The movie that never happened finally has the soundtrack that never happened either.
“Giraffes on Horseback Salad” is a recently published graphic novel from local author, screenwriter, and founder of the Blue Starlite Drive-in, Josh Frank. A self-described “archeologist of forgotten pop culture,” Frank garnered some national buzz earlier this year when he released the comic book version of the 1930s film the legendary Marx Brothers and surrealist-visionary Salvador Dalí never got to make.
In 1937, fleeing the Spanish Civil War and artistic rejection in Spain, Dalí traveled to Hollywood to visit his longtime, and mutual, admirer, Harpo Marx. Together, they began to dream up “Giraffes on Horseback Salad,” a film that would electrify the already surrealist-adjacent Marx Brothers and show American moviegoers delights and frights never before seen in theaters. The film doesn’t have much of a plot per se other than to follow Jimmy, a Spanish aristocrat who lands in New York and whose life is then turned upside down when he encounters the Surrealist Woman, a magical shape-shifting beauty.
Unfortunately, the movie never got further than Harpo and Dalí’s initial script treatment, which was immediately rejected by MGM Studios. The project remained unfinished and languished among Dalí’s scattered sketches and lost notes for over 80 years.
A Marx Brothers fan since childhood, Frank stumbled across the film’s novel history while searching for the topic of his next book. Then, after six years of scouring the internet, bargaining with a Parisian museum, and having a notebook translated from Spanish/French, to French, and finally to English, Frank brought an authentically-assembled Dalí and Marx Brothers production to life.
Though a traditional script and full production details for “Giraffes” were never written, Frank used rare, surviving notes and thorough biographical research to complete the project.
“For all practical purposes, for the rest of history, when people look at the Marx Brothers’ work, ‘Giraffes on Horseback Salad’ is a part of their canon,” Frank says delightedly. “It’s not just fan-fiction — the (artists’) estates approved it!”
With the eye of Spanish illustrator, Manuela Pertega, Frank brought the cinematic spectacle of Dalí’s surrealism as close to its originally-intended spirit as possible. Eschewing the usual formula of typical comic books, Pertega’s visual pacing drifts, zags, and bursts across the pages, making the lines between comic and film blur in a fashion worthy of Dalí.
“It’s not just panel, panel, panel — it’s more of a phantasmagoric rollercoaster ride,” says Frank.
And now, “Giraffes on Horseback Salad,” the book, has what every good film needs: a memorable soundtrack.
Frank always wanted a music component to the graphic novel, but it was only about seven months out from the project’s completion that he finally had time to make it happen. While looking for composers far and wide, Frank’s Facebook feed serendipitously showed him an update from a former peer, the Japan-based composer Quin Arbeitman. Years earlier, when living in Austin, Arbeitman had auditioned for a Marx Brothers play that Frank was putting together.
“In the late nineties, we were both in the cool indie theatre scene that was prevalent at the time. We lost touch when he moved to Japan, but I liked having him in my feed even though we really didn’t talk,” says Frank “I just loved seeing this guy I knew from Austin, who’d settled in Japan, and was playing in jazz bands.”
Frank reached out to Arbeitman on a whim, telling him the whole story of his pursuit to revive a lost treasure of cultural history. Much to his surprise, Arbeitmen was immediately on board.
But not two weeks after reaching out to Arbeitman, Frank was sent complete versions of the tracks for the album. When he thanked Arbeitman for the songs the composer responded, “Oh no, those are just demos. I’ve booked the biggest studio in Japan in three weeks and we have a full orchestra coming in.”
“My high hopes were that he’d sit in front of a little casio keyboard,” Frank recalls.
Despite not being paid and facing protestations from Frank, Arbeitman told Frank, “how often in your life does someone come to you with an opportunity to compose music, to your own album, based on the Marx Brothers and Salvador Dalí?”
Calling up all the friends and favors he could, Arbeitman got an ensemble together at a facility named, funnily enough, Studio Dalí. There was only one steadfast rule regarding the soundtrack: it had to sound like Cole Porter.
Porter was a prolific songwriter of the 1920s and 1930s, his music made famous by singers such as Billie Holiday and Bing Crosby. When Dalí was dreaming up his original vision for the film, he didn’t just want Cole Porter to do the music, he needed him.
“Everything had to be the biggest, the most incredible, out-there presentation,” Frank says of Dalí’s preference for Porter. “He would have probably had Cole Porter go crazy — just like Quin did.”
Wrapped in the nostalgia of 1930s band arrangements with the addition of modern sensibilities, the soundtrack to “Giraffes on Horseback Salad” is a perfectly executed musical adaptation of the film-music style of the era with surrealist quirks. Like the comic book, the album is narratively framed as a night at the movies with the accompanying sounds of rumbling audience members, goofy reel changes, and bombastic intermissions.
When Frank saw the effort that Arbeitman was putting into the album, he decided that the scope of the soundtrack’s release should match the composers’ work, and he began searching for labels that would put out the record. Luckily, SXSW was around the corner, and after reaching out to friends and contacts, Frank walked out of a meeting with a rep from Lakeshore Records with a record deal. It helped that he didn’t know who the company was at the time.
“I went home and I googled the record company because I hadn’t even looked it up yet, and they basically put out every major Oscar-nominee in the last five years — it was incredibly exciting!”
While the album provides page numbers for readers who want to follow along to the plot of the book, Arbeitman’s compositions paint pictures of blooming love, surreal drama, and unexpected laughs that are delightful all their own. The soundtrack also includes includes jokes and performances by Master Pancake’s own Owen Egerton, vocals from “The Office’s” Brian Buamgartner, and a theme written by the Finnish electronic band, Pepe Deluxé.
Like the all-too-short partnership between Salvador Dalí and Harpo Marx, the collaborations in the soundtrack to “Giraffes on Horseback Salad” present a bizarre and beautiful stew of stories and sounds that cannot be heard anywhere else. Frank believes this is in no small part thanks to the friends, collaborators, and connections that could only be made in Austin.
“Quin, being halfway around the world, he still had that same spirit of, ‘hey I got this cool project, do you want to create something with me?’” he says.
“That’s Austin for you.”