Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Giraffes On Horseback Salad

Dali Soup

Giraffes On Horseback Salad
by Josh Frank, Tim Heidecker and Manuela Pertega
Quirk Books ISBN: 978-1594749230

Well this is certainly an interesting book and one I was completely foaming at the mouth for as soon as I found out about it on Twitter which, fortunately, was a Friday night. That meant I was able to get into London and get my hands on a copy within about 12 hours of discovering the existence of this thing (then didn’t get around to reading it for many months after but, hey, it was something less to worry about picking up later). Giraffes On Horseback Salad is a graphic novel which tries, almost, to do the impossible and both succeeds and fails in equal measure but, in this case, the nature of it’s failure is so consistent with an authentic feel for the material, that it’s partial failure is just another sign of its success, so to speak. Yeah, okay, I’ll unravel that one for you in a minute, after this short lead in...

Back in 1980, it turns out, when I was 12 (I always thought it was a lot earlier), the Tate Gallery in London (there was only one in those days) briefly displayed a huge retrospective of the work of Salvador Dali. I remember queuing up for hours with my parents to get in (in the days before timed entry and bookings) and eventually getting through the door and being absolutely blown away by it. This definitely made me want to have some kind of job in art and my ultimate career destination in graphic design is not so far off base, I feel. Dali was my painting hero.

Flash forward to sometime in the mid-1980s and my family got their first video cassette player. It was big, silver, had huge diving board buttons and a cassette tray that popped out the top. On the day we got this, I bought some blank tapes and decided to do a test ‘off the air’ recording of something on television that night. The BBC were showing the first of a small season of late night Marx Brothers movies... I think it was just Animal Crackers, Monkey Business (my favourite), Horse Feathers and Duck Soup. I’d never seen one of their films properly before and so I recorded Monkey Business and, when I watched it the next morning, I was absolutely hooked on the Marx Brothers and decided to try and watch all of their movies as soon as I could (and I would, often multiple times when it came to their first eight films... with their first five made for Paramount being their absolute best).

Also, of course, over the next few years I was reading all I could about my various interests and somewhere, while reading various biographies, autobiographies (such as the brilliant Harpo Speaks) and celebrity correspondence, I got wind of a ‘collaboration’ between Harpo Marx and Salvador Dali. Somewhere in the mid to late 1930s they were trying to collaborate on a film which Dali was writing and which would be an extremely surreal Marx Brothers movie (well, aren’t they all). Now, it has to be said, while I was intrigued and excited by the prospect that something like this could have happened at some point, I was pretty sure the resulting movie would probably have made for some hard viewing. The Marx Brothers, if you’ve never seen one of their films, are already extremely surrealist in nature... not just visually, as evidenced by Harpo’s shenanigans but also in terms of the flexible, pun-like nature of the outrageously funny dialogue written for Groucho and Chico. To put them with the world’s premiere surrealist (even though he’d been excommunicated by the movement naming themselves as such at some point earlier) seemed like taking things a bit too far because, Dali’s form of surrealism was of a completely different kettle of lobsters than the brand exhibited by Minnie’s boys (Minnie was the Marx Brothers mother, manager and driving force in their early years). It didn’t seem to me like it could be a good or even halfway watchable ‘fit’ but it was great to imagine just what might have been.

Well, Josh Frank has taken things a whole lot further than ‘just’ imagining’... although, to be fair, he’s done a lot of that too. Basically gathering and unearthing some rare documents including a 40 page treatment of the handwritten ‘script’, such as it was, by Dali... he has made a graphic novel adaptation of the film that ‘might’ have been. Now, it would be terrible to think that this thing is completely unlike the collaboration that ‘almost’ emerged between Dali and ‘team Marx’ but, there is a basic skeleton apparently, in which Frank has filled in the blanks as best as he could imagine them and made the thing ‘play’ quite well... something Groucho Marx didn’t even think was possible of the material. There are 45 pages of text introduction here recounting, among other things, the approach and breakthroughs made by Frank to get this story told and it’s extremely impressive. You can’t, alas, say this is anything like what the original movie might have been, I think it’s fair to say... but, with the help of Quirk Books (who I’ve mentioned on here before as being an interesting publisher), he has done his best, along with fellow writer Tim Heidecker and the extraordinary illustrator Manuela Pertega, to give us an entertaining and very interesting ‘What If...’ version of how the collaboration might have turned out.

Some creative decisions I agree with and some I don’t but I’m not the artist so that’s all beside the point. Frank says he resurrected the spirit of wonderboy genius Irving Thalberg, who loved the Marx Brothers and took them in at MGM when they needed him most, to help him in his collaboration and, while that’s a nice thought... I can’t help but think that even Thalberg, had he been alive (he died very young), would not have green lighted that pitch.

However, what we have here is an amazing collaboration between the writers and artist involved. The text and images combine to weave a spell, mostly in greyscale but with the odd dashes of colour, which... as mind-bendingly surreal and ill-fitting the spirit of the original collaboration is... roots it in 1930s America and allows it to sit well with the movies that the brothers would be making at the time. It’s tastefully and sympathetically done and although the book doesn’t really come alive until Groucho and Chico arrive in the main narrative... and maybe flags towards the end... this adventure of Jimmy (played by Harpo out of costume and with a large talking role which, from what I know of the sound of his real voice... would never have been allowed to happen) and his love affair with ‘The Surreal Woman’ which causes chaos in the world, is a truly beautiful work which I would be proud to have on my bookshelves, if I had any free bookshelves. As it is, I’m proud to have it stacked up on a huge, precarious pile of other books which I can put my hand out to steady as I pass it by.

The quality of the dialogue and the appropriate nature of it is easy to demonstrate...

Groucho: “Oh, and only pocket the spoons this time. Last time I nearly impaled myself on a fork in an overcoat.”
Chico: “Ah, you crazy. Forks don’t wear overcoats.”

Or how about...

Groucho: “You know what a paradox is?”
Chico: “Why, sure. Everyone knows what that is. I shot two pair-a ducks and cooked them in a nice soup.”

And it certainly delivers on the throwaway Groucho lines too... “Next time let’s take something more seaworthy. Like Esther Williams.” Other times, intriguingly, there are some obvious set ups and, though you know exactly how Groucho or Chico would have responded to it... and, in fact, did respond to these same set ups in various movie adventures, the writers drop the more Marxian response and sail off in another direction. I’m assuming that’s deliberate, by the way, because I’m sure these guys must know the Marx Brother’s work inside out. And probably the right way round, too!

My biggest grumble here is that there’s barely any Harpo in it. The Jimmy character played by Harpo is pretty much any one of many ‘straight romantic leads’ who found themselves coupled with the brothers. So this is like the Allan Jones or Zeppo Marx characters which would sometimes pop up and Jimmy only very vaguely and, not very often strays, into ‘Harpo’ territory. I’d like to say this is probably as Dali intended but I noticed, when some of the original script pages were reprinted in the back (along with Dali’s handwritten notes and sketches for some of these things) he has scenes assigned to Groucho and Harpo which, in the graphic novel version... have been switched to Groucho and Chico. So I’m not 100% sure why this decision in adaptation was made unless... as is more than possible... various treatments and script fragments by Dali were in complete contradiction to each other. I’m guessing that may be the case.

The illustrations are wonderful and, despite the chaos of the content of these drawings, the panels are easy to follow and there are some nice layouts including some wonderful double page spreads where words and images snake away between the two pages without, I’m glad to say, confusing the reader.

Ultimately, this was both more and less of what I wanted from this book but, like I said, its failure I suspect is more coming from the way the original movie might well have failed in its intent, with such a mixture of ‘brands’ being compromised with Dali and the Marx Brothers seeming to be just a slightly ‘out of kilter’ fit. I think lovers of both the artist and the comedians will take to this book like a duck to soup though and, honestly, the interior artwork is just wonderful and worth the price of admission alone. Giraffes On Horseback Salad is a brave and exciting labour of love which, at the very least, will keep you interested and intrigued as you make your journey through it’s alluring pages. I’m certainly glad I bought this one and it definitely a solid recommendation from me. Don’t miss out.

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