In our age of Blu-ray, video on demand, and screening films from the convenience of an iPad, the early days of cinema seem downright quaint. But that first glow across the big screen was a miracle for many, and today (back in 1895) marks the day that the Lumière brothers hosted one of the first commercial film screenings, charging admission and projecting a series of ten shorts at the Grand Café in Paris.
The brothers were inspired by a device they heard about months prior on American shores. Thomas Edison’s team, including inventor William Kennedy Dickson, had recently debuted the Kinetoscope — an exhibition device that allowed audiences to watch movies through a peephole viewer. A Kinetoscope parlor was opened in New York City, the first commercial movie house, where ten shorts (all shot at Edison’s famed Black Maria studio) were viewable through ten machines for 25 cents each.
Both sets of films have oodles of old-timey charm, but there are distinct differences in the styles of the Edison and Lumière movies. The American inventor’s films were largely static, with no camera movement, and each scene was heavily staged due to the studio setting. In this way, the films often felt more like plays. The Lumière brothers took a different approach, favoring documentary-style shorts depicting real-life situations. The angles were often unusual and therefore felt rather modern.
We dug up several of the films from each of the famous commercial screenings. They’re curious time capsules and fascinating early studies in cinema. Check out the first films people plunked down their hard-earned dollars for, below.
La sortie des usines Lumière (Employees Leaving the Lumière Factory)
Employees Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895) is the equivalent of a clown car. A crowd of people working for the Lumière brothers file out of the building near Lyon, France. Like most of the Lumière shorts, the movie was captured via Cinématographe — an all-in-one camera that developed and projected film. This was the first film projected in the Lumière’s commercial screening series.
L’Arroseur Arrosé (originally known as Le Jardinier/The Gardener)
Just one grown man spanking another grown man because he messed with his gardening — and one of the earliest comedies on film.
Eugen Sandow, the “father of modern bodybuilding,” shows off his strong man best in this Kinetoscope film. The action is limited to Sandow flexing his muscles, but audiences would have marveled at the film’s synchronization more than anything else.
Le Saut à la couverture (Jumping the Blanket)
A group of men entertain themselves with a blanket and a clownish “blanket jumper.”
La voltige (Trick Riding)
This is how not to mount a horse, but the comical scene would have entertained audiences greatly.
The Barber Shop
A choreographed and speedy shave (for a nickel!) at Edison’s makeshift barber shop. This is a prime example of the artificial scenes Edison favored in the early days.
La Pêche aux poissons rouges (Fishing for Goldfish)
Watching a Lumière film sometimes feels like watching an old family movie — as in the case of their 1895 production, Fishing for Goldfish. There is a surprising amount of tension in the short as a baby steadies himself on a giant fish bowl, grabbing for the slippery creatures. Thankfully, he doesn’t fall or destroy the glass container. This was the type of naturalistic scene the Lumière brothers enjoyed shooting.
This is the first film created for Edison’s Kinetoscope. It features three men hammering on an anvil and sharing a bottle of beer. Drinking while working was commonplace in the early 19th century, but by the time the film screened (on May 9, 1893), this would have seemed comical and nostalgic to audiences.
La Mer/Baignade en mer (The Sea)
A pleasant, energetic seaside scene featuring a lively group of swimmers jumping from a jetty into the stormy water. This is a fine example of the way the Lumière films escaped the flat cinematography of Edison’s shorts by capturing the action from an oblique angle — a major achievement in those days.
La Places des Cordeliers à Lyon (Cordeliers’ Square in Lyon)
This street scene in the Place des Cordeliers in Lyon, France is an interesting snapshot of bustling city life in the 19th century. Pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages parade into the camera’s view, and we get to see what appears to be an early bus or trolley (a double-decker car overloaded with people, pulled by two determined horses).