Josh Frank, author of the forthcoming graphic novel Giraffes on Horseback Salad — an adaptation of a lost collaboration between the Marx Brothers and Salvador Dalí — has spent his life preparing for such a project. This consisted of watching every Marx Brothers movie so that the nitty-gritty of the sensibility was seared into his brain. Now, Frank, who operates a one-of-a-kind urban drive-in movie theater in Austin, Texas, has completed the ultimate challenge: writing his own Marx Brothers movie.
He had a little help from artist Manuela Pertega and comedian Tim Heidecker, which is fitting given that the Marx Brothers themselves often got help with their scripts.
It all started a few years ago, when Frank learned there was a long-lost screenplay written by Dalí featuring the Marx brothers, who the Spanish artist called “the greatest surrealist comics that ever lived.” He found photos of a few sketches Dalí made in preparation for his pitch, but for Frank, a determined “pop-culture archaeologist,” that wasn’t enough. So he kept digging.
He wrote to the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation in Spain and got Dalí’s Giraffes notes. Frank had them translated, and they were exactly what he’d been looking for: “amazing visual ideas, a clear story, specific characters,” Frank writes in his introduction.
He ultimately found Dalí’s notes on the screenplay, complete with doodles, jokes and more. With an assist from Black Francis of the Pixies, Frank was directed towards Heidecker of the comedy team of Tim & Eric. To Frank, Heidecker is “the present-day incarnation of surrealism.”
Frank worked with Heidecker and a few other comedians to nail the Marx brothers’ comedic tone, a daunting task. “I was really nervous about that,” Frank said. “Not so much for casual viewers. It was for the people that have been loving the Marx brothers since before I existed that I was nervous about.”
The end result is the story of a wealthy industrialist named Jimmy who feels morally and intellectually stifled by the hangers-on who surround him. It’s only when he meets the Woman Surreal, a supernatural being who manifests her dreams, that Jimmy finds himself reinvigorated by life’s possibilities. Her loyal assistant is Harpo Marx.
It’s a story full of sight gags and Marx Brothers wit. “It’s this mix of tragedy and comedy, this mix of disturbing and beautiful, of hilarious and horrifying,” Frank said.
For Frank, Giraffes fits in with a career full of rescuing stories that might have been otherwise lost. He attributes this passion to his fascination with his grandfather and great-grandfather, the latter who fled the Cossacks at 18. Back in “the old country,” Frank said, he’d had a job roping crosses on top of churches in order to clean them. “Someone told him, ‘S—t, boy, you should be a cowboy.” He moved to the border of Texas and Mexico and opened a dried goods store.
As the years went on, his grandfather had a progressively fuzzier recollection of the stories that dazzled Frank when he was young.
“Think of all the other stories that might have not been as colorful, or might not have been as easy to remember, that eventually disappear,” he said. “That was sort of I think the beginning of my passion for what I do.”
He’s written a play about the Golem coming alive in Nazi Germany, and a book about an underground cult figure in L.A. named Peter Ivers. His book about the Pixies posits them as an unacknowledged influence on decades of rock music. Everywhere he looks, Frank sees people and stories whose weirdness ensured that they went unappreciated in their day, but whose influence is undeniable.
He hopes to see Giraffes on Horseback Salad made into a movie one day. Leonardo DiCaprio, he said, is known to be a fan of Dalí’s work.
“I’ll just be sitting by the phone,” he said. JN