A gardener and his hose are the target of a young boy’s prank… but the tables soon turn on the mischievous lad. About as much plot as you can fit in a less-than-a-minute runtime.
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.
Hose is a hose is a hose
Screenwriter William Goldman famously wrote “Nobody knows anything” and that’s certainly true when it comes to pinpointing firsts in early film. Accepting that we don’t know the answers and likely never will is essential because the race to pin “first” on a particular film or pioneer can erase those who came before.
In other words, The Sprinkler Sprinkled (L’Arroseur Arrosé) has quite a few “firsts” attached to it but I prefer to be cautious. After all, the vast majority of the earliest motion pictures are lost, so it is all but impossible to declare any picture to be the first anything.
The Sprinkler Sprinkled was part of the December 1895 commercial screening put on by the Lumière brothers and it stands out from the other pictures in the program. It’s not an actuality or domestic scene and it has a more developed plot than most of the other staged films of that year.
A gardener is minding his own business, watering plants with his hose. A young boy sneaks up and steps on the hose. Where did the water go? The gardener looks down the nozzle, the boy releases the hose and the gardener is sprayed. He quickly spots the culprits, spanks him and returns to his work.
Less than a minute and simple as can be, of course, but we get a beginning, a middle and an end. The film certainly had a powerful effect on audiences of the 1890s because it was remade and ripped off multiple times. The Lumières themselves remade it in 1896 with an older boy playing the joke and being rewarded with a swift kick in the rear and a spray from the hose.
There were also numerous ripoffs, such as the 1899 British film The Biter Bit, which improved on the original with more interesting blocking, a longer pursuit of the culprit and a more violent punishment inflicted as the young man is put in a headlock and sprayed in the face. Early film audiences couldn’t get enough of those garden hose shenanigans.
The gag also makes an interesting appearance in film history nearly twenty years after The Sprinkler Sprinkled was shot. While filming Mabel at the Wheel (1914) under the direction of co-star Mabel Normand, Charlie Chaplin had an idea for a fresh and brilliant gag to add to the film. You guessed it, it involved a hose and someone being sprayed in the face. When Normand declined to include the stale joke, Chaplin went on strike. (I covered the incident extensively in my review of the picture.)
So, we know that The Sprinkler Sprinkled, well, made a splash but while I was researching this review, I ran across a fascinating theory. The gag structure of a mischievous child (almost always a boy) stepping on a hose and causing a gardener to spray himself was a popular subject for cartoonists of the 1880s and 1890s with one of the earliest cited appearance in an 1885 work by Achille Lemot. Cartoons of this stripe were published in Europe, including France. Is it possible that the Lumières had created not only one of the first adapted films but one of the first comic adaptations?
There are some obvious questions that arise. First, the vulcanized rubber garden hose had been a popular outdoor tool for a few decades when The Sprinkler Sprinkled was released. How long do you think it took kids to realize that they could prank people by stepping on the hose? I give it two seconds, personally.
The Lumières claimed that the film was based on a prank played by their younger brother and we find ourselves in the middle of a chicken vs. egg conundrum. Did kids start playing the prank because it was found in cartoons and children’s literature or were the fictional pranksters inspired by the activities of real children?
Given the simplicity of the setup and the propensity for mischief that a garden hose naturally inspires in children, I am willing to consider the idea of an independent parallel creation. Maybe the Lumières were inspired by the dozens of fictional portrayals of the gag, maybe the gag was told to them and they never saw the comics, maybe it all happened exactly as they described. We don’t know with any certainty and we may as well admit it.
I will say, however, that we need to be cautious with this theory. Comic book movies are the current ten-ton gorilla of the motion picture industry and the anecdote that the Lumières were making comic book adaptations all the way back in 1895 is terribly tempting. It’s simply too good of a story not to repeat but repeating it without caveats is, in my opinion, irresponsible.
Could it be the first comic adaptation? It may. But we lack a smoking gun that allows us to make such a claim definitively. Forget first, we don’t even know if it can be called an adaptation. Some online resources have even gone so far as listing a single specific comic panel as the sole inspiration for The Sprinkler Sprinkled (usually one by German artist Hermann Vogel) and that is simply taking leaps that I cannot endorse.
(It does, however, make it more difficult to accuse later versions of being total ripffs as The Sprinkler Sprinkled cannot claim any copyright related to such a universal gag.)
I understand the impulse to share an anecdote that could so easily make one of the oldest surviving films far more appealing and interesting to a superhero mad viewing public. But convenience and facts do not always coincide, so I am going to have to label this as a “Quite possibly, we just don’t know.”
But, comic book adaptation or not, The Sprinkler Sprinkled launched a comedy genre, inspired numerous ripoffs and remakes and remains one of the most iconic pictures of the very earliest days of projected cinema.
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD as part of The Movies Begin box set from Kino and the Lumière box set released for the French market.
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