The McDonagh sisters, pioneers in Australian film-making, should be judged by their talent and tenacity, not their commercial success, writes Jo Henwood.
Three Sydney sisters, each gifted in her own way, formed the only all-sister film business in the glory years of Australian silent films, creating a handful of classic romantic dramas. In fact, there is no other film making family quite like them anywhere in the world.
Isabel, the oldest, the beauty of the family, became the actress known as Marie Lorraine and Phyllis was producer, and in charge of art direction and publicity, although it seems all three worked together in every aspect of MCD Productions. “Wholly produced in Australia by the Misses McDonagh” proclaimed their movie posters. Paulette was the writer and director a and by 1934 she was one of only five female directors in the world, and the last in Australia until Gillian Armstrong directed My Brilliant Career in 1979.
The McDonaghs’ unique vision in creating films about modern young city dwellers at a time when almost every other Australian film was historical, rural, or both, was enabled by their unique circumstances. They were rich, they were cultured, and their entire family supported them, and that is what allowed them to turn talent and hard work into remarkable – if short lived – success. “We were just born into it, y’see,” said Paulette later.
Isabel, Phyllis, and Paulette were the three eldest of the seven children of Annie (Anita) Amore (born in Madrid) and Dr John McDonagh (originally Irish), who was medical officer to the J. C. Williamson theatrical company. So many nights the girls would creep down the stairs to listen in on all the talk and gossip of these magical theatre people. So many Saturdays spent going to the moving picture shows, Paulette watching the same film two or three times a day, trying to work out how the Hollywood directors used lighting or angles to convey emotions.
Schooldays at Kincoppal Rose Bay were an interruption to what the three inseparable girls wanted to do – plan the films they wanted to make. Paulette and Phyllis wrote the first draft of what became Those Who Love before they left school.
It never occurred to them that they were trailblazers, only that they were not going to let anyone interfere in their dreams. Their father gave each of them one thousand pounds as a school graduation present and all they wanted to do with it was make their own films. Even in that time to make a film for under three thousand pounds was almost impossible – but it was enough to get them started.
Needing a set they used their own family mansion of Drummoyne House. The forty room house and rolling garden (now the site of a new block of flats at 59 Wrights Road Drummoyne), had largely been converted by their now-widowed mother as a convalescent home, but they transformed almost every space into their own film studio. They needed bright young people to be extras – to wear lovely clothes in restaurants, to dance the latest dances at Tamarama Beach – and all their friends volunteered.
The result was fresh, melodramatic, and international in theme. The plot involved, as most of their films did, the heroine having a crook for a father who gets in the way of her romance with the rich young man. Those Who Love was an enormous hit, promoted within an industry that wanted them to succeed.
And then they spent most of their profits on parties to celebrate, leaving them five hundred pounds in debt. Then in a twist worthy of one of Paulette’s plots, an uncle in Chile died bequeathing them enough money to fund their second film, The Far Paradise, so called because the no-good father hides away with his daughter in “Paradise Valley”, filmed in Burragorang Valley.
The sisters had touched the spirit of the times and this film was another hit, but they didn’t get the profits. “The Combine” had a stranglehold on distribution, and the state and federal governments were supporting the import of Hollywood products over home grown. And this is where they made their big mistake.
Frank Thring of Eftee Productions was willing to arrange distribution but they rejected his offer out of fear they would lose the independence they valued so much…and ended up with nothing to be independent over.
Sound in pictures smashed into The Cheaters. Re-shooting some scenes, at enormous expense with new equipment, using sound-on-disc resulted in a premiere that reached Singin’ in the Rain levels of hilarity from the audience when the actors opened their mouths and nothing happened. A good silent film became an unshowable talkie.
Two Minutes Silence – their last – was a very different sort of film. Instead of a self-written romantic drama they purchased the script of an anti war play. Paulette said later it was their best, and most difficult, film, but reviewers criticised the stage-bound direction and flat dialogue. We will never know. Two Minutes Silence is one of Australia’s “lost films”.
That was the end of MCD Productions. Isabel married Scottish Charles Stewart, and had three children, Alan, Charles, and Sandra. Phyllis became a journalist in New Zealand, and later worked on The North Shore Times. The sisters were honoured with the Australian Film Institute’s Raymond Longford award in August 1978. Paulette died days later.