Where in the world?: locations in McDonagh sisters films

A scene from The Cheaters (sound version) (1931)

As producers of sophisticated urban melodramas in the mid-to-late-1920s, Australian filmmakers Isabel, Phyllis and Paulette McDonagh aimed to make films that, by not specifying where they were set, had currency anywhere in the world. The McDonaghs intended to make films that would compare with the best American society dramas while shrugging off the ‘Australian’ label associated with bush comedies. Yet for Australian audiences familiar with Melbourne or Sydney, there were Melbourne city locations (for instance, Flinders Street Station) in The Far Paradise (1928), and the presence of CBD Sydney streets and the under-construction Sydney Harbour Bridge in The Cheaters (1929, 1931).

Today the inclusion of real-life exterior and interior settings adds extra value to the McDonaghs’ silent films as records of locations now much changed or no longer surviving. But while some of these locations are still clearly recognisable, others have slipped from public memory to the extent that they have become historical mysteries.

In the mid-to-late-1970s, I knew two of the McDonagh sisters, especially Paulette, who became a friend. During our conversations, Paulette talked of some of the locations that she, as director of the McDonagh films, had used. Initially there was Drummoyne House, a 19th century mansion that the McDonaghs had lived in and filmed for Those Who Love (1926) and The Far Paradise. There was also Tamarama Beach, where they filmed some of what survives of Those Who Love, and the Ambassadors Café, in the basement of Sydney’s Strand Arcade, for which they filmed a hotel dining-room sequence for The Cheaters.

But there were other places that I didn’t ask Paulette about. Among them were a palatial ballroom where the masked ball in The Far Paradise was filmed, and two locations in The Cheaters – an idyllic bushland weir that the film’s lovers drive past on their way to a picnic, and a large, white-painted country or outer-suburban hotel. Also unknown is the shipyard location in which the lovers of Those Who Love meet for lunch.

These images from Those Who Love feature the shipyard location, which was certainly shot in Sydney, but where was it exactly? Click on the thumbnail to enlarge.

Watch a clip featuring these locations from Those Who Love (1926) on the NFSA’s australianscreen website ».

These images from The Far Paradise feature the ballroom used for the masked ball sequence.

Watch a clip featuring these locations from The Far Paradise (1928) on the NFSA’s australianscreen website ».

These images from the sound version of The Cheaters feature two unknown locations – a hotel foyer which may or may not have been that of Sydney’s famed Australia Hotel (a place where the McDonaghs were known to have filmed some of The Cheaters), and the bushland weir scene, which I suspect may have been filmed at Audley Weir in the Royal National Park south of Sydney.

Watch a clip featuring these locations from The Cheaters (sound version) (1931) on the NFSA’s australianscreen website ».

Today’s Audley Weir, modernised but with a bush backdrop that could conceivably match that of the weir in The Cheaters, can be seen in this photograph.

Audley Weir in 2008, Royal National Park, NSW. Photo by Looking Glass

Photo by Looking Glass

If you have any information that might help the NFSA identify these locations, please leave a comment below.

Read The McDonagh Sisters portrait on ASO ».

Read about the McDonagh sisters and Drummoyne House on the Drummoyne Sailing Club blog »


Perhaps that foyer could be the old Australia, yes. Perhaps.

The McDonaghs would make a good subject for a session at The Arc (or have I missed it).

David Donaldson on 26 Mar 2014, 10:05 p.m.

Thank you, David.

In response to the blog, I have received an email from Alan Stewart, one of the three children of Isabel McDonagh, and it includes:

'I think the ballroom scenes were all filmed at Romano’s or Princes, two famous Sydney night clubs now long gone. The white-painted hotel was in the Blue Mountains area. Perhaps in the Burragorang valley before it was flooded for the Warragamba dam. The family used to go camping and hiking there quite often. You may be correct in choosing The Hotel Australia, but I think it could have been Ushers.'

Thinking about Alan's information, there is a good chance the film was shot at either Romano’s or the Ambassadors restaurant, both of them run by Azzalin Romano. Here is a link to an article that includes an image of the Romano’s dance floor:

Usher’s Metropolitan Hotel, opened in 1914, has its history covered by:

Prince’s Restaurant was a later addition to Sydney, being opened in Martin Place in 1938. Very few digitised online pre-1950 images exist for any of these venues, making Alan’s memories especially valuable.

Graham Shirley on 27 Mar 2014, 3:57 p.m.


How fortunate you were to have been friends with such an amazing pioneer in the Australian film industry.

I'm mystified that the McDonagh Sisters are not celebrated household names. Indeed, I only heard about them recently and their combined achievements (and fascinating lives) are worth recognition. They could be the role models that young female filmmakers are looking for!

I look forward to seeing (or being part of) a future film about the trio.


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