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Giraffes on Horseback Salad by Josh Frank and Manuela Pertega

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Just when I thought I have read practically every book by or about my all-time favorite movie comedians – the Marx Brothers – another new volume surfaces that deals with the life or comedy of that madcap brotherly foursome/threesome.

This time, this new book is a graphic novel version of an actual script for a potential Marx Brothers movie that never made it to the screen. And this script did not come from the typewriter of a well-known or budding comedy writer; it came from the mind of one of the greatest surrealist artists of the 20th century: Salvador Dali.

The coming together of a surrealist artist and a trio of anarchistic comedians had its genesis in 1936, when Dali first met Harpo during a party in Paris, France. The two struck up a rather curious friendship and became pen pals. Dali had a connection with Harpo, because he believed that the fright wig-wearing, cab horn-honking, perpetually smiling man-child was the living embodiment of how he dealt with the real world through his surrealistic canvases. And as a token of this friendship, Dali sent Harpo a special gift of a surrealist-style harp, with barbed wire strings and spoons on the top of the instrument as tuning screws (Harpo liked the gift so much, he sent Dali a photo of himself with his all of his fingers covered in bandages).

The following year, Dali made a trip to Hollywood, where he paid a visit to Harpo’s home and spent some time with the beloved comedian, as Dali told him of his idea of a surrealist-style movie that would star the Marx Brothers. While Dali also met other big time movie figures as Walt Disney and Cecil B. DeMille during his visit to the movie capitol, Harpo arranged a pitch meeting between MGM boss Louis B. Mayer and Dali about the possibility of having the studio – where the Marxes’ previous two comedies were box office hits for MGM – turn the idea into a major motion picture. Armed with a 14-page treatment of his proposed film, Dali met with Mayer to discuss the project; Mayer flat out rejected it, stating that Dali was an unknown in Hollywood, and MGM would not take the gamble of producing a movie with such an unusual premise. Even Groucho echoed Mayer’s sentiments about this Dali-esque starring vehicle, saying quite simply “It won’t play”.

And with that, this potential artistic collaboration between the Marx Brothers and Salvador Dali was shelved, only to remain an interesting footnote in the story of Groucho, Harpo and Chico’s world of comedy.

However, more than 80 years later, Marx Brothers fans in general – and classic movie buffs in particular – thanks to the tireless efforts of Josh Frank and the pen of illustrator Manuela Pertega, we finally get to see how this bizarre combination of comedy and art materializes if MGM green lighted the project back in 1937. And the end result is the intriguing graphic novel Giraffes on Horseback Salad.

The story takes place in New York City, circa 1937. It focuses on Jimmy, a successful businessman who lives in a black-and-white world, drowns in a sea of paperwork, and has to deal with Linda, his mean, vulgar, snobbish social climber of a girlfriend. During a rather ritzy party, Jimmy has a chance encounter with an unusual female called “The Surrealist Woman”, a mysterious, chameleon-like individual who quickly catches his attention, not to mention his affection. Jimmy realizes that the Surrealist Women is indeed the girl of his dreams; however, the forces of normalcy (mostly in the form of a very jealous Linda) tries to block the hooking up of the pair. But it is up to the efforts of Groucho and Chico (who are close associates of the Surrealist Woman) to make sure that she and Jimmy become lovers, in order for him to find true happiness.

Whoever reads the graphic novel portion of this book may, understandably, scratch their heads in a state of confusion of what the story of “Giraffes” is all about and how it’s presented. But in order to appreciate it further, one must take into account that this story is from the mind of Salvador Dali and his unconventional, surrealistic world. Looking like a combination of “A Night at the Opera” and the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine”, “Giraffes on Horseback Salad” looks like a movie scenario that would have made it to the screen had it been produced 30 years later, at the height of the psychedelic period, which is so well exemplified by Manuela Pertega’s vivid, colourful illustrations.

And thanks to Josh Frank’s diligent efforts to tell the full story of this rarely heard piece of the Marx Brothers story, we get a fascinating, well-rounded history behind Salvador Dali’s quest to break into the movie industry, and the lengths it took to have this long-buried story resurrected to satisfy the never ending quest for little known facts and stories by future generations of classic film buffs.

Giraffes on Horseback Salad is a wonderful piece of unearthed Hollywood hidden history. We get that rare opportunity to experience what could have been had two sets of unconventional artistic minds would not have been regarded by the real world as way ahead of their time.

…Now if Marx Brothers fans could get that same diligent treatment about what happened to “Humor Risk” (the brothers’ much sought after first movie, which was made in 1920, and no copies of it exist at all. Or does it?).

By: Stuart Nulman – info@mtltimes.ca

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