The Ranks of the Auteurs: Louis Lumière

Note: “The Ranks of the Auteurs” is a written series that traces notable people, studios, and series throughout film history and ranks their work. This is the third installment, featuring Louis Lumière, who was born on October 5, 1864 in Besançon, France and died June 6, 1948 in Bandol, France.

The name Lumière has become synonymous with the invention of film and the birth of cinema. As has been demonstrated in earlier installments of this series, brothers Auguste and Louis were not the first to make pictures move or display said movement for others. But, besides Thomas Edison, they had more impact than anyone else in the very brief, immediate moments of the afterbirth of film in the late 1880s and early ’90s. They especially ignited the art form in France, arguably the filmmaking capital of the world until even the 1910s. Born into a photography business-owning family, the brothers saved their father’s factory with more efficient processes of producing photographic plates. Working from the cinematograph patented by Léon Guillaume Bouly and film perforations invented by Charles-Emile Reynaud, the Lumière brothers made their own camera, patented in 1895. Their first recorded footage, of workers leaving their factory, is now a symbol of the beginning of film. And their public display of ten shorts they made throughout the year is often (questionably) cited as the first public screening of film, although the Lumières did have an advantage over main competitor (in hindsight) Edison with a projection system as opposed to the American’s peephole Kinetoscope.

But as much as the brothers are credited for these developments, Louis, the younger of the two, was the primary cinematographer of the films they made, which were mostly actualities, proto-documentaries. Considering the smudged lines in roles that existed in the earliest days of film, Louis’ duties can most accurately be assigned to the role of director. Besides making a few of the most important and famous of the earliest milestones of film, he ended up making quite a few obscure yet intriguing microshorts. In spite of their ingenuity, the Lumière brothers saw film as a novelty and ducked out of the industry in 1905 to focus on Autochrome Lumière, an important development in color photography and, ultimately and ironically, cinematography. They wouldn’t even sell their camera concept to anyone, including Georges Méliès. But this would ultimately spur a number of European filmmakers toward pretty spectacular inventions and creations. Below is a ranking and examination of Louis Lumière’s most immediately accessible body of work, a fragment (a still large one, however) of the hundreds of films he made.

#58 — PLACE DU PONT (1897)

This little stroll through Lyon, France is a great look at the city 121 years ago as seen (presumably) from the end of a trolley, but not spectacular in any specific way.

#57 — LAVEUSES (1896)

Like most of the Lumière films and early cinema’s output, LAVEUSES is an “actuality,” proto-documentaries that typically portray or reenact everyday life. It’s a pretty uneventful look at some women washing clothes, but I understand the “Sunlight Savon” boxes strewn about the scene represent the earliest example of product placement, intentional or not.

#56 — DRAWING OUT THE COKE (1896)

“Drawing out the coke” is what you do when you’ve been laid off from Little Caesars, but it’s also what you do you when you’re using a forge and need to take the coal-based substance out of it. The process makes for cool viewing, especially considering it was happening 122 years ago.

#55 — BOWLING PARTY (1896)

Victorian era party games are amusing.

#54 — SCHAFFOUSE, CHÛTES DU RHIN VUES DE LOIN (1896)

This is a pretty beautiful look at some raging falls as a boat paddles by from right to left.

#53 — LE MARCHÉ AUX POISSONS (1896)

A congregation of people in some kind of harbor or market walk around and search around. It’s not riveting viewing but life going on along the water is an interesting sight.

#52 — CONCOURS DE BOULES (1896)

Another bowling game, but this time, it’s taking place in what appears to be a park with a huge crowd. The frantic jockeying for position is funny.

#51 — ARRIVÉE D’UN TRAIN À PERRACHE (1896)

There are echoes of the famous Lumière film in this film, clearly, and so the sudden, almost synchronized disembarking of the train’s passengers is kind of hypnotic.

#50 — FISHING FOR GOLDFISH (1895)

It’s a little uncomfortable to watch a baby harass some fish in a tiny bowl, but the kid’s joy and the sheer weirdness of one of the earliest film creations being the image of a baby playing in a fish bowl while being held make it interesting.

#49 — DÉBARQUEMENT (1896)

Procession of people, getting close to a film camera, an invention they had likely never seen.

#48 — LE MARÉCHAL-FERRANT (1895)

Shoeing a horse looks painful. For the horse. This is how they did it in 1895, though. Still could be, I don’t know shit about horses.

#47 — CHAMPS-ÉLYSÉES (1896)

I always appreciate views of historic cities so long ago, and historic portions of those cities even more so.

#46 — CONCERT (1896)

I can hear some lilting notes. I might be going crazy.

#45 — TRICK RIDING (1895)

Don’t get excited. This isn’t riding in which tricks are pulled off. This is trick riding in that the rider can’t even really get on the horse.

#44 — ATELIERS DE LA CIOTAT (1896)

The building of a ship looks to be a complicated thing, and what can only be the bones of an in-progress vessel in the background loom large.

#43 — REPAS EN FAMILLE (1897)

Part of a tour of Japan, this short of a Japanese family is one of the earliest Western films to examine Asia, as brief as it is.

#42 — VAULTING (1896)

Tumbling across the back of a horse seems inconsiderate at best.

#41 — LONDRES, ENTRÉE DU CINÉMATOGRAPHE (1896)

A great shot of movement and the first film about the film industry, somehow? I somewhat jest, but the portrayal of the venue where the Lumières’ cinematograph would first be introduced to London is very early meta-narrative building, intentionally or not.

#40 — POMPIERS À LYON (1896)

The appearance of horse-drawn firefighting carriages and the confusion and curiosity they leave behind is universal and relatable today. It’s cool to see Victorian firefighting methods too.

#39 — JUMPING THE BLANKET (1895)

Looks fun.

#38 — BLACKSMITH SCENE (1895)

Echoes William K.L. Dickson and Thomas Edison’s own BLACKSMITH SCENE (1893) but with a more convincing, if no less primitive, backdrop.

#37 — RÉCRÉATION À LA MARTINIÈRE (1896)

Recess is always a chaotic and exciting prospect, and Louis Lumière captured that here, with all the genuine expression children give.

#36 — THE PHOTOGRAPHICAL CONGRESS ARRIVES IN LYON (1895)

Presumably a group the Lumières would later conference with, the “photographical congress” arrives in Lyon with their own equipment in tow. The acknowledgement from some of the gentlemen of the cinematographer is amusing and holds historical weight.

#35 — DOUCHE APRÈS LE BAIN (1897)

Children engage in a water fight. Looks fun.

#34 — BABY’S FIRST STEPS (1896)

There’s a certain synchronicity in seeing the stumbling, simple, primitive first steps of a baby first attempting to walk just as film was doing the same thing. What is essentially a home movie is given weight by its historical context and the consideration that chronicling personal, important moments would be a fixture in years to come, especially in today’s social media culture.

#33 — PARTIE DE TRIC-TRAC (1895)

This film simply engages a backgammon game, not unlike other shorts earlier in this list, but what makes this one funny is the dude with the newspaper in the back of the group. Guy just can’t stay still. Much of this list so far, made up of what is now considered pretty mundane moments, is given power when you consider everyone on screen is figuring out how to move on camera for the first time, whether they know it or not.

#32 — THE LITTLE GIRL AND HER CAT (1899)

The cat’s fur is striking. Mammalian movement is a key part of the genesis of film (see Eadweard Muybridge and Étienne-Jules Marey’s experiments), but this staged event is somehow more naturalistic than anything that came before.

#31 — SACK RACE (1896)

A man stumbling in a potato sack race is a pretty compelling reason to watch this short that runs less than a minute, but what’s really interesting is the approach of the audience towards the camera. A man does a little performance for the invention, curious onlookers stare right at it, and others just get a little too close, prompting the operator to stick his hand out in front and guide them away from the device. You know how you stop short when you see you’re about to cross in front of someone taking a picture? Obviously, camera etiquette hadn’t been invented yet.

#30 — SARDINE FISHING (1896)

“Common folk” at work is a personal favorite subgenre of the actuality film because it shows, even briefly and narrowly, the lives of working people over a century ago. The movement of water is hypnotic as well. Part of my consideration for these rankings, also, is the appeal of these shorts as still photographs. Pause any one frame and it becomes a mysterious relic of another time, illuminated somewhat by movement.

#29 — CHILDREN PLAYING MARBLES (1896)

Children used to get excited about marbles. What a world.

#28 — CHILDISH QUARREL (1896)

Close ups from this era are always impactful. Upset children are too, but in a different way.

#27 — LYON, PLACE BELLECOUR (1895)

A perfect vantage point and an accessible print of great quality make this another exciting look at urban life long ago.

#26 — CARD GAME (1896)

The first remade film (as Georges Méliès’ first, PLAYING CARDS [1896]), CARD GAME is a display of fun, a relaxing slice of life.

#25 — QUAI DE L’ARCHEVÊCHÉ (1896)

The ripple of movement through flooded streets confirms the promise of film…

#24 — BOAT LEAVING THE PORT (1895)

…as does, perhaps more than anything else, the water of the ocean…

#23 — THE SEA (1895)

…and humans’ interactions with it.

#22 — WASHERWOMEN ON THE RIVER (1897)

An impressive structure also lends this film an impressive visual symmetry and conflict, as a woman’s duty is carried out quickly below while men stand idly by above.

#21 — PONT DE WESTMINSTER (1896)

The majesty of Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster are undercut by everyday traffic going over the Westminster Bridge.

#20 — NICE, PANORAMA DU CASINO PRIS D’UN BATEAU (1897)

The bobbing of water and the boardwalk scene transitioning into open water and wide view of the elaborate beach side buildings are pretty beautiful.

#19 — PROCESSION OF BABY CARTS (1899)

The stream is never-ending. Well, it ends after about 40 seconds. It’s becoming clear the Lumières were dedicated to capturing nearly every aspect of everyday life.

#18 — BAL D’ENFANTS (1896)

A reassuring garden scene surrounds this pretty bizarre image of a bunch of little girls dancing in a much more effective, choreographed manner than you’d expect.

#17 — PANORAMA DE L’ARRIVÉE EN GARE DE PERRACHE PRIS DU TRAIN (1896)

This incredibly brief train ride nevertheless sketches a diverse picture of a city, flitting through close up obstacles and wide views.

#16 — DEMOLITION OF A WALL (1896)

It’s always fun to see shit fucked up, but DEMOLITION OF A WALL contains camera magic unlike any other film on this list so far by reversing the destruction, the first example of reverse motion in film.

#15 — LE RÉMOULEUR ET L’ASSIETTE AU NOIR (1897)

The first narrative on this list, this comedy short shows some men playing a trick on a knife-grinder by attaching a bellows to his machine and spitting out dust or fumes onto a bypassing woman? The pranksters timed that extremely well. Kind of a strange concept, but interesting to see the crafting of a “plot” amid a work made up mostly of actualities.

#14 — LES JOUEURS DE CARTES ARROSÉS (1897)

Another comedy short, this film is funny because two men who get into a fight over cards have the funniest, restrained little fight that ends up turning into a locked-arm dance of a sorts before a nearby gardener puts an end to it with a spray of water. After TABLES TURNED ON THE GARDENER (1895, I’ll write about it soon), gardeners spraying water on people was a popular trope, not just in Louis’ own work.

#13 — WORKERS LEAVING THE LUMIÈRE FACTORY (1895)

This incredibly important film gains points for its influence, but there’s also an appeal to the flood of employees leaving the Lumières’ own factory. It gets kicked up another notch for the inexplicable number of animals in the mix.

#12 — THE ARRIVAL OF A TRAIN AT LA CIOTAT (1896)

The stories of this film’s effect on its audience have been greatly exaggerated (it wasn’t at the Lumières’ first screening and the train approaching the camera did not send people screaming out of the room), but it is still mightily significant. The placement of the camera gives the train a larger size; the language of cinema was being invented here, primordial as it was from simpler documentation just a year prior.

#11 — TRANSFORMATION BY HATS (1895)

One of Louis’ few actualities displaying a vaudeville or theater act, as in the Dickson or Edison school, TRANSFORMATION BY HATS is an entertaining and impressive look at a Victorian comedian’s routine.

#10 — LE DÉJEUNER DU CHAT (1895)

This close up on a cat and the human child providing it its titular dinner (of milk) is fascinating as yet another example of early cinematic fixation on the feline. Another “home movie” granted power by its place in history.

#9 — BABY’S MEAL (1895)

Like LE DÉJEUNER DU CHAT, this film is notable for its early portrayal of an unwitting participant in film history, living in its natural movement. It also marks the appearance of Auguste and his family, Marguerite and Andrée; unfortunately, the latter apparently died at age 24 due to the 1918 flu epidemic.

#8 — BICYCLIST (1896)

This is a genuinely funny short of a guy on a bike doing some (cool) tricks while some people watch. The abandoned street gives it some of its bizarre energy, and its stretch into nothingness carries some of the beautiful artifice of 1920s and ’30s Hollywood films, somehow.

#7 — EIFFEL TOWER (1898)

This is a phenomenal, impressionistic look at the scaling of one of the most famous buildings in the world, most likely facilitated by the difficulty of filming in such an environment. It’s a dream as seen through girders.

#6 — CUIRASSIERS À CHEVAL (1896)

The majesty of cavalry parades is not lost here, and the ceremony of the officers’ armor and the closeness of their faces, led by a memorable mustachioed one, is a lasting memory.

#5 — BOCAL AUX POISSONS-ROUGES (1895)

What a brilliant, dreamlike, impressionistic meditation in the midst of typical actualities. This was simply yet another chronicle of movement, just of a different type, but the warping of the bowl and the high fidelity of the whole thing, offered by the close up of the beautiful fish, makes this a special film in the early days of invention.

#4 — TABLES TURNED ON THE GARDENER (1895)

Famously known as the first comedy movie, and often touted as the first fictional narrative in film (there are some blurred lines there), TABLES TURNED ON THE GARDENER runs less than a minute and shows a prankster boy messing with a gardener. He places his foot on the hose the gardener is using to water the plants, which stops the flow. When the gardener inspects the open end of the hose, the boy lets go, letting the water splash out into the gardener’s face. A slapstick chase ensues and the gardener spanks (more like pats) the boy on the butt. Hilarious…But the importance of this film’s fictional presentation and the admittedly amusing high-speed shot of water into the gardener’s face make it a top Lumière production.

#3 — THE MECHANICAL BUTCHER (1895)

Somewhat dubiously called the first sci-fi film, THE MECHANICAL BUTCHER is a pretty morbid, humorous curiosity. In the film, a group of men place a large, struggling pig into a big machine operated by some gears and valves peaking out from behind it. It quickly churns out different cuts of meat, which the men set off on a table to the side. Like I said, pretty morbid. The imaginative scenario is a far cry from the Lumières’ more mundane actualities, and the dark, fantastical comedy is an early example of the industrial magic of films from directors like Méliès. So, sure, it’s the first sci-fi film.

#2 — LA VIE ET LA PASSION DE JÉSUS-CHRIST (1898)

Co-directed with Georges Hatot, “THE LIFE AND PASSION OF JESUS CHRIST” is far and away Louis’ most ambitious project. The ten-minute film is actually ten one-minute ones compiled into a singular movie; they were sold and potentially exhibited separately at the time of their release. Nevertheless, the whole package is unlike anything else Louis would make. The set design is a tremendous, school play-esque affair, although quite convincing and evocative for all that. The narrative of Jesus’ life is compelling in its own right, so the weight of the drama comes from all the mystical and historical context. The stage style acting is solid and slow, but services this monumental effort from a director who mostly made actualities that ran under a minute.

#1 — THE DANCING SKELETON (1897)

Spooky scary skeleton. One of few Lumière films to rely on, or even utilize, camera tricks, THE DANCING SKELETON is a fun little experiment in rewinding and proto-stop motion animation. The silly design of the skeleton model and nearly all-black background takes this film into its own dimension. This is a pure novelty, but an entertaining one. I love old designs of “spooky” things, and this is almost as old as you can get such a thing in film.

Like my previous installments, my spotlight of Louis Lumière highlights the lack of consideration for artistic intent from the earliest filmmakers. They were inventors, not necessarily artists intent on creating a new craft. After all, both Lumière brothers expressed their doubt that film had potential beyond their novelty experiments. Even still, they, and especially Louis, left behind some vital images. View the whole list in a condense, more visual form on Mubi.

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Tristan Ettleman

Tristan Ettleman

I write about movies, music, video games, and more.

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