L’Arroseur Arrosé

"A gardener watering plants is tormented by a mischievous boy. The very first comedy filmed in history."

L’Arroseur Arrosé is a short film directed by Louis Lumière about a boy who plays a prank on a gardener who’s watering plants. It’s a historic silent film, widely considered to be the first live action comedy short in film history. It was shot in black and white in 1895 by Louis Lumière himself with the Cinématographe camera. The film was also developed and later printed into positives by him using natural light bouncing off a white wall. (1)

L’Arroseur Arrosé was part of the first public commercial screening held by the Lumière brothers on December 28, 1895 at the Salon Indien of the Grand Café in the city of Paris. It was listed on the program as “Le Jardinier” (“The Gardener”). The film had earlier private screenings that same year, it premiered June 10, 1895 at Lyon’s “Palais de la Bourse”. The screening took place during a congress held by the “Union des Sociétés Photographiques de France”. (2) (3)

Two characters, external conflict, suburban staging and an accent on slapstick humor are the main elements of the short. One shot, no camera moves, no changing shot sizes, staged in one location. The short was conceived as filmed theater, since none of the codes of cinematographic storytelling had been invented yet. The gardener character was given the order to take the boy close to the camera after the brief chase, as if he was bringing him close to where the theater’s audience is located.

As happens with early Lumière films, no professional actors are performing. Members of the family, friends or employees show up in many of their first films.

According to Louis Lumière, the idea for the film was inspired by a prank from his younger brother Edouard. (1) Since he was too young to play the part, Louis replaced him with an apprentice who worked at the Lumière factory, called Benoît Duval. The joke of the boy stepping on the hose, however, had already surfaced in a number of cartoons years before this film. (4) So it’s possible Edouard had come up with the idea by seeing it in comics or by watching someone else doing it. As also happened with Thomas Edison’s pioneering films produced in the United States around that time, many of the ideas came from earlier sources.

The choice of staging for L’Arroseur Arrosé is significant. Edison, the main competitor of the Lumières, was shooting films in his New Jersey-based Black Maria studio. The system Edison invented used electricity, which constrained filming to the interior of the studio. The portability of Lumières’ invention allowed them to shoot films outdoors, letting them create the first documentaries as well as incorporating nature for the first time into films, though it clearly was not used initially for expressive purposes. L’Arroseur Arrosé was shot at the garden of Lumières’ villa (maison Lumière) in Monplaisir, Lyon. (3)

All of the first series of films produced by the Lumière brothers were 17 meters long and took around a minute to project. (1) The projection method was mechanical at the time so running time could vary. Those who were later hired as camera operators were taught by Louis Lumière to both shoot and project films by turning the crank to the rhythm of the French song Le Régiment de Sambre et Meuse, corresponding to a rate of around 16-18 images per second, to keep a standard speed. (5)

The short is widely regarded as the first live action comedy film (Edison had made earlier ones composed of brief gags but they can hardly be considered stories), as well as the first live action fiction film. It is also the first film used in a promotional movie poster. Comedy films with elaborate plots were actually made before this one, but they were created using animation. French inventor and artist Émile Reynaud made these animated films and screened them publicly starting October 28, 1892 at the Musée Grévin in Paris. The screenings were commercial, spectators paid a fee.

Newspapers published interesting reactions to Lumières’ screenings at the time, mentioning the realism of the films and the great potential for future developments, including sound. The daily newspaper Le Temps mentions the short in 1896, decrying the artificial staging and highlighting how it made it lose the realistic appearance the other films had (a number of which were of course also staged – though less noticeably). This is probably one of the first instances in which an early “movie critic” goes against the opinion of the majority. Though one can understand him, Le Temps sent Jules Claretie to the screening, who happened to be an experienced playwright and drama critic and couldn’t help noticing the performances delivered by those who weren’t professional actors.

“Strangely enough, when the scene is made up, when we are shown, for example, two friends quarrelling about a newspaper article, or a kid putting his foot on a gardener’s hose, the sensation of absolute truth, of strict reality disappears. These animated photographs need a snapshot of life without a pose. At the slightest artifice, say goodbye to the illusion!”
– Jules Claretie in his chronicle “Life in Paris”, Le Temps, February 13, 1896. (6)

A new vocabulary was taking shape as cinema was born. Before Lumières’ Cinématographe was labeled as such, it was described by its inventors as an “apparatus used to obtain the vision of chronophotographic prints”. It was quoted that way in their first patent on February 13, 1895. (1) Their father Antoine, due to a suggestion from a friend called Lechère, tried to convince them to adopt the name Domitor for the new camera, but Louis and Auguste declined. (1)

L’Arroseur Arrosé has been embraced as a milestone in filmmaking, but interestingly enough, it was never presented with that name during the initial years it was screened. The name of the short has shifted through the years and from one language to another. It has showed up as Le Jardinier (The Gardener), Le Jardinier Et Le Petit Espiègle (The Gardener And The Little Mischief Maker), Arroseur Arrosé, The Sprinkler Sprinkled, The Waterer Watered, Tables Turned on the Gardener, The Gardener and the Bad Boy, etc. The name L’Arroseur Arrosé was adopted at a later time by history of film. It’s not unusual to see it still being labeled with one of its alternative names.

Due to the great popularity of the film a number of remakes were produced by various filmmakers, including the Lumières themselves, Georges Méliès, G.A. Smith, Edison, etc. Most importantly, it signaled the narrative path live action filmmaking would soon take, as well as the hunger audiences had for comedy, foretelling what would be the resounding success of that film genre. An expectable outcome, considering the immense popularity comedy has been enjoying for thousands of years since its origins in the theater of ancient Greece. Physical humor, which has also been present in theater for centuries, was particularly well suited for silent films, and would be further refined by many artists, including Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, etc.

It’s worth noting that other public screenings of live action films were taking place around the time the Lumières premiered theirs (7), even if those from the competition were not up to the same quality. The Lumières must’ve heard news of how close competitors were getting. The birth of film resembles more a race among inventors rather than the singular discoveries of a few isolated individuals.

Sources and references:
(1) Georges Sadoul, “Louis Lumière’s last interview”, L’Ecran Français, June 15, 1948, https://www.la-belle-equipe.fr/2020/12/26/la-derniere-interview-de-louis-lumiere-par-georges-sadoul-lecran-francais-1948/.
(2) “Liste des 12 projections Lumière précédant la première publique et payante du 28 décembre 1895 au Salon Indien du Grand Café à Paris”, Institut Lumière, accessed May 2023, https://www.institut-lumiere.org/musee/les-freres-lumiere-et-leurs-inventions/cinematographe/les-projections-priv%C3%A9es-du-cin%C3%A9matographe.html.
(3) Manuel Schmalstieg et al, “Catalog Lumière – L’œuvre cinématographique des frères Lumière”, 2015, accessed September 2022, https://catalogue-lumiere.com/arroseur-et-arrose-i/. The information from the catalog is based on the book “La production cinématographique des Frères Lumière”, edited by Michelle Aubert and Jean-Claude Seguin, and published by the CNC, the Université Lumière-Lyon 2 and the National Film Library in 1996.
(4) “Arroseurs arrosés”, Töpfferiana, October 27, 2010, accessed September 2022, http://www.topfferiana.fr/2010/10/arroseurs-arroses/.
(5) “Histoire du cinéma”, Wikipedia, accessed September 2022, https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Histoire_du_cinéma. The song “Le Régiment de Sambre et Meuse” with lyrics can be found on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9HDSLgyYTFE.
(6) “The first screenings of the Cinématographe in Paris in early 1896”, La Belle Equipe, December 30, 2015, accessed September 2022, https://www.la-belle-equipe.fr/2015/12/30/les-premieres-seances-du-cinematographe-a-paris-debut-1896/.
(7) “Salon Indien du Grand Café”, Wikipedia, accessed September 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salon_Indien_du_Grand_Caf%C3%A9. The page offers a list of early commercial public film screenings (see bottom of page).

8k version of the film with improved image quality


The Song of the Camera Operator by Marcel Arnac (1914). (French)

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