The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
DEATH RAYS AT THE MOVIES
Nobody loves technology more than technologists. Any new technology is more likely to appear in the early days of another new technology than be incorporated into existing tech. Röntgen's discovery hit the news in January 1896. The first movie exploiting them - for comic effect - was The X-Ray Fiend the very next year. Not many others saw the potential before World War I, but the astounding advances in technologies wrought by the war inspired moviemakers and few years in the next fifty passed without a ray or two as a lethal device.
The absolute best compilation of Death Ray movies appeared in Denis Gifford's Science Fiction Film, an amazing little volume that manages to cram mention of nearly 500 titles into 150 pages, most of which contain stills. My excerpt here is taken from his chapter on Rays, which includes many types of ray devices. Ingenuity can't be confined to death, though sometimes it sure seems so, but take a deep breath: here come 49 pre-1963 death rays in four paragraphs, 50 if we count 1962's Dr. No, which he does but whose flaming "dragon" probably stetches the term past its limit.
More scientific were the rays that stopped engines, anti-machine machines. This flight of fancy took off in 1932 with John Wayne flying into the first anti-aircraft ray in Shadow of the Eagle, closely followed by Bob Steele in The Mystery Squadron (1933), Ralph Bellamy in Air Hawks (1935), Grant Withers in The Fighting Marines (1935), Tim McCoy in The Ghost Patrol (1936), John King in Ace Drummond (1936), Charles Farrell in Flight to Fame (1938), Lawrence Olivier in Q Planes (1939), and even James Newill, singing Sergeant Renfrew of the Mounties, in Sky Bandits (1940). More down to earth, in 1941 The Spider Returns in the nick of time to stop the Gargoyle's device for the remote control of machinery, and Batman and Robin (1949) rendered similar service to the Wizard and his machine for the long-range paralysis of traffic.
The Death Ray first appears as chapter nine of The Exploits of Elaine (1915). The Clutching Hand perfects an "infra-red heat wave shot through a funnel-like arrangement into the concentration apparatus from which the dread power is released through a tube-like affair." Or F-Ray for short. The Iron Claw (1916) rang the changes by firing an electric ray, and The Intrigue (1916) was about an X-Ray gun. Two films called The Death Ray were produced in 1924; one a trick film in the series Q-Riosities by Q (Gaston Quiribet), the other a factual documentary, directed by and starring the inventor H. Grindell-Matthews: "We are shown that it is as easy to kill a hundred supers dressed as soldiers as to kill a rat in a cage (wrote a critic) ... but it is no more convincing that when the same sort of thing is accomplished by Mack Sennett." Fictional British rays were in The Last Hour (1930) and Lloyd of the C.I.D. (1932), while Murder at Dawn (1932) was retitled The Death Ray for English release. Edmond Lowe as Chandu the Magician (1932) wrested one from the hands of evil Egyptian potentate Bela Legosi. It did little good, for by 1933 Bela was beaming down his victims as The Whispering Shadow. Rin-Tin-Tin jr wiped out the Wizard of the Wireless in Wolf Dog (1933), and 1934 saw a destroying ray in The Vanishing Shadow, and a straightforward one in The Lost City. The Scorpion wore a claw but found this no handicap in switching on his ray machine against Blake of Scotland Yard (1936). Daredevil of the Red Circle (1939) featured a Gamma Ray for the treatment of rare diseases; but when someone changed the wiring it switched to the deadly destructive Delta Ray. The insidious Dr Fu Manchu was always interested in death rays: as Boris Karloff in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), as Henry Brandon in Drums of Fu Manchu (1940), and as Christopher Lee in Brides of Fu Manchu (1966). Tanilic Light was the source of the ray in Jack Armstrong (1947), and England's only daily radio hero did battle with rays beamed from the Blackpool Tower in Dick Barton Strikes Back (1949) and the Beachy Head lighthouse in Dick Barton at Bay (1950). His sixties counterpart, Agent 007, dealt with the death ray of Dr No (1962).
From individual death to wholesale slaughter: The Ray of Destruction of The Branded Four (1920) was capable of destroying humanity. That it did not, we can thank Ben Wilson. Likewise Elmo Lincoln the same year for destroying The Flaming Disk, a powerful lens that could reduce iron to ashes. The Eiffel Tower collapsed in 1924 under the force of thunderbolts, captured from the sky and redirected by a machine in La Cité Foudroyée. Mala, as Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island (1936), found gangsters operating an electrical engine that activated volcanoes. The Lame One, flying high in the Wing, used his sound vibrator to destroy the Bay Bridge. Just to be different, Lugosi unloosed Disintegrating Gas (a mixture of Arnatite and Zanzoid), but the end result in S.O.S. Coastguard (1937) was much the same. The black-cloaked Lightning fired electrical thunderbolts at The Fighting Devil Dogs (1938); the sacred Scorpion in The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941) could either transmute rock into gold or melt a mountain to lava, according to the arrangement of its lensed claws. Lewis Wilson as The Batman (1943) ducked just in time when J. Carrol Naish let loose with his radium gun; it blew a hole in the wall. Lionel Atwill harnessed light and sound waves to produce his million volt Dynamic Vibrator, and also shipped a portable version, The Electronic Firebolt. But he reckoned without Captain America (1943), of course, just as Dr Tobor reckoned without Hap Harrigan (1946) when he created his Destructive Fusion Force. The element Solarium was used to power the Cosmic Beam Annihilator in Jack Armstrong (1947), and the Spider Lady went up with his own Reducer Ray in Superman (1948). Republic's familiar sequence of the destruction of New York did service again for the effect of the Decimator in King of the Rocket Men (1949). Baroda's Electro-Annihilatorwas less spectacular in Radar Patrol vs Spy King (1950).
The War o' Dreams (1915) featured a Trixite bomb exploded by ether waves, and a similar ray was still in use in 1936, keeping exploder clear of explosive in Sabotage. The 1920 Invisible Ray was a metal box of “concentrated light, powerful enough to destroy the world”… [oddly one of the very few to feature its ray on its poster].
For truth in advertising, here's a 50th movie to purists to use to replace Dr. No. Fools in the Dark is a lost 1924 spook spoof, whose tenuous plot includes an inventor who has created a death ray - and wants to test it on his niece's idiot boyfriend.