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A Surprisingly Uncomplicated Look At Rube Goldberg Machines in Movies

Why simply turn on a light switch when you could light a candle which burns a string, which releases a bowling ball, which lands on a bag of air, which blows over some dominoes, which knock an action figure into a pot, which onto a piece of metal, which startles a chicken, which lays an egg, which rolls down a ramp and breaks open on a brick, then drains into a cup which weighs down a board which flips the light on?

That is the sort of question that illustrator Rube Goldberg (1883-1970) both asked and answered in his elaborate cartoons. Goldberg was called “America’s most famous cartoonist” by 1915, and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1948 for his political cartoons. However, he is best remembered for his detailed drawings of laughably elaborate devices for accomplishing the most simple of tasks.

Experiencing these so-called “Rube Goldberg Machines” on paper is one thing, but seeing them in action is another. So it’s no wonder that a number of these elaborate devices designed to do almost nothing have made their way to the big screen (including in a film written by Goldberg himself). From an almost incredible number of breakfast-making machines, to long systems of action-and-reaction that simply open a gate, Rube Goldberg is sort of the star of more movies than you realize. 

1. THE ELECTRIC HOUSE (1922)

While this Buster Keaton classic was more likely to have inspired Goldberg than to have been inspired by him, it certainly has the spirit of Rube Goldberg. The silent film tells the story of a house of the future that is ridiculously automated in every way. From a roving bathtub, to a self-racking pool table, to a bed that could fold itself into the wall, not a one of these machines accomplished much, even when they were working correctly.  

2. SOUP TO NUTS (1930)

Considering that Rube Goldberg himself penned (and had a cameo in) this comedy, it is no surprise that that it features a wacky inventor character who is fond of creating such things as a security system involving a giant boot, a false window, and an ejection slide. Peak Goldberg.    

3. MODERN TIMES (1936)

Charlie Chaplin’s comedy opus, Modern Times, which skewers the seeming progress brought on by technology, is likely best epitomized by the scene in which he is gang-pressed into an automated feeding machine. While this too lacks the cause-and-effect seen in the most pure Rube Goldberg machines, the silliness of a complicated machine designed to simply feed someone is all Goldberg.   

4. CHITTY, CHITTY, BANG BANG (1968)

For some reason or another, a lot of Rube Goldberg machines that appear on screen serve the sole purpose of making breakfast. The weird Victorian contraption used in Chitty, Chitty, Bang Bang seems to have simply been the first. With it’s carnival-like egg wheel, and self-delivering sausage arm, the breakfast machine (breakfast machine #1) sure seems like a lot of work for a simple meal.  

5. SUPERMAN III (1983)

Not all Rube Goldberg machines need to be made of dropped bowling balls and balanced beams. In fact the introductory scene of Superman III uses the city of Metropolis and its bumbling citizens to create a chaotic ballet of cascading actions that all culminate into a blind man saying “good day” to a tree. Of course this involves flaming penguins, a runaway dog, and Jimmy Olsen.   

6. PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE (1985)

Oh Pee-wee. The insane, and insanely whimsical Goldberg machine (breakfast machine #2) used to introduce Paul Reubens’ most famous creation may be one of the most iconic contraptions in film history. As Pee-wee gets ready for his day he simply sets his machine in motion, letting toys, dinosaur models, and Abraham Lincoln create a smiling plate of food.   

7. THE GOONIES (1985)

1985 was a good year for Rube Goldberg machines, and the strange system that Mikey of The Goonies set up in his front yard is no exception. The truly homemade machine uses a number of classic components to undo his picket fence, including a bowling ball, an exploding balloon, and the all-time classic, a chicken spontaneously laying an egg.   

8. THE MONEY PIT (1986) 

Not unlike the staged chaos of Superman III, the insane cascade of catastrophe that takes place in The Money Pit turns an entire construction site into one giant Rube Goldberg device. The final result of all the flipped boards, falling cans, and out of control carts? Getting a mannequin is to pee on Tom Hanks. it doesn’t seem like it should be that hard. 

9. THE WAY THINGS GO (1987)

Unlike the other films on this list, 1987’s The Way Things Go is nothing but a Rube Goldberg machine. At around a half an hour of rolling, tumbling, inflating, and more, the short film may be the longest (and/or largest) Rube Goldberg machine ever captured on film. The anti-climax of this unbelievably complicated series of events? Well, you’ll just have to watch it and find out.   

10. BACK TO THE FUTURE (1985) and BACK TO THE FUTURE III (1990)

Today, using a Rube Goldberg machine as shorthand to introduce an eccentric character seems like a standard bit of filmic storytelling, but no one is arguing that it isn’t effective and entertaining. This is so true that the Back To The Future franchise used the device twice. The very first film in the series opens with Doc Brown’s gross, automated system for cooking breakfast (breakfast machine #3), which is activated by the crazy number of clocks in his lab. Then in the second sequel, when Marty becomes trapped in the Wild West, Doc once again creates an overly elaborate machine to cook him breakfast (breakfast machine #4).   

11. ERNEST GOES TO JAIL (1990)

The late Jim Varney’s character, Ernest P. Worrell has never been portrayed as particularly smart, but he certainly is weird. So to drive that home even a dullard such as he is shown to have created a Rube Goldberg machine. With a train set, a flying soccer ball, and a spinning bike wheel among other components, Ernest’s living room becomes a giant device for turning on the TV, all at the flick of a switch. 

12. HOME ALONE (1990) and HOME ALONE II (1992)

While each of Kevin’s traps in the first two Home Alone movies are relatively simple little snares, they collectively act as one big Rube Goldberg hell, leading the Wet Bandits through a superhumanly punishing gauntlet of torture. Again the final accomplishment of Kevin’s devilish machines? Getting the crooks arrested.  

13. FINAL DESTINATION 1-5 (2000-2011)

Here we have an entire film franchise based on Goldberg-ian principles, but unlike in nearly every other instance of Rube Goldberg machines, which are meant to signal whimsy, the Final Destination movies create gruesomely inventive systems of murder. If someone is going to lose their head, it will not simply be chopped off, their hair will get caught in a box of prosthetic arms, which will get stuck on an ascending elevator, which will close on the victim, and severe their head. Yikes and awesome.   

14. DELICATESSEN (1991) 

In the beautiful French film Delicatessen, there is a strange, and somewhat distressing subplot about one of the tenants in the film’s central apartment building who is always trying to kill herself. Her preferred method? Rube Goldberg machine. While she only appears in a few scenes, at one point the woman sits in a bathtub, under a plugged in lamp, which sits on a long piece of cloth that is threaded into a sewing machine, which is plugged into her doorbell. As a man buzzes her apartment, the cloth pulls the lamp closer to falling in the water, but even more Goldbergian shenanigans save the day.