Dream of the Rarebit Fiend: The Flying House

Winsor McCay (1921)

Against the backdrop of the rapidly urbanizing United States of the 1910s and 1920s, one house from the artificial grid of modern, planned America takes flight in the dream of a woman who has feasted on Welsh rarebit.


Winsor McCay was an American cartoonist and animator. He is best known for the comic strip Little Nemo and the animated film Gertie the Dinosaur. For contractual reasons, he worked under the pen name Silas on the comic strip Dream of the Rarebit Fiend.

From a young age, McCay was a quick, prolific, and technically dextrous artist. He started his professional career making posters and performing for dime museums, and in 1898 began illustrating newspapers and magazines. In 1903 he joined the New York Herald, where he created popular comic strips such as Little Sammy Sneeze and Dream of the Rarebit Fiend. In 1905 his signature strip Little Nemo in Slumberland debuted—a fantasy strip in an Art Nouveau style about a young boy and his adventurous dreams. The strip demonstrated McCay’s strong graphic sense and mastery of color and linear perspective. McCay experimented with the formal elements of the comic strip page, arranging and sizing panels to increase impact and enhance the narrative. McCay also produced numerous detailed editorial cartoons and was a popular performer of chalk talks on the vaudeville circuit.

McCay was an early animation pioneer; between 1911 and 1921 he self-financed and animated ten films, some of which survive only as fragments. The first three served in his vaudeville act; Gertie the Dinosaur was an interactive routine in which McCay appeared to give orders to a trained dinosaur. McCay and his assistants worked for twenty-two months on his most ambitious film, The Sinking of the Lusitania, a patriotic recreation of the German torpedoing in 1915 of the RMS Lusitania. Lusitania did not enjoy as much commercial success as the earlier films, and McCay’s later movies attracted little attention. His animation, vaudeville, and comic strip work was gradually curtailed as newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, his employer since 1911, expected McCay to devote his energies to editorial illustrations.

In his drawing, McCay made bold, prodigious use of linear perspective, particularly in detailed architecture and cityscapes. He textured his editorial cartoons with copious fine hatching, and made color a central element in Little Nemo. His comic strip work has influenced generations of cartoonists and illustrators. The technical level of McCay’s animation—its naturalism, smoothness, and scale—was unmatched until the work of Fleischer Studios in the late 1920s, followed by Walt Disney’s feature films in the 1930s. He pioneered inbetweening, the use of registration marks, cycling, and other animation techniques that were to become standard.

2 Comments

  1. Believe it or not, that reminds me of an episode of “Gomer Pyle, USMC” I saw several decades ago (mid-60s).

    Gomer is a recruit. he is meek and mellow and always upbeat and happy no matter what. His drill instructor and later platoon leader is Sgt. Carter, abrasive and hard as nails. One night they both eat Welsh Rarebit. It causes a complete reversal of their personalities. They go sleep walking and when they encounter each other, Gomer chews out Carter who is thoroughly intimidated and apologetic. This goes on until they discover what is happening and stop eating that particular meal.

    You might need to be ten years old to find it funny. But that’s abut how old I was. Your blog brought back that memory.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s very interesting. I bet they got the inspiration for that episode from this old cartoon. I grew up with my dad watching all those old shows and cartoons, so I too find it funny. I’m glad I was able to help in recreating that bit of nostalgia for you. That’s what I aim to do with this blog. I’m glad it’s working. Thanks for sharing and thanks for watching. Take care.

      Liked by 1 person

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