Film History Essentials: The X-Ray Fiend (1897)

What it’s about:

A man begins wooing a woman as they sit together on a bench. They are approached by another man carrying an x-ray emitter. He aims the emitter at the couple and removes the cap, rendering only their skeletons visible as they continue to flirt. He then replaces the cap and they are restored to normal. Soon, the woman takes offense at her admirer and storms away.

Why it’s essential:

George Albert Smith began his career in show business as a stage hypnotist in the British seaside resort town of Brighton during the early 1880s, while he was still in his teens. Within a year or two, he had progressed to a mind reading and telepathy act with a partner, Douglas Blackburn. Smith’s claims of authenticity attracted the notice of the Society for Psychical Research, which confirmed that Smith’s abilities were genuine. (Many years later, Blackburn admitted that this was not true, but Smith never did.) Smith soon turned this foothold with the SPR into a job, becoming the personal secretary to Edmund Gurney, one of its leading members, for several years, and then continuing on in the same role for some time after Gurney’s death.

His next enterprise was to lease St. Ann’s Well Gardens in nearby Hove, turning it into a popular attraction by 1894. The park featured a number of recreations and entertainments, including (perhaps most relevant to Smith’s future) a magic lantern show consisting of “dissolving views.” Smith’s various roles as showman, exhibitor of projected images, and manager of a public attraction explain his keen interest when the Lumière brothers’ motion picture program debuted in London early in 1896, and when Robert Paul’s program arrived in Brighton that summer.

With his wife, Laura Bayley (herself a gifted performer and comedienne), his neighbor (chemist James Williamson), and some assistance from a local engineer named Alfred Darling, Smith soon had a working camera and a makeshift building for processing his film. By March 1897, he had begun including his own films in his daily shows. Many of them were comedies, but he also frequently incorporated special effects and fantastical elements with a playful style that was reminiscent of Georges Méliès, with whom he corresponded. The X-Ray Fiend, which employs Méliès’s signature stop trick twice, is a fine example of this influence.

X-rays were, themselves, quite a recent discovery. In fact, German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen submitted the first paper on his discovery of x-rays on December 28, 1895, the very day of the Lumière brothers’ first public film program in Paris. The discovery produced an absolute sensation, and was reported with breathless excitement by almost every newspaper in the world. Images produced by x-rays became a significant attraction in their own right, and the phenomenon extended into every facet of the culture. Studios were even set up to offer “bone portraits,” though many people found the exercise morbid and disturbing. Röntgen’s wife, upon seeing an x-ray he had taken of her hand that showed skeletal fingers wearing her wedding ring, said, “I have seen my death.”

A February 1896 cartoon that appeared in Life

Still, people were particularly fascinated by the possibilities of x-ray cameras or x-ray viewers. A few months after the discovery was announced, a company in London advertised “x-ray-proof” lead undergarments. A bill was introduced in the New Jersey state assembly that would outlaw the use of x-rays in opera glasses. Many spiritualists were profoundly excited by the possibilities of a technology that could “make the invisible visible.” Could x-rays be the key to finally proving the existence of a supernatural world? No doubt Smith’s former colleagues at the SPR were asking such questions at this time.

Röntgen worried that the popularity of x-ray photography as a novelty would obscure the actual scientific significance and pursuit of practical applications for his discovery. However, Thomas Edison began experimenting right away to find the most effective substance for exposure of x-ray images. Within several months he had produced the first commercial fluoroscope, which began to find its way into regular medical practice. In 1901, after President McKinley was shot, his staff sent to Edison for an x-ray machine to help locate the assassin’s bullet (although it ultimately wasn’t used). Later that same year, Röntgen’s discovery of x-rays won him the first Nobel Prize in Physics.

Why you should see it:

Although the basic idea that this film is based on had clearly been present in the culture for some time before Smith released it in October 1897, there is a certain ingenuity to its execution here. The man in the scene is played by Tom Green, a local performer who appeared several times in Smith’s films. The woman is Laura Bayley herself, who also appeared in a number of Smith’s most memorable films.

The skeleton suits the two are wearing are nothing special, and the skull is particularly lacking in verisimilitude. But it’s a very clever touch to reduce the lady’s parasol to its metal skeleton. They’ve also dressed her in some kind of mostly-transparent facsimile of her dress and hat, which is a nice touch. It’s interesting that the man gets no such attention . . . Although it’s hard to say whether the woman is shown to still be wearing clothing for reasons of decency, or whether her clothing now being transparent is meant to titillate. The title suggests it is perhaps the latter.


~ by Jared on March 7, 2023.

One Response to “Film History Essentials: The X-Ray Fiend (1897)”

  1. […] other films, though not as frequently or as recognizably as George Albert Smith’s wife, Laura Bayley, or Georges Méliès’s (second) wife, Jeanne d’Alcy. Ellen did, however, play a […]


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