The Lumière brothers were probably best known for their actualities—shots of real life—and this is one of their earliest and most famous. Auguste Lumière, his wife and young daughter enjoy a meal together, the simple things are often the best.
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.
The growing popularity of YouTube in the 2000s created a feeling of déjà vu for devotees of early film. Just as audiences of the 1890s were entranced by trains arriving and departing, workers going about their business and children taking their meals, internet users were enchanted by home movies of kittens, double rainbows and Charlie biting fingers. Is this real life? It absolutely is.
And so, the popularity of the Lumière home movies is easy to communicate. Just as zany YouTube videos and, now, quirky Tiktoks have taken the world by storm, the motion pictures arrived in tiny, simple packages specifically designed to appeal to the audiences of the 1890s.
The December 1895 commercial screening put on by the Lumière brothers consisted of ten films, each lasting less than a minute. There was comedy (The Sprinkler Sprinkled), there was street scenes, there were shots of blacksmiths at work and horseback riding. And there were two films of domestic scenes shot in the home of Auguste Lumière and featuring his young daughter, Andrée.
Fishing for Goldfish (La Pêche aux poissons rouges) showed little Andrée attempting to catch fish in a bowl with her hands. Feeding the Baby (Repas de bébé) is the more famous picture and shows Auguste feeding Andrée porridge and a biscuit while his wife, Marguerite, looks on affectionately.
Like every other film in the early Lumière presentation, Feeding the Baby was specifically designed to showcase the power of motion pictures. The baby’s awkward movements as she plays with her food, the rustling trees behind the little family, the doting parents… all little details of motion that would be impossible to convey in still photographs. And the details of the scene would be beyond the capabilities of the animation toys available at the time.
(I highly recommend checking out this presentation from Cinémathèque Française showcasing early animation gadgets such as the praxinoscope, the zoetrope, chronophotographic strip and the strobe disc. Charming and highly impressive but they were animated drawings and lacked the photorealism that made the Lumière films so impressive. Seeing this animation will give you an idea of the context of the birth of cinema and help showcase the, well, rivals that early films had to beat in order to win their place in the hearts of entertainment lovers. It’s important to remember that potential moviegoers were not sitting and staring at the blank wall waiting to be entertained. There were live shows, magic lanterns, the animated toys we just mentioned and much, much more. Motion pictures had to match or surpass these in order to win affection and admission money.)
The question of who can be considered the first movie star is a subject for lively debate but Andrée Lumière certainly has some claim as a pioneering movie personality. She continued to appear in film productions through the 1890s. As she grew up and as cinema moved on from simple home movies, Andrée continued to be the subject of her family’s photography experiments, posing for early color photos as a young woman. Unfortunately, Andrée was one of the victims of the 1918 influenza epidemic and her story comes to an abrupt and tragic end.
Feeding the Baby and many of the other films showcased by the Lumières are defined as actualities. Actualities were shots of real events, both historical and mundane. They could include anything from wildlife to village scenes to home movies to royal events. What separates an actuality from a documentary is that the material is presented in a straightforward manner without a particular narrative. Feeding the Baby is about feeding the baby and that is what we see. Later, more sophisticated productions such as Moscow Clad in Snow involved editing and more elaborate shots but nonetheless presented relatively raw footage.
Compare this with, say, South, which uses real footage of Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition but creates a narrative of hardship and survival under the most dangerous of circumstances and was meant to celebrate the tenacity of the captain and crew.
Now, obviously, there are quite a few choices that a director can make that will in themselves alter the narrative being presented by actuality footage even if there is no real “plot” perse. They can select the way the shot is framed, cut away at particular moments and so forth. However, there is something refreshingly honest and straightforward about actualities. The audience is expected to participate, drink the scenes in and take from it what they will.
The Lumière company continued to produce films in a variety of genres and even took a stab at Méliès-like fantastic fare (The Devil’s Pot or La marmite diabolique is particularly amusing and comes complete with cannibalism) but the actualities have remained their signature for over a century and for good reasons. Like many of the earliest film pioneers, the Lumières did not last long but what they produced during their heyday remains impressive.
The everyday nature of Feeding the Baby is its greatest strength. Seeing doting parents feeding a wiggling baby is cute, of course, and peeking into the daily lives of a French family 125 years later is the next best thing to time travel.
The wholesomeness of Feeding the Baby was likely key to its success in 1895 and it makes it just as appealing over a century later. Our belle epoque counterparts were not so very different from us after all, it seems.
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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