Winsor McCay’s comic strip “Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend” ran in the Evening Telegram (a sister newspaper to The New York Herald) from 1904-1911. Pictured here is the Dover Books facsimile edition of a 1905 Frederick A. Stokes publication collecting the early strips in the series. The original book is quite rare, but Dover preserves such scarcities for us all to read in editions that look just like the originals.
The 1906 film slightly alters the title of the comic strip and provides it with a frame story. The original strips always start in medias res, then at the end it is revealed that the crazy adventures are caused by fitful dreams brought on by gorging on too much Welsh rarebit, a toasted cheese and ale snack on crackers or bread. The dreams are a product of overindulgence or dyspepsia. In Porter’s film version, Winsor McCay’s concept is fleshed out by showing the “rarebit fiend” gluttonously consuming toast, cheese from a fondue pot, and several bottles of ale, then falling into a slumber and having a dream.
Winsor McCay (c.1869-1934) is better known these days as the cartoonist who gave us “Little Nemo in Slumberland,” also involving a character who falls asleep and has adventures in a dream, only to awaken again in bed at the end of each episode. However, “Rarebit Fiend” is more R-rated. In the first few pages of the 1905 book, there are amputations, nudity, cannibalism, sexual longing, an alligator purse turning into a woman-eating beast, and more. Apparently the concept of family friendly content in a newspaper did not yet exist in 1905. The content of “Rarebit Fiend” includes a lot that only a few years later would have been found only in underground comics.
Porter’s film owes a lot to French precursors like the films of Georges Melies and the fantasy trick films from Pathe. Porter (encountered earlier in this series as the director of The Great Train Robbery) was always a technically minded and innovative cameraman/editor more than he was a director. In The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend, he employs matte techniques and a variety of other tricks in the kind of experimentation popular in the early days of film. The film was promoted in its day especially for its special effects.
By 1911, Winsor McCay the cartoonist ventured himself into film. Aside from drawing newspaper comic strips, he started making animations to be accompanied by himself live as part of a vaudeville act. Many of his films survive in pieces or are lost, but a couple are quite famous: Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) and The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918). McCay’s legacy is that he is often cited as the most important early animator prior to Walt Disney, and Disney himself cited him as a major influence.