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'Giraffes on Horseback Salad': Salvador Dali and Harpo Marx make a movie, with a little help

Illustrations by Manuela PertegaImages of pages from "Giraffes on Horseback Salad" by Josh Frank
Illustrations by Manuela PertegaImages of pages from "Giraffes on Horseback Salad" by Josh Frank
Published Apr. 26

Six or seven years ago, reading an online list of notable, never-produced movies, Josh Frank "caught wind of a mythical idea": Giraffes on Horseback Salad, a collaboration between Salvador Dalí and Harpo Marx.

"It was a deeply lost story," says Frank, an author, producer, director and composer who calls himself a "pop culture archaeologist."

The Spanish Surrealist painter and the American comic actor met at a Paris party in 1936 and conceived of the movie when Dalí visited Marx in California in 1937. But it was never made, even though the Marx Brothers were then at the height of their stardom and Dalí was the sensation of the art world.

"I knew finding it would be a huge challenge. It really just seemed like a moon shot," Frank says by phone from a stop on his book tour.

That book tour marks Frank's moon landing. Giraffes on Horseback Salad is his new graphic novel that brings the long-lost movie to life. Frank tracked down Dalí's notes and treatment, won the blessings of the Dalí and Marx estates, and collaborated with comedy writers in California, an illustrator in Spain and a composer in Japan to make his version of the film.

Frank will be in St. Petersburg on Wednesday to talk about the book at the Dalí Museum.

The project had its roots, he says, in his fascination with Harpo Marx. Although the speechless but uproarious Marx brother died years before Frank, 44, was born, the author has been a Marx Brothers fan since childhood, thanks to a movie-loving father. He was particularly drawn to Harpo because of his "unbridled childlike whimsy, insanity and rebelliousness."

Peter Tush, the curator of education at the Dalí Museum, says that Dalí had a similar vision.

"Dalí said that the three most important American Surrealists were Cecil B. DeMille, Walt Disney and the Marx Brothers," he says.

Dalí had "an active interest in film" from early on, Tush says. The artist collaborated with Spanish director Luis Bunuel on the Surrealist silent film Un Chien Andalou in 1929; Dalí dropped out of their second film, L'Age d'Or, a year later after a falling out.

He was always attracted to Hollywood, Tush says. Dalí's pursuit of filmmaking ranged from discussions with studio head Jack Warner to involvement in another legendary unproduced movie, Alejandro Jodorowsky's attempt to film Frank Herbert's book Dune in the 1970s.

Dalí's most successful film foray was his haunting dream sequence for Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound in 1944. He also worked with Walt Disney on an animated short, Destino, in 1945, but he never finished it. (The Disney company did produce a version of it in 2003.)

As eager as Dalí was to make movies, Tush says, he "kept coming up with these impossible scenarios that would prevent it from happening."

Giraffes on Horseback Salad seemed like another of those impossible scenarios. "Doing it as a graphic novel was incredibly smart," Tush says. "The illustrations are quite beautiful."

Before the project became a book, Frank says, he had "a long trip down the rabbit hole.

"This happened 80 years ago, and all I had to work with was one paragraph in the list."

He tracked down a 1938 article about the proposed movie in Harper's Bazaar that "told me it was actually real." From there, he reached out to the Dalí Foundation in Figueres, Spain, for information. There was a book that might refer to the movie, he was told. "They said there was one volume in print, and there were a couple of copies in Portuguese."

Frank was able to get a copy. "That's when I went through 800 pages of Portuguese. I don't know Portuguese, so I just looked for the words 'Marx' or 'Harpo.' I found three or four."

That tenuous link led eventually to the Centre Pompidou in Paris, which had a notebook of Dalí's about the movie. When Frank received an emailed copy, he was delighted to find 84 pages (images of some pages are reproduced in the book) of Dalí's script ideas, character and scene notes, and sketches.

"It blossomed from there," he says.

It seemed clear, though, there was no actual script. Frank was faced not only with building out Dalí's hallucinatory plot but with the impossibly daunting task of writing Marx Brothers dialogue. Groucho and Chico would have considered double-entendre a game for amateurs; their entendres were usually at least quadruple.

Frank recruited comedian Tim Heidecker to put together a team of comedy writers to channel the Marxes' distinctive voices. Then he went in search of his "cinematographer" — an artist who could render the script visually. He found Manuela Pertega, an artist in Barcelona, Spain, whose lush illustrations capture both the quality of black-and-white movies like those the Marx Brothers made and the dreamlike strangeness of Dalí's paintings.

The movie needed a score, and Frank got one from composer Quin Arbeitman, an American who lives in Japan. The soundtrack will come out in May from Lakeshore Records, Frank says. There's also a title song by Pepe Deluxe.

Frank, who lives in Austin, Texas, and owns and operates the Blue Starlite Mini-Urban Drive-in Movie Theatre there, feels as if he's finally made that long-lost film.

"I love making movies, but all my ideas are epic. I needed to find a way to be a desktop moviemaker from a 300-square-foot room with a computer in it.

"This one is the full experience."

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

Giraffes on Horseback Salad

By Josh Frank, adapted with Tim Heidecker, illustrated by Manuela Pertega

Quirk Books, 223 pages, $29.99

Meet the author

Josh Frank will give a multimedia presentation about his book, followed by a book signing, at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday as part of the Coffee With a Curator series at the Salvador Dalí Museum, One Dalí Blvd., St. Petersburg. Free. (727) 823-3767. thedali.org.

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