#495) Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906)

#495) Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906)

OR “Industrial Light & Rabbit”

Directed & Written by Wallace McCutcheon and Edwin S. Porter. Based on the comic strip “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend” by Winsor McCay.

Class of 2015

The Plot: An unnamed man (Jack Brawn) feats on Welsh rabbit (or rarebit, if you will), and promptly goes to bed. Unfortunately the rarebit seems to disagree with him, and his indigestion leads to nightmares about a flying bed and little devils poking at him with pitchforks. It’s crazy, but the man is also dreaming about some noteworthy early movie effects.

Why It Matters: The NFR praises the film’s “groundbreaking trick photography”, comparing it to the work of Georges Méliès. There’s also an informative essay by author and film Professor Lauren Rabinovitz.

But Does It Really?: Oh, sure. “Rarebit” stands out from other shorts of the era thanks to its impressive undertaking of early film special effects. It’s short, it’s visually engaging, and a perfect harbinger of all the movie magic we’ve gotten since 1906. No argument here for NFR inclusion.

Everybody Gets One: Co-director Wallace McCutcheon got his start in the film industry making films for American Biograph. He moved over to Edison and collaborated with Edwin S. Porter on a number of shorts, including “Rarebit”. When McCutcheon was denied a raise at Edison, he returned to Biograph, but was eventually replaced by a young up-and-comer named D.W. Griffith.

Title Track: I’m confused: is the title referring to a dream being had by someone fond of rarebit, or is it a man’s dream of demons caused by the rarebit? I guess it all depends on which definition of the word “fiend” you’re choosing to apply here.

Other notes 

  • Like his later strip “Little Nemo in Slumberland”, McCay’s “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend” was based around people’s dreams. Each strip began with a character eating Welsh rabbit and, after falling asleep, dreaming the kind of surreal abstractions that were McCay’s trademark. I feel like you need to know the basic premise in order to understand why this film begins with a lengthy shot of Jack Brawn eating.
  • The best part of the NFR’s write-up for “Rarebit” is when they describe Jack Brawn’s character as “a top-hatted swell”. Someone had fun with that.
  • Once we hit the dream part of the title, the special effects take front and center. They are quite rudimentary by today’s standards, but they are still a wonder to behold over 100 years later. And the variety of effects are impressive as well: stop-motion, optical effects, models, double exposure; this film gives you everything.
  • The little devils at the beginning of the dream remind me of Happy Hotpoint. And THAT is the most obscure reference I’ve ever made on this blog.
  • The effects are such a mix of impressive and archaic that I found myself laughing while watching them, but I genuinely don’t know if I was laughing with them or at them.

Legacy 

  • Other than writing the comic that served as inspiration, Winsor McCay was not involved in the film of “Rarebit Fiend”. But don’t worry, McCay would get into innovative film work soon enough.
  • In addition to being one of the earliest narrative films on the NFR, “Dream of a Rarebit Fiend” is the first to prominently feature special effects, so let’s go ahead and label this film the forebearer to all visual effects in American movies. And no, I am not forgetting about Georges Méliès, but the very nature of this blog forces me to focus on his American disciples. We’ll get to Méliès when “Hugo” inevitably makes this list. Speaking of great effects…

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