Josh Frank Writes Himself Into the History of the Marx Bros.

There ain't no sanity clause

Josh Frank Writes Himself Into the History of the Marx Bros.

When Josh Frank (the man behind Austin's Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-In) was a kid in Houston, late at night he'd sneak out of bed and turn on the TV. A siren call had lured him there – or rather, a honked car horn, the blaring trademark blast of the Marx Bros. Anytime there was a marathon of their chaotic cinematic creations, the young Frank would be there for every raised eyebrow, every duck walk, every mirror gag, every pricking of the bubble of pomposity. Frank reminisced, "I'd record them each time on VHS, in hopes of cutting as many commercials out perfectly as I could so I wouldn't hear the guy scream, 'Mattress Furniture will SAVE YOU MONEY!' for the thousandth time."

From that childhood obsession, now he has his own place in Marx Bros. history, having resurrected one of the great lost Marx projects, Giraffes on Horseback Salad, as a graphic novel (see our review of the adaptation in our March 22 issue). His last book – The Good Inn, a collaboration with the Pixies' frontman Frank Black – was inspired in part by the story behind a 1908 short called "A L'Écu d'Or ou la Bonne Auberge," infamous as the first known porno flick. After that, he said, "I was obsessed with lost unmade movies, and how I could bring some of the greats to life in a new way." As a Marx fan, he was inevitably drawn to Giraffes on Horseback Salad, an abandoned surrealist liaison between the American comedy greats and Salvador Dalí. Unfilmed and long lost, the pre-production plans re-emerged in 1996, stuffed into Dalí's papers. However, it needed a lot of work before finally making its printed debut. "There wasn't a script," Frank said. "It was 80 pages of handwritten notes and a seven- page treatment that William Goldman passed on when Harpo and Dalí pitched it. But I was in heaven seeing how much there was to work with."

Last month, at the beginning of the publicity tour for the book, he screened 1933's Duck Soup: Now he's back home for A Night at the Opera. Well, technically, a night at AFS Cinema screening 1935's A Night at the Opera. The two films marked a huge transition for the music hall megastars: Duck Soup was their last movie for Paramount, and their last with brother Zeppo before he quit the act to become a theatrical agent. Opera was their first as a trio, and the beginning of a five-film run at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (with a one-movie diversion to RKO). It also marked a change in their style of comedy: While shifty business manager Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho), bombastic bumbler Fiorello (Chico), and all-purpose anarchy dispenser Tomasso (Harpo) were receptacles for the established Marx brand, MGM boss Irving Thalberg helped move them from morally ambivalent clowns to hilarious antiheroes. For Frank, the two films stand alongside 1930's Animal Crackers as "the greatest Marx movies. ... Duck Soup explores their surrealist tendencies and Opera shows the heart that was behind all their mayhem and anarchy."


A Night at the Opera with an introduction by Josh Frank. Monday, April 8, 7pm. AFS Cinema, 6406 N. I-35. Tickets and info at www.austinfilm.org.

Giraffes on Horseback Salad by Josh Frank, Tim Heidecker, and Manuela Pertega ($29.99, Quirk Books) is available now.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Special Screenings
The Politics of Slasher <i>Black Christmas</i>
The Politics of Slasher Black Christmas
The Canadian classic was about more than gore

Matthew Monagle, Dec. 13, 2019

The Film Society That Brought Indie and Arthouse to Austin Returns
The Film Society That Brought Indie and Arthouse to Austin Returns
AFS hosts a series of the movies that inspired Cinema 40

Richard Whittaker, Nov. 22, 2019

More Marx Bros.
What If the Marx Brothers Got Around to Making That Movie With Salvador Dalí?
What If the Marx Brothers Got Around to Making That Movie With Salvador Dalí?
Josh Frank brings the legendary unproduced movie to printed life

Wayne Alan Brenner, March 22, 2019

Video Reviews
Duck Soup
A sublime, Surrealist comedy from the Marx Brothers, in which Groucho plays the new dictator-for-life of tiny Freedonia who declares war on a whim on neighboring Sylvania.

Marc Savlov, April 19, 2002

More by Richard Whittaker
No Knives Out for Rian Johnson
No Knives Out for Rian Johnson
Talking whodunnits, character actors, and $2 bills

Dec. 14, 2019

Austin Film Critics Pick Top Five Austin Films
Austin Film Critics Pick Top Five Austin Films
Oscar winners and indie faves, but which will be the top ATX film of 2019?

Dec. 12, 2019

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Special Screenings, Marx Bros., A Night at the Opera, Josh Frank, AFS Cinema, Giraffes on Horseback Salad

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle