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Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend: Bug Vaudeville (1921)

After eating a cheese cake, a hobo falls asleep and dreams of a vaudeville show performed by bugs.

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(comic strip "Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend"), (screenplay)
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After eating a cheesecake given him by a kind-hearted lady, a hobo goes to sleep and has a bizarre dream in which insects are putting on a vaudeville show for him, with a grasshopper juggling an ant, a dancing daddy long-legs, etc. Written by Anonymous

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26 September 1921 (USA)  »

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Bug Vaudeville  »

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Follows Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend: The Pet (1921) See more »

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Did Karel Capek see this cartoon?
4 July 2006 | by (Minffordd, North Wales) – See all my reviews

Winsor McCay's 1921 cartoon 'Bug Vaudeville' has almost precisely the same plot and premise as Karel Capek's stage satire 'The Insect Play', which was first produced in Czechoslovakia in 1922. I wonder if Capek saw McCay's cartoon.

We have here a series of variety turns by various species of insects and arachnids. In several cases, McCay amusingly matches a particular vaudeville act to an appropriate species: a daddy-long-legs does an eccentric dance, while two tumble-bugs perform as acrobats. Some of the other pairings of species and performance seem more arbitrary: the potato bugs stage a boxing match, while a cockroach is a bicyclist.

McCay uses a framing device to include 'Bug Vaudeville' in his sporadic series of 'Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend' cartoons: a tramp has cadged some cheese from a housewife, and the bugs' antics are apparently his cheese-induced nightmare. In Capek's play, the tramp's slumber is induced by alcohol, and the antics of the various insects are parodic reflections of various forms of human behaviour.

'Bug Vaudeville' is amusing, and skilfully animated, but insects just don't seem to work well as cartoon characters, unless most of their distinctive appearance (and behaviour) is removed. The Fleischer Studio's 'Mr Bug Goes to Town' was a flop, even when re-released with a non-insect title, and Walt Disney famously had almost every insect trait shorn from Jiminy Cricket until the character was essentially a miniature human.

McCay, a major newspaper cartoonist in his day, made very few animations because his toons were so labour-intensive: McCay executed all the drawings himself, without the use of 'in-betweeners'. In his early toons, he drew on paper rather than acetate cels, forcing McCay to re-draw background art even when the background didn't change.

Sadly, almost none of McCay's original artwork survives. In 1982, I interviewed American comic-book artist Leonard B Cole, who worked alongside artist Robert McCay (Winsor's son) in the 1940s. Cole told me that McCay once brought a large quantity of his father's artwork to the studio where they worked, and offered to give it away to any artist who would take it. There were no takers, so McCay simply threw out the lot! (Cole spent a long time regretting his decision to decline the offer.) Today, those illustration boards would be priceless. I'll rate 'Bug Vaudeville' 8 out of 10. It's not very funny, but it's impressively made.


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