Friday, April 3, 2009

Surrealism or Hello Dali

Harpo Marx Painting. Photo by Allan Grant, February 1948. From the Life Magazine Archives.

During the 1930s, the Marx Brothers were adored by the surrealists. Antonin Artaud, a surrealist writer and thinker had this to say about the Marx Brothers' film Animal Crackers:
If there is a definite characteristic, a distinct poetic state of mind that can be called surrealism, Animal Crackers participated in that state altogether.
Philippe Soupalt, who proved to the world he was a surrealist by doing things like walking into cafes and shouting "Everybody switch drinks," or stopping strangers on the street to ask them for the address of Philippe Soupalt, wrote after seeing Horse Feathers:
The comedy of the Marx Brothers lifts us out of reality by exaggerating our peculiarities and aggravating our habits. The real quality of the Marx Brothers and of this extravagant, excessive comedy remains human. They are exactly like ordinary people and act just as we should act if social regulations did not prevent us from behaving in that way. I believe that , though most films rapidly go out of style, this satiric comedy will make us laugh for a long time to come.
No one can dispute that last statement, but the rest of Soupalt's dissertation leaves me a bit irritated, as I'm sure I would have been if I were sitting in a Parisian cafe when he burst in yelling for people to exchange drinks. Attempting to analyze humor tends to destroy humor, with the possible exception of Robert Benchley's essay, "Why We Laugh--Or Do We?" In this piece, Benchley lists the five cardinal points of a joke:
1. The joke must be in a language we understand.

2. It must be spoken loudly enough for us to hear it, or printed clearly enough for us to read it.

3. It must be about something. You can't just say, "Here's a good joke" and let it go at that. (You can, but don't wait for the laugh.)

4. It must deal with either frustration or accomplishment, inferiority or superiority, sense or nonsense, pleasantness or unpleasantness, or, at any rate, with some emotion that can be analyzed, otherwise how do we know when to laugh?

5. It must begin with the letter "W."
The adulation of the Marx Brothers by the surrealists reached its zenith with Salvador Dali in the late 1930s. Dali was especially fascinated with Harpo. As Groucho said, "Dali was in love with my brother--in a nice way." Dali visited Harpo in Hollwood in 1937, and Dali later wrote that when he arrrived in Harpo's garden,
(Harpo) was naked, crowned with roses, and in the centre of a veritable forest of harps (he was surrounded by at least 500 harps). He was caressing, like a new Leda, a dazzling white swan, and feeding it a statue of the Venus de Milo made of cheese, which he grated against the strings of the nearest harp.
Did it really happen? Who knows?

It does not appear that Harpo was quite as impressed with Dali, although he did pose for him. In his autobiography, Harpo Speaks, he included the resulting sketch, which shows Harpo sporting an apple and one of Dali's favorite crustaceans--a lobster--on his head, and a tongue hanging over the top of the harp.

Harpo noted in the caption that the sketch was a prize of his art collection, but makes no mention of Dali in the text of his book.

Dali had given Harpo, possibly for Christmas 1936, a harp with barbed-wire strings and festooned with spoons--perhaps a reference to Harpo's schtick where stolen silverware, and finally a coffee pot, fall from the sleeve of his coat as a policeman shakes his hand. The silverware which fell from Harpo's sleeve in Animal Crackers comprised some 400 knives and no spoons or forks, but maybe Dali missed that detail, or maybe the spoons had nothing to do with the scene in the movie.

Harpo responded by sending Dali a photo of himself with bandaged fingers. In 1937, Dali wrote a surreal screenplay, Giraffes on Horseback Salads, for the Marx Brothers. The film was never produced. The script included a 60-foot long bed, dwarves, a drowned ox, bicyclists balancing stones on their heads, burning giraffes, Chico wearing a diving suit while playing the piano, and so forth.

In the book Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Sometimes Zeppo, Joe Adamson states that Harpo "got a big kick out of Dali" and "struck up a lasting friendship that lasted until Dali went home." Of a potential collaboration between Dali and Harpo, Groucho said, "It would have been a great combination. Dali didn't speak much English and neither did Harpo." Groucho also pointed out in his book The Groucho Phile that Dali's script wouldn't play and neither would the harp with barbed-wire strings. And speaking of the barbed-wire harp, Adamson writes that "Harpo and his wife...were so pleased that they stuck it in a remote corner of the house and finally threw it away."

Here are a few drawings which Dali did in connection with his script.

Dinner in the Desert Lighted by Giraffes on Fire

Groucho as Shiva of the Business World

Surrealist Gondola Above Burning Bicycles
In this, the movie's finale, note Chico at the piano in a diving suit, bicyclists balancing stones on their heads, and Harpo playing the harp.

In the unlikely event that the reader wants to learn more about Dali's script, thought to be lost until a copy was discovered among the artist's papers in the 1990s, here's a link to a synopsis published in Harper's in 1996.


  1. Cool stuff, David.

    I can remember watching Harpo and Lucy doing the mirror bit on I Love Lucy as a kid. I laughed until I cried. Didn't Lucielle Ball say that she was influenced by Harpo?

    Have you read the latest book about Groucho? I heard it's good.

  2. WZS,

    Apparently, Harpo was the only one of the brothers Lucille Ball liked. She worked with them early in her career in the movie Room Service (1938), and Harpo is the only one of the brothers who appeared on Lucy's TV show.

    I haven't been keeping up with the Marx literature lately. I think the newest book about Groucho I have is by his son--Arthur Marx's Groucho: A Photographic Journey. Do you know the title of the latest one?


  3. Unlikely event of wanting to read the Dali Marx Brothers script? How could I NOT want to read it? Swell post!

    And Giraffes on Horseback Salads was a little too conventional for my taste.

    1. This last remark was a joke, I hope.

  4. I love your article and is proving very usefull. I am working on a reenactment of the cabin scene for an artist film, and your article perfectly frames the essence of it!

  5. Sal,

    Thanks. Hope to see your film someday.


  6. You're a little hard on Soupault, I think, who is not so much "analyzing" the Marx Brothers' comedy as stating his reaction to it.

    It's also interesting, but not surprising, that you seem to take Adamson's anti-Surrealist snark as gospel. I'd like corroboration of his claims from other, less obviously biased sources.

  7. M. Soupault seems to me to be making general statements that go beyond personal reaction, e.g, "The comedy of the Marx Brothers lifts us out of reality by exaggerating our peculiarities and aggravating our habits." As to Harpo's feelings toward Dali, I reiterate that Harpo made no mention of Dali in his autobiography beyond one picture caption. And I don't believe I presented Adamson's statements as "gospel." That said, I will attempt to find some corroboration.

  8. Joe Adamson has confirmed that his informant about the relationship between Harpo and Dali and the fate of the barbed-wire harp was Harpo's wife Susan. That's good enough for me.