Category Archives: Best Movies Never Made

Best Movies Never Made — “Giraffes on Horseback Salads”

Marx Bros lead

by Gabe Valdez

The Marx Brothers. Salvador Dali.

Roll the idea around in your head for a moment. The Brothers who lived on precision in their wordsmanship and comedic timing, written and directed by the man whose entire art movement was based on erasing the connective tissue that linked moments and plots together.


It would have been a conjunction of worldwide talents like none other. The Marx Brothers were the pre-eminent comedians of their time. Brothers in real life, and veteran vaudeville performers, between 1929 and 1949 they made 13 full-length comedies together. Five of those films are on the AFI’s Top 100 Comedies list. Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera are both in the top 12.

They involved a unique blend of high wit, social satire, and base slapstick. Groucho was the wit, always ready with a plot and a one liner, Chico the con man, and Harpo the silent clown. Zeppo sometimes played the romantic lead, but left in 1933 to start a wildly successful talent agency.

Across their films, high society characters would be confounded and frustrated by their irreverence while the poor and needy would welcome the brothers with open arms, helping hands, and often celebrate in music. Imagine for a second the profound effect that message had on audiences during the worst depths of the Great Depression.


Salvador Dali was a Spanish painter who showed an uncanny mastery of a variety of forms but became a champion of the Surrealist movement. Surrealism has changed over the years and become understood as a manner of presenting a skewed reality, but this is perhaps more closely associated with the avant-garde.

What Surrealism means, or more closely meant at the time, was a meeting of two distant realities, often of dream and real life. The biggest difference between Surrealism today and when it began is that Surrealism now is dominated by symbolism. We’ve embraced the concept that everything presented surrealistically must have a reference point, an anchor in the real to which we can trace it back. We’re very Freudian that way.

This runs counter to the Surrealism movement’s intent – the whole point was to pursue the relief of reference points, to achieve and represent a “psychic automatism,” as Andre Breton put it in his first Surrealist Manifesto. Surrealist art was made without “aesthetic or moral concern.”

Dali Autumn Cannibalism

Art was not to be framed using the artist’s intentions, but rather presented as an irrational moment pulled from the subconscious, to which audiences could apply their own intentions as they saw fit. Dali’s most famous contribution to film would be a short written for Luis Bunuel, Un Chien Andalou.

Dali became the most commercially accepted painter of the movement, perhaps because his images felt so expertly drawn from so many other schools of painting and thus best evoked the feeling of mish-mashed realities. Due to the Spanish Civil War that lasted from 1936-1939, Dali spent much of the late 30s in the United States and Britain, often taking what were effectively painting retreats with wealthy patrons.

Dali The Temptation of St Anthony


On paper, the match makes some sense. The Marx Brothers’ comedy is regularly absurdist, treating metaphors and colloquialisms as serious matters to be discussed free of their meanings, and taking the dead serious and treating it as nonsense.

Dali was friends with Harpo Marx, and the two together invented a completely bonkers script. The climax itself would have involved clearing four acres of desert, around which would be lit a towering wall of fire. The Marx Brothers would compete in this arena to see who could ride a bicycle the slowest with a rock balanced on his head. Their audience would be giraffes. Wearing gasmasks. Sitting on bleachers blinded to the contest because of the towering flames. Because surrealism.

Other scenes, according to a surviving copy of the script later described by Harper’s Magazine, involved a dinner party at which Groucho harassed dwarves holding candelabras. The dinner would be interrupted by a great flood that carried with it whining babies, dead oxen, and panicked sheep.

Dali imagined that the great composer of musicals Cole Porter would score the film. “I Get a Kick Out of You” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” were his most widely known hits, though Porter would most famously score Kiss Me, Kate in 1947.


To understand this, you have to understand the effect Irving Thalberg had on studio filmmaking. The brothers had left the studio that took them from Broadway to film, Paramount, in 1933. When the Marx Brothers joined MGM, they did so at the persuasion of young phenom Irving Thalberg, who had been made part-owner of the studio and, effectively, vice president in charge of production at the age of 24.

Thalberg codified a great many things – story conferences between cast and crew, live script reads in front of audiences to tighten timing and cut flat jokes, screenings before test audiences to gauge reaction to a film, and reshoots that sometimes changed a film into something entirely new. Earlier, at Universal, he had practically recrafted the studio’s venerable horror franchises and invented the event movie.

Thalberg didn’t demand perfection so much as he demanded improvement, and he often valued the priorities and tolerance of the audience over the vision and intent of the director. This isn’t to say he was divisive; he was almost universally liked. Though he died in 1936 at the age of 37, Thalberg arguably had a more profound effect on how studio movies are made than any other producer before or since.

So when Dali and Harpo came at a post-Thalberg MGM with a nutty script that would’ve cost a fortune, a few things were already afoot.

Dali The Anthropomorphic Cabinet

Firstly, Thalberg’s codes survive until today. Aside from better pre- and post-production processes, Thalberg had also codified certain ways of storytelling. He insisted that films have a low point at which the heroes believe everything to be lost. He championed stories having certain beats that played to the audience. Even had Thalberg survived, it’s difficult to imagine him greenlighting Giraffes on Horseback Salads without severe changes that would’ve made the famously unpredictable Dali walk.

Secondly, the brothers all needed to agree on a film in order to make it. Groucho exerted a great deal of creative control and was the lead voice in dealing with studios and producers. You had to sell your idea to Groucho before you could sell it to the studio. It’s widely rumored that Groucho simply didn’t think Giraffes was funny enough.

Thirdly, Thalberg was the main reason the Marx Brothers had been retained by MGM. Other producers lacked the interest in their comedy. Thalberg’s death was sudden and – despite two very successful films together in A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races – MGM would sever the Marx Brothers’ contract in 1937. This had nothing to do with Giraffes on Horseback Salads.

Matthew Gale, who curated for the Tate Modern, has suggested that perhaps Dali never intended for the script to become a film, but rather the writing of it and – perhaps the rejection of it – was Dali’s ultimate goal for the project.


Remember earlier, when I said the Marx Brothers were a unique blend of wit, satire, and slapstick? You can see their influence across film comedy. Their wit is echoed in the films of Woody Allen and even in the quickfire banter of recent TV shows like The West Wing and Gilmore Girls. Their satire influenced the wide aim of Mel Brooks’ best work. Their influential slapstick can be seen from The Three Stooges to The Beverly Hillbillies to the Farrelly Brothers. The stagey sight gags they popularized live on in everything from The Muppets to The Simpsons. The Marx Brothers didn’t invent these things, but they did show the film world how to use them in the era of the talking motion picture.

Their next film after leaving MGM would be Room Service with the fabled RKO Studios, who never met a film they couldn’t make lose money. The brothers would rejoin MGM and pump out four more films before the United States joined World War 2, at which point the team effectively disbanded. They only rejoined for 1946’s A Night in Casablanca, released by United Artists, because eldest brother Chico was so in debt, though they’d appear together in cameos for TV shows and Groucho enjoyed a second career in so-so films and as a television host on You Bet Your Life.

Nearly all of Thalberg’s production innovations survive to this day. For better and for worse, film is made the way it is today because of his vision for MGM.

The surrealist movement increasingly rejected Dali. While many surrealists were leftist or communist, they became frustrated that their most popular member remained apolitical and believed art should be wholly separated from politics. (Not to put too fine a point on it, but this most closely harbors to creating art without “moral concern.”)

Dali would subsequently be rejected by many surrealist circles for his apolitical stance during a time of politically- and ethnically-driven war. Unlike other artists, he would be allowed to return to – and even championed in – his native Spain. Difficulties with his wife, Gala, later prompted him to buy her a castle where she could reside and he could only visit with written permission. Because surrealism.

Let’s go back to Room Service for a moment. It was a commercial flop and a critical failure, perhaps the Marx Brothers’ worst film. It is notable, however, for featuring a young Lucille Ball. I’d happily make the argument that she’s the only comedian who’s had more influence on screen comedy than the Marx Brothers, effectively inventing the sitcom and modern television production practices.

In I Love Lucy, she would repeatedly pay tribute to the Marx Brothers, embodying in turn each of their mannerisms, style of physical comedy, and at various points dressing up as each of them.

Giraffes on Horseback Salads never really had a chance of being made. It survives only as an academic what-if. But few films, made or unmade, carry quite the potential to merge the visions of such singular and precise, yet completely irreverent and absurdist talents.

Best Movies Never Made is sort of a Throwback Thursday, except for the Thursdays that never happened. It will appear every other week, alternating with Vanessa Tottle’s Silent All These Years. Our previous installment was a rundown on Gladiator 2.

Best Movies Never Made — “Gladiator 2”

Gladiator 2 lead

Everyone writes Throwback Thursdays, and there are some great ones out there. They’re all kind of exclusive, though. They only review films that actually exist. What about all those Thursdays that never happened?

From Alfred Hitchcock’s nudie flick Kaleidoscope to David Fincher’s Rendezvous with Rama, we’ll cover everything from the biggest movies never made (Steven Soderbergh’s Cleopatra, anyone?) to long-forgotten treasures (Clair Noto’s sci-fi masterpiece The Tourist). The stories behind them are as interesting as the films themselves. Some were killed for their budgets, some for their politics. Many sank when their auteurs foundered, others were sabotaged by affairs, and still more fell victim to studios unwilling to take risks.

We’ll start with one of the biggest sequels never made: Gladiator 2.


The release of Gladiator on May 5, 2000 was considered risky. Back then, the summer movie season didn’t start until June, when schools let out (now it starts in March). The story of Roman general Maximus – who is enslaved as a gladiator and challenges a corrupt emperor – harkened back to sword-and-sandal classics like Spartacus.

The $103 million Ridley Scott film, aside from giving us the confusing gift of Joaquin Phoenix, made $457 million worldwide. Before the advent of streaming sites like Netflix and Hulu, it also did terrific business on DVD.

It also won Best Picture, rare for a film released so early in the year, especially in such a contentious field: its competition included Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the Steven Soderbergh twin threat of Traffic and Erin Brockovich. Though many felt Wonder Boys or Almost Famous (really, people?) deserved its spot, count me as one of the lonely voices that favored Lasse Hallstrom’s dark horse Chocolat over the whole bunch.

Gladiator nabbed Russell Crowe an Oscar in the second year of three straight he was nominated, upsetting early favorite Tom Hanks (Cast Away). The film also picked up Best Costume Design, Best Visual Effects, and Best Sound.


Gladiator was in the unique position of being both a Best Picture winner and a financially successful summer action movie. It’s not as if you could make American Beauty 2 (although it was discussed) or An Even More Beautiful Mind. There was only one problem, and this is where the spoilers start: Crowe’s heroic General Maximus dies in the end.

A prequel was the most obvious way to bring back Crowe and Maximus. His history of Roman conquests could provide the action while building his loving family (which the audience knew was doomed) could provide the poignancy. It didn’t stick, though – all these things had been established in the first movie. So far, it sounded like a direct-to-DVD affair.

Original writer John Logan shifted gears to a sequel that could take place years later and feature the nephew of corrupt Emperor Commodus – the innocent young Lucius, who becomes emperor at the end of the first film.

One version got rid of Crowe entirely, while another crammed together both the past and future – half prequel covering Maximus’ rise through the ranks, half sequel regarding Lucius’ own fight against corrupt politicians. (The approach has been compared to that of The Godfather Part II.) Both versions revealed that Lucius was the secret lovechild of Maximus and Connie Nielsen’s Lucilla, a needless contrivance that could have seriously undermined too many emotional beats in the first Gladiator.

These approaches all sound pretty ho-hum, don’t they? They’re all too safe. Since when did Russell Crowe, in the middle of Oscar nominations and his Fightin’ Around the World tour, do safe? So Crowe asked a mate of his, Australian goth rocker Nick Cave, to take a stab at Gladiator 2. Between leading bands The Birthday Party, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, and Grinderman, Cave is arguably goth music’s single most influential artist. Crowe asked Cave to research the Roman afterlife and look into ways Maximus could be brought back to life via the gods. What did Cave do?

He went certifiably batshit.

Forrest Gump

If you can imagine What Dreams May Come smashed together with The Crow and an ultraviolent Forrest Gump, you might begin to grasp at what Cave delivered. In his version, Maximus is offered a deal by the dying Roman gods to hunt down the traitor Hephaestus. Maximus, of course, finds him – Hephaestus is on his last legs, and resurrects Maximus to serve penance as an immortal who walks the earth.

The bulk of the story follows Maximus defending early Christians and his resurrected son Marius from the bloodthirsty Romans under the command of a Lucius so malevolent, they could have stuck Phoenix back in the role and no one would’ve blinked. He’s aided by his occasional spirit guide Mordecai.

Maximus survives to see Christianity take hold, later fighting in the Crusades, leading a tank charge in World War 2, and unleashing a flamethrower on the Vietcong. Wait, what? Yes, Maximus essentially turns into Highlander for the Tea Party. In the end, we see Maximus in the Pentagon. Mordecai’s last words – depending on your interpretation – imply that either the world is about to end, or that Maximus is doomed to continue fighting into eternity.

And the whole movie is spliced together with footage of a dying deer and visions of Maximus’ wife, doomed to Purgatory.


The studio balked. There was no way they’d spend $150 million to make an esoteric art film that would’ve risked the loyalty of the fans. Gladiator possessed no supernatural or divine elements, and to make a sequel based solely around these additions felt too mad.

The strange thing is, according to all accounts, the screenplay was a work of genius. Crowe stood by it tooth-and-nail, and it was eventually the ONLY sequel to Gladiator that Scott might have returned to direct (although this may have been Scott’s polite way of saying he wouldn’t return for a sequel.)

Cave’s script was leaked years ago – reviews were unanimously favorable. You might find that hard to believe, but try watching the next film Cave scripted, The Proposition, and then tell me the man can’t write.

Gladiator 2 cap


Russell Crowe continued delivering Oscar-worthy performances, but in this humble critic’s opinion, his best performance stands as his most overlooked – he wasn’t nominated for his role as Captain Aubrey in Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World. Despite widespread reports that he’d fought with Scott incessantly during the making of Gladiator, the two reunited for four more films (A Good Year, American Gangster, Body of Lies, and Robin Hood).

Ridley Scott himself enjoyed a sort of golden era. He pumped out eight major films in the next eight years, and the production company he’d started with his brother, director Tony Scott (since deceased), took off. In its 20 years of existence before Gladiator, it had produced 10 films. In the 14 years since Gladiator, it’s produced more than 40.

Scott himself returned to the sword-and-sandals genre in 2005’s Kingdom of Heaven, Robin Hood, and the upcoming Exodus: Gods and Kings. On a critical note, the theatrical release of Kingdom of Heaven was a mess; the director’s cut is Scott’s best film. Combined with Blade Runner, Scott now boasts the two films most heavily screwed over in the history of Fox Studios.

And Nick Cave? In a broad sense, facets of Cave’s screenplay were adapted – or at least echoed – in The Proposition. The 2005 Australian period piece is both brutally nasty and philosophically haunting. Its monologues stay with me even all these years later. Guy Pearce and Emily Watson delivered two of the best performances of their careers, and it helped introduce director John Hillcoat (who later directed The Road and Cave-scripted Lawless).

As a musician, Cave’s made some of the best albums of recent years – Push the Sky Away was one of my top 5 albums of 2013, and you can’t go wrong with Grinderman 2.

Gladiator 2 will never be realized. It remains a film that I’d very much like to have seen not just for its novelty, but for how bravely it might’ve turned the original film’s formula on its head.


An Historian Goes to the Movies recently wrote two articles regarding the historical accuracy of Gladiator. You might be surprised how well many of its details hold up:

Gladiator: Why Did Commodus Become Emperor?

Gladiator: Just How Bad an Emperor was Commodus?