Australian Accents from Cinema’s Golden Age

Above: Warner Bros photo credited to Schuyler Grail. Feb 1938, NBC radio announcer Buddy Twist interviewing Australian actress Mary Maguire. Author’s collection (Enlargement).

Above: In the lower section of the same photo, one can see Maguire’s fingers are heavily bandaged – presumably she had just caught them in a car door or similar. No matter how cultivated she might have sounded in this radio interview, one can assume a stream of Australian invective issued forth when the accident happened. Author’s collection.

It is generally accepted that the origins of the Australian accent are from southern Britain, and the conventional wisdom today is that there are three main variations to it:

Of course, accents don’t really fall into such easy categories. Those labels might be better thought of as markers on a continuum, with any one accent sitting somewhere along it. Also, unlike the variations in British and US accents – that are sometimes regional, variations in Australian accents are usually attributed to social class. Parenting and education, as well as other social factors are believed to have a strong impact on how Australians speak. (Of course, physical features such as the tongue and jaw also impacts how people speak too). 

In a very good survey of contemporary Australian accents for the ABC, John Hajeck (University of Melbourne) and Lauren Gawne (La Trobe University) note that Australians also often accommodate other accents with ease. Perhaps this explains Adelaide actor Damon Herriman‘s great success in adopting Dewey Crowe’s US accent in the TV series Justified, or Melbourne singer Kylie Minogue’s great ease in shifting from a contemporary British accent to a general Australian one.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, elocution lessons, (sometimes a part of a private school education but also available from private tutors) were designed to remove all vestiges of a colonial accent, be it from Australia, South Africa or somewhere else. In a short article on actor Judith Anderson, and others, Desley Deacon of ANU has pointed out how common elocution lessons were, and how important these were in opening up a performance career. The resulting accent, found all over the British Empire and beyond, dovetailed nicely with the “transatlantic accent” preferred in US 1930s sound films.

Jane E Southcott has written of concern amongst politicians and the efforts made in South Australian schools to improve Australian speech. She cites School Inspector Maughan reporting in 1912 that “a few minutes spent daily in the practice of pure enunciation would to much to eliminate what is known as ‘the Australian twang.'” Similar sentiments were undoubtedly felt throughout the rest of Australia.


1. Australian accents – tending to broad.

The broader Australian accent still often appears in Australian-made films, continuing as part of a well established comedy tradition that has long worked on stage. It’s also used in contemporary advertising, and much loved by contemporary politicians, alongside acceptable slang words like “mate” and “g’day”. Yet, today, that’s not how most Australians speak – indeed it would take a conscious effort to speak like that all the time.

Broad accents from the 1930s can be heard in Australian made films such as Frank Thring‘s His Loyal Highness (Aust:1932) and Ken Hall’s On Our Selection (Aust:1932).

The broad accent rarely appeared in pre-war US and British films. Even in the late 1950s, John Meredyth Lucas commented that a distinctive Australian accent made casting very difficult for the TV series Whiplash. It was unattractive, he felt and by implication might have made sales of the series difficult. In a similar vein, when the US trade paper Harrison’s Reports reviewed Smiley (Aust:1956) they felt it was unlikely to be well received in US because of the Australian accents. But when Jocelyn Howarth was being introduced to US audiences (as Constance Worth) in 1937, Photoplay magazine assured readers she was free of the “caricatured Australian accent.” The distinctive broad Australian accent still had a few outings – such as in MGM’s very self conscious The Man from Down Under (1943). It also occasionally slipped into other films – here are two examples:

  • Brian Norman (1908-1995) in Search for Beauty (US: 1934)


    WB Molloy
    Here Sydney-born Brian Norman, in his one and only film outing, forces some con-men to start morning exercises at the health farm. His broad Australian accent is unmistakable. He became a lawyer after returning from Hollywood. 
    Audio from copy of film in author’s collection. Photo – William Brian Molloy or “Brian Norman” in the Sydney Sun, 1 April 1934. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.


  • Lotus Thompson‘s (1904-1963) one line as a random person at a ball, in Anthony Adverse (US: 1936).

    Lotus3Lotus Thompson from Queensland was briefly a silent star of some standing in Australia and the US, but her career was all but over by 1930. She appeared in some uncredited extra parts in the 1930s. Her few words as an extra here – “Please talk about them” seem to have an noticeable Australian twang.
    Audio from copy of film in the author’s collection. Available through Warner Brothers Archive. Photo-author’s collection c.1924.

  • Bill Kerr’s (1922-2014) exaggerated Australian accent and stories featured in his popular British act, the “Man from Wagga Wagga”. Here is an example from 1951. Below, however, is an example of Kerr without the broad accent, singing with Joy Nichols.

2. The accents of former Australian vaudevillians 

Although none of the following actors appear to have had elocution lessons and each had only limited formal educations, all arrived in Hollywood after very long careers on stage in Australia, the US and the UK – enough experience and time to give them an accent that might have come from anywhere.


  • Snub Pollard (1889-1962) also from Melbourne in Just My Luck (US: 1935).


    Snub Pollard Exhibitor's Trade Review Dec. 1922 - Feb. 1923
    The prolific Snub Pollard also had a long career with Pollard Lilliputian’s before moving into Hollywood films in 1915. In this clip Mr Smith (Pollard) and Homer Crow (Charles Ray) discover they have lost their money, whilst eating at a cheap diner famous for beating up any non-paying customers. With the coming of sound Snub Pollard could only find work as an extra – but worked to the end of his life. Audio from copy of film in the author’s collection. Film is still widely available. Photo – Exhibitor’s Trade Review (Dec. 1922 – Feb. 1923) via Lantern Digital Media Project.


  • Paul Scardon (1875-1954) from Melbourne and Western Australia in Gentleman Joe Palooka (US: 1946).


    early scardon
    Scardon had an Australian stage career before moving to the US in late 1905, appearing in US films from about 1911. Here, later in life, he plays an uncredited role as a clerk whose records are being stolen by Knobby Walsh, played by Sydneysider Leon Errol (1881-1951) Copy of film in the author’s collection. The Joe Palooka films are widely available. Photo – Picture Play Weekly. April-Oct 1915. Via Lantern Digital Media Project.


3. Cultivated Australian accents and the importance of elocution

Wealthy Australians living on the continent’s coastal fringe often sent their children to private schools, the only schools that could provide a pathway to universities and better careers. Today these schools still put resources into a young person’s rounded personal development – now less commonly through “Speech” (elocution) classes, but still through public speaking, debating and by encouraging the performance arts. In the early twentieth century, for these middle class Australians, there was probably a self consciousness about accents, and therefore a desire to speak without any hint of a colonial upbringing. 


  • Nancy O’Neil (1907-1995) from Sydney in a clip from Something always Happens (UK:1934).


    Nancy on a Lux soap card 1933-4

    O’Neil had attended Sydney Church of England Girls Grammar School before travelling to London to study at RADA in 1928. She appeared in film and on stage in England in the 1930s and like most of the other young Australian women in British films of the time, she sounds as English as everyone else.

    Obituaries for these women often claim they “came to England to lose their accent”. But of all Australians, those who had been to private schools probably already had a “drawing room accent”  – meaning they had little accent to lose.
    Audio from copy of the film in the author’s collection. The film is available through Loving the Classics. Photo – Lux Soap Famous Film Stars card, c1933-4. Author’s Collection


  • Shirley Ann Richards (1917-2006) from Sydney as an Australian nurse in Dr Gillespie’s New Assistant (US: 1942), with US actor Richard Quine as an Australian doctor from Woolloomooloo (the Sydney suburb’s name is a source of great humour in the film).

    Richards
    Richards had a private school education at Ascham and The Garden School in Sydney and had the benefit of a mother who was an active member of the English Speaking Union. Later in life she also recalled the importance of the educated women who were close friends of the family. Although she is “laying it on with a trowel” in this clip, this is close to how she really spoke, even after 40 years in California. Audio from copy of film in the author’s collection. TCM currently have a collection of the Dr Gillespie films for sale. Photo – author’s collection.



4. Australian accents – tending more general

The decline of the cultivated Australian accent in the last 50 years is one marker of change in the way Australian English is spoken. At the same time, the general Australian accent seems to have appeared more often in the post war period. However, as the first example demonstrates, the general Australian accent was well and truly in established use before the Second World War.

  • Jocelyn Howarth (as Constance Worth) (1911-1963) from Sydney in the excruciatingly awful The Wages of Sin (US:1936) .

    Howarth on the way to Hollywood
    Here Howarth makes no attempt to disguise her accent, which sounds bizarre alongside the broad American accents of her “family members,” who are lazy and won’t get little Tommy his milk. Audio from copy in the author’s collection. This film is still available from specialist DVD outlets. Photo of Jocelyn Howarth on her way to the US, 13 April 1936. Honolulu Star, via Newspapers.com.


  • Joy Nichols (1925-1992) from Sydney in a Rinso soap commercial made with Bill Kerr (1922-2014), for release in cinemas in 1946.

    Nichols, a butcher’s daughter from inner Sydney, began her long radio and stage career in Australia in wartime. This brought her in close contact with other well known Australian performers, and visiting Americans (she was even briefly married to one). One wonders whether her accent might have some American pronunciations?

    Joy Nichols Turf

Nichols was a skilled singer, comedian and radio performer. Here she is again with fellow Australian Dick Bentley (1907-1995) and Briton Jimmy Edwards at the British Daily Mail radio awards in 1950 – representing the popular radio show Take It From Here. (Click to follow link to youtube – from 5:30)
Photo – Turf cigarette collectable card, c 1950. Author’s collection.


  • Patti Morgan (1928-2001) from Sydney in Booby Trap (UK: 1957). In one of her few film roles, Patti Morgan’s voice seems firmly from Sydney.  

Patti Morgan Cover of Pix 1945

Patti Morgan appeared in only a few British films, but continued her modelling and TV career with success. Audio from copy of film in author’s collection. The film is still available from Loving the Classics and Renown pictures. Photo of Patti on the cover of Pix, 6 Oct, 1945. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.


5. Some other Australians speak


6. Blended US-Australian accents

Much harder to find are examples of the blended accents of North Americans who now live in Australia, but here are a few:

Further Reading on Australian accents

Nick Murphy
December 2020

 

Lotus Thompson (1904-1963) & her troublesome legs

Above: Young Australian Lotus Thompson, photographed in early 1923. Enlargement of a photo in author’s collection. The Theatre Magazine (Jan 1923) dates this to a Mother Goose panto, when Lotus was in the chorus.

Lotus to USA
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.
Left – Lotus on her way to California. The Sun (Syd) 5 March 1924, via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

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's legs SF Examiner March 8 1925

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.

Lotus as a child

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 and Lotus Thompson

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.


lotus3 Lotus 1923s

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; The 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)

lotusabouttodepart

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.

Smith Weekly Aug 19,1933

Above: 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.'”

Lotus and Olive1

Above: US actress Olive Borden (left) and Australian actress Lotus Thompson (right). Jeffrey Weissman dates this photo to 1924. Borden was at the height of her Hollywood popularity and Thompson was just beginning to make her way. Courtesy Jeffrey Weissman 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.

Paramount serials 1930

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.
               The Picture Show 1928    Motion Picture Mag 1927
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.

Lotus in 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!

lotussanfrancisoexaminer29april1936It 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.

lotus2

The San Francisco Examiner ran this article with the photo shown above. It was very easy to be stereotyped.  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 as Queen

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.

More Acid?

Lotus Thompson was not the only Australian actor to complain about acid on her legs. In 1950, Sylvia Kellaway said that British actor Ben Wrigley had thrown acid on her legs while on tour in New Zealand. (Source – The Mercury (Tas) 5 April 1950, P5, via National Library of Australia’s Trove) What really happened we do not know, as the case was dismissed and the accusation never tested. But plenty of publicity was generated.

 

Nick Murphy, Updated April 2020

 

Special Thanks

Sincere thanks to Melissa Anderson, one of Lotus’ Australian relatives for her kind encouragement and feedback and permission to use a family photo.

Thanks also to Jeffrey Weissman for permission to use his photo and assistance with dating it.

 


Further Reading

  • 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”
  • The Sun (Sydney) 5 March 1924 “Lotus Thompson”
  • 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!”

Newspapers.com

  • 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