Sharon Connolly reviews Mandy Sayer, Those Dashing McDonagh Sisters, Australia’s first filmmaking team (NewSouth Publishing, 2022).

 

Mandy Sayer’s Those Dashing McDonagh Sisters makes the long wait for a book about the Australian filmmaking team worthwhile.  It’s a sparkling account of the sisters’ lives, well researched and timely.

Their cinematic careers were brief and peaked almost a century ago, but the McDonaghs’ story resonates. Despite the quality and sophistication of the movies they made in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the sisters’ careers were stymied by forces way beyond their control.  Foremost among those was an overwhelming number of American movies imported into Australia, and the brutal influence of Hollywood studios that largely dictated what our cinemas could exhibit.

Today, as Australian screen producers argue for local content requirements to be imposed on streaming services, the story of the McDonaghs is a salutary reminder about what happens when new entertainment platforms are allowed unfettered access to Australian audiences.

The filmmaking McDonaghs — Isabel, Phyllis, and Paulette — were the oldest of seven children born to medical doctor John McDonagh and his wife Anita Amora, a nurse.  Their births (in 1899, 1900 and 1901) coincided with that of Australian cinema and by the time the girls entered school, picture theatres were springing up all around their home in inner Sydney.  Among their offerings were films made by Australians.

As young adults in 1921, the McDonaghs might even have seen two films co-directed by Australian women; Kate Howarde’s Possum Paddock and Lottie Lyell’s The Blue Mountains Mystery.  But they were exceptions in an industry controlled by men.

Their father’s connections in the arts and entertainment world may have influenced the sisters’ interest in show business, but by 1924 they were orphans. The older three McDonagh children were left to raise four younger siblings in Drummoyne House, a forty-room colonial mansion.

In Sayer’s rich account, family life at Drummoyne House sometimes reads like an antipodean version of the lives of the famous Mitfords.  Though not aristocratic, the McDonaghs were similarly stylish, unconventional and much courted.  According to Paulette, they “lived a wild, carefree life, throwing parties and entertaining friends.”  But Sayer leaves little doubt that they were serious about becoming skilled, sophisticated filmmakers and clever publicists.

Queensland Times, 6 Aug. 1927, via AUSLIT

Suddenly independent and without fear of parental disapproval, Isabel and Phyllis took theatrical and film roles.  Meanwhile Paulette studied the latest movies, learning their language and grammar.  In 1926 the sisters made their first film, Those Who Love, with Isabel starring under the recently adopted name, “Marie Lorraine”. Paulette is credited as writer and director and Phyllis with art direction and production management.  But the storyline for Those Who Love was a collaborative effort.

The McDonaghs were determined to make a new kind of Australian movie, one reflecting the modernity of their world. They eschewed bush settings and Australian tropes in favour of urban interiors (many of them filmed at Drummoyne House) and stories of ‘disobedient’ women.  They wanted to make movies for female cinema goers like themselves. At the time, Australian movie audiences were largely female, and they mostly watched American films.  Of 721 films screened in Australia in 1925, 676 were from Hollywood.

It’s long been thought that the budget for Those Who Love came from their father’s estate, but Sayer dispels that myth, among others about McDonagh history. It was actually financed with a surprise inheritance from a great uncle whom the sisters never met.

Their first film was a success in Australia, as was their second, The Far Paradise (1928), but, unfortunately, neither secured a US release.  As Isabel noted in her evidence to a Royal Commission into the Moving Picture Industry, “the only way to make money out of picture production is to produce for the overseas market as well as Australia.”  Those who Love did however prompt an offer from Fox Films, which invited the sisters to Hollywood as a filmmaking team.  They declined, due to family responsibilities and the promise of local support for future productions.

The sisters hoped their third film, The Cheaters, would win first prize of a £10,000 pool offered to filmmakers as a result of the Royal Commission.  Its report also called for a quota requiring cinemas to exhibit films from the British Empire (which included Australian films), but no such quota eventuated.  The Government failed to implement the Commission’s recommendations to protect Australian film production from Hollywood’s domination of cinema.

Despite the arrival of talkies in Australia late in 1928, The Cheaters  (1929) was a silent film.  Belated attempts to give it a sound track were not terribly successful and the film ultimately won neither a release nor the Commonwealth prize.  (Indeed, there would be no winner at all.  Just four films were entered and only a third prize, of £1,500, was awarded – to Arthur Higgins for Fellers.)

On the set of the film Two Minutes Silence, New South Wales, 12 May 1932. National Library of Australia.

The McDonaghs’ final feature film was a decided departure from their earlier tales of romance and family.  Two Minutes Silence (1933) was based on an anti-war play by journalist (and, later, politician) Leslie Haylen. Though Paulette considered it their best work, Australian distributors judged it insufficiently escapist for Depression era audiences.  When it was released, poet and critic Kenneth Slessor gave it a rave review in Smith’s Weekly, but the film was not a commercial success.

Paulette also directed a handful of documentaries, including films about Don Bradman and Phar Lap, but by 1934 the sisters’ adventures in the screen trade were over.

Sayer’s final chapters cover more than forty years between the end of the McDonaghs’ movie careers and their deaths.  Few Australian films were made in that time; after Two Minutes Silence, there would be no Australian feature film directed by a woman until Gillian Armstrong ‘s My Brilliant Career in 1979.

Isabel took to the stage at the Ensemble Theatre before moving to the UK in 1965.  Phyllis enjoyed a long journalistic career. Paulette, having helped raise Isabel’s three children, lived the remainder of her life “in true Bohemian style” in Kings Cross. “Now that Paulette was unable to create a work of art,” writes Sayer, “she could, at least, become one.”

Sayer is indebted to film historian Graham Shirley who, among others, interviewed Phyllis, Paulette and some of their contemporaries in the 1970s.  The Sydney Film Festival screened The Cheaters in 1975 and in 1978 the McDonaghs were awarded the Australian Film Institute’s highest honour in recognition of their pioneering work.  The accolades came just in time. Paulette and Phyllis died later that same year, and Isabel in 1982.

Sayer tells their stories with panache, punctuating her entertaining account of their adventurous lives with the historical detail needed to understand them.  She celebrates their achievements rather than explicitly asking what they might have accomplished had conditions been different.

What might have been had men not dominated the film industry when the McDonaghs were at work?  What if Isabel, Phyllis and Paulette had not been constrained by family responsibilities so early in their lives?  And what might they have produced had the 1927-28 Royal Commission into the Moving Picture Industry resulted in quotas giving Australian pictures their rightful place on the nation’s cinema screens?

Similar questions might be asked today when women remain underrepresented among producers, directors and writers of Australian feature films. Men still dominate the screen industry, women do more than their fair share of caring for family and there is little regulation requiring the exhibition of local productions.  Progress has been surprisingly modest since the heyday of Those Dashing McDonaghs.

 

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Sharon Connolly
Sharon Connolly

A former documentary filmmaker, television producer and chief executive of Film Australia, Sharon Connolly is author of My Giddy Aunt and her sister comedians, a history of women in Australian vaudeville (Upswell, 2022).