THE X-RAY FIEND

George Allen Smith's studio

George Albert Smith knew how to fool people. In his early 20s he trod the boards, making a living startling the credulous with standard hypnotism and telepathy acts probably not much different than those still practiced today. People still believe that mentalists like James Randi and Derren Brown have "powers," even when they or others show how blind readings are easily done. Humanity is an endless sinkhole of credulity.

 

Carl Sagan never said “It pays to keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out.” - that seems to have been first penned by author Max Rudin in a slightly different form in 1937 - but it's great advice that gets ignored by everybody who wants to believe, no matter how loudly they shout about their objectivity.

 

Case in point, the Society for Psychical Research, founded in London in 1882 by Edmund Gurney and others. The Society did expose a number of fraudulent psychics, pardon the redundancy, but in 1887 Gurney decided against all sense to hire Smith because of his powers. This couldn't end well and didn't. Smith conducted a series of astoundingly successful experiments in telepathy, which Gurney wrote up as proof of its reality. It took no time at all because Smith and his partner were exposed, and Gurney died of an overdose of chloroform in June 1888. Officially ruled an accidental death, the betting then and later was that he committed suicide because of the disgrace.

 

Smith failed upward, going back to performing and hobnobbing with the literal nobs until he stumbled into a demonstration of the art of film by the brothers Lumière in March 1896, the first movies shown in Britain. As with so many other names in history, one exposure to a new technology was all that was needed for obsession. Smith saw how his talents for fooling people could be adapted to the new medium.

 

X-Rays had been introduced to the world in January 1896, and thinkers, writers, and satirists around the world exploited them instantly. "Röntgen's Curse," a horror story of a man who can only see what x-rays would see, including only his wife's skeleton, appeared in September and "The Possibilities of the Roentgen Method," in which a skeleton bends a knee in proposal, even earlier. (Illustration from X-Ray Vision- A Way of Looking, by Richard M. Swiderski, page 55.)

X-Ray Vision: A Way of Looking By Richard M. Swiderski, page 55

A year later, Smith was doing a series of "animated photographs" as part of his regular show. The possibilities of using the new medium of film were as alluring as the possibilities of x-rays: he worked with Georges Méliès to build up a repertoire of tricks, including the jump cut, which involved merely turning the camera off, changing the scene and turning the camera back on. Simple, but somebody has to think of it first, and audiences responded as if to a great magic trick.

 

In October 1897, those audiences were treated to The X-Ray Fiend, a 44-second epic in which a courting couple are spied upon with an X-ray camera. Suddenly we see their skeletons writhing as the man swoops in for a snuggle and kiss, along with the inspired comic touch of the ribs of the umbrella the young lady, played by Smith's wife Laura Bayley, is holding. Bayley (and the man, comic Tom Green) of course wear form-fitting black onesies with a skeleton painted on but the sight of a woman's outline was titillating as well as magical. Whether Smith came up with the idea independently or had seen those or other earlier examples can't be known. With pictures of bones in every magazine and newspaper, any number of minds could have leaped to the same conclusion. Smith was the one to put it in movie form, the most perfect for impressing the joke into minds.

EK

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