On the Important Place of the Lumière Brothers

“The first ones now shall later be last” — Matthew 20:16, by way of Bob Dylan.

The Lumière Brothers [Auguste (1862-1954) and Louis (1864-1948)] were neither first nor last in the history of cinema, but they are something like, for they were among the very first to make (and just as importantly, promote) breakthroughs in making pictures move, and yet they remain very current in the present day, for their early experiments are now widely shared on social media. I for one find it thrilling to watch 19th century people move through a horse-and-buggy environment. It’s as close to a time machine as we’ll ever get, at least until someone creates a much, much better version of VR than I’m aware of. I also say the Lumière Brothers are among the last because I have written about so many screen pioneers on Travalanche but not them yet (although I do devote a section to them in my book Chain of Fools).

As the 19th century drew to a close, inventors in nearly all the wealthy nations of the west were frantically working on projects to create a form of photography that would move. One hesitates to call anything or anyone “first” nowadays, but we can commit to these broad strokes: Thomas Edison and William Dickson began public demonstrations of their kinetoscope in 1893, but this device required people to look through peepholes into a machine, one viewer at a time. Kinetoscopes became popular in arcades, saloons, dime museums, and similar places for a number of years. On the other hand, the Lumière Brothers were among those who perfected projected films and were the first to gain a lot of exposure for their demonstrations before audiences, beginning in 1895.

The French brothers were second generation photographers who took over their father’s photo equipment manufacturing business. Once having come up with their Cinématographe, within months the Lumières began staging high profile public screenings in key cities. The New York one was held at Koster and Bial’s and caused a major stir. (How perfect that their surname is the French word for “light”? Now that is a BRAND. It stirs the imagination. In fact, it’s what you might have called a movie production company, even if it hadn’t already been your name!)

Today we especially associate the Lumières with a type of film they called “actualities”. And it’s the perfect name. A lot of these movies are about a minute long, and it’s just a locked-down camera on a tripod capturing such things as a train coming into a station. workers coming out of a factory, passengers disembarking from a ship, and so forth. For a period in the early to mid 20th century, after narrative cinema truly got underway, such quotidian films probably seemed laughably rudimentary. Today, over a century later, they are valuable windows into another time. I assure you contemporary historians, authors, film-makers, set designers, costumiers, etc scrutinize these movies for every single detail. Sometimes I think my eyes will burst I want to absorb so much of it.

But the Lumières also staged events in some of their brief films, which takes them into the realm of narrative. The still above is from one called The Sprinkler Sprinkled, and it has been revered from that day to this (whether true or no) as the first comedy film, for it shows a boy pranking a man by stepping on and off a hose, releasing a spray of water into the guy’s face. It never gets old.

Within months of their demonstration, the Lumière Brothers had competition in their own country, studios that are well known to film buffs, including those of Méliès, Gaumont, and Pathé Frères (which is still a going concern!) In America Edison developed his own projection system, and soon he too had competition; Dickson peeled off and started Biograph, soon followed by Vitagraph, Selig’s Polyscope, Lubin, Kalem, Essanay, and others.

As for the Lumière Brothers, they stopped making motion pictures around 1905, a mere decade after starting out. They were primarily inventors and manufacturers, not showmen. They focused on their other great contribution to modern civilization: color photography. Their name lives on at the Institut Lumière and that candle that Jerry Orbach played in Beauty and the Beast, a subtle homage in the spirit of Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s tribute to Méliès.

For more on early film history please read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.