Debauchery! Dreams of a Rarebit Munchausen

by Patrick Ellis Volume 7, Issue 9 / September 2003 15 minutes (3560 words)

“Study of one thousand and one cases made under the supervision of a staff of physicians connected with the Physchopathic [sic] Ward of Bellevue Hospital developed astonishing scientific results. All of the victims upon their arrival at the institution were put into strait jackets and manacles and tightly strapped to their beds. Smitherson’s patent Revograph was applied in each case and the pictures of the dreams experienced by each patient were magnified and thrown upon large white sheets placed at the end of the beds in the thoroughly darkened ward. [… In] all but three cases, the rarebit eaters were troubled by visions of a distressing nature. Armadilloes, red serpents, green street cars…” 1

…moon men, imps, spider-women, humans hung like laundry from poles: all of these and many more reveries occur in both Winsor Zenic McCay’s imaginary Bellevue hospital and the varying dreamlike cultural documents explored in this essay. In my introductory essay I noted that Georges Méliès’ adaptation of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Baron Munchausen’s Dream (1911) is mostly derivative. In fact, it is four degrees away from the original spark. Luckily for the viewer, each degree’s creator is an exemplar of his given medium’s talent: Cecil Hepworth and Gaston Velle’s dreamy forays, Winsor McCay’s stunning composition, and Edwin S. Porter’s ingenuity. The final layer, Georges Méliès’ own, is a palimpsest underneath which each previous layer is apparent, if we know where to look. In another’s words, “All the layers are ‘present’ on the surface of the palimpsest—but their development […] has become invisible.” 2 The intention here is to make visible the various chronological layers of this cumulative creation, the lost bonds of a parataxis, with particular attention to the structural and oneiric properties of each.

Méliès’ Baron Munchausen’s Dream

Layer 1

Layer 1 is less document than milieu. In the same lineage as the surrealist and trance genres, cinema’s romance with dreams (and in particular exquiseria-inspired dreams) was a frequent source of humour and simple narrative in the early 20th century. A book could be written on the many French films beginning with “Le reve….” Méliès himself directed no less than five films that began so, more if we count the practically interchangeable title “Les hallucinations….” In most of these films the premise is the same: a stereotypical character, whether watchmaker, alchemist, or Baron, partakes in some form of excess, be it (the predominant) food or alcohol; or (the less common, though equally pernicious) addiction to work, gambling, or sundry drugs. They then dream and experience an unreality which is presented with all the delightful “trickality” of early cinema. 3 A punitive ending is frequently in order—a hangover, a fall, a beating; generally, the intent is comedic, although occasionally moralising. Above all, the simple premise provides the structure whereby any action or fancy is explained away as narrative. Realism may be ignored on account of excess: when a ghost asks Dickens’ Scrooge, “Why do you doubt your senses?” his answer in turn answers for all of the documents considered here. “Because,[…] a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese….” 4 I will give this micro-genre a temporary name for this essay: simply, debauch-films, invoking as it does an equal measure of pleasure, and later, suffering.

Two such early debauch-films cited as inspiration for the creations to come are Cecil Hepworth’s The Glutton’s Nightmare (1901) and Gaston Velle’s Rêve à la lune (1905), both of which, as ancestral examples, are considered briefly here with reference to their own antecedents.[Georges Sadoul. Histoire Générale du Cinema: Les pionniers du cinéma 1897-1909. Paris: Denoël, 1948. Sadoul went a long way in making these first connections and providing the information for readers to form yet more parallels and situate other cinematic heritages. ]]

While mostly hailed today for the banal yet prescient Rescued by Rover (1905), a more carnivalesque appreciation of Hepworth would celebrate the visceral Explosion of a Motor Car and How it Feels to be Run Over (the last phantom ride an adventurous viewer might take), both released in 1900. This sense of play and recklessness is evident in Hepworth’s The Glutton’s Nightmare as well, and indeed the synopsis to it might relate the framework of any of the future films considered: “Le gourmand se mettait à table et dévorait force rosbifs. Puis il se mettait au lit et assistait à un ballet des aliments. Il se réveillait sous un cascade de nourriture diverses qui tombaient du plafond.” 5 The integral elements are there: gustatory excess, inexplicable happenings, and wakeful resolution.

Velle comes from Munchausen alumni as it is, making his Rêve à la lune for Pathé; he is also a likely creator of a dreamy debauch-film, as he was, like Méliès, a conjurer—that profession whose business it is to confound the lines between dream and waking life—as well as a filmmaker.  Rêve à la lune is Velle’s most successful film and it varies the formula only slightly. The dreamer is in this case strictly a drunkard, no gourmand, beginning the narrative by executing a “wild, disordered quadrille” with “gigantic bottles in human form […]. Next he sleeps.” 6 The emphasis is added here to suggest the minor disorder of the structure outlined above, for the inebriate’s symbolic revelry is positively dream-like before falling asleep. This incongruity may be explained by the film’s evident debt to earlier Pathé drug-induced fantasy films such as Rêve d’un buveur (1902) or Rêves d’opium (1895), the descriptions of which sound remarkably like that of Velle’s contribution. 7 The cinematic code here is certain: drugs dispense with the need for dreams. As another opium fiend, Coleridge, knew when he had “drunk the milk of Paradise”: the roads to fantasy are many. 8

These examples are meant to serve as symptomatic of the larger debauch-film tendency. Hepworth’s audience-experienced physicality and Velle’s drug-induced reveries function as a base for the successive palimpsest studied here, while simultaneously revealing debts to prior sources—this milieu has its sources of inspiration, too. There is no ab ovo.

Layer 2

And so we must cease tugging this thread of derivation before being left with a mere heap of tangled interchange. To prevent such a cataclysmic essayistic spiral it is necessary to settle on an alpha document, a first creator: Winsor Zenic McCay. One of three early American cartoonists to be canonized in the mock Holy Trinity of turn-of-the-century comic strips, 9 McCay is generally lauded for his efforts on Little Nemo in Slumberland, where he deconstructed sequential art’s form in a strip for children that is entertaining to this day. With Little Nemo McCay helped introduce a proto-ligne claire aesthetic to a mass American audience, later to be popularised, perfected, and made redundant by its European enthusiasts. 10 He also pioneered animation with a pedantry and dedication that is still admired and discussed in film history. 11

Apropos the subject at hand, McCay’s simultaneous strip Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend continued with the surreal eye-benders of Little Nemo but allowed for more nightmarish dream happenings than little Nemo could bear. A commentator has compared their preoccupations thusly: for Little Nemo, “the dream fantasies that McCay taps into so unerringly are those of little boys […] giants, masquerades, fantastic travel adventures,” whereas in Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend the focus is on adult fears such as “embarrassment through nudity, transvestism, inability to perform occupational duties or having a peccadillo discovered, loss of identity, fear of dying, going mad or disappointing a sex partner.” 12   The scenario is the same for every strip, and perpetuates the configuration introduced in Layer 1: a character is in an ordinary situation which takes an extraordinary turn, and to expand upon the above list, dismemberment, bloody brawls, doppelgangers, burials, sudden obesity, maulings ad infinitum follow. In the final panel, the character wakes up in bed and bemoans the overindulgence of rarebit. It is worth emphasizing that for all the catalogue of unpleasantness above, Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend is foremost a humorous undertaking and the work of a skilled draftsman. The strip excerpted here shows a cubist kineticism that has been chronologized by the temporal divisions of “gutters” (panel-dividers, in the jargon of the industry).

This particular strip is also that which filmmakers have most frequently adapted of McCay’s prolific oeuvre. Its frequent usage is comparatively strange, for McCay executed more able drawings, but in its debauch-filmic context the reasons are plain. 13 Here we have a comic strip entirely situated in that vessel to slumberland, the bed, upon a rocky voyage. All of the films analysed hereafter take place in such drowsy environs—actually, that such bizarre adventures happen in and around this ordinary place of refuge is an essential dynamic of the films in general—and delight in the animated inanimate bed. 14 Rocking, jumping, flying beds (pay your dues, Exorcist): the perpetuity of visuals initially utilized by McCay confirms his proficiency. As we shall see, this did not go unnoticed.

Layer 3

Edwin S. Porter needs little introduction, being very well known for The Great Train Robbery (1903) and many other early films made for Edison. As is the adaptive expedience of narrative cinema, Porter brought McCay to the screen with Dream of a Rarebit Fiend in 1906. This popular-culture adaptation has a duplex use in the early history of film. Chiefly, it familiarises an audience with a more convoluted storyline that they could recognise from repeated exposure. This is particularly applicable, for at this time McCay was at the height of his fame and syndication, even sharing a stage as a lightning sketcher with Houdini and W.C. Fields in 1907. Also, a tactic still much employed, the reuse extends the economic benefits of a proven success. The franchisement of McCay’s strip even included a tune played by the Edison Military Band, “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend.”    

Most important is the similarity of Porter’s film to McCay’s strip. 15 Some comparative shots are reproduced here, and as with contemporary comic adaptations, certain poses are lifted straight off the page and put onto the screen. Additionally, the narrative of Porter’s film owes a great deal to McCay, although like Velle, the cause of the odd dreams this time is not so much the consumption of rarebit, but rather alcohol. There is no transition, as such, from reality to dreamland. When the fiend comes home from his revelry, his shoes take on a life of their own, and from there one fantastic happening after another takes place. Imps poke at him, his bed shakes and then flies away; finally he is dropped onto a church steeple identical to the one produced above.

Film historian Charles Musser, in an apparent attempt to subvert any originality on Porter’s part, declares that the film is hugely indebted to many sources apart from McCay, including Biograph’s Dreams of a Race-Track Fiend (1905). Further, he suggests that “Porter’s use of McCay’s title not only provided a frame of reference that helped audiences understand the transitions but obscured his borrowings from the Velle narrative” (emphasis added). 16 This seems a harsh judgement, for in simple narratives such as these there is little to conceal, and Porter’s borrowings are proudly on his cinematic sleeve: McCay and the debauch-film micro-milieu. That said, our next and final example throws a wrench into the creative works, and issues of originality, plagiarism and marketability become problematic.

Layer 4

Whether you consider him film’s first fantasist or an overly-praised businessman, Méliès’ creative drive is astounding: some 500 films bear his name. Expectedly, many of these are literary adaptations: Little Red Riding Hood, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, and, to some minor extent, Baron Munchausen’s Dream. Minor, for Baron Munchausen’s Dream is only superficially an adaptation of Raspe’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. A synopsis of the film may help position it accurately.

There are three acts to Baron Munchausen’s Dream, three intertitles. The first reads “The Baron Dines and Wines Well.” We know this line. The intertitle and shot following it provide the viewer with a purchase either from the drug-induced fantasy or the food-induced fantasy, whichever is familiar. The Baron gulps down food with relish while having his glass refilled. He then staggers away from the table and in the succeeding sequence is visited by “Dreams and Nightmares.”

This second act contains the bulk of the film. Lying in his bed, the Baron is plagued by visions in the mirror above his bed. These include dancers, the fates-turned-mutant animals, spear-wielding knights, playful animated statuary, a brightening goddess, demons, dragons, imps, a giant spider-woman, a moon man; in typical Méliès fashion, a cut-up of fantastic literature and mythology. 17 To top all of this off his bed shakes à la McCay and finally the Baron throws a chest through his mirror and jumps “through the looking-glass,” to borrow a phrase from a very similar work. 18 Baron Munchausen falls outdoors and ends up, no surprise, hanging on a fence with threateningly pointed tips.   

This fall leads to “The Result of His Awakening,” the final act in which the Baron, down from his fence, looks into a second mirror at himself as if to re-establish his identity. He is joined by his equally relieved and guffawing servants. All is well chez Munchausen.

If I have succeeded in placing this film in context, the similarity of Méliès to Hepworth, Velle, McCay and Porter’s works should be evident. The pervading structure is employed and certain images and compositions are identical. The boozing of Velle, the human hanging-poles of McCay, the imps of Porter: each visible in the final product. Which image Méliès garnered from where is open to supposition—it is unlikely he was familiar with McCay’s strip, it being unsyndicated in France, but elements are obviously passed on through Porter to Méliès. In any case, a candid viewing of Méliès’ Baron Munchausen’s Dream refutes (and somewhat inverts) the assertion that Méliès’ “greatest claim to the attention” of contemporary filmgoers “has been that he influenced Edwin S. Porter.” 19

The connection to the book that Méliès purports to adapt, however, that of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, is tenuous. First off, the Baron of Méliès’ film does not bear the traditional tricorn hat that makes its way into most Munchausen films; in fact, he looks rather like Méliès. Further, none of the tales of Munchausen are actually adapted (despite the similarly charming haphazard amalgam of mythic creatures); the closest Méliès came to actual adaptation is the presence of a moon man, staple of the Munchausen mythos, but Méliès evidently owes more visually to his own moon man in A Trip to the Moon (1902). It is Munchausen in name only. To give Méliès the benefit of the doubt he deserves, one could argue that this representation is Baron Munchausen on an off-night. At home and living it up, he dreams the kind of dreams such an archetypal character would.

So then, why title your film Baron Munchausen’s Dream when in practice it has little to do with the character? There are a number of possible answers. One is that the film continues in the French tradition of “Le reve….” films (or “Les hallucinations…,” for in the French it was originally called Les hallucinations du Baron Münchausen). Another prospect is that Méliès wished to give a sense of continuity with his earlier fantastic literature adaptations; it is an easy step from Cinderella (1899) to Munchausen. A third, opportunistic, possibility is that Baron Munchausen’s Dream might have been named such after the fact. Perhaps the working title of the picture was simply The Landowners Dream, or Hallucinations of an Overeater. An economic decision, Baron Munchausen was a more saleable name in fantasy. My view is that Méliès in part recognized himself in the great liar: it was one of his last films, after all, and arguably one veteran fabricator identifying with another.

Akin to the tabula rasa-cum-palimpsest of paper-poor monks, Méliès’ final product (while not really final) is blurred with prior renderings. Consider the progression as follows.        

  • The debauch-film thematic provides an articulation of common belief (Layer 1).
  • An inspired cartoon strip familiarizes a mass audience with the basic structure (Layer 2).
  • Porter adapts this strip into a popular film (Layer 3).
  • Méliès remakes Porter’s adaptation (Layer 4).

And, in the titling of his film, Méliès situates it in another lineage, that of the eponymous Munchausen. This complicates things, and, at the same time, draws parallels: similar to the Munchausen pedigree, Méliès’ contribution to the debauch-film lineage becomes one element of a continuous sporadic document—a game of telephone played out in extremis.

Analogous is Gus Van Sant’s tetralogic palimpsest, Psycho (1998).

  • The real case of a psychopath who mentally becomes his mother.
  • A Robert Bloch novel based upon, and exploiting the original case.
  • Hitchcock’s expert adaptation of the book.
  • Finally, Van Sant’s strange modernized duplicate, like a copy that has lost the resolution of its original.

Now imagine if a French director constructed a remake of Van Sant’s Psycho and for reasons unknown titled it Hercule, casting Jean-Pierre Léaud in the lead. There is a Borgesian paradox to this sort of repetitive cross-generic cultural derivation; Borges’ words, directed toward another “kind of palimpsest,” are applicable to Méliès: “He dedicated his conscience and nightly studies to the repetition of a pre-existing [document] in a foreign tongue.” 20

As there is no true beginning, so there is no end; Layer 5 could well be 1914’s Barone di Münchausen; or (who knows?) two of the lost hours of von Stroheim’s Greed. Were our hypothetical Layer 5 in this tradition, no doubt it might have devilish imps, animated inanimate objects, flying beds, and, in the words of Winsor Zenic McCay, other, “innumerable objects […] portrayed upon the screens as they passed through the disordered faculties of the dreamers.” 21

Read Part 1 Here.


  1. Rarebit, for those who have not had the luxury, is a Welsh dish consisting of toast and melted cheese. Purported to coax little overdue fiends from the womb, the meal is pronounced as “rabbit.” Winsor McCay, using pseudonym John W. Harrington. “Concerning the Symptoms.”  Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend. Toronto: Dover, 1973, 2.
  2. Hakim Bey. The Palimpsest. The Hermetic Library. 9 Jun 2003.
  3. The term trickality seems limited to Méliès. André Gaudreault. “Theatricality, Narrativity, and Trickality: Reevaluating the Cinema of Georges Méliès.” Journal of Popular Film and Television Fall 1987: 110-19.
  4. Charles Dickens. The Annotated Christmas Carol. Ed. Michael Patrick Hearn. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1976, 76.
  5. Ibid., 410.
  6. Charles Musser. Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company. Berkeley: California UP, 1991, 341. Musser is here translating from a French Pathé catalog quoted in Sadoul, 306-308.
  7. Sadoul, 74.
  8. Samuel Taylor Coleridge. “Kubla Kahn.” Selected Poems of S.T. Coleridge. Ed. James Reeves. London: Heinemann, 1959, 86.
  9. The other two being Lyonel Feininger and George Herriman—Frank King has just about been advocated in of late to form a quartet.
  10. Paul Gravett. “Hergé and the Clear Line: Part Two.” Comic Art 1.3 (2003): 70-79.
  11. McCay actually filmed his own animated version of Little Nemo in Slumberland. Were it but germane to Munchausen, an interesting animated adaptation of Little Nemo, made by Masami Hata in 1992, would be worth considering for it contains many of the structural debauch-film elements discussed in this essay.
  12. Anonymous editor in McCay, ix.
  13. Superior McCay strips are generally those that display his animation competence; gradual metamorphosis has never been done quite so since. McCay, 6, 37, 49.
  14. As a future essay will explore, beyond the Baron Munchausen himself, the animated inanimate is perhaps the most persistently visited Munchausen motif maintained from the original book, and is as unheimlich as any psychoanalyst could wish for.
  15. Detailed in the Dover reprint of Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend. McCay, x-xiii.
  16. Musser, 342.
  17. “Cut-up” may not be so anachronistic a term as all that. Taken as marginalia, Méliès’ position can be traced from spirit photography to Brion Gysin’s cut-ups, or more precisely, dreamachines: Gysin’s world was also “magickal in origin.” Simon Dwyer. “Dreamachine: An Information Montage.” Rapid Eye 1. Ed. Simon Dwyer. London: Creation, 1989, 52. See also Tom Gunning. “Phantom Images and Modern Manifestations: Spirit Photography, Magic Theater, Trick Films, and Photography’s Uncanny.” Fugitive Images: From Photography to Video. Ed. Patrice Petro. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.
  18. Add two more ancestors to the list: Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, and the more pertinent, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, stem from the same Menippean lineage as Raspe’s book. They also contain innumerable dreamy results from eating (or drinking) anomalous foodstuff.
  19. Paul Hammond. Marvellous Méliès. London: Gordon Fraser, 1974, 127. Specifically, “Porter’s version of [Jack and the Beanstalk (1902)] is modelled on Méliès’s version of Bluebeard [(1901)]. ” Ian Wojcik-Andrews. “Méliès, George.” Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales.
  20. Jorge Luis Borges. Ficciones. Ed. Anthony Kerrigan. Trans. Emecé Editores. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1962, 54. Quoted concerning Don Quixote as written by the fictitious Pierre Menard.
  21. McCay, 2.

Volume 7, Issue 9 / September 2003 Essays   film history   german cinema   silent cinema