Ancient Rockets

Ancient Rockets: The Flying House

Psychoactive cheese!

Well! Just when I thought the last of the relevant goodies had rolled out of the Winsor McCay Xmas stocking, I found a little gem stuck way down in the toe.  The Flying House, from 1921, is one of the Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend series and was actually drawn by McCay’s son Robert. Its theme is both SFnal and timely, what with Pixar’s UP coming out on DVD, so let’s have a look.

Flying House opens with a couple retiring to bed. They had a delicious Welsh Rarebit for dinner, but the wife is worried: will she have nightmares? The husband gruffly tells her that rarebit never gives him bad dreams. Both nod off. A moment later, however, the wife wakes with a start, alone in bed. Where has her husband got to? And what are those strange noises coming from upstairs?

Climbing the stairs, she discovers her husband working on an immense engine he has installed in the house. In response to her questions, he simply tells her to go back down and read the letter on the dresser. The letter turns out to be from the man holding the mortgage on the house, informing the couple that he’s about to foreclose. The husband, refusing to be evicted, has transformed the house into a vast flying machine. As the wife watches, he attaches a propeller and starts up the engine. The house tears loose and lurches into the air, trailing a pair of pergola roofs as wings, and they’re off!

Slowly they rise over the roof of a train station and soar above the city. A band of Prohibitionists, agitating for water instead of whiskey, get deluged when the house knocks a water tank off the roof of a skyscraper. The house soars over rivers and even dives into a lake and back out again. It lights briefly on a smokestack for repairs, sending a dense cloud of coal smoke down the blocked chimney and gassing the bewildered stoker. When the house collides with a glass conservatory it neatly shears away the central dome. Heedless of the havoc he is causing, the husband chews his cigar and explains that he means to beat the mortgage interest payments by flying around until he can set down in a new location where the mortgage holder will never find them. 

But then, they encounter a storm! The house is whirled around like a toy in black clouds and lightning, and finally blown clear into outer space. Here the animators pause for a bit of self-congratulation with a title card reading, in McCay’s usual impeccable Stunt Roman font: To Teachers and Students—Special attention is called to the remarkable piece of animation which follows. The Earth and Moon revolving on their orbits in the firmament, drawn true to astronomical calculations, with the beautiful constellation of Orion in the background—discreetly signed “The Management.” While what follows isn’t exactly Chesley Bonestell, it’s still kind of sweet to see how the animators believed in the cultural significance of their art form.

Of course, all that dignity flies out the window in the next scene, when the couple land on the moon and contemplate living there, only to be chased back into space by a giant with a giant fly swatter.

And things just go from bad to worse, because now not only are they millions of miles from Earth and lost in space, they have run out of gas. And, to make matters even more desperate, back down on Earth a professorial gent is showing off his moon-rocket gun to an audience of silk-hatted colleagues, proudly declaring that it will fire a rocket traveling ten thousand miles a second. It will take only six seconds to reach the Moon and explode! Which means it’ll miss the Moon by more than a hundred and forty thousand miles, of course, but Uh oh…

The Flying House nods backward to Méliès and forward to UP, and says something to the present-day homeowner struggling to stay housed. Pretty good for a little sixteen-minute short! It can be viewed online on Google Video, though you may have some trouble finding it—for some reason, the uninspired and monotonous “Bug Vaudeville” shows up more often than most of McCay’s other work—or you can rent John Canemaker’s excellent DVD collection Animation Legend: Winsor McCay.

Next week—Santa’s Jolly Boots of Doom are inexorably trampling closer to our hearths and homes. What about a silent A Christmas Carol?


Kage Baker is a writer of science fiction and fantasy as well as a regular blogger for Tor.com.  She prefers her rarebit without tomatoes, thank you.

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