Dalí and the Marx Brothers: The Mirror Scene that Crashed

“If I held you any closer, I’d be on the other side of you.”

-Groucho Marx

We could use some comic relief in these troubled times, and the times are always troubled. My grandfather used to say, “If you’re not a little wacky today, there’s something wrong with you.” Some people look to mindfulness for relief. Me, I follow Harold Lloyd’s example and gesture at myself in a circus mirror. Don’t take yourself too seriously and you won’t have an excuse to take anyone else that way.

Until Abbie came along, taunting me to steal his book, nobody imbued the spirit of levity in my life more than the strangely antic Marx Brothers. I just loved their humor; it met me at my core. The puns, the physical humor, the characters, and their crazy music. Who can forget the Mirror Scene from Horse Feathers when Groucho, Chico and Harpo took turns miming each other in a doorway? And Duck Soup featuring the three playing their respective instruments (guitar, piano, harp) to the tune of “Everyone Says I Love You?”

But maybe the biggest fan of the Marx Brothers was Salvador Dalí. And he just loved Harpo. Dalí once sent him a harp with strings of barbed wire, which the moppy mute loved so much, according to Harpo’s son, Bill Marx, that he sent back a photo of his playing with bandages on his fingers. Dalí was so infatuated he wrote a screenplay for the Marx Brothers in 1937 eventually called Giraffes on Horseback Salad. Well, no one can figure out its meaning. Probably the best shot at it is your own interpretation of Dalí’s treatment for the film, published in Harper’s magazine in May 1996. We know Dalí had a talismanic thing about burning giraffes. And Harpo, as Paul Revere, after warning Bostonians about the fast-approaching, tax-minded Brits coming to “crack down,” slept like a horse — and with a horse.

Giraffes on Horseback Salad is a romp in surrealistic mind-bending. Its scenes could not be controlled by a mere Hollywood studio, not even MGM, producers of their wild-eyed and mayhem-inducing films, A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races. There were to be scenes with, among other things, a multi-armed Groucho, burning Giraffes and Harpo chasing dwarves with a butterfly net. Giraffes never got produced as a movie (Groucho was indifferent), but it’s a giddy-up of a graphic tale, as rendered by the narrative and comic talents of Josh Frank and Tim Heidecker, and the wild, Dalí-esque illustrations of Manuela Pertega for Quirk Books. Later, in keeping with Marx Brother movies, Quirk released a soundtrack CD for the book that’s actually available on YouTube.

Josh Frank describes the plot of this tumbling over-the-top femme fatale tale, wherein Spanish businessman Jimmy (played by Harpo) is drawn away from a blonde materialistic ‘harpy’ made mad by his growing attraction to The Surrealist Woman:

Giraffes is a surreal love story about a man lost in the trappings of modern life, adrift without the social grounding of reality, and a woman who, thanks to the help of her friends the Marx Brothers, lives a truly surreal life by literally manifesting her dream, fantasies, and wishes onto the world (whether the world likes it or not).

In real life, The Surrealist Woman was said to be modelled on Dalí’s muse-wife, Gala, a Russian intellectual he rescued from between the canvas sheets of a ménage à trois with artists Paul Éluard and Max Ernst in 1929.

Giraffes on Horseback Salad is a rouser. Aside from the splashy graphic novel illustrations that make up the “movie,” the book contains many other delightful surprises. There’s a series of three “shorts” before the main feature: How the project came to be; a note from the illustrator; and, a remembrance from Bill Marx about his Dad’s meetings with Dalí. In addition, there are “newsreels” — Hallucinatory Celluloid; Alternate Endings; Living Legacy. Plus, singy songs, surreally rendered.

It’s a fascinating read, and an excellent reason to re-watch the Marx Bros in surrealistic action. It’s clear the collaborators had a fun time re-animating their Marx Brothers memories and, in some cases, actually dressing the part. If there’s a worry about the book, it’s the fear of nostalgia devilishly creeping in with a fantasy of idyllic black-and-white worlds of yore. Nuh-uh.

A glimpse of Giraffes can be had over at Random House, if you want to check it out before purchasing..

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.