Young Australian Lotus Thompson, photographed in early 1923. Enlargement of photo in author’s collection.
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 on a bed with 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, “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 and 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 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. 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.
“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… ‘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.
All the same, the event did not hurt her career at all. 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 – via the Internet Archive). A string of movies followed, many of them Westerns, a few of them directed by Australian-born director J. P. McGowan.
In January 1929 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. 1929 was also her busiest year for acting, and then in 1930, she appeared in her last credited roll, as Eve in Cecil B. DeMille‘s saucy pre-code talkie, Madam Satan.
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 returned 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 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 37 roles in film 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, of the last years of her life we know nothing, 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. Her parents both succumed 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’s voice was simply not regarded as suitable for sound.
Lotus’s 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. A Warner Brothers film held by Turner Classic Movies
Lotus’s 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. A Warner Brothers film held by Turner Classic Movies
Having said this, it is also the case that her voice and accent in the MGM 1930 film Madam Satan is not particularly remarkable in any respect.
- Sincere thanks to Melissa Anderson, one of Lotus’s Australian relatives for her kind encouragement and feedback.
- Errors around her date of birth abound. Her DOB is regularly and incorrectly stated across the web to be 1906. Queensland birth records are quite clear however.
- There is also 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 great length.
Nick Murphy, Updated February 2019
- 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
- Andree Wright (1987) Brilliant Careers: Women in Australian Cinema. MacMillan
Further reading from National Library of Australia, Trove
- Digitised Newspaper Collection