Above: Young Australian Lotus Thompson, photographed in early 1923. Enlargement of a photo in author’s collection.
The 5 second version
Born Lotus May Thompson in Charters Towers, Queensland, Australia on 26 August 1904, she died in Los Angeles, California, USA, 24 May 1963. She was on stage in Australia from 1915, then appeared in five Australian films 1921-24. She moved to California in 1924 where she found some minor roles. She is mostly remembered today for a stunt in 1925, when she claimed to have splashed acid on her legs. She was then active in US films for four or five years, but after an unhappy marriage and with the coming of sound films she found only uncredited roles. This writer suggests her voice was regarded as unsuitable.
Lotus Thompson is remembered today largely because of a well-publicised incident in February 1925, when she supposedly poured nitric acid on her herself, frustrated with Hollywood producers only offering her parts where she showed off her attractive legs. ”I’ll go mad if they don’t stop it!” she had wailed to her mother. “I know I can play parts, but they won’t give me a chance. It’s legs-always legs! I hate them!” US Newspapers widely reported the event. Film Weekly produced a sensational half-page sketch showing the scantily clad but distressed actress dribbling the acid on her legs. The journal suggested theatre owners might use the event to promote her latest film, The Yellow Back. At the same time, a more sober account in “The Los Angeles Times” included a photograph of Lotus posed on a bed, “burnt legs” bandaged up, looking miserable. A month later the story was still running, as on March 8, “The Detroit Free Press” listed the four things that drove Lotus Thompson to “disfigure herself for life” – which included “displaying her bare limbs in an endless series of frivolous bathing pictures” some of which the paper helpfully reprinted. It’s such a preposterous story it is hard to believe it still has currency today.
Lotus, posed with heavily retouched “bandaged legs”, a month after the alleged event – from “The San Francisco Examiner.” “Deliberately spoiled her too beautiful legs” the paper reported on March 8, 1925. Via Newspapers.com
Lotus May Thompson, was born in Charters Towers, Queensland on 26th August 1904. She first performed on the Sydney stage in juvenile theatre in 1915, and thereafter appeared in concerts, fancy dress balls and carnivals.
Above: Lotus Thompson at the age of about 12 or 13, about the time she first appeared on stage. Photograph courtesy of Melissa Anderson
By 1921 she had featured in her first Australian film for Franklyn Barrett, Know Thy Child, the film and her performance gaining some good reviews. “The Daily News” of Western Australia suggested Lotus played her part with “admirable fidelity.”
Vera James (as the sickly “fallen woman” Sadie) and Lotus Thompson (as Eileen, her vibrant daughter with a rosy future) in “Know Thy Child” – Via Wikipedia commons. Find a beautiful photo of Vera James during her brief stint at Universal Studios here at the NFSA website.
She appeared in four more films in 1922-3; The Dinkum Bloke for Lottie Lyell & Raymond Longford and several Hayseed family comedies for Beaumont Smith. Sadly, none of these are known to survive today.
By 1923 Lotus was well established as an up and coming Australian movie actress. There was endless positive publicity which largely focused on her physical appearance – as can be seen in these examples.
Via National Library of Australia’s Trove; “Sunday Times,” 28 January 1923, and“The Sun Monday” 24 April 1923
Determined to pursue a career in film, on 5th March 1924 she sailed for California on the Matson liner Ventura, with her mother Sarah. A newsreel camera was on hand to capture the scene. (click here to follow link)
This newsreel footage of Thompson surrounded by well-wishers on the eve of departure for the US is unusual – and a testimony to her popularity in 1924.Source of screen grab Australasian Gazette newsreel via youtube.
She settled in Hollywood and a few bit parts followed, but she obviously found the going tough. The “acid” incident occurred on 1st February 1925 – she had been in Hollywood for ten months. Many fan magazines and newspapers in the US and Australia dredged the story out for the next few years, although not all papers accepted the story as fact. “Everyones” magazine seems to have identified it as nonsense in a May 1925 report. Motion Picture Magazine also suspected it was probably a hoax, and announced (tongue in cheek) that as the “acid” had caused no lasting disfigurement to her legs she would have to use scissors to cut them off next time.
“Smiths Weekly”, August 19, 1933, via National Library of Australia – Trove
Eight years later, on a return to Australia, she told the truth. It was entirely a publicity stunt, she confirmed. She told “Smith’s Weekly”, the whole thing had been arranged by five men – ‘”publicity go-getters.’ She was told that the subtle hint that the directors couldn’t keep their eyes off her legs would provide a spicy and sensational story, and she would be overwhelmed with big film offers… The promise of fame lured her into agreeing to it… ” She added ‘I was not much more than a kid at the time, or I would never have entertained the proposition.'”
Above: US actress Olive Borden (left) and Australian actress Lotus Thompson (right). The source of this postcard, very widely available on the net, is unknown, as is the exact date it was taken. It is reputed to have been the mid twenties, when Borden was at the height of her Hollywood popularity and Thompson was just beginning to make her way. Author’s Collection.
All the same, the event achieved the publicity she wanted and kick-started her career. And by October 1926 she was under contract to Paramount Studios – she was posed prominently in a photo lineup of major Paramount stars in late 1926. (See Daniel Blum’s Pictorial History of the Silent Movies, page 294 here). Over the next five years a string of movies followed, some of them Westerns, a few of them directed by Australian-born director J. P. McGowan.
Unfortunately it is often difficult to review the work of silent era actors – so many of their films have been lost. Even the ten episodes of Universal’s 1930 serial Terry of the ‘Times’ – which saw Lotus with a starring role, has disappeared. However, we know Lotus Thompson was noted for her work as a comedienne and her Westerns were well received in Australia. In the late 1920s there was speculation that she could soon become a leading star.
Above: Terry of the Times advertised as a talking serial. It wasn’t really – but it did include music and sound effects. “Motion Picture News”, April-July 1929 Via the Internet Archive.
Left: Lotus as Bessie Lang with Ranger the dog, in Flashing Fangs (1926). “The Picture Show Annual” 1928 , via the Internet Archive. Right – Lotus at right, as a Floradora Girl, in Casey at the Bat (1927). “Motion Picture Magazine” Feb – July 1927, via the Internet Archive.
January 1929 saw another change in Lotus’ life when she married Edward Wilder Churchill in Manhattan. The 1930 US census showed the young couple settling down to live with E Wilder Churchill Senior and his wife Alice on the family estate in California’s Napa Valley. This year was also her busiest for acting, and then in 1930, she appeared in her last credited roll, as Eve in Cecil B. DeMille‘s saucy pre-code musical fantasy, Madam Satan.
Above: A screen grab of Lotus in the kissing competition scene of Cecil B DeMille’s Madam Satan (1930). The film is available through the Warner Archive Collection. Author’s Collection.
For the next three years she did not appear in any films. Then without much warning, in August 1933, she was suddenly home in Australia again, supposedly forced to leave the US because she had overstayed her 6 months visa by some 9 years!
It was during this visit home that she owned up to the acid on the legs stunt. Yet she was not being entirely honest when she spoke of being thrown out of the US as an illegal immigrant, because it seems the return home to see her mother was more to do with the state of her marriage than her visa. She went back to the US in March 1934, but she followed this trip almost immediately with another to the UK, apparently to see if she could drum up any work. She returned to acting in the US, but the roles she was given were now un-credited – she had well and truly lost her currency in the new sound-era Hollywood. Her marriage to Churchill formally came to an end in 1936, and she remarried on April 18 1937, to Stanley Robinson at Tijuana, Mexico. Finally in 1939, she applied to become a naturalised US citizen. According to the Internet Movie Database, the last of her film roles was in 1949, although there is evidence she appeared in some films that are not recorded.
Lotus in “The San Francisco Examiner”, 29 April 1936. Via Newspapers.com
There is another story here of course – and it’s not to do with burned legs. Even if the event was a stunt, was Lotus a victim of a publicity machine that chewed up young women like her? Or was she creatively playing the system and trying to take some initiative to manage her own destiny? Self publicity was then, as it is today, an important activity for aspiring stars.
“The San Francisco Examiner” ran this article with the photo shown above. It was very easy to be stereotyped, even in 1936. 29 April, 1936. Via Newspapers.com
Unfortunately, we know nothing of the last years of her life, except that she lived comfortably on Laurel Canyon Drive and later in Burbank. She had no children from either marriage. She died in California in 1963, aged only 59. Both her parents had succumbed to pneumonia in late 1934, at Cootamundra, New South Wales. Her brother Eric and father Archie both worked at the Cullinga Mine near Cootamundra, New South Wales.
Lotus’s advice on beauty appeared in “The Buffalo Times” (Buffalo, New York) 5 April 1924. “Get plenty of out of door exercise” she said. Via Newspapers.com
A voice not suited to sound?
With the advent of sound film, many famous screen actors of the 1920s found themselves “washed up”, although others who had some experience with dialogue from stagework seemed to have breezed through. This writer spent six months sourcing Lotus Thompson’s few pieces of dialogue in obscure films of the early 1930s. It is only speculation by this author of course, but one wonders whether Lotus’ voice was simply not regarded as suitable for sound.
Lotus’ one line in I Found Stella Parish, a Warner Brothers film of 1935. She plays the unnamed secretary to Mr Reeves. “What shall I answer?” she asks. Available through Warner Brothers Archive.
Lotus’ one line as a random person at a ball, in Anthony Adverse, a Warner Brothers picture of 1936. These few words – “Please talk about them” seem to have an noticeable Australian twang. Available through Warner Brothers Archive.
Errors around her details of birth abound. Her DOB is regularly and incorrectly stated across the web to be 1906 or that she was born in Sydney. Queensland birth records are quite clear however.
There is a tendency for modern accounts to take the newspaper reports of the acid incident literally. The current manifestation of the Wikipedia article deals with the event at very great length.
Nick Murphy, Updated April 2020
Sincere thanks to Melissa Anderson, one of Lotus’ Australian relatives for her kind encouragement and feedback – and for unequivocal family feedback that the leg story was indeed, a stunt.
- Daniel Blum (1982) Pictorial History of the Silent Movies. Perigee Books
- Liz Conor (2004) The Spectacular Modern Woman: Feminine Visibility in the 1920s. Indiana University Press
- George A. Katchmer (2009) A Biographical Dictionary of Silent Film Western Actors and Actresses. McFarland
- Buck Rainey (1992) Sweethearts of the sage: biographies and filmographies of 258 actresses appearing in western movies. McFarland
- John Tulloch (1981) Legends of the Screen. The Australian Narrative Cinema 1919-1929. Currency Press.
- Andree Wright (1987) Brilliant Careers: Women in Australian Cinema. MacMillan
National Library of Australia, Trove
- Sunday Times (Sydney) 28 Jan 1923 “Three Girls with Claims to Perfect Figures”
- The Sun (Sydney) 23 Apr 1923 “Eyes that mock the violet”
- Everyones Magazine Vol.4 No.271, 13 May 1925 “Lotus and her legs”
- Smith’s Weekly (Sydney) 19 Aug 1933 “Inside story of a stunt that hoaxed world!”
- The Buffalo Times (Buffalo, New York) 5 April 1924.
- The San Francisco Examiner 8 March, 1925
- The San Francisco Examiner 29 April, 1936
Lantern Digital Media Archive – Internet Archive
- Motion Picture Magazine Feb – July 1925.
- The Picture Show Annual 1928
- Motion Picture Magazine Feb – July 1927
- Motion Picture News April-July 1929