How often is it that a pair of the world’s most fêted and adored talents put their minds together to create a film? There are some great examples dotted throughout cinematic history – Ford & Wayne, Hitchcock & Stewart, and Scorsese & De Niro, to name but a few. However none of them have ever (and quite probably will never) come up with anything even half as surreal or just plain batshit insane as what very nearly came from the collaboration between Salvador Dalí and the Marx Brothers back in 1937.
To have been based on a script written by Dalí, and starring Harpo Marx as the protagonist, the film was to feature a “surrealist woman” whose face we never see, a group of decorative dwarves caught by a butterfly net, and a bizarre climax involving the world’s slowest bicycle race slash beard-growing competition. We present to you Giraffes on Horseback Salad – one of the best films never made.
Salvador Dalí, born in 1904 in Catalonia, rose to fame and prominence with his surreal works of art and quickly became the world’s preeminent artist in his field. Whilst often criticised throughout his career for his eccentric public antics, which some said overshadowed his work as an artist, his legacy is so powerful today that when somebody says “surrealism”, the first image that pops into your head is more likely than not Dalí’s famous wide-eyed stare. Best known for his work as a painter, he was nonetheless an incredibly versatile artist who made ventures into many other forms of art – the areas of sculpture, fashion, architecture and cinema all saw great contributions from him. In terms of cinema, his most prominent work remains the 1929 short film Un Chien Andalou – a surreal collaboration with the avant-garde director and fellow Spaniard Luis Buñuel, best remembered for its graphic and unsettling depiction of a human eye being sliced open. However we feel that, had it ever come to fruition, Giraffes on Horseback Salad would have completely eclipsed that film in terms of scope, ambition and utter weirdness.
Thought to have been lost for many decades, the script for Giraffes was unearthed from amongst Dalí’s personal papers in 1996. Owned and made available by the Dalí Foundation, it was brought to wider attention by an article in Harper’s Magazine that year. Having been a long-term admirer and recent friend of Harpo Marx’s, Dalí wrote the main character, a “Spanish aristocrat named Jimmy,” with Harpo solely in mind. Whilst the precise roles the other Marx brothers would have played was undecided, Dalí had written parts for them (though most likely not for Zeppo and Gummo, the two “non-performing” brothers). The revealed details of the unmade project (which can be read here) show us just how deranged and absurd an experience the completed film could have been.
Dalí intended for the project to explore the “continuous struggle between the imaginative life as depicted in the old myths, and the practical and rational life of contemporary society”. Potential scenes included, amongst others: a herd of giraffes wearing gas masks, a biblical flood, and Groucho Marx cracking nuts on the heads of the aforementioned dwarves. Also featuring a game set on four acres of empty desert bordered by flaming vegetation, and requiring hundreds of players, it is difficult to see how much of the script could possibly have been filmed. Despite the obvious production difficulties, with a major studio-sized budget behind him Dalí’s vision for the film could have been raised to another plane of hugeness, even more so than his other work.
There are many possible reasons as to why a filmed version of Giraffes never saw the light of day – indeed, no one seems to be in agreement about which is true, or at least which the major factor could be. The Harper’s Magazine article posits that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the studio who had an exclusive deal with the Marx Brothers, thought the script was too weird to actually make. They (probably correctly) deemed it too expensive to produce, and with too little a potential audience to justify the cost.
An article about the film in The Telegraph, however, claims that Groucho Marx simply didn’t think the film was funny, and that the project went no further after that. Without the backing of one of their major stars, there would be no question of MGM even considering production of Giraffes. These may be moot points, however, as Tate Modern curator Matthew Gale hypothesises. In that same article, he claims that Dalí could quite possibly have never intended for the film to actually get made – that the point of the project was in the fantasy and absurdity of it. From what we know of the man, that could very well be the truth.