Plot Points: Employees Leaving the Lumiere Factory
Employees Leaving the Lumière Factory is a rock-solid minute of greatness, if you round up. It isn’t the oldest motion picture in existence – that’s Roundhay Garden Scene by Louis Le Prince – but it is the earliest box office hit. After a free public screening of the movie in March 1895, audiences couldn’t wait to turn over their gold-backed francs to the brothers Lumière for the paid re-release in December. And no wonder: this genre-defining actuality film has as rich a plot as you’ll find its side of Georges Méliès. Consider the following plot points.
Plot Point 1: A Pup On the Stoop
From the first frame of Employees, director Louis Lumière tugs at our heartstrings. We see a dog dozing on the raised step in front of the Lumière factory door. What brought the canine to 25 Rue St. Victor, Montplaisir, Lyon, France on this day? Is its master one of the Lumière workers? Will somebody open the door to feed it? Suddenly, a second dog appears behind the first and runs off stage right! The first dog appears unphased by the dramatic interloper, but raises its head to watch the titular employees as they titularly leave the titular factory. Soon it too rises and walks away. Then it comes back, and walks away again. Dog actors have paid homage to this classic exeunt ever since, but no imitator has captured the effortless nonchalance, the exquisite ambiguity, of the original.
Nothing is known about the dogs, including whether they were harmed during the making of this picture®, but their casual and confident bearings suggest that they were just fine. They have, however, likely been dead for between 110 and 120 years.
Plot Point 2: The Closed Door Opens
While the drama with the dogs has played out to its conclusion, workers have been streaming out of a large portal on the right side of the frame. The door on the left has stood closed, towering over the cobblestone street and the dogs like an obelisk from 2001. Without warning, in a surprisingly slow and smooth movement, it opens, swinging inward as the shadow of the doorframe plays across its surface. How many film noir doors have aped this move?
At this point something truly unexpected happens. A worker leaves the factory through the door. She is different in many ways from the workers who have left the factory through the gaping portal. In the first place, she is running, while the others are walking. If she is in a hurry, why did she open the door with such a deliberate and steady hand? Is this the first plot hole in film history?
Secondly, she moves to her left rather than to her right, against the general flow of foot traffic. She also moves diagonally toward the camera (actually, the cinematograph) rather than laterally, testing our sense of depth and prefiguring the locomotive’s trajectory from the later Lumière classic Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat.
Thirdly, and most intriguingly, she is followed by one of the dogs, who reappears only to prance off after her. Is she indeed the owner of the dog, come at last out of the door in front of which it so patiently waited? Or is our canine friend merely drawn, as we are, by the woman’s obvious uniqueness? Questions pile up as Lumière weaves his tangled web.
Plot Point 3: How Many Horses Do You See?
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “How could you move on to the horses without acknowledging that the dog comes back right away, and that another running person streaks across the screen seconds after the first? What are you trying to pull here?”
I owe you no answers.
This next plot point is the most controversial. One horse, pulling a carriage, emerges from the large portal. Or does it? In one version there are two horses yoked to the carriage, and a third version has none at all. In many cases, the existence of multiple cuts of a film is a telltale sign of disagreement between the director and the studio. But in the case of Employees Leaving the Lumière Factory, director and studio are one and the same. This director is literally filming his own studio. What madness, perfectionism, or insatiable documentary impulse drove Lumière to remake his own film not once but twice?
Rather than engage in endless Blade Runner-style debates over which version of the same basic film is best, I prefer to call Employees Leaving the Lumière Factory cinema’s first trilogy. That way I can have Star Wars-, Indiana Jones-, and Lord of the Rings-like arguments instead.
Dogs are only prominent in the one-horse movie, so it’s clearly tops.
Plot Point 4: Bicycle, Bicycle
That said, bicycles play only a modest role in the one-horse version of the movie. They are more numerous in the two-horse cut, and are the only mode of transportation in the no-horse one. There is a compelling reason to rank the bike-heavy versions higher on your Flickchart than the dog-heavy version, or there would be if Flickchart considered it three movies instead of one. The Powers That Be apparently subscribe to the Blade Runner philosophy.
In 1895 bicycles were almost as new as movies. That is to say, neither of them were new: bicycles of different sorts had been around for decades, and Louis Le Prince had scooped the Lumière brothers by seven years in the filmmaking department. But both technologies would reach new heights of popularity by the end of the century. Mark Twain, the world’s most famous living American, offered a tentative endorsement of bikes when he wrote in 1884, “Get a bicycle. You will not regret it, if you live.”
Meanwhile, automobiles had yet to displace the horse-drawn carriage as the dominant means of long-distance conveyance. Some French cities had steam-powered streetcars, and in 1895 the French government approved the construction of the Paris Metro. But the Lumière factory was in Lyon, and its workers got home by foot, by horse, and by bike.
Though almost certainly not intended this way, the fact that the horseless version of Employees Leaving the Lumière Factory has the most bicycles means that the movie(s) can be read as a subtle commentary on changes in transportation technology. The old gives way to the new, and the brothers Lumière light the way with their moving images.
As further proof that this movie has more plot than others of its generation, let’s go to the matchups.
Employees Leaving the Lumière Factory vs. Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat
Legend says that the audience was startled by the vision of a train hurtling toward them. Martin Scorsese repeated that version of the story in his 2011 movie Hugo. It is probably an exaggeration, but it’s easy to imagine that seeing the movie was a highlight for audiences all the same. The train is exciting, as are the people who mill around on the platform, but there are few standout performances or side plots to rival the dogs, running workers, buggies, and bicycles of the Lumière debut.
Employees Leaving the Lumière Factory vs. Tables Turned on the Gardener
I’ve said Employees has the most plot, not the best plot. Tables Turned on the Gardener (it also goes by other titles like The Sprinkler Sprinkled) was shown immediately after Employees at the Lumières’ first paid screening. It is a crowd-pleasing comedy and its action is scripted, unlike Employees, which documents real life. Tables Turned on the Gardener has the better plot, by virtue of having an intentional one, but it’s also far simpler than its predecessor – too simple to reward repeat viewings the way Employees does.
Employees Leaving the Lumière Factory vs. Demolition of a Wall
If Tables Turned on the Gardener is the first comedy, Demolition of a Wall may be the first explosive action movie. One of the Lumière brothers, Auguste, appears on screen helping to bring a slab of wall down in a cloud of dust. Men then chip away at it with pickaxes. It satisfies audiences’ timeless appetite for destruction, but there’s less going on here than meets the eye. Employees wins again.