X …is for

The X-Rays


The X-Rays (1897), sometimes called The X-Ray Fiend, was not a serial. It was, however, one of many early short “trick” or “illusion” films that influenced George Méliès and other pioneering filmmakers, including the early serial producers who incorporated similar special effects in their pictures.

Although it ran a mere forty-four seconds long, The X-Rays told a curious story of two Victorian-era lovers (played by Tom Green and Laura Bayley, the wife of the film’s British director George Albert Smith), who are courting on a park bench. A mysterious man appears, holding in his hand a machine emblazoned with the word “X-Rays.” That machine, which he trains on the pair, instantly transforms them into bony skeletons and even exposes the ribs of the woman’s umbrella. After the man departs, the lovers resume their original form and begin to quarrel. Rebuffing her beau’s advances, the woman walks away, leaving him alone and disgruntled.


Stills from the early novelty film The X-Rays.


When Smith produced his picture, X-ray technology was still quite new, the accidental discovery only a few years earlier, by German physics professor and eventual Nobel Prize winner Wilhelm Röntgen. Almost immediately after Röntgen’s discovery, writers and satirists began exploiting the phenomenon. For example, “The Possibilities of the Roentgen Method” (1896), later reprinted as “The Declaration of Love,” depicted a skeleton, on bended knee, offering a proposal of marriage. And in C. H. T. Crosthwaite’s horror/science fiction story “Röntgen’s Curse,” the protagonist Herbert Newton, obsessed with the new technology, tries to invent a method by which human eyes can function as X-rays. Eventually he succeeds: after a chemical leaks into his own eyes, he wakes up the next morning able to see objects only in a fog, with his wife and children reduced to mere skeletons.


Bones and skeletons were featured regularly in late nineteenth-century magazines and newspapers, which touted X-rays both as an entertaining curiosity and as a miraculous method of diagnosing medical problems. Lectures further fanned the popular interest, while public exhibitions not only offered demonstrations but also invited science-obsessed late Victorian audience volunteers to come forward to have their own hands or purses X-rayed. People could even purchase or build their own X-ray equipment for home use. And after Marie Curie brought her life-saving mobile “Petite Curie” X-ray trucks to the battlefields of World War One, mobile X-ray trams began appearing on a number of British streets, inviting the public to “X-Ray Now. . . Easy . . . Confidential . . . No undressing required.”

A mobile X-Ray van.


Because they were such a novelty, X-rays attracted the attention of filmmakers as well. In addition to pictures that provided serious medical perspectives on the subject (X-Ray Cinematography of Frog’s Legs [1896-1897]), Dr. Macintyre’s X-Ray Cabinet [1909]), there were short films such as the Lumière Brothers’ Le Squelette joyeux (1898), which featured a skeleton performing a merry dance, even as it loses (and regains) various of its bony parts. And Wallace McCutcheon’s The X-Ray Mirror (1899) portrayed a young woman in a millinery shop who selects a hat, admires herself in a long mirror, and—as she looks more closely—faints from shock at her skeletal reflection. French directors Alice Guy (later Guy-Blaché) and Georges Méliès also released their own versions of X-ray films, modeled largely on the chronology of Smith’s picture. L’utilité des rayon x, directed by Guy and starring Gaumont employee and cinematographer Gaston Breteau, took a more comical approach: the X-ray exposed a contraband smuggler who was posing as a pregnant woman in order to clear a customs checkpoint. Méliès’ film (now lost) is said to have used a more science fiction/horror treatment, with the X-ray extracting the skeleton from his subject’s body.

Like Méliès, Smith had performed on stage before turning his talents to film. A skilled hypnotist, psychic, and inventor, he became a key member of the loose association of early cinema pioneers dubbed the Brighton School by French film historian Georges Sadoul. A technical innovator renowned for his clever special effects, he was among the earliest filmmakers to employ close-ups, pan shots, iris effects, jump cuts, and double exposure. He also developed an early and promising color film process, Kinemacolor; but legal battles and lawsuits ultimately drove him out of business.

Throughout his brief and now largely forgotten film career, Smith produced numerous influential short pictures, including the landmark A Kiss in the Tunnel (1899), in which a couple shares a kiss as their train passes through a tunnel—a picture that is said to mark the beginning of narrative editing and the creation of the grammar of filmmaking. Let Me Dream Again (1900) employed a cross-fade to contrast dream and reality, as a man flirts happily with a lovely young woman but then wakes up next to the frumpy, short-tempered wife lying in bed beside him. And in Mary Jane’s Mishaps (1903), the eponymous housemaid (played by Laura Bayley) uses paraffin to light a fire, inadvertently sends herself through the chimney of her home, and is buried below a gravestone where she “rest[s] in pieces.” The illusion film cleverly used “wipe” scenes and superimposition to “resurrect” Mary Jane’s ghost.

A number of elements and techniques that Smith employed in his trick films (“trick novelties,” in British parlance) became a vital part of early silent film and serial history and practice. In the final episode of the Wharton Brothers’ The Exploits of Elaine, for example, Dr. Craig Kennedy uses an X-ray machine to detect and dismantle a bomb and to expose the villainous Clutching Hand. And numerous other silent serials—Zudora (1914), The Shielding Shadow (1916), The Yellow Menace (1916), The Great Radium Mystery (1919), The Flaming Disc (1920), The Power God (1920), The Scarlet Streak (1925), among them—featured various forms of radiomagnetic radiation, including the ever-popular death ray, a staple of many early action pictures.




Survival Status: A print exists at the National Film and Television Archive of the British Film Institute. Access at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3gMCkFRMJQQ. (Le Squelette joyeux [1898], A Kiss in the Tunnel [1899], Let Me Dream Again [1900], and Mary Jane’s Mishap [1903] are also extant and available for viewing on YouTube).

Director: George Albert Smith

Release Date: October, 1897

Release Company: George Albert Smith Films

Cast: Tom Green, Laura Bayley