The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
THE INTRIGUE: THE FIRST RAY-GUN
If you check Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, the first entry under ray gun is to The Newark [OH] Advocate for October 25, 1916. "The most destructive agent ever evolved is the X-ray gun..."
That's close, but not quite right. The Advocate, along with many other newspapers, shared a quoted review that originally ran on page 1852 of The Moving Picture World in the September 16, 1916 issue. All reviews are credited to Staff. And, no, the magazine didn't run 2000 pages per issue; they were consecutively numbered. Here's the whole review for the first time.
Lenore Ulrich at Her Best in "The Intrigue"
Closely following Lenore Ulrich's return to New York from the Pallas Pictures studio, Los Angeles, an advance print of her new photoplay, "The Intrigue," arrived at the New York offices of the company last Friday. Immediately upon its arrival the film was reviewed by several New York film men who enthused over its exceptional qualities.
Presenting a gripping story of present international conditions, "The Intrigue" portrays delicate treatment of a difficult subject. Partly staged in Europe and partly in the United States, it tells of a young American inventor and his perfected X-ray gun which would revolutionize modern warfare. Foreign powers are brought into the story, but handled in such a manner as not to offend even the most sensitive, a strong humane element giving the story great sympathetic appeal.
As the beautiful Countess Sonia Varnli, a secret service spy, Lenore Ulrich appears in the stellar role and evidences even more than in her other screen endeavors her natural screen talent and charm. Supporting her are Cecil Van Auker, Howard Davies, Herbert Standing, Florence Vidor and Paul Weigel. The production will be released on the Paramount Program, October 2.
The "difficult subject" that appears too delicate even to be mentioned is of course the "Great War," then finishing its second year of grinding slaughter in Europe. The Intrigue gets around any offending scenes simply by ignoring the war almost in its entirely save for one unconvincing scene in the trenches, setting the rest in standard melodramatic fashion inside the rooms of the fashionable rich. As Steve Joyce writes in American Silent Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Feature Films:
All is accomplished with very little action; rather, we get the idea via loads of meaningful glances, cocked eyebrows, barely-suppressed smiles, and awkwardly-phrased title cards. And lots of walking around desks.
In truth, Moving Picture World probably copied that glowing preview straight from the typewriter of a Pallas Pictures flack. Its actual review, two weeks later, said "This is not the picture to make critics enthusiastic." Most reviews were better than that, though, and the names associated with the picture are important in film history if mostly forgotten today.
The stunning Lenore Ulrich - who later dropped the "h" from her name - was a 24-year-old quickly making a name for herself in films after being acclaimed on Broadway. She played a dual role as Countess Varnli and her maid and won raves for her performance. "Her acting is of the highest caliber," read one review. Her heart may have been on Broadway, for she made only two more films before returning to New York, only to be lured back out to Holywood in 1929 for an unbelievable fortune of $650,000. She ground out two now lost films before giving up again, although she has a few later credits.
Florence Vidor had the roles of the "pseudo-Countess Varnli and maid" - it might not have been a cliché yet - in one of her first roles in a 60-film career. Her husband showed up as a chauffeur in an uncredited role; you've probably heard of him since he was King
Vidor, easily one of the handful of top directors to emerge from the silent era. He received five Oscar nominations for Best Director, although he never won. The actual director's name is left out of the article above, perhaps because Frank Lloyd was then an unknown just starting his career. He did pretty well later on, too. He also got five nominations for Best Director, but won the award for Cavalcade, which also was named Best Picture.
But what you really want to know about is the X-ray gun. The Library of Congress has a print and Joyce managed to see at least portions of it, with these comments:
Fitted with an infallible range-finder and able to fire at a rate of a shot per second, the portable, compact prototype was able to obliterate an enemy from a range of three miles , while its futuristic big brother could do likewise at a distance of 25 miles. (From our viewing of the footage, we regarded it as a real Flash Gordon affair, with all sorts of dials and twin barrels that produce a small puff of smoke when a Jacob's ladder - mounted on a rear wall, some 15 feet behind the scientist - is activated.) Undoubtedly, this resonated not a little with audiences that were witnessing, after all, significant tank and aerial warfare for the first time.
In other words, closer to a death ray than a ray gun. Steve Joyce was kind enough to let me view the first two reels, in which a tabletop model of the death ray gun is tested by the enemy. The gun is aimed through a window at first a sheep and then a pile of boxes. The sheep is charred, the boxes explode. The puff of smoke from the end electrodes lets the audience know that something has happened before the cutaway to the outdoor scenes of destruction. The still below is from the beginning of the movie, in the inventor's workshop.
Since this was just a movie and had scruples that were not to be found anywhere on the real world battlefields, Countess Sonia prevails "on the young American to destroy his terrible instrument of destruction and to burn his plans for the gun for the good of future civilization..." That double cliché - the inventor so brilliant that no one can duplicate his plans and their destruction for everybody's good - would linger on and infect almost every similar future film. The Intrigue may have been an unimaginative mess, but it perfectly caught the sweet spot of audience expectations. Death rays were to live forever.