The Early Death Ray Serials


The death ray was a staple of American silent film serials. In this post we’ll explore the real-life background of the death ray, as well as the early serials in which sinister villains steal death ray machines and kidnap damsels in distress. 


Poster for The Exploits of Elaine.

The Exploits of Elaine. 1914, USA. Starring: Pearl White, Arnold Daly, Sheldon Lewis. Produced  for Wharton.
Zudora. 1914, USA. Starring: Marguerite Snow, James Cruze. Produced for Thanhauser Film Company.
The Great Radium Mystery. 1919. Starring: Cleo Madison, Bob Reeves, Eileen Sedgwick, Ed Brady. Produced for Universal.
The Invisible Ray. 1920, USA.
 Starring: Ruth Clifford, Jack Sherrill. Produced for Frohman Amusement Corporation.
The Flaming Disc. 1920, USA. Starring: Elmo Lincoln. Louise Lorraine. Produced for Great Western Manufacturing Company (Universal).
The Power God. 1925, USA. Starring: Ben F. Wilson, Neva Gerber. Produced for Davis & Wilson Companies.
The Scarlet Streak. 1925, USA. Starring: Jack Dougherty, Lola Todd. Produced for Universal. 

American cinema audiences would have been hard-pressed to find domestically produced science fiction films during the silent era. Apart from the odd comedy and a couple of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde adaptations, very few science fiction feature films were made in the US before the thirties. If sci-fi was to be found, it was in the film serials. Even in those, the science fiction element was almost always confined to the status of Gizmo MacGuffin. The one exception was Harry Houdini’s serial The Master Mystery (1918, review), which actually had a killer robot. But the one thing that kept showing up in serial after serial was the Death Ray. In this post we’ll take a look at the history of the death ray, and the silent film serials that made use of it.


A scene from The Exploits of Elaine (1914), starring serial queen Pearl White.

The death ray has a long history in mythology and folklore, from Thor and Zeus wielding the power of lightning to Archimedes’ alleged ship-burning sun mirrors. However, it wasn’t until the late 19th century that the notion of a man-made “directed energy weapon” of mass destruction became a regular topic in fiction and news media. William J. Fanning, Jr. in his book Death Rays and the Popular Media 1876-1939 places the origins of the trope with the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, the war that first showed the potential of new technology like the telegraph in warfare, which along with better bombs and guns allowed a single soldier to wield a much greater death toll. The prospect of  new scientific advances revolutionising warfare gave birth to the term “the next war”, with the implication that war in the future could bring about near-destruction of the world. One strand of this discussion was the war in the air, with hundreds of novels being published on the subject between 1870 and 1914.


Illustration for Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel The Coming Race.

Another strand was the idea of a super-weapon based on either electricity, radiation or a combination of both. One influential novel on the subject was Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1871 Hollow Earth epic The Coming Race, in which the protagonist stumbles upon an ancient race of Atlanteans living underground, wielding the power of “vril”. Vril is basically described as the ability to control electricity both by technological and mental means. One use of the vril is a devastating weapon – a staff that shoots a beam of directed electric power, in theory able to topple mountains. The famous Russian occultist Helena Blavatsky adapted the term and even serious scientists started discussing the possibility of harnessing vril power. Incidentally, the upcoming (August 2018) Iron Sky (2012) sci-fi comedy sequel Iron Sky: The Coming Race gives Bulwer-Lytton a story credit. Another highly influential novel was George T. Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking, also released in 1871, which foretells how France invades Britain with the aid of new super-weapons. The novel is often seen as the starting point for the future war subgenre of SF.

Other factors, like new scientific breakthroughs in the fields of electricity, radiation and wireless communication sparked the imagination of laymen and scientists alike – and not least that of the military brass and politicians, who wanted to make sure that their country was the one gaining the benefits of any new potential super-weapons.


A 1906 illustration for H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds by Henrique Alvim Correa.

The story that really fired up the imagination of the public was H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel The War of the Worlds, in which Martians invade Earth using devastating heat rays. Like The Battle of Dorking, the book immediately inspired rip-offs and imitations, like Garrett P. Serviss’ 1897 story Fighters of Mars and the following year Edison’s Conquest of Mars as well as Fred T. James’ The Violet Flame (1899). Heat guns/ray guns with directed beams of terrible power became staples in science fiction. But the most common conception of the death ray was the idea of somehow combining electricity and some sort of radio waves or radiation, even light beams, in order to remotely detonate gun powder or fuel in enemy ships and planes, or even using its power to outright kill enemy soldiers. The first mention of such a weapon came as early as 1876, when the American “professor” James C. Wingard got so far as demonstrating his “nameless force based on electricity” to the US army by remotely blowing up ships with his death ray. Unfortunately two of his assistants were killed in one demonstration as they were secretly installing dynamite in the ship, thus exposing the fraud.

However fraudulent, the idea of a weapon that could remotely detonate ammunition dumps or in other ways set the world aflame became ingrained in the minds of the public, to be dragged up again after Wells’ book at the eve of a new century. Fears again mounted with the Spanish-American war and the Greco-Turkish war, and the overall volatile situation in Europe which led up to WWI. WIlliam O. Grener (pseud. Wirt Gerrare) in his novel Warstock: A Tale of To-morrow (1898) was one of the first authors to latch on the the idea. George Griffith was one of the most prolific death ray authors, writing three different stories on the subject between 1902 and 1911, and even Jack London got in on the action with his 1908 short story Goliah. Interesting for this article is Arthur B. Reeve’s The Silent Bullet (1910), in which he introduces both his scientific sleuth Craig Kennedy and a death ray.


Inventor Giulio Ulivi and his death ray machine.

On the eve of WWI the Italian inventor Giulio Ulivi claimed he could remote-detonate gunpowder and explosives from several miles away with the aid of “F-rays”, or infrared rays. He did a number of successful demonstrations and initially had some scientists, politicians, military leaders and not least the media convinced, at least for a time. He actually did succeed in “remotely” detonating a number of submarine mines in demonstrations for the French army. However, the potential buyers of his death ray grew suspicious when Ulivi was unable to answer technical questions on how the machine worked, and gave several answers that contradicted basic scientific knowledge. In addition, Ulivi was unwilling to participate in test where he couldn’t supply his own explosives. After some discussion, he finally agreed to undertake a demonstration controlled by the army, who unfortunately lost interest after Ulivi’s machine “broke down” own three consecutive days. Later it was speculated that Ulivi had performed his “successful” demonstration by drilling holes in the mines, and stuffing them first with magnesium and then with cotton. When the water hit the magnesium it would ignite, setting off the mine. The cotton would act as a fuse, and by careful preparations, Ulivi could calculate exactly when each mine would go off, pointing his “death ray” in the right direction.


Inventor Harry Grindell Matthews and his death ray as seen in Pathé’s short “documentary” The Death Ray (1924) – probably made with a little help from Pathé’s special effects department …

But the media interest in death rays didn’t die down, and continued with even greater vigour in 1923 with the most famous death ray of them all, that of British inventor Harry Grindell Matthews. Matthews was known to the British army from previous inventions. In 1911 he claimed to have invented an “aerophone” that enabled communication between an airplane and ground station. The army wanted a demonstration, but Matthews only agreed if no experts in the field were present. Still, at the day of the demonstration four of the observers dismantled part of the device in order to see how it worked, and Matthews cancelled, officially out of fear of patent theft. In 1914, after the outbreak of WWI, he collected a prize of 25,000 pounds after having demonstrated for the British army a device reportedly using light-sensitive selenium cells to remotely control a boat. According to Matthews, the boat was equipped with a selenium receiver, responding to signals from an ordinary search-light that was equipped with four flaps. Utilising the flaps, Matthews was able to alter the light beam, ordering the boat to turn, back up and even detonate a payload. Remarkably, the device was able to all that he claimed. Despite this amazing success, the British army never actually took the selenium system in use. Of course, one explanation to Matthews’ success with the demonstration could be that there was actually someone on board steering the boat, responding to his light signals.


Now you can!

So, in 1923 Harry Grindell Matthews claimed to have invented a death ray, capable of performing a number of feats, which seemed to vary from time to time. Initially he claimed that the ray could incapacitate magnets, and that he was therefore able to stop almost any sort of engine, including airplanes and tanks. Other times the machine could remotely power a light bulb or ignite gunpowder. He made two demonstrations, but only to select journalists. In one he was actually able to stop a motorcycle engine, and in another to turn on a light bulb and detonate gunpowder. He offered to sell the device to the British army, an army which was by now wise to his antics, and demanded a proper demonstration on its own terms. Again, Matthews refused. Just in case he was actually on to something, a court still ruled that any sort of death ray device of the kind Matthews claimed to have invented was forbidden to sell. But they were too late, as Matthews was already on a plane to Paris, where he made a short film with Pathé, entitled Death Ray (1924), in which he replicated the demonstration with the light bulb and the gunpowder, most likely using the same kind of special effects his used in his demonstration. Media all over the world went bananas speculating about what would happen to his death ray, and every time Matthews travelled to a new country headlines declared that this and that buyer had bought the device or shown interest in it. In reality, he never sold it, nor is it clear if anyone was really ever interested. Actual scientists tried to explain that it was all bogus, but naturally the media wouldn’t have it. Death rays sold papers.


The media ate up Grindell Matthews’ stories of his death ray.

Harry Grindell Matthews also did create some things that actually worked. He worked for a while with a real application for selenium, as he was one of many trying to develop a way to capture sound on film, and seems to have succeeded, along with a few colleagues, as early as 1921, however this is disputed. Nevertheless, his work with sound pictures did garner him a contract as a consultant at Warner Brothers in 1928. He put his last investments into something called a “cloud projector”, with which he was able to produce images and text on clouds. While the device worked beautifully, its commercial value was limited beyond its novelty, and the project bankrupted him. The quintessential mad scientist passed away from a heart attack in 1941.

Several other inventors, like Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, claimed to have invented death rays of some kind or the other. Some of these actually seemed to work in small-scale scenarios, such as radiation devices that were able to kill small animals. Inventors called for funding, claiming that with a sufficient amount of energy, they would be able to make their devices work on long-range targets. Sceptical scientists with actual knowledge of how radiation and electricity works scoffed, reminding potential investors that “radiation just doesn’t work like that”.


Magazine ad for the 1914 serial The Exploits of Elaine: to the left Arnold Daly, Pearl White and Sheldon Lewis.

The death ray also naturally found its way to film, first and foremost American film serials. The man often credited for developing the film serial is French director Louis Feuillade, who in 1913 made the legendary Fantômas, a series of one hour long episodes following a police detective and a reporter trying to catch Fantômas, a master thief and expert on disguises, who foils them in episode after episode, sometimes even putting them in mortal danger through cunning and devious traps. This more or less became the blueprint for the American crime serial. One American serial was produced as early as 1912, called What Happened to Mary, but since it lacked the typical cliffhanger ending of the film serial, it was something of an anomaly. However, What Happened to Mary, starring film star Mary Fuller, is interesting inasmuch as it set the tone for the early American serials in that it focused on a female protagonist, at the same time introducing the damsel in distress trope that would carry on to later serials.


Kathlyn Williams with a lion in The Adventures of Kathlyn.

This came to be a speciality of US serials, of which a surprising number had female protagonists, often as rather active and independent characters, sometimes as full-blown action heroines, such as in The Adventures of Kathlyn, starring Kathlyn Williams, which premiered in December 1913. Like Fantômas, The Adventures of Kathlyn incorporated the cliffhanger ending. The serial was a cross-promotional stunt between The Selig Picture Corporation and The Chicago Tribune, as each episode was published in the newspaper after it had appeared on screen. In the serial, Kathlyn is the daughter of an explorer in India, who is kidnapped and forced to marry an evil native king against her will, making her a captive queen of India. Throughout the serial Kathlyn tries to escape her captors, fights wild animals and bloodthirsty natives.

The great success of The Adventures of Kathlyn in the Chicago area inspired other companies to create their own film serials. But the first and most influential answer to the serial was actually set in motion by another newspaper giant, William Randolph Hearst. E.A. McManus, head of the Hearst-Vitagraph corporation, decided not to produce the serial with the small, short-lived team-up between the news organisation and the movie studio, and instead went across the picket fence to Pathé Film, the American offshoot of Pathé Fréres, the French mega-corporation, and the biggest film company in the world in 1914, ensuring resources and know-how. Pathé brought over French director Louis J. Gasnier to co-direct along with Donald MacKenzie, and assistant director for stunt sequences, a young stuntman called Spencer Gordon Bennett, who would later become very successful director in his own right, earning the moniker “King of the Serials”.


Pearl White performing stunts in The Perils of Pauline (1914).

The serial in question was The Perils of Pauline, which premiered in March 1914, and the Hearst newspapers followed said lady’s perils closely, and encouraged readers to send in suggestions for the plot for future episodes, promising a cash prize of a whopping 25 000 dollars for the best suggestion. The actress who portrayed said Pauline was Pearl White, a 25-year old blonde tomboy with a background on stage, vaudeville and short films, with a knack for physical comedy and stunts. After four years of doing mostly slapstick shorts in New York and New Jersey, for Pathé among others, she was offered the role of Pauline. The story by playwright Charles W. Goddard pitches Pauline as an adventurous young heiress, whose father passes away close to her 18th birthday and entrusts his fortunes to her guardian Koerner until the day that she marries. The whole thing seems settled, as she is already engaged to marry her boyfriend Harry. However, before settling into family life, she wants a year of adventure. But Koerner the guardian is actually an escaped prisoner who gets blackmailed into killing Pauline before the year is up by a former accomplice, as the inheritance would then fall to him. Each of the 20 episodes then  basically follows the same formula: Pauline goes off on an adventure, Koerner hires a bunch of goons to kill her, she fights off gypsies, indians, pirates, rolling boulders, burning houses and runaway hot-air balloons, until finally getting caught in an impossible situation, only for Harry to miraculously show up at the last minute to rescue her.


Serial queen Pearl White in the 1923 serial Plunder.

These three first serials set the tone for the American brand of serials, which would often have a female protagonist and would be characterised by action, dangerous stunts, cars, planes, trains and horses, six-shooters and sinister villains. They were often both repetitive and derivative, as little finesse was put into the scripts, if they even had scripts. Generally a new episode was filmed every two weeks, and were released before the filming of the next episode was completed, giving audiences a chance to influence the story. The western soon became the dominating genre, but in the early days the mystery/crime serial was still the preferred format. Studios especially liked westerns because they cost absolutely nothing to produce. As opposed to European serials the episodes in the US films were generally 15-20 minutes long.


Pearl White and Arnold Daly in The Exploits of Elaine. (1914).

The Perils of Pauline doesn’t involve a death ray, but it was a huge international success, and prompted Hearst and Pathé to produce a sequel, this time through the Wharton Studios in New Jersey, owned by brothers Theodore and Leopold Wharton, where The Perils of Pauline had also been filmed. This serial was called The Exploits of Elaine, and was based on a story by detective story writer Arthur B. Reeve. The male protagonist of the serial was Professor Craig Kennedy, Scientific Investigator, a Sherlock Holmes-type character whom Reeve had established in 1910. While it is often claimed that The Exploits of Elaine was based on his novel, it was in fact the other way round, which is absolutely obvious when you read the novelisation of the story, which came out in 1914, the same year as the serial was shown. Kennedy was played by the little known actor Arnold Daly, who had a brief period of fame in 1914-1915 playing Craig Kennedy and a similar sleuth called Ashton-Kirk in three other movies. The role of the titular heroine Elaine Dodge was once again played by Pearl White. 


Sheldon Lewis (left) as The Clutching Hand, inspecting a safe in The Exploits of Elaine (1914).

Like The Perils of Pauline, The Exploits of Elaine largely avoids the cliffhanger format and instead each episode is more or less self-contained. However, the sequel has a clearer and more involved frame story, as it follows Elaine and Kennedy trying to catch the mysterious villain The Clutching Hand, who has murdered Elaine’s father. The Exploits of Elaine was an even bigger success than The Perils of Pauline, and critics have seen it as a huge improvement, regarding writing, acting, direction and production values, upon the earlier serial. It also paints Elaine as a more active character, and one that actually saves Kennedy on a number of occasions, rather than the other way round. The serial firmly cemented Pearl White as the “Queen of the Serials”.


Pearl White going at it.

White did many of her own stunts, some of them quite dangerous, and in fact she injured her back during one stunt while filming The Perils of Pauline, an injury which caused her pain for the rest of her life, contributing to her increasing use of alcohol and medications in the latter years of her life. The Exploits of Elaine contrasted many of the films and serials at the time in departing, however slightly, from the damsel in distress formula, and instead making the heroine a character who can fend for herself. This became the persona that Pearl White would adapt for herself in most of the work she did after the serial, including its two sequels, The New Exploits of Elaine (1915) and The Romance of Elaine (1915).

Episode number nine of the serial includes a death ray. Arthur B. Reeve had apparently been following the news reporting around Italian inventor Giulio Ulivi, as the story has Kennedy and his partner discover that The Clutching Hand has acquired death ray machine that uses F-rays like Ulivi’s. They know that The Clutching Hand knows that they are watching him, so they try to dupe him by saying that they give up the chase – that the villain has outsmarted them. They let The Clutching Hand believe that they board a ship to leave New York, but in fact disguise themselves and head back to town at the last minute, hoping the surprise the fiend. However, The Clutching Hand is once again smarter, and calls their bluff. The final scene has Kennedy and his partner pinned in a corner while The Clutching Hand tries to kill them with his death ray apparatus, which sends out a heat ray that sets the house on fire. In the last minute Elaine knocks over The Clutching Hand and his death ray, but as the police arrives, the antagonist disappears through a secret trap door, once again foiling our heroes. This is one of the few instances in these serials when a death ray is actually used. As a disclaimer: I am going on the information from the novelisation of the serial, as the episode in question is not available online, and I haven’t been able to find a DVD that includes it.


Sheldon Lewis as The Clutching Hand.

The Clutching Hand was one of the very first “mysterious villains” of US cinema, and would set a template for countless serials to come. He was played by stage actor Sheldon Lewis in one of his first film roles, and this sealed his fate, as he was thereafter forever typecast as a sinister villain. He was absent from the Elaine sequels, but instead teamed up again with Arnold Daly, playing the antagonist of detective Ashton-Kirk in all three of the movies in 1915. Beside his role of The Clutching Hand, Sheldon Lewis may be best known for playing the dual role in the other other 1920 adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (review).

Sheldon Lewis, while little remembered today, was sort of a Christopher Lee of his day between 1914 and 1930: the go-to guy when a sinister villain was needed for a B-movie or a serial. However, unlike Lee, Lewis seldom got top billing, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde being one rare exception. He teamed up again with Pearl White as the titular character in the 1916 serial The Iron Claw, and continued doing, as one film encyclopedia puts it: ” primary or secondary gargoyle”, throughout the 1910s and early 1920s, playing the evil Dr. Scarley in The Hidden Hand (1917), The White Cloud in Impossible Catherine (1919), Drexel Draig in In Fast Company (1924), the titular villain in The Sky Pirate (1927), Spider in The Ladybird (1927), Doc Shade in The Sky Rider (1928), etc.


Sheldon Lewis.

Lewis wasn’t wholly consigned to B-fare, but also did stints here and there with supporting roles in A-list films, for example D.W. Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm (1921), King Baggot’s The Darling of New York (1923) and Don Juan (1926) starring John Barrymore. With a another film directed by James Cruze, he rounded up working with all the previous Jekyll/Hydes whose movies are still available. Around 1925 Lewis became a staple in western films and serials often playing characters with names like  Big Jim, Serpent Smith, Single Tooth Wilson or Ratburn. In one of these Z-grade westerns he actually acted opposite the afore-mentioned, still unknown, Boris Karloff. Toward the end of the twenties and beginning of the thirties, with the rising popularity in both jungle adventure films and horror films, he did a few of them as well, starting out as an African witch doctor in the drama Black Magic (1929). He played the evil slave trader Achmet Zek in the Frank Merrill serial Tarzan the Tiger in 1929, and villains in two “old dark house” films in 1931 and 1932; as The Thing in The Phantom, and as a murderous uncle in the giant ape film The Monster Walks. He also played the villainous The Spider in the crime comedy Seven Footprints to Satan (1929). In 1936 he retired, at 67 years old.

After the success of The Perils of Pauline, The Chicago Tribune decided to continue their serial involvement, this time with Thanhauser and film star Florence la Badie, who became was one of the top rivals to Pearl White’s serial royalty, along with Helen Holmes. This serial, called The Million Dollar Mystery, was quickly followed by a sequel called Zudora, which rather blatantly ripped off The Perils of Pauline, with Marguerite Snow playing Zudora, a heiress to 20 million dollar. However, her ward is the mystic and reporter Hassam Ali/Jim Baird (James Cruze), who covets her inheritance. The money will befall Zudora when she marries, and she already has a man in mind, John Storm (Harry Benham), but Ali claims he does not approve of him. Thus Ali strikes a bargain with Zudora: if she solves 20 mysteries he lays out for her, she can marry as she will. Of course this is all a plot to try and kill her. One of the episodes reportedly contained a death ray.

One of the problems with giving any sort of coherent overview of the silent American serials is that very few of them have survived to this day, and most of those that have are rather difficult to find. For some of the more obscure ones, even the simplest of synopses may be difficult to come by.


Is this a smartphone in 1915?

However, we do know that pure sci-fi serials didn’t emerge before the end of the thirties. There were few serials, though, during the silent era, in which a science fiction element played a significant role, usually as a Gadget MacGuffin. Apart from the afore-mentioned, there was some sci-fi present in the 1915 serial The Black Box, in which there is featured a pocket-sized communication device reminiscent of a mobile phone. The Power God (1925) partly ties in to the death ray narrative, as it deals with a revolutionary atomic power machine that can create electricity by drawing power directly from the atoms of the air, thus making all other means of energy production obsolete. As a criminal tries to steal the machine, there hangs a definite promise of a super-weapon in the air, but as far as I can tell from synopses and reviews online, the serial never goes down that path. Instead it seems that the criminal simply wants to take control of energy production for himself, thereby making himself ruler of the world – a plot that seems to be lifted from the German film Algol (1920, review). This is one of the few silent serials that have in fact survived intact, and that is available on DVD. According to reviews online, it is questionable whether it’s worth paying for.


Ad for The Great Radium Mystery (1919).

Another serial that sort of sets up for a death ray scenario is The Great Radium Mystery (1919), starring Eileen Sedgewick and Bob Reeves as the hero couple and a top-billed Cleo Madison as the villain. Once again we deal with a female heiress (what’s the thang?). This time her father is an inventor of a new, deadly armoured car (or tank, both are mentioned) that has something to do with radium. The film is lost, and the synopses online don’t make clear whether the car/tank runs on radium or uses radium as a weapon. At least the synopses never explicitly mention that the car/tank would actually be armed.

Cleo Madison was top billed, not without cause. Madison started her film career in 1914, after having worked in theatre and vaudeville, and quickly made a name for her as one of the foremost women in the film business, by starring in, writing, directing and producing films, primarily for Universal. Madison was known for her extrovert, theatrical and emotional acting style, which she had developed in vaudeville, and quickly became one of Hollywood’s top B-actresses. A progressive feminist, she championed women’s rights in the movie business, promoting the idea that females could do anything just as well as men, including produce and direct pictures, which she also did, as one of the early female directors. At the time, Universal actually employed a surprisingly large roster of female directors. Madison directed 16 shorts and two feature films, none of which have gone down in history as classics, but have received some praise from film historians. She also produced two films, and tied to set up her own production company, but without success, after which she left the film business in 1924.


Bob Reeves.

The Great Radium Mystery was the first film role of Bob Reeves, a former cowboy, who plays the male hero of the serial. He had a long career that extended into TV in the fifties and appeared in over 300 films, without leaving any particular mark. He also appeared in a small role the death ray serial The Flaming Disc (1920), which we’ll get to shortly.

Eileen Sedgewick was one of Universal’s minor serial stars, who played the heroine in about half a dozen serials, and appeared all in all in over 120 productions between 1914 and 1930. Like Reeves, she appeared mostly in B- or Z-grade productions, most of which are lost today, and many of them westerns. One of the few, if not the only, film of hers that has survived, is Howard Hawks’ adventure comedy A Girl in Every Port (1928), in which she portrays a “woman cyclist in Amsterdam”.

Ed Brady, who plays a villain, was a very prolific character actor and bit-part player whose film career ranged from 1911 to 1942. He was best known for playing heavies and tough guys, often uncredited. He appeared in A-movies like John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), Fritz Lang’s Fury (1936) and Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1941), as well as successful B-movies, like the Harry Houdini vehicle Terror Island (1920), The Son of Kong (1933) and The Invisible Man Returns (1940, review), plus a whole slew of westerns.

And now we come to two serials that are definitely death ray serials, The Invisible Ray and The Flaming Disc, both released in 1920. Like most silent serials, they are both lost, so we can only on what information we can find online.


Ruth Clifford in an ad for The Invisible Ray (1920).

The Invisible Ray was produced by the short-lived Frohman Amusement Corporation, the film branch of Broadway theatre owners the Frohman brothers. The serial depicts a mineralogist discovering a new mineral which gives off powerful radiation. He locks a piece of the mineral in a box with two keys, one of which he gives to his daughter Mystery (Ruth Clifford). The mineral’s rays, if concentrated, are powerful enough to destroy the world, so naturally a gang of criminals set out to get the rock in order to blackmail the world. Mystery is kidnapped and tortured, and her boyfriend (Jack Sherrill) sets out to find and rescue her with the help of a friend and a “crystal gazer” (Corene Uzzell), who turns out to be Mystery’s mother.

The serial got positive reviews, even from The New York Times, who linked its premise to the ideas of British scientist Oliver Lodge, who was one of the people who discovered radiomagnetism, and who argued that the earth holds a power greater than anyone could imagine, and that if mankind could unlock this power, it would sign off on its own doom, thereby delivering a prophesy of a nuclear apocalypse. The Moving Picture World praised its special effects, writing that “Mighty buildings, rocks and forests are set afire and exploded. The expert application of clever photographic devices makes the picture appear strikingly realistic”.


Ad for The Invisible Ray (1920).

Ruth Clifford was not a serial staple, in fact this seems to have been her only serial appearance in a prominent role. At 20, she was a five-year film veteran who got her start at Universal, often in fairly big roles. Her career peaked in the mid-twenties, when she landed female leads in films like The Dramatic Life of Abraham Lincoln (1924), The Storm Breaker (1925) and As a Man Desires (1925), however her roles in high-profile films, like The Phantom of the Opera (1925), remained small, often uncredited. Nevertheless, she continued to work steadily in small roles into the sixties. She was a favourite of John Ford’s, receiving bit parts in big films like How Green was My Valley (1941), My Darling Clementine (1946), The Quiet Man (1952) and The Searchers (1956). She also appeared in movies like Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross (1932), The Snake Pit (1948) with Olivia de Havelland, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd (1950) and the Barbra Streisand/Omar Sharif vehicle Funny Girl (1968).


Ruth Clifford.

For a time in the late forties and early fifties Clifford did voice work for Walt Disney, as Minnie Mouse and Daisy Duck, among others. She also appeared regularly on TV, best known perhaps for her work on the TV series Highway Patrol in the fifties. She passed away in 1998, at the age of 98, and through her later years she was a primary source of information on the silent movies for film historians.

Edward Davies plays a scientist in the serial, presumably Mystery’s father who discovers the death ray. He passed away in 1936, and according to IMDb his last role was an uncredited turn as a scientist in the 1936 science fiction film by the name of The Invisible Ray (review), one of the best of the team-ups between horror legends Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Either this is a wonderful coincidence, or some IMDb editor has confused the film with this serial.

The Flaming Disc serves up a more old-school version of the death ray, going back to Archimedes’ design. The serial sees a scientist (Lee Kohlmar) invent what is basically a modernised magnifying glass that concentrates the sun’s rays into a powerful heat ray. According to Fanning’s book it “consists of a composite lens in two parts, which, when focused upon iron, steel or other metals, emits a blinding ray of light and reduces the metal to the consistency of putty”. Predictably the death ray is stolen by a gang of criminals, and the scientist’s daughter (Louise Lorraine) takes up the chase along with a Secret Service agent (Elmo Lincoln).


Ad for The Flaming Disc.

Fanning writes that the serial mostly consists of “typical crime detective action, with government agents on the trail of the gang members and their leader. However, there’s a fun little twist on story. According to Hans J. Wollstein at Allmovie, Elmo Lincoln not only plays the hero, but also the hero’s twin brother, who is under the hypnotic influence of the villain. Wollstein adds that “the entire concoction is directed with a firm sense of melodrama by newcomer Robert F. Hill.” How he would know this is unclear, since the film has been lost since before his birth.

For once, the top billing doesn’t go to the heroine, but to Elmo Lincoln. The muscular Lincoln (born Linkenhelt) was spotted by D.W. Griffith when he worked as a stevedore in California in 1912 and used him in bit-parts in his short films. According to legend, Lincoln’s shirt ripped open during a fight scene in The Battle of Elderbusch Gulch (1913), and Griffith called him over, remarking: “That’s quite a chest you’ve got there”. Lincoln’s physique earned him a number of memorable bit-parts in Griffith’s films, for example the blacksmith White Arm Joe in The Birth of a Nation (1915) and The Mighty Man of Valor in Intolerance (1916). In 1917 he even got a lead in the Poverty Row film The Might and the Man. But it was lucky circumstance that suddenly turned him in to an international movie star, however briefly, as the “first” on-screen Tarzan in 1918.


Elmo Lincoln in Tarzan of the Apes (1918).

Tarzan and sci-fi author Edgar Rice Burroughs had been trying for two years to turn his 1914 novel Tarzan of the Apes into a film, but was turned down by all major studios, as they feared the high cost of production. He finally convinced producer William Parsons to buy the rights for the book, and Parsons founded The National Film Corporation of America for the purpose. While Burroughs had sold away all rights to the film, he was nevertheless granted some input in choosing the Tarzan actor, and settled on the tall, gracefully athletic Swedish-American Stellan Windrow for the part in the film Tarzan of the Apes, slated for release in 1918. But five weeks into shooting in the forests of Louisiana, Windrow was drafted into WWI.


The original first Tarzan, Stellan Windrow.

After some searching for a replacement Tarzan, Parsons settled on Elmo Lincoln, who was a good foot shorter than Windrow, and built rather more like an ox than like an athlete. Burroughs hated Lincoln, but was overturned. To make matters worse, Lincoln was scared of heights and thus wasn’t able to do any scenes that involved climbing up, standing in or swinging from trees – which was sort of Tarzan’s trademark. But he was more than happy to wrestle with lions and Parsons knew that his beefcake looks and barrel chest would appeal to a female audience. So he stuck with Lincoln, and simply used the already filmed shots of Windrow for tree sequences. Windrow was paid 1 000 dollars in order to forfeit his screen credit.

While Lincoln is often credited as the first on-screen Tarzan, this actually isn’t the case. The first Tarzan appearing in Tarzan of the Apes is the young Tarzan, played by 11-year old child acting veteran Gordon Griffith. Griffith had considerably more acting talent than Elmo Lincoln –  AND had no problems climbing trees and swinging from vines – in the nude (but Tarzan’s “subconscious western longing for clothes” later drives him to steal a loincloth from a bathing African boy).


Elmo Lincoln with author Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Despite Burrough’s misgivings, Tarzan of the Apes was a resounding success, bringing in over one million dollars at the box office, twenty times the cost of shooting. Elmo Lincoln was catapulted to international fame, and Parsons quickly slapped together plans for a sequel, The Romance of Tarzan (1918), even farther removed from Burrough’s novel than the first film had been, made in great haste and on a much smaller budget than the first one. While the film didn’t bomb, it just barely made back its production costs. After now ostensibly mining his rights for the first Tarzan novel, Parsons had to relinquish his claim on the character, and Burroughs sought out new producers who would make a Tarzan he could approve of. With little luck. He was able to get a contract with Poverty Row studio Numa Pictures who made two films: The Revenge of Tarzan and the serial The Son of Tarzan (both 1920). The first starred Gene Pollar, a fireman with no acting experience, and the second starred both Griffith and Kamuela Searle as the son of Tarzan. Tarzan himself was played by the potbellied opera singer P. Dempsey Tabler wearing a toupé. Both films were flops. Numa had actually tried to get Elmo Lincoln for the role, but he was at the time under contract to Universal. Finally Numa teamed up with Great Western, a Universal collaborator, who was able to get Lincoln to star in their new film serial The Adventures of Tarzan (1921), directed by the afore-mentioned serial specialist Robert F. Hill. This time Lincoln had a stunt double for tree sequences, by the name of Frank Merrill, who would go on to play Tarzan in two Universal serials, Tarzan the Mighty (1928) and Tarzan the Tiger (1929).


Elmo Lincoln and Louise Lorraine in The Flaming Disc (1920).

Elmo Lincoln’s fame after The Adventures of Tarzan earned him the lead in three more serials, Elmo the Mighty (1919), Elmo the Fearless (1920) and The Flaming Disc. Unfortunately his limited acting ability made it hard for him to get substantial roles, so he instead invested his riches in a silver mine in Mexico, with meagre payoff. So after at short break, he returned to Hollywood in 1925, but again mostly to bit-parts, so he decided to call it quits in 1926 and went into the salvage business. He eventually returned to Hollywood in 1939, again to playing bit-parts. He appeared briefly in one Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan film, Tarzan’s New York Adventure (1942) and with Lex Barker in Tarzan’s Magic Fountain (1949). He did his last film in 1952.

If Pearl White was the Queen of the Serials in the 1910s, then it was a toss-up between Allene Ray and Louise Lorraine in the 1920s. Lorraine’s date of birth is somewhat disputed, but most reputable sources has it pinned down as 1904, not 1901 as for example IMDb claims. This would also coincide better with the legend that Louise Lorraine (real name Escovar) was spotted by a door-to-door salesman with connections to the film business when she was only 11. Eventually she made her way to the screen in the late 1910s, but exactly which year is unclear. She started out in comedy shorts, mainly opposite Korean comedian Chai Hong, who was marketed as “Chaplin of the Orient”. Her first big break came as she was offered a contract with Universal to star opposite Elmo Lincoln in Elmo the Fearless. She reunited with him in The Flying Disc and as Jane in The Adventures of Tarzan.


Louise Lorraine in With Stanley in Africa (1921).

All in all, Lorraine played the lead in no less than 11 serials between 1920 and 1930. Like most serial heroines, she played adventurous, hands-on characters and often performed her own stunts. From the mid-twenties onward she became especially known for her western films and serials. She alternated between Universal, her and her then-husband’s own Truart Pictures and assorted Poverty Row outfits. With a number of collaborations with the “classier” MGM, she tried to shed her image of an action heroine in more dramatic roles, but, as Wollstein points out at Allmovie, “without her riding britches she was unremarkable”. She did a couple of sound films, but retird in 1930 in order to spend more time with her new husband and her first-born child.


Poster for The Scarlet Streak (1925).

And so we get to the last death ray serial of this article: The Scarlet Streak (1925), starring Jack Dougherty, Lola Todd, John Elliott, Albert J. Smith, Albert Prisco, Virginia Ainsworth and Monte Montague. Again, this is a lost film. And again, William J. Fanning Jr. is the one providing us with the best description. According to Fanning, the film was marketed as based on news reports that an actual death ray had been invented. The film follows a reporter (Dougherty) who tries to foil a group of criminals (presumably Prisco, Smith and Ainsworth) who have stolen said death ray in order to end war forever by threatening with annihilation anyone who tries that war schtick. He is, once again, aided by the scientist who created the death ray (Elliott) and naturally his daughter (Todd). And that’s pretty much all the information I can find about the serial.

Jack Dougherty enjoyed a brief period of fame between 1924 and 1929 as lead actor in eight of Universal’s serials. However, his career was hampered by heavy drinking and stormy relationships. If remembered today, it is mainly as for his brief marriage to movie star Barbara La Marr, which lasted from 1923 to La Marr’s death in 1926, legally, but from 1923 to 1924, practically. Dougherty was La Marr’s fifth husband, and they married during the peak of her drinking, when she allegedly slept only two hours a night and battled weight gain through brutal crash diets.


Barbara La Marr and Jack Dougherty.

In late 1925 she battled multiple illnesses partly caused by her irregular life habits, and collapsed into a coma during the filming of her last movie. She passed away in January 1926. Dougherty remarried with actress Virginia Brown Faire in 1927, but they divorced in 1928. Either by choice or lack of work opportunities, he appeared in almost no films between 1928 and 1936. However, probably by necessity, he returned to Hollywood in 1936, but found only work in in minor roles, for the most part only as an extra, in B-movies a few minor A-films. He committed suicide in 1938 by locking himself in his garage with the car running.

Lola Todd had a brief acting career, starting in 1923. She had a good run with a streak of westerns in 1924, and in 1925 was chosen as one of WAMPA’s Baby Stars, however, her career started declining almost as soon as it had begun. With the advent of sound she retired from acting to become a secretary.


Elmo Lincoln, Louise Lorraine and Universal founder Carl Laemmle in an ad for The Flaming Disc (1920).

This should not be seen as a definite list of death ray appearances in the silent US serials. As stated, most of the serials have been lost for nearly a century, and what information remains about their plots is hard to come by. But it should give an overall idea of the prevalence of science fiction and the death ray in the early American serial films. As you can see, in most cases science fiction was used simply as a Gadget MacGuffin, around an often derivative, pulpy detective or mystery plot.

The death ray turned up sporadically in European films during the twenties, such as French director Luitz-Morat’s The City Struck by Lightning (1924) and Lev Kuleshov’s The Death Ray (1924). But the death ray was back with a vengeance in America in the early thirties. The talkies had arrived, Universal had launched their spectacular monster movie franchise spearheaded by Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, and pulp magazines bringing ever more science fiction to the masses were in full swing. Several serials in the thirties included death rays, but I’ll return to these in another post. Suffice to say that Lugosi was probably the first to bring the death ray both to the sound serial and the talkie feature film. Actually Karloff and Lugosi both did feature films in 1932 that included death rays, Lugosi did Chandu the Magician and Karloff The Mask of Fu Manchu. And in 1933 Lugosi appeared in the serial The Whispering Shadow, which sort of deals with a death ray-like device. But more on these in their appropriate posts.

Janne Wass

The Exploits of Elaine. 1914, USA. Directed by: Gasnier, Seitz, Wharton & Wharton. Written by: Goddard, Reeve, Seitz, Dickey. Starring: Pearl White, Arnold Daly, Sheldoon Lewis. Produced by Seitz, Wharton & Wharton for Wharton. 

Zudora. 1914, USA. Directed by Hansel, Sullivan. Written by: Doughty, Goodman, Lonergan. Starring: Marguerite Snow, James Cruze. Produced for Thanhauser Film Company.

The Great Radium Mystery. 1919, USA. Directed by: Broadwell, Hill. Written by: Frederick Bennett. Starring: Cleo Madison, Bob Reeves, Eileen Sedgwick, Ed Brady. Produced for Universal.

The Invisibe Ray. 1920, USA. Directed by Harry A. Pollard. Written by Guy McConnell. Starring: Ruth Clifford, Jack Sherrill. Produced for Frohman Amusement Corporation.

The Flaming Disc. 1920, USA. Directed by Robert F. Hill. Written by Arthur Henry Goodson. Starring: Elmo Lincoln. Louise Lorraine, Monte Montague, Lee Kohlmar. Produced by Great Western Manufacturing Company (Universal). 

The Power God. 1925, USA. Directed by Ford, Wilson. Written by: Haven, Pyper, Taylor. Starring: Ben F. Wilson, Neva Gerber. Produced by Davis, WIlson for Davis & Wilson Companies. 

The Scarlet Streak. 1925, USA. Directed by: Henry McRae. Starring: Jack Dougherty, Lola Todd. Produced for Universal. 


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