Posted by David Kalat on August 31, 2013
Salvador Dali’s surrealist career was bookended by his experiences in the movies.
I have to couch that statement with the limiter “surrealist career” because Dali was a prolific and prodigious talent whose larger artistic career in toto is almost incomprehensibly vast—he was painting like a pro when he was a small child, and kept at it until 1989. That’s right, Dali was around to witness the first Internet virus. Just wrap your head around that.
But… he is known and celebrated primarily as a surrealist, and it is that phase of his career which intersects the world of movies. And therein lies our tale.
Surrealism explores the liminal spaces of consciousness with vivid imagery and unexpected juxtapositions. It was a distinctly political phenomenon—a group of young anarchic thinkers who used Frued’s theories to advance Marx’s. And here’s the weird part—for a group of unruly pranksters and rebels, they had a peculiar fixation on organization.
Being a surrealist wasn’t just about embracing Surrealist philosophy and painting some Surrealist pictures. To be a Surrealist you had to join—and like any good club, membership was limited.
In the late 1920s, Dali was an art school exile (kicked out without a degree because he refused to sit for the final exam). He was interested in modern art, and attracted to the Surrealist movement. It was then that he met and befriended a like-minded spirit, Luis Bunuel. Together they made a movie—Un Chien Andalou.
For a 15-minute long silent art film specifically constructed to shock people, it had to be considered a blockbuster hit. Bunuel was delighted—and surprised—that screenings didn’t provoke any violence. Based on that film alone, both Bunuel and Dali were welcomed as Surrealists—they were in.
Over the coming decade, Dali became not just a Surrealist, but the Surrealist. The definite article, you might say. He was a world-famous celebrity, a brand name. From his iconic moustache to memorable images like The Persistence of Memory, Dali was the most public embodiment of the avant-garde.
Hollywood came calling. Or, rather, Dali came calling on Hollywood—offering his services to those artists he perceived as fellow Surrealists, the Marx Brothers.
Calling Giraffes on Horseback Salads an “unmade Marx Brothers film” is lunacy. There is no chance this thing was ever going to be made. Whatever affinity Dali saw in the Marxes (apparently he considered Horsefeathers the greatest Surrealist movie ever made), Dali was an avant-garde artist determined to push boundaries, violate taboos, to offend and shock. Whereas the Marx Brothers were professional, commercial entertainers who employed illogic as part of their act.
The Marxes were bemused by Dali’s script, but at no point did they ever think it had the makings of a movie in it. (Just imagine the scene depicted below, with “Hooray for Captain Sapulding” playing, actually being projected on a movie screen for paying audiences. Go on, I dare you)
Far more promising were the various Hollywood films that turned to Dali to design their dream sequences.
The first of these was a mooted collaboration between Fritz Lang and Dali. Lang wanted a showstopper dream sequence to illustrate the horror and guilt of a truly epic bender, and worked with Dali to design such a thing—only for both men to be removed from the production of Moontide. Lang was replaced as director by Archie Mayo, who opted for a more conservative approach overall.
Alfred Hitchcock had the next bite at the apple, commissioning Dali to design a dream sequence for Hitchcock’s Freudian thriller Spellbound. And miracle of miracles, this time it actually happened—Dali’s dream sequence was actually filmed and included in the final cut!
Although Spellbound represents the best remembered use of Dali’s imagery in a mainstream Hollywood film, it was not the only instance. He also contributed a dream sequence to… wait for it… Father of the Bride! Yup, the 1950 comedy with Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor.
And if finding Salvador Dali’s Surrealist visions in a mainstream Hollywood comedy seems the weirdest juxtaposition of all, you aren’t alone. The Surrealists had been rankling at Dali’s megalomania for a while now—he had hogged so much of the spotlight for so long, while other artists (founders of the movement, even) struggled in the margins, there was a growing backlash against him from within the avant garde. The Surrealists accused Dali of selling out, of cheapening his artistic values by working in Hollywood, of putting his own personal fame and fortune ahead of the goal of freaking out the normals.
And so they kicked Dali out. He was no longer a Surrealist. Of course, he was still Dali—and that counted for more. He kept on making extraordinary art for another four decades, so he definitely had the last laugh. But it was the movies that ended his Surrealist phase.
Our story doesn’t quite end there. There is an epilogue.
You see, in 1946—the year the Surrealists gathered their mob and called for Dali’s head—he was busy having meetings with Walt Disney. So, bit of an irony there. If he wanted to claim he wasn’t selling out to mainstream commercial entertainment, maybe the offices of Walt Disney wasn’t where he should have been hanging out.
Except—Disney didn’t want him to sell out. Like Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock, Walt Disney admired Salvador Dali exactly as he was. Dali was an extraordinary visionary, a towering imagination. If anything, Disney appreciated Dali’s Surrealist credentials better than the Marx Brothers did.
And Disney wanted Dali to make a movie. Not just contribute a dream sequence to some other movie, he wanted a proper Dali movie—animated by Disney’s animators to give movement and life to Dali’s most fevered visions. The Disney company had already bought the rights to music by Mexican musician Armando Dominguez, which would serve as the inspiration for and soundtrack to the cartoon. Disney artist John Hench started working with Dali to storyboard the project—and Hench marveled at Dali’s inventiveness. Hench said that in all his life he’d only met one person as inventive and visually oriented as Dali—and that was Walt Disney.
The press was skeptical. “Disney and Dali join for weird film opus” read one headline. But Hench’s comment gets at the truth of the matter—Disney and Dali were already playing similar games, and bringing them together wasn’t some publicity gimmick. Disney was already inclined towards Surrealist imagery in his animated films, and Dali was already inclined towards the world of Hollywood movies.
Disney was at the time developing a cycle of “package” films inspired by the model of Fantasia—in which a handful of musically oriented shorts would be collected together under one title and sold as a feature. (http://streamline.filmstruck.com/2013/01/26/children-of-fantasia/ ) Dali’s Destino was intended to be released as a key component of one of the Fantasia-like packages.
Hench and Dali shot a 17 second test—and then production stopped abruptly, for reasons not well documented.
Disney and his team remained bullish on Dali, but it may be that Dali’s behind-the-scenes travails with the Surrealists distracted him, or undermined his enthusiasm for a pointedly Surrealist-flavored Disney film.
Eventually, Destino did see the light of day—in 1999, as the Disney Company was preparing Fantasia 2000, Roy Disney revived the moribund Destino concept and handed it off to French animator Dominique Monfréy at Disney’s Paris office to direct. Monfréy incorporated the original 17 second test footage (involving a pair of tortoises) along with newly-animated footage based on Hench and Dali’s storyboards. The short was completed in 2003, where it made its rounds both as a theatrical accompaniment to other features as well as installations in various art museums.
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