Here’s one that makes me daydream. All the Surrealists and many others in the avant-garde movement prior to the Second World War loved the Marx Brothers, considered them brothers in arms. Many, such as the great theorist Antonin Artaud, waxed rhapsodic about them in print. But only one considered himself such a star in his own right that he actually had the gumption to create a work for them.
In 1937, Salvador Dali was riding high. His best known work The Persistence of Memory had been created in 1931. He’d been shown at MOMA. And he actually had some films under his belt, his two co-creations with Luis Bunuel, Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L’Age d’Or (1930). In 1936 and 1937 he began to court the Marx Brothers. He created a special harp for Harpo, made of spoons and barbed wire:
And he wrote a movie scenario for the team called Giraffe on Horseback Salad. In my dream world (the real world, the world as it should be), the Marx Brothers keep their integrity and make the film for RKO and Disney instead of all those wretched movies they made for MGM. Someday, my heart of heart hopes someone will finally produce the film using CGI. It’s not so crazy. Consider Fantasia, consider the 1946 film Dali actually did make for Disney, Destino. And consider the segments he created for Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945).
Naturally it wouldn’t be a comedy per se. Nor would it be for everybody.
But of course the Marx Brothers came up through vaudeville. Read them on the subject of their own pictures; it’s all about “Did it make money? Did it lose money?” They couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea of creating something for its own sake. And presumably their own tastes in art (if they ever gave the subject any thought) ran to Beaugarde’s After the Hunt. Still, a boy can dream.
In 1996, Harper’s published some of the scenario for Giraffes on Horseback Salad. It goes like this:
The “Surrealist woman” is lying in the middle of a great bed, sixty feet long, with the rest of the guests seated around each side. Along the bed, as decorations, are a group of dwarfs caught by Harpo. Each is supported on a crystal base, decorated with climbing flowers. The dwarfs stay as still as statues, holding lighted candelabras, and change their positions every few minutes.
While love tears at Jimmy’s heart, Groucho tries to crack a nut on the bald head of the dwarf in front of him. The dwarf, far from looking surprised, smiles at Groucho in the most amiable way possible. Suddenly in the middle of dinner, thunder and lightning begin inside the room. A squall of wind blows the things over on the table and brings in a whirl of dry leaves, which stick to everything. As Groucho opens his umbrella, it begins to rain slowly.
Although the guests show surprise, they try for a time to continue their meal, which is, however, brought to an end by showers of rain. In a panic, the guests rush in all directions, while from the hall a torrent of waters washes in, bringing with it all sorts of debris, including a drowned ox. A shepherd makes a desperate effort to collect his flock of sheep, which climb up on the sofas and the bed in an effort to avoid being carried away by the water. A cradle is carried in on the flood containing a baby crying piteously, followed by the mother, hair streaming behind her.
The “Surrealist woman” crosses several rooms – rain falling more and more heavily – but stops in front of a door and hesitates. She goes in, followed by Jimmy, who has never left her side. On the other side of the door, there is no more rain and everything changes. It is the childhood room of the “Surrealist woman,” where by her orders nothing has been touched since she was ten. Overcome by emotion, she sits down in front of a mirror at a child’s table.
Meanwhile, the Marx Brothers announce that a great fête is going to take place. For this, large preparations have to be made. Four acres of desert are cleared of cacti and of all vegatation and flattened out like a tennis court. The undergrowth that is cleared away is piled around the field to make a barrier, behind which stands are erected for spectators.
There is a competition for the person who can ride a bicycle the slowest with a stone balanced on his head. All the participants have to grow beards. In the middle is a tower in the form of a boat’s prow to be used as a judge’s box.
Before the spectacle begins, the vegetation around the fields is set alight. This prevents the spectators in the stands from seeing anything at all. From the top of the tower the sight is wonderful, with columns of smoke going up vertically, surrounding hundrds of cyclists – each balancing a rock on his head – threading their way with the sun setting behind.
In the tower, Harpo is playing his harp ecstatically, like a modern Nero. By his side, his back to the spectacle, Groucho is lying, smoking lazily. Nearby, the “Surrealist woman” and Jimmy watch the spectacle, lying side by side. Behind them, Chico, dressed in a diving suit, accompanies Harpo on the piano. Scattered across the gangway leading to the tower, an orchestra plays the theme song with Wagnerian intensity as the sun sinks under the horizon.
I guess it’s heresy but I’d rather see this than Room Service any day.
For more on comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etcTo find out about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.