Psychedelic half a century before the word was coined, this film is a cautionary tale that warns against overindulgence in cheese toast. The film’s nightmarish and zany special effects hold up rather well and this proved to be another smash hit for the dominant Edison film company.
Night Terrors and Cheese Toast
Comic strips and early cinema were a match made in heaven. Motion pictures were short for a variety of technical and financial reasons and they needed punchy stories that could be conveyed with a few dramatic images. Well, what do comic strips do? Exactly! Further, the popularity of trick films and effects-laden extravaganzas made a collaboration between whimsical comics and motion pictures inevitable.
Winsor McCay (pioneering cartoonist and animator of Little Nemo and Gertie the Dinosaur fame) launched his oddball dream strip Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend in September of 1904 and the film takes some of its imagery from a strip published January of 1905. Let’s take a closer look at the film and then we will discuss whether or not it succeeds in capturing the spirit of McCay’s art, as well as the general state of the American film industry around the time it was released.
Director Edwin S. Porter was reportedly more at home with the technical aspect of motion pictures, he certainly was not comfortable with the star system that began to emerge with the dawn of the 1910s. Porter, who had scored a smash hit for the Edison Studios with The Great Train Robbery, was given a relatively free hand to play with special effects. Porter and co-director Wallace McCutcheon do themselves proud. Double exposures, miniatures and other camera trickery were employed to make the Rarebit Fiend’s dream all the more strange.
Rarebit (sometimes called “rabbit”) is melted cheese with spices (usually mustard and Worcestershire sauce), beer and/or milk, sometimes eggs and other sundry ingredients. The sauce is spooned over the toast and eaten as-is but it is also sometimes run under the broiler to make everything bubbly and nice. The Fiend in this film (Jack Brawn) eats his sans broiler straight out of the chafing dish. In fact, he takes large gulps directly from the ladle!
Of course, it is also strongly indicated that rarebit is not the sole culprit: the Fiend downs numerous bottles of beer and gags when he accidentally takes a swig of water! No wonder the lamp post is swaying to and fro as he staggers home.
Once in bed, his troubles get even worse. Imps climb out of a chafing dish and hammer the Fiend’s head with pitchforks in what is truly an accurate representation of a migraine. Then the bed rattles and shakes and flies out the window. The Fiend flies across the city but is soon tipped out and ends up trapped on a spinning weathervane. Finally, he wakes up from his nightmare. Some rarebit!
The film moves along at a snappy pace and while it makes clever use of its effects, it is not enslaved to them. The film does not come to a halt so we can linger over the jumping bed or the city skyline. What is even more impressive is how well Porter managed to mimic the look and feel of McCay’s comic strip. Check it out:
The Fiend’s gender has changed (likely for modesty concerns) but on the whole, an incredibly successful adaptation. In fact, some of the effects are every bit as good as those found in films made decades later. I’ll take the Fiend’s flying bed over those cheesy model boats in the 1959 Ben-Hur any day of the week!
The other impressive element is how different the film looks from the other special effects extravaganzas of the day. British effects films found humor (often of a macabre variety) in everyday objects. French productions directed by Georges Méliès and Segundo de Chomón featured elaborate painted backdrops and film tricks inspired by stage magicians. Dream of a Rarebit Fiend splits the difference with everyday objects taking on horrifying qualities as the nightmare becomes more intense. While it is definitely psychedelic, the film does not banish reality altogether.
This trippy film proved to be a great success. Edison’s biggest hit of 1905 was the slightly naughty comedy short The Whole Dam Family and the Dam Dog (told you things weren’t terribly sophisticated) and it sold a whopping 92 copies. In 1906, the average Edison film sold between about 50 to 140 copies. Dream of a Rarebit Fiend sold 192 prints that year, making it Edison’s biggest new hit by far.
I say “new hit” because the nickelodeon craze was sweeping the nation and there was actually a motion picture shortage, if you can imagine. Since Porter’s more elaborate productions required more time, which meant fewer films overall, Edison dusted off properties that were a couple years old (such as The Great Train Robbery) and offered this back catalog for sale as well. These films also sold like hotcakes, proving that novelty was not the sole appeal of motion pictures and that older hits were not necessarily disposable.
It is worth mentioning that Edison did not rely solely on motion picture sales. They also sold the cameras and projectors and were infamously zealous in their copyright litigation.
I should also point out that while Dream of a Rarebit Fiend was the biggest success for Edison, we do not know if it was the overall top hit of 1906, as some have written. Other French and American studios were hard at work churning out their own films and Edison charged some of the highest prices in the business. It is quite possible that a title from Méliès’ Star Film Company, Pathé, Gaumont, Vitagraph, Biograph or even something from Britain outsold Dream of a Rarebit Fiend. Sure, it’s pithy to say, “Biggest hit of 1906! 192 copies!” but it’s also an oversimplification.
However, no one can deny that the film did a smashing job of capturing McCay’s signature whimsy on the big screen and using a distinct style totally unlike the trick films of France and Britain. Audiences responded to its technical innovation with gusto and it remains one of the gems of 1900 American film.
One more misconception that has attached itself to the film: A comical musical piece called The Dream of the Rarebit Fiend was copyrighted in 1906 by T.W. Thurban and subsequently recorded on wax cylinder by the Edison Military Band. It has been speculated that this was an early attempt at a film soundtrack. However, I should point out that the Edison film was released in February of 1906 while the Thurban musical piece was copyrighted on July 16 of the same year. Further, the film runs seven minutes or so (give or take) while the music runs just three minutes.
While it is possible that some enterprising soul played a recording of the song along with the film (restarting it twice in the middle of the picture), it seems highly unlikely given the state of amplification technology at the time. An accompanist on piano, organ or even a small orchestra could have played the piece, of course, but it would have been unavailable for the first half-year of the picture’s release. Further, the piece is listed as a “two step” or dance music.
So, sorry, Edison fanatics, the record for earliest custom film score still belongs to Camille Saint-Saëns and Mikhail Mikhailovich Ippolitov-Ivanov for the respective work in 1908. (Ippolitov-Ivanov’s scored film was released in October, Saint-Saëns’ in November.) If you have solid evidence of an earlier custom film score, I would love to hear about it but I am labeling the Rarebit claim as “shady with a chance of baloney.” (Also, please check out some of Ippolitov-Ivanov’s other work. He doesn’t get enough love these days.)
However, the Edison recording of the piece can definitely be counted as a clever bit of cross-promotion and further evidence that tie-in merchandise is not an invention of the blockbuster age. The music does do an excellent job of capturing the feel of the film, which also captured the feel of the comic and there is something to be said for that. (You can hear a version of the piece recorded by Sousa’s band below, courtesy of the Library of Congress. If the player does not appear, try this direct link.)
Note: An alert reader has pointed out that the Dream of the Rarebit Fiend music was a re-copyrighted version of an 1899 piece by the same composer originally titled The Brooklyn Cake Walk. This is rather the final nail in the coffin for the notion that the music was a custom score intended for the film (and the fact remains that renamed work was released five months after the film). It was a clever bit of marketing too as the music really does capture the feel of the thing and would have been a fun piece for the accompanist’s repertoire.
Dream of a Rarebit Fiend is a perfectly delightful bit of early cinema and an excellent example of a successful adaption. It deserves its proud place in cinematic history. And if this doesn’t convince you to avoid rarebit before bed, I don’t know what will.
Where can I see it?
Dream of a Rarebit Fiend is widely available on DVD but I particularly recommend the Alloy Orchestra-scored version found in Flicker Alley’s Wild and Weird collection and the version included in Kino’s epic Edison: The Invention of the Movies box set, which is scored by Ben Model. Really, both sets are a delight and would be welcome by any collector.