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Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906)

CRUMBLIES… 4 crumblies

Okay, Silent Steve was in history mode. Apparently, over in the Americas, there was a newspaper strip that ran for three hundred or so editions (from 1904 to 1925) that reflected the rages of a short, angry, unhappy husband with a talent for drawing. The man was Zenas Winsor McCay and the comic strip was the Dream of a Rarebit Fiend. Not a bad guy, you understand, just a chap in his bourgeois middle years, suffering through life and marriage, gobbling down a Welsh Rarebit and having a horrible nightmare. Then waking up. A lot.

Edison noticed and – in 1906 – up popped six solid minutes of exciting new photographic effects, a pompous soul dining like a pig (John P ‘Jack’ Brawn is the gourmand en question, in the first of twenty-four films), immediately plunging into swirly hallucinations around a top-quality lamp-post, and retiring to a bed of horrors. A film plundered a newspaper for one of the first times.

I’m not sure the film captures the range of topics – or even the anger – suggested by the comic strip. No suicides, murders or hate-filled railings against reality, here. Rather, as usual with this decade of film, a few minutes of split screens, jump cuts and special effects are presented as one swing of the curtain away from a vaudeville magic act. And not much story.

Brawn does what’s asked of him. His first scene is gobbling down rarebit with a touch of Max Linder: cheese on bread on more cheese on more bread…and more cheese. Not famous for giving you nightmares, but a meme has to start somewhere, I guess. Perhaps if he’d added a banana to the cheese he’d’ve cut straight to a fanged clown chasing him through some woods. Anyway, he’s suddenly staggering about outside the restaurant (in a snazzy white suit, it has to be said), and the photo effects begin.

And give the Edison company its due, the shot of him bumbling about a fancy lamp-post whilst the city streets whirl around him is properly impressive. 1906, people.

Then off to home, into bed, and the effects come thick and fast. Imps jump out of a rarebit pot and stab the bedstead; the room swirls; the bed whirls (obvious model, but, again, 1906!!!); and flips into the night sky. It’s all pretty impressive stuff, but doesn’t quite make the points you’d want about a fancy-pants chap falling from grace, humiliated as he’s hurled through the sky and dumped, in his nightshirt, onto a remarkably strong weather vane. It’s just a nightmare, not a socially vengeful nightmare.

Edwin Stanton Porter is the director, an employee at Edison who did every other job going. Really – he produced, did the cinematography, and managed the studio. And pumped out two hundred or so films.  His greatest success, and most innovative output, was only three years before: The Great Train Robbery. And he hadn’t lost his edge, but produced something in Dream of a Rarebit Fiend that almost certainly disappointed students of the comic strip whilst impressing those tracking the growth of cinema from recorded magic shows to solid stories, inventively told.

So said Silent Steve,

Rarebit is available for free pretty much everywhere. Google it, YouTube it, or follow the image above. It’ll only take six minutes of your life, teach you next to nothing about 1906, but provide a snifter of an insight into a perennial contempt for the lives of the comfortably gluttonous.

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