil war raging in his native Spain. Despite not speaking the same language, the absurdist comic and the surrealist painter were kindred spirits and fast friends. After visiting Harpo in California, inspiration struck and soon Dalí was filling notebooks with scenarios and sketches for a film that blended the pair’s sensibilities. Harpo and Dalí took the treatment (with the appropriately surreal title Giraffes on Horseback Salad) to their studio, MGM. Unfortunately, the Marx Brothers’ champion, MGM cofounder Irving Thalberg, had recently died and his replacement, Louis B. Mayer, was far less receptive to the Marxes’ brand of insanity—especially something as out there as what Dalí had cooked up. The proposal was rejected and soon lost to the mists of time.
Or so it was thought. Enter Josh Frank, author of Fool the World: The Oral History of a Band Called Pixies and a lifelong Marx Brothers fan. Until Frank began digging, so little was known about this bit of cinematic trivia that it was unknown how much of it ever even existed—was there a full screenplay, or just a few paragraphs of plot synopsis? Frank eventually struck gold, uncovering Dalí’s complete Giraffes on Horseback Salad concept notebook in the collection of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, as well as the treatment and partial script shown to MGM (found and shared by the Marx Brothers estate). It wasn’t quite a full screenplay, but man, was it a lot to go off of.
From this sizable framework constructed by Dalí, Frank set out to create as authentic an adaptation as possible of what Dalí and Harpo hoped audiences would have seen in 1937, only in graphic novel form. While Dalí listed many ideas for surrealist gags in the margins, he expected Harpo, Groucho, and Chico to flesh out the comedic parts in true Marx Brothers style. Enter Tim Heidecker, a modern comedian with a taste for the absurd, who punched up the Marx Brothers scenes with appropriately Marxian gags with the help of the writing room from his Adult Swim television show Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! To be a real Marx Brothers movie, it needed period appropriate music; enter Noah Diamond, who “adapted and expanded” the long-lost Marx Brothers musical I’ll Say She Is Off Broadway in 2016. And lastly, he wanted to capture Dalí’s Spanish perspective and the surrealist flair of his original sketches; enter Barcelona-based artist Manuela Pertega. The resulting 160-page graphic novel not only does the sensibilities of Dalí and the Marx Brothers justice, but does so with stunning visuals that it’s hard to imagine being possible with 1930s technology.
The film follows Jimmy, a Spanish ex-pat like Dalí who finds himself in New York reluctantly working in high finance and being cuckolded by his gorgeous yet demanding and self-centered fiancée, Linda. Forced into a night out with Linda and her friends, he is surprised by the arrival of the Surrealist Woman, a woman of mystery whose very presence warps the reality around her. Jimmy finds himself drawn to catch a glimpse of her. After bounding onto the restaurant’s stage and playing a beautiful harp solo, he is allowed to meet the Surrealist Woman, with whom he is instantly smitten. This doesn’t sit too well with Linda, who may not love Jimmy but certainly hates not being the center of attention. Since she can’t draw Jimmy back with her feminine wiles, she tries to drive him and the Surrealist Woman apart using the force of law, causing her to flee into the desert, building up to a confrontation where her surrealism powers are out of control and the very fabric of reality hangs in the balance.
The story at the heart of Giraffes is a typical boy-meets-girl story, but the graphic novel as a whole is anything but. Frank and Pertega wisely start the book out drably; the script gives a sense of Jimmy’s dissatisfaction with his lot in life, captured by Pertega in shades of dull gray. Then a bright green stretch limo the length of a city block arrives with the Surrealist Woman’s gentlemen-in-waiting (that’d be Groucho and Chico Marx) in tow. The Surrealist Woman steps out of the limo in a burst of color and suddenly the entire book is transformed. Rather than the ordinary rectangular panels of the early pages, the Surrealist Woman arrives in a large circular panel, the entrance to a magical tunnel she uses to wind through the crowd which also winds through the layout of the next four pages, dividing the pages into irregularly shaped panels. She looks like magic, her hair whipping in a wind no one else can feel while everything from her waist down looks as if it is made from melted candle wax. Her grand performance features an entire orchestra with rotisserie chickens strapped to their heads, a stage that looks like a face, and a sea of disembodied hands (think Thing from The Addams Family) that run through the crowd and suddenly start choking the patrons.
Talking about the trippy imagery that follows the Surrealist Woman wherever she goes feels a bit (to steal a cliché) like dancing about architecture, but I hope what I’ve conveyed is the lengths to which Pertega goes to capture Dalí’s patented surrealism throughout this book. While there are repeated motifs (the tunnels, the melted wax, and the disembodied hands all appear in imagery throughout the book, as do unblinking eyes, birds of all sorts but especially swans, and, of course, flaming giraffes), the surreal imagery stays interesting and inventive without ever feeling repetitive. It’s also blended into the page layouts themselves in ways that make ordinary life look boring and staid and life with the Surrealist Woman an adventure as enticing for the reader as it is for Jimmy. There is so much visual innovation and metaphor within the book that it could easily stand up to multiple re-reads, with more symbolism drawn out with each new pass.
All of this craziness works because it’s built upon the solid framework of the type of boy-meets-girl story you’d expect to find in a film from the 1930s. By design the script is not as innovative or out there as the visuals, but Frank has crafted an engaging read that propels the reader along from scene to scene. Though the Marx Brothers are not the center of the story, their appearances peppered throughout capture their trademark madcap energy, slapstick, and absurdist puns, a testament to Heidecker and company, whose work may be inspired by the Marx Brothers but rarely feels like it. The musical numbers are illustrated as spreads with the characters dancing around the lyrics; a soundtrack CD is available (though was sadly not available for review), but the lyrics certainly have the feel of classic Cole Porter.
Frank did make a few odd decisions in his adaptation, however. First, his stated aim was for the book to feel like the film would have had it been filmed by Dalí and released in 1937 by MGM. The graphic novel, however, contains a large amount of narration, something one would be unlikely to find in a film of that vintage. A lot of the narration reads as if it was possibly drawn directly from Dalí’s notes and treatment and it certainly helps speed along portions of the story, but it does read as a bit at odds with Frank’s concept. The second odd choice is the lettering, which is uncredited but was clearly done by computer and very much feels like it. Pertega’s painted artwork is hand-made right down to the gestural, oddly shaped panel borders, yet it’s topped with uniformly shaped digital dialogue balloons and a plain sans serif font that isn’t Arial but might as well be. The artificial look of the balloons and letters robs the artwork of a bit of its magic. (The narration, which is done in a serif font similar to what one might find in a newspaper, at least feels more appropriate for that usage.)
Those, of course, are minor quibbles. Overall, Giraffes on Horseback Salad accomplishes what it set out to, which is to take the framework of a typical 1930s Hollywood romance, add that madcap Marx energy and Dalí’s unique worldview, include a bit of modern flair, and capture it all with a compelling narrative and stunning visuals. In this it succeeds, and this graphic novel is highly recommended for cinephiles, Dalí fans, and all fans of complex and compelling comic art.
The hefty hardback also includes over 60 pages of bonus material, including essays by Frank on his hunt for the original source material, the personal history of Dalí from fleeing Spain to meeting Harpo to planning the film and its eventual rejection, and a proposed alternate ending. (Sadly not included is the soundtrack CD, which is available for separate purchase.) Also included are excerpts from the original film treatment and Dalí’s notebook, a brief note from Heidecker on his contribution, and an essay from Bill Marx on his father Harpo’s friendship with Dalí. The latter includes a pair of great photos, one of Harpo playing the harp for Dalí and another of Harpo pretending to play a surreal harp (given to him by Dalí) that is covered with spoons and has barbed wire for strings. Harpo plays with a huge grin on his face—and bandages on his fingers. | Jason Green
Giraffes on Horseback Salad author Josh Frank is appearing at 1:00PM on Monday, November 11th at the Staenberg Family Complex, 2 Millstone Campus Dr. in Creve Coeur, as part of the 41st Annual Jewish Book Festival. Tickets are $20. Stay tuned to The Arts STL for more on the festival.