Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend: The Flying House (1921)
Release Date: September 25th, 1921 (Restoration Re-release: February 8th, 2012) MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Winsor McCay Actors: Patricia Clarkson, Matthew Modine
amous animator Winsor McCay (perhaps best associated with the 1914 short “Gertie the Dinosaur”), who started as a newspaper cartoonist and gained national appeal for strips such as “Little Nemo in Slumberland” and “Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend,” completed the seven minute short “The Flying House” in 1921. Animator Bill Plympton (of Plymptoon fame, with an easily recognized, distinctive style – see the Academy Award-nominated 1987 short “Your Face” for a superb sample of his talent) produced the restoration and re-release of “The Flying House,” giving the title card a notation of 1921-2011, as well as the statement that it was drawn by Robert Winsor McCay using the Winsor McCay process of animated drawing. However, Plympton also added color, voice recordings (in substitution of original word bubbles), music and sound editing, and a soundtrack to compliment the picture – along with painstakingly cleaning up every single frame, which had deteriorated drastically.
The story follows Bertie (Matthew Modine) and his wife (Patricia Clarkson) as they are preparing for bed, discussing their earlier rarebit meal (a Welsh rabbit and running gag for McCay’s original “Dream of a Rarebit Fiend” newspaper strip), and hoping that despite its deliciousness, it won’t lead to nightmares. The dream world quickly overtakes them as the wife reads a letter from George H. Profiteer, who is threatening to foreclose on their home. Bertie is intent on turning the house into a flying machine to escape the predicament, and sets about assembling massive gears and mechanical components that churn and whistle, lifting the entire house with propellers and wings, into the sky.
During their flight, a bit of slapstick and playful but destructive mayhem occurs. A water tower is knocked onto a crowd of protestors demanding water, and when the house makes its way into orbit, Bertie and his wife spy the moon. When they land on the bright white orb, a bald, crimson-skinned man with a black wife-beater and facial hair wields a giant flyswatter at them. After narrowly escaping, a Dr. Strangelove-voiced scientist launches a rocket into the sky that impacts with the flying house, sending the duo crashing back to earth – and woken into reality.
The animation is so simplistic that mouths rarely move and there are many seconds with no movement at all. Other motion is repetitive, largely to prevent having to re-draw similar frames again (keep in mind this was a one-man project). Painted backgrounds with colored pencil-like drawings give the dream sequences an appropriate feeling of nonsensical fantasy and comic strip uncomplicatedness. Johann Strauss’ “Blue Danube Waltz” presides over the whole ordeal, further emphasizing the dreamlike qualities. While the art certainly isn’t the most impressive of its kind, even compared to other works of the ‘20s, and critics may question the amount of alterations to McCay’s original vision, Bill Plympton’s restoration of “The Flying House” labors to preserve a piece of animation history and makes for an interesting observation for diehard art enthusiasts and historians.
– Mike Massie