Film History Essential: L’Arroseur Arrosé (1895)

(English: The Sprinkler Sprinkled)

What it’s about:

A gardener is using a hose to water when a boy sneaks up behind him and steps on the hose, causing the water to stop flowing. The gardener, confused, shakes the hose and looks directly into the nozzle. The boy steps off and the gardener is sprayed in the face. Turning, he catches the boy attempting to flee and drags him back by the ear for a spanking.

Why it’s essential:

Although a few of the films in the Lumière brothers’ first program of 10 are worth discussing for special reasons, basically all of them are either “actualities” of some kind, or filmed performances. However, the sixth film on the program, L’Arroseur Arrosé, stands out from the rest as something else entirely. It is often referred to as the first narrative or fiction film, and the first film comedy. These are claims that are worth unpacking a little.

The film is clearly comedic, but it’s surprisingly difficult to precisely define terms like “narrative” or “fiction” with respect to the earliest films. That is, it’s tricky to identify what elements that all earlier films supposedly lack, but this film clearly has, make it “fiction.” It’s a staged scenario . . . Well, most of these films are “staged” in some way, including some that don’t appear to be, like the version of La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon that appears on this program. All of Edison’s films by this point were, quite literally, staged.

What about the fact that the people in front of the camera are performing a series of scripted actions? Actually many other, earlier films are also of scripted actions, particularly those that feature people performing their stage acts. But where all the other films on this program are recordings of people either engaged in everyday activities or of people performing a skill for an audience, this film features two actors playing out a scene where each action leads to further actions, structured with a beginning, a middle, and end. That makes this a narrative.

L’Arroseur Arrosé was featured in one of the first movie posters.

What makes it fiction isn’t that these aren’t real events. They are. We see them happen. The boy actually steps on the hose and the gardener actually gets sprayed in the face with actual water. The boy is really a boy, and the gardener, apparently, was actually a gardener. But the characters are pretending to think and feel things that they aren’t actually thinking or feeling. The gardener pretends not to know why his hose stopped working. The boy pretends he actually wants to get away. The gardener pretends to discipline him (though not all that convincingly, if we’re being honest). And, perhaps most important of all, they’re pretending they don’t know that this is a performance that will be seen by an audience. That’s fiction.

So, what earlier films might qualify as any of these things? 1893’s Blacksmith Scene features three men, who aren’t blacksmiths, pretending to be blacksmiths. That’s a sort of fiction, though there isn’t any narrative. 1894’s Chinese Laundry Scene is certainly a comedy, and definitely a fiction, since the actors are pretending to quarrel (and one is pretending to be Chinese while the other pretends to be a police officer). It also technically has almost as much of a narrative as L’Arroseur Arrosé (and a very similar one, besides), though it ends without a clear resolution. But the Chinese Laundry Scene is also ostentatiously fake. I would say it’s not a fiction film, it’s simply a recording of what is visibly a stage act.

However, I think 1894’s The Barbershop might qualify. It has a narrative (of sorts) with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It’s fiction. And although I would say that it’s a stretch to call it a comedy, the Edison catalog describes it as “Very funny” which suggests that it was at least intended as a comedy. I think, as with many of the Lumière brothers’ other achievements, we have to say that L’Arroseur Arrosé is one of the first, but not technically the first. Though I hope it’s clear just how open a lot of this idea of “firsts” is to interpretation, in addition to always being constrained by the caveat that we just can’t know that there isn’t something out there that hasn’t been discovered yet (or that did exist, but is truly lost forever, even from memory).

Nevertheless, L’Arroseur Arrosé is still significant as a step beyond what Dickson and others had already done. A distinguishing feature of film is that, when people are sitting in a theater watching, whatever is on the screen is not constrained by only what could physically be staged within that space. The Lumière brothers’ audience sat in their seats in the basement of a café, and watched a scene that takes place outside in an actual, real garden.

So many of the films of Edison and the Skladanowsky brothers, and even many of the motion studies by Muybridge, are shot against a blank background, all-black or all-white. Many of these images were even taken outdoors, but you’d never know it because everything behind the subject is blocked from view. Here we see, not only the action of the scene play out, but the full depth of the garden behind, all the way back to the wall, and with lines of trees visible behind that. This attention to setting, as much as any innovations that it may or may not have made in the areas of storytelling and genre, is genuinely notable.

Why you should see it:

L’Arroseur Arrosé is magnificent in its simplicity. The angle and framing of the shot are well chosen, as they have to be when the camera cannot pan, move, or zoom. It perfectly captures the main action, but is also able to capture the brief pursuit since the prankster (somewhat illogically) runs past his victim and is grabbed right at the left edge of the frame. The key moment is so perfect, with the spray of water so powerful that it knocks the gardener’s hat off of his head, that it makes me wonder if it was practiced beforehand.

Early cinema found inspiration everywhere: everyday life, newsworthy events, the stage, etc. Some of those sources of inspiration are less obvious to a modern audience, and this is a perfect example. Here you can see a collection of cartoons that were printed in various publications, mostly German or French, from 1885 to 1889, and beyond. Some of them look like they could be a storyboard for L’Arroseur Arrosé, right down to the hat coming off. This was clearly already a well-known gag by 1895, and once you see it, you can’t unsee it: The narrative has a classic comic strip structure. It may well also be the first adaptation from print to film, though there could easily be more as-yet-undiscovered sources of inspiration for even earlier films.


~ by Jared on February 12, 2023.

2 Responses to “Film History Essential: L’Arroseur Arrosé (1895)”

  1. […] L’Arroseur Arrosé […]


  2. […] of stage entertainment reaching vast audiences who could not attend the live performance. And L’Arroseur Arrosé, of course, was an early example of the narrative fiction films that would soon come to dominate […]


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