Bug Vaudeville (1921) A Silent Film Review

Legendary comic artist Winsor McCay takes control of his Rarebit Fiend stories with this imagining of an all-insect vaudeville. (Actually, the result of a beggar’s overindulgence in cheesecake.) McCay’s signature beauty is on display but the pacing…

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

Quit bugging me!

Dreams of the Rarebit fiend is a surreal comic strip by Winsor McCay and it is best remembered among movie nerds as a droll 1906 short film directed by Edwin S. Porter. However, the cinematic adventures of the Rarebit Fiend (or fiends, the strip had no set cast) did not end with Porter. McCay himself took control of the cheese toast fantasies and produced a short series of films. Today, we’re going to be reviewing one of them.

Too much cheese cake!

A quick refresher on the basic concept of the Rarebit Fiend: Every strip told the tale of someone who overindulged in food (sometimes the famed cheese toast of the strip’s title) and would experience wild, violent and surreal dreams as a result. The 1906 picture broadly hinted that something a bit more on the liquid side was to blame but McCay squarely blames indigestion in Bug Vaudeville. After all, Prohibition was on.

Nice lettering though.

The picture opens with the bold declaration that McCay invented the “animated drawing.” While McCay was instrumental in creating the animation process as we know it, I am sorry to say that his invention claims are just a bit much. However, one can understand why McCay was eager to put his stamp on animation. He had enjoyed a monster hit with his legendary Gertie the Dinosaur but had been forced back into the newspaper comic salt mines and only managed to return to animation in short bursts.

The daddy long legs dance.

The Rarebit Fiend of Bug Vaudeville is hobo who has consumed a fair amount of cheese cakes thanks to the largesse of a local woman. The hobo wanders into the woods and, tired out from his meal, falls asleep. As he dozes, he dreams that he is in the audience of a vaudeville show and assorted insects perform for him. Of course, this wouldn’t be a Rarebit Fiend story without a bit of darkness and the dream ends with the hobo dreaming that he is being eaten by a spider. That will teach him to indulge in charitable cheese cakes!

You’ve heard of a mouse on a motorcycle? Here’s a bug on a bike!

The insect performers in the film include a grasshopper juggling an ant, a dancing daddy long legs, a cockroach on a trick bicycle, acrobatic tumble bugs, boxing potato bugs, a butterfly riding a black beetle, and the final, fatal spider. If this sounds like a lot, it is. I was hard-pressed to remember the performers after seeing the cartoon and had to go back to my notes to be sure I wasn’t forgetting anyone.

I wish McCay had gone a little further with his concept, embracing the alien features of insects and how they would deal with putting on a vaudeville show. As it is, the characters either act like insects or humans and perform their little numbers. That’s it. None of the performers have any discernible personality (except, perhaps, the very hungry spider) and this proves to be a problem as their routines go on and on and on and on.

There’s only so much of this you can take.

I can see how Bug Vaudeville would have been a fantastic comic strip with each performer occupying a panel. The limited space of the newspaper page would have meant that McCay’s creations would have delighted without overstaying their welcome and they might have displayed a tad more spark.

But what about the general state of animation in 1921? This called for an apples to apples comparison and so I watched Max Fleischer’s 1921 cartoon/live action combo, Modeling, from his Out of the Inkwell series. While Bug Vaudeville has the insect performances go on just a hair too long every time, Modeling has zip and pep. It uses its animation in a goofy, imaginative manner and the time flies. The short’s animated character, Koko, is full of personality and it’s fun to see his antics. Bug Vaudeville, on the other hand, is simply a bit of a bore.

Not weird enough?

The film also pales in comparison to the 1906 version of the Rarebit saga, a wild, raucous ride that trusted its audience to understand the dream concept without sending tiny imps to pound their heads with it. We are simply thrown into the crazy dream world of the Rarebit Fiend, which is exactly where we want to be. (I mean, we bought tickets for food-related hallucinations and, darn it, we want things to get weird!)

It’s curtains for these butterflies.

The film is done well and I enjoyed the assorted skits, I just wish McCay had picked up the pace a bit. You’ll enjoy the picture if you’re a fan of early animation or if you want a walk on the weird side. However, the 1906 Porter adaptation remains the version to beat.

Where can I see it?

Bug Vaudeville is available on DVD as part of Milestone’s Winsor McCay collection, which gathers together the surviving animation work of this important pioneer. Definitely worth grabbing.

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