Book Reviews: “Ruan Lingyu: Her Life and Career” By Patrick Galvan and “Silent Vignettes: Stars, Studios and Stories from the Silent Movie Era” By Tim Lussier

Ruan Lingyu: Her Life and Career: Galvan, Patrick: 9798832237268: Books

The early 20th century was a turbulent time in China. The lengthy Qing dynasty was overthrown during the 1911 Revolution, and it was replaced by the more democratic Republic of China. Class struggles ran deep and traditional attitudes were starting to clash with more modern mindsets. As the country opened more and more to the west, great metropolises like Shanghai bustled with foreign-controlled industries.

Film was popular in China as early as 1897, when Lumière and Edison films were first shown in the major cities. Early Chinese studios sprang up quickly, flourishing the most during a brief boycott on foreign films in the 1920s. But in general they faced tough competition from films imported from Europe and especially from Hollywood, which were wildly popular (as indeed they were everywhere in the world). But Chinese cinema did cultivate some gems, and one of the very brightest was the fragile star Ruan Lingyu.

Born to impoverished Cantonese parents and fortunate enough to be educated thanks to her mother’s diligent efforts to send her to a girls’ school, Ruan became an icon of Chinese cinema in the late ’20s and early ’30s, known for her sensitive persona and delicate beauty. Yet relatively few books (at least in the west) have been published on her. Author Patrick Galvan, after discovering Ruan in the masterful film The Goddess (1934), decided to do a research dive of his own. The result is the deftly-written new book Ruan Lingyu: Her Life and Career.

Ruan first appeared in films in 1927, quickly establishing herself as an audience favorite. Her acting was remarkably naturalistic and she had a warm, graceful presence onscreen. She was also very versatile, playing characters than ranged from ingenues to loving parents to budding revolutionaries. Her performance as a prostitute in the classic The Goddess (1934) is often considered her most touching and nuanced work.

Ruan’s life was tragically brief, as she committed suicide at age 24 after enduring years of scrutiny into her private life. Her two unfortunate common-law marriages, the former to a gambler and the latter to an abusive womanizer, were constant tabloid fodder and had apparently lead to her deep depression. In her alleged suicide note addressed “To Society,” she would state: “My death is not a pity, but it’s dreadful that gossip is a fearful thing.” Her funeral procession would be attended by 100,000 people–some say as many as 300,000.

While reading Ruan Lingyu I was quickly absorbed by the actress’s story and by the history of her native city Shanghai. I was also impressed by the obvious care Galvan took in researching the tumultuous changes and politics of early 20th century China, and in understanding how the country’s movie industry was impacted by these issues throughout the years. He presents this history in very clear, readable detail, making it a useful starting point not just for fans of Ruan but for film lovers wanting to learn more about the Chinese film industry in general. Stills are included when possible, although many of Ruan’s films are lost and surviving films often circulate only in fuzzy public domain copies.

The book is also an intriguing look at Chinese silent films themselves, with titles like A Spray of Plum Blossoms, Spring in the Jade Hall, and The Burning of the Nine-Dragon Mountain. The silent era in China extended well into the ’30s, largely because the proliferation of Chinese dialects made silent film the more practical option. Marital issues, societal and class expectations, and matters of honor were popular themes in Chinese film, and nationalistic propaganda abounded as well. Progressive types of themes were also surprisingly common, at least until censorship in the early ’30s started cracking down. I was also struck by how more than a few films seem to end with characters taking their own lives, mirroring the fate of their brightest star.

I can definitely recommend Ruan Lingyu: Her Life and Career to anyone interested in the legacy of this accomplished star, as well as Chinese silent film. Copies seem to be available primarily on Amazon.

Silent film fans are very familiar with the happy concept of “falling down a research rabbit hole.” We’re watching a film or reading an article and something–or someone–sparks our interest. Pretty soon we’re reading everything about them we can find. It becomes a kind of quest, one that involves search engines, libraries, and scanned newspapers from a century ago, and results can be remarkably satisfying.

Now, what if you kept track of all the times you found yourself delving into that kind of research, and decided to share the fascinating stories and surprising trivia you found? The result just might be Tim Lussier’s lovingly-written Silent Vignettes: Stars, Studios and Stories from the Silent Movie Era.

Forgotten stars Harold Lockwood and May Allison, both covered in the book.

Lussier, the historian and webmaster behind the long-running Silents Are Golden website is certainly familiar with that joy of discovery. If you’re looking to explore the world of silent film beyond the usual big players like Charlie Chaplin or Louise Brooks and have been steadily building a little library of film books, Silent Vignettes will fit beautifully on your shelf.

There’s few things Silent-ology loves more than seeing obscure personalities brought to light, and Lussier’s book definitely delivers. Francelia Billington, Nils Asther, Virginia Brown Faire, George Fawcett–maybe you’ve seen their names in passing, or saw them on the screen without thinking too much about it. Lussier helps bring them to life and explains their overlooked contributions to film history. He gets you acquainted with the Flugrath sisters (you’re probably most familiar with Viola Dana), one-time leading man Harold Lockwood, and takes particular care with covering the Novak sisters Jane and Eva. Lost films, forgotten tales about filmmaking adventures, obscure film studios, interviews from a century ago–a lot of treasures are tucked into these pages.

The Flugrath sisters Viola Dana, Edna Flugrath, and Shirley Mason.

Bigger names are covered too, of course, but from unique angles. Lussier examines Buster Keaton’s many gags involving water, for example, and covers Harold Lloyd’s screen partnership with Bebe Daniels in their many short comedies together. He also analyzes Greta Garbo’s unique brand of beauty and allure–as critic Robert Sherwood put it, she was the “Official Dream Princess of the Silent Drama Department.”

All in all, Silent Vignettes is a well-rounded look at this deeply significant period of cinema, infused with the joy of discovery. Perhaps you’ll find some inspiration, too. As Lussier put it in the preface, “It’s just possible the reader may feel some of the same spark that inspired me to write these chapters–and then go on fact-finding expedition of their own…” You can find it on BearManor Media and Amazon, among many other sites.

Many thanks to Patrick Galvan and Tim Lussier for providing my review copies of these two books!

5 thoughts on “Book Reviews: “Ruan Lingyu: Her Life and Career” By Patrick Galvan and “Silent Vignettes: Stars, Studios and Stories from the Silent Movie Era” By Tim Lussier

  1. Excited to check out the biography of Ruan Lingyu. I always wanted to learn more about Lingyu after watching Center Stage, the great Hong Kong biopic where Maggie Cheung plays her.

  2. Excellent reviews of these two books! I am very interested in the life of Ruan Lingyu – I see that The Goddess is on YouTube. I’d definitely like to check it out. And since I’m (slowly) embarking on a silent film journey, the second book looks especially fascinating. Thank you for sharing these.

    • My pleasure! The Goddess is a classic, there are several other films of hers on You Tube that Galvan’s book introduced me to and I’m grateful for that. Lussier’s book also makes you want to check out the more obscure films–obviously I love that.

  3. All the chapters on little-known actors and their films were terrific. Jotted down some names, such as Raymond Griffith, Reginald Denny (a silent actor who, like Edward Everett Horton, had a long and memorable career in talkies) and a half dozen other names and titles of their available films that I want to see. BUT, there was a snake in this garden of delights.

    In chapter 13 of ‘Silent Vignettes’ – ‘The Mysterious Death of Olive Thomas’ – author Lussier repeats the syphilis, suicide, and murder RUMORS about Thomas death that for decades have been the main, if not sole, reason she is remembered and mentioned as a silent era actress. 122 years after her death, the RUMORS are still being trotted out whenever the enduringly popular subject of Hollywood scandals is broached. The real mystery is WHY these rumors haven’t died the death they undeniably deserve.

    At the end of Lussier’s 4 pages of text he lists 6 sources, one of which is a 2003 documentary on Thomas, but curiously, the 2007 bio by Michelle Vogel (a hatchet job on Pickford) is not included. A more blaring curiosity is that while there are bios on every Tom, Dick and Harry in the entertainment world since entertainment began, there is NO bio on Jack Pickford, whose career and position in the film industry surpassed that of 90% of his contemporaries. Still more curiously, missing from this source list is Steve Vaught’s 3-part series ‘You Don’t Know Jack’ (at, published 10 years before Lussier’s book. In this Oscar worthy mini-bio, Vaught dared to tread where no writer had previously trod – he examined the FACTS of Thomas death and by so doing, demolished the RUMORS and arrived at a conclusion that has the resounding ring of truth –Thomas’s death was an ACCIDENT.

    In contrast to Vaught, Lussier’s reprinting of the RUMORS cloaks them with legitimacy and keeps them alive and circulating. Apparently, the rumor mongers think that since we weren’t in the hotel room or the hospital room with Thomas and Pickford, since we weren’t with the Paris police investigating her death, since we didn’t personally know either Thomas or Pickford, it’s OK to speculate, to take pleasure in the hunt, to pretend we’re Hercule Poirot trying to solve a MYSTERY.

    And why is syphilis the centerpiece in this ‘mystery’? Syphilis is an STD, like gonorrhea or herpes or HIV, and scandal mongers don’t denigrate and virulently abuse anybody with STDs. Lussier writes, “A prevailing theory is that the mercury bichloride was prescribed to Pickford for his venereal disease. This is supported by the fact that Pickford’s doctor had admitted to prescribing the medicine for him in 1917 as a treatment for syphilis.” What?! It’s a ‘FACT’? Really? Pickford’s doctor said this? To who? When? Why? In the world of proven facts, it’s a fact that the doctor/patient relationship is privileged. Violating a patient’s rights to medical privacy is unprofessional conduct, if not unlawful, and can result in the doctor losing his license to practice. The doctor would have maintained a professional silence during the lifetime of Pickford and Mary, knowing he risked being sued. Or did the doctor say this after Pickford died? Or after Mary died? How did the source learn of this ‘fact’? Did the source obtain a copy of Pickford’s medical records from the doctor or from Pickford’s estate, or a copy of his autopsy (if any), or some other documentation required to support this ‘fact’? Without hard evidence that withstands examination, what a source reports is not proof. It’s not conclusive. It’s theory. Gossip. RUMOR.

    The $64 dollar question: Why was a bottle of mercury bichloride (MB) in the hotel bathroom? Vaught notes that Pickford said the label was in French, meaning that the MB was purchased in Paris. If the MB was used by Pickford as a treatment for syphilis, it would certainly be important to him that he have it on hand. Presumably, he would not know if it was sold over the counter in France as it was in the States, and he would have brought a sufficient supply with him. That he ‘ran out’ of MB might indicate that Pickford was not concerned about diligently treating his supposed disease. This might indicate that Pickford did not have syphilis. This might indicate that Pickford was using MB for some other reason.

    Historically, MB was a common household item. In addition to being a disinfectant and an antiseptic, mercury was used medically to treat mood swings, headaches and constipation. Abraham Lincoln took ‘Blue pills’ for his bilious headaches, thought to be cured by a cathartic that allowed bile to flow. (1) Hmmm. Did Pickford have mood swings, headaches or constipation and was he treating it, as many others treated these conditions, with MB? Google provides info that until antibiotics were developed during WW2, MB was the treatment choice of doctors and the public for just about anything. ‘Anything’ included hair loss, measles, ulcers, typhoid fever, parasites, and more, plus it was used by women as a facial beauty aide! The point is: some men and women had syphilis and treated it with MB, but not all men and women who used MB had syphilis.

    The RUMOR that Pickford had syphilis feeds the RUMOR that Thomas death was a SUICIDE. And the RUMOR that Thomas had syphilis feeds the RUMOR that Pickford MURDERED her. To believe either of these RUMORS requires one to be totally devoid of critical thinking skills and to be totally uninterested in the FACTS that lead to the TRUTH. The Paris police investigation examined all the evidence as well as heard the testimony of Pickford and Thomas and hotel staff and doctors and nurses and concluded that Thomas death was an ACCIDENT. Why is this conclusion unacceptable to the scandal mongers?

    It is tragic that Thomas died so young and so horribly. It is tragic that Pickford’s life after Thomas died was a downward spiral culminating in his own early death at age 36. But the GREATER tragedy is that the scandal mongers have defiled the reputations of both Pickford and Thomas. The scandal mongers are responsible for the lurid legacy of Pickford and Thomas, their legacy being the RUMORS of syphilis, suicide, and murder. Aiding and abetting the scandal mongers needs to cease. As Vaught writes: “… a terrible injustice has been done to both Olive Thomas and Jack Pickford, particularly to Jack.”

    Message to silent film biographers: If you’re looking for a subject to write about that the silent film community wants to read about, a bio of Jack Pickford is longggg past due. The source material is abundant. All the Hollywood people in Jack’s life are of interest to silent film fans. The real mystery about Jack Pickford is NOT that his first wife died “mysteriously,” but that the rumors swirling about this sad event continue unabated while Jack and his career are ignored.

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