On December 28, 1895, a marvelous invention was unveiled in the basement of the Grand Café: the Cinématographe, a camera and projector that would pave the way for commercial movie showings. A series of short films, each about a minute long, were screened for a small audience. Over the next few days, thousands of people flocked to the Grand Café to witness the spectacle. Now, as Mark Brown reports for the Guardian, a poster advertising the early screenings of the Cinématographe is heading to auction at Sotheby's in London.
Illustrated by the French artist Henri Brispot, the poster shows people clamoring to get into a Cinématographe screening. Abigail Tavener, Sotheby's junior press officer, tells Smithsonian.com that the advertisement was produced "when word got out and the Cinématographe started to become a sensation." But the first screening in late December of 1895 was a rather humble affair. Chairs had been set up for 100 audience members in the Grand Café's basement lounge, which was known as the Salon Indien. Less than 30 people showed up to the event.
The Cinématographe—also known as the Cinématographe Lumière—was invented by two French brothers, Auguste and Louis Lumière, who were also proprietors of a factory that manufactured photographic plates. Their device was inspired by Thomas Edison’s Kinetograph, a stop-motion movie camera that relied on flexible celluloid film, but there were key differences between the cameras.
For one, the Kinetograph ran on electricity and weighed several hundred pounds. The Cinématographe, by contrast, was hand-cranked and lightweight, allowing the Lumière brothers to carry their camera around and shoot videos outside of a studio. And this they did. According to the Science and Media Museum, the Lumière’s earliest films captured relatively mundane scenes: workers leaving the family’s factory at the end of the day; Auguste and his wife feeding their daughter, Andrée.
Vitally, unlike the Kinetograph, the Cinématographe did more than just record images; it also projected and printed film, which let the Lumière brothers screen their movies in front of audiences. For the event at the Salon Indien, a white canvas was hung at one end of the room, and the Cinématographe was propped up on a ladder on the opposite end.
A number of short clips were projected onto the canvas: the factory scene, Andrée trying to pluck a goldfish out of a bowl, a man rolling onto a blanket held up by some friends. Audiences also saw what is now regarded as the first-ever comedy: a short film that shows a man watering a garden, and a boy creeping up behind him to step on the hose. As the man peers into the nozzle, the boy lifts his foot—et voilà, the man is hit by a stream of water in the face.
For the small audience gathered in the Salon Indien, the screening was a dazzling, even frightening experience. One woman in the room reportedly shrieked in terror as the images flickered across the screen, and rumors later began to spread about the use of magic and trickery. By early January, thousands of people were clamoring to see the Lumière's films. Soon, Cinématographe screenings started taking place in Britain and the United States, and the Lumière brothers sent cameramen around the world to shoot footage.
The Lumière poster is believed to have been held in a private collection for more than 40 years, Peter White of Deadline reports. The ad is one of 164 rare cinematic artworks that will head to auction at Sotheby’s in London later this month. The collection also includes a title card for It’s a Wonderful Life, art for Gone with the Wind, and posters for 2001: A Space Odyssey. But the Lumière poster is a particularly precious relic, one that harkens back to the moment when movie-going became a beloved public pastime.