The Man with the Rubber Head (1901)

by popegrutch

Alternate Title: L’Homme a la Tete en Cahoutchouc

This trick film from Georges Méliès is quite simple, but may represent one of the most important innovations Méliès contributed to cinema. It also is, as usual for him, a fun and whimsical example of a magic show.

The proscenium-style frame shows us the workroom of a doctor, perhaps a chemist or alchemist. Various paraphernalia is visible in the background, and the center of the frame is dominated by a large arch. The chemist (played by Méliès) is seen pouring a liquid from one bottle into another, but simply puts the bottles on the floor when he is finished. Then he goes behind the arch and gets out an ornate table, placing it just below the arch. He puts an odd platform on top of this, which has a hose or pipe running out from the center, with a valve attached. He now puts a head, which closely resembles his own, on top of the platform, so that is is just above the opening to the pipe. The head is lively, talking and making faces at the chemist. He gestures to the audience, showing what he intends to do. He gets a large bellows and attaches it to the other end of the pipe, then begins pumping the head up. The head, seemingly distressed, grows larger and larger until it is the size of the chemist’s body. The chemist then pulls off the bellows and twists the valve, and the “air” comes out, causing the head to shrink back to normal size. The chemist invites a clown into the scene, and the clown now tries the same experiment, once again distressing the head, but soon distressing the chemist as well when he goes too far and the head bursts like a balloon. The chemist kicks the clown out of the lab and weeps for the loss of his living head.

What makes this movie important is the special effect used – not the “twinning” effect whereby Méliès’s head appears in two places at once, he’d done that several times already – the effect that allows his head to expand and contract. Today, we call this the “zoom” and the “close-up.” and it was achieved at that time through the expedient of putting the actor physically closer to the camera so that the head filled a larger portion of the screen. Normally, all movies at this time were shot in “wide shot,” and Méliès’s films specifically were shot to reproduce the proscenium space of a stage, allowing the audience to see the whole actor from the top of the head to the bottoms of the feet. Here, we are able to see the details of Méliès’s facial expressions far more clearly than elsewhere, because his head becomes so large on the screen. We also witness the camera’s change in perspective as actor and camera come closer together, a dynamic movement also rare at the time. Was this the “first close-up?” Well, as with all historical firsts, it sort of depends how you define it. I can recall passengers walking quite close to the camera in the Lumiére movies shot at train stations, and sometimes their heads got quite large before they passed by (note that this was avoided in the more carefully-staged “Workers Leaving the Factory”). As well, “zooming” may not have been practiced deliberately, but one aspect of many early actualities was the enlargement of objects on the screen as they approached the camera – this was part of confirming the “realism” of film, since things appear to get larger as they get closer in real life as well. As compared to those examples, though, here Méliès moved his camera and actor close together deliberately for the purpose of giving a close view of his own head, which makes it apparently new. However, it was to achieve the illusion of growth, rather than as a method of changing the audience’s perspective or giving a more nuanced performance, so in some ways it might be a more “primitive” close-up than Chaplin’s famous one in “The Bank,” for example.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 2 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.