The Cheaters: 'Clever Fingers'
Paula Marsh (Isabel McDonagh billed as 'Marie Lorraine’) returns to her father (Arthur Greenaway) after stealing from a jewellery store owned by John Travers (John Faulkner). Paula voices doubts about continuing as a thief.
Summary by Graham Shirley
Preceding this sequence’s return to Bill Marsh’s hideaway, an intricate 15-minute sequence has covered a theft of a necklace from a jewellery store by Paula and an accomplice pretending to be a wealthy daughter and mother. On their return to deliver the necklace, Paula takes Marsh aside to express doubts about continuing as a thief.
While Paula’s transformation from tough cookie to woman with a conscience is a little abrupt, it is a scene to which Isabel McDonagh (credited as Marie Lorraine) brings naturalistic conviction. During filming, the sequence’s huge wall safe and its ‘staircase’ were physically operated from behind the set by several of the McDonagh sisters’ siblings. Paulette McDonagh had cast Arthur Greenaway as Bill Marsh after being impressed by his stage performance as Shakespeare’s Richard III, a role he specialised in during the late 1920s and early 1930s.
The Cheaters Synopsis
Bill Marsh (Arthur Greenaway) serves a 20-year prison sentence for embezzling from businessman John Travers (John Faulkner). On his release Marsh forms a criminal organisation whose members include his daughter Paula Marsh (Isabel McDonagh billed as 'Marie Lorraine’), and whose activities include stealing from Travers’ jewellery store. When Marsh sends Paula to rob wealthy guests at a country hotel, she meets and falls in love with Travers’ adopted son, Lee (Josef Bambach). Having developed a conscience about her life of crime, Paula considers herself undeserving of Lee and is determined to disappear from his life.
Marsh asks Paula to conduct one final theft, but unknown to her the target is again John Travers. As Paula tries breaking into Travers’ safe, Lee and his father confront her, and she is sent to prison. Appalled at this turn of events, Marsh confesses to John Travers that Paula is Travers’ daughter, stolen as a baby by Marsh’s agents. Just as police break into his hideaway, Marsh suicides. Travers arranges for Paula’s release, clearing the way for Paula and Lee to marry.
The Cheaters Curator's Notes
After the success of Those Who Love (1926) and The Far Paradise (1928), the making of The Cheaters marked a turning point in the filmmaking fortunes of Isabel, Paulette and Phyllis McDonagh. The Cheaters was initially made as a silent film two years after the American part-‘talkie’ The Jazz Singer (1927) had influenced the worldwide revolution from silent to sound filmmaking. Once Australian distributors proved unwilling to buy The Cheaters as a silent, the McDonaghs lost money through two attempts to add sound to the film.
The Cheaters was funded by Neville Macken, a retired wool grazier and McDonagh family friend. Its five-week shoot began in June 1929 at the Australasian Films studio at Bondi Junction and locations in and around Sydney. More professional actors appeared in this film than in the earlier McDonagh films, and again the sisters cast supporting roles with friends and acquaintances from Sydney society. Locations included the Gowan Brae historic mansion in North Parramatta, and the Ambassadors Café in the basement of Sydney’s Strand Arcade.
By late 1929, when the McDonaghs tried to sell the silent Cheaters to distributors, Australian cinemas were being increasingly wired for sound, unleashing a wave of hugely popular American sound films. Determined to add sound to their film, the sisters in March 1930 filmed three sound scenes and recorded an orchestral score using newly imported sound-on-disc technology at Vocalion Records in Melbourne. Besides hoping to improve the market appeal of The Cheaters, the sisters had decided to enter the part-talkie and the silent version into the Australian federal government’s £10,000 competition for best Australian film, whose entry deadline was 31 March 1930.
Despite the sound-on-disc version just making the deadline, The Cheaters failed to win a single place in the contest. A preview screening of the part-talkie at CBD Sydney’s Roxy Theatre on 1 June triggered unwanted laughter when, according to Neville Macken, poor sound monitoring made the tapping of a breakfast egg sound like ‘The Anvil Chorus’ from the opera Il Trovatore. Gayne Dexter, writing in Sydney’s Evening News the next day, observed that while technically and in performance terms The Cheaters was 'about 100 per cent better than The Far Paradise', it had the disadvantage of being made at the end of a two-year period where ’our standards of entertainment have changed’. Leaving aside one of the sound-on-disc sequences in which Paula sang to Lee, Dexter wrote that the other two sequences could have been created with 'more appreciation of the dramatic worth of dialogue, in the same way that the dialogue could have been made stronger, pithier’. The Sydney Morning Herald wrote of the film’s closing sound scene: ’It would surely be easy enough to write such dialogue in the modern spirit, instead of in the bombastically sentimental style of outworn melodrama’.
While the silent Cheaters and half of a subsequent sound-on-film version have survived, the part-talkie version is now lost. The silent version is certainly, in directorial, technical and performance terms more confident than The Far Paradise, and several sequences, such as the film’s first jewel robbery, stand out as impressive pieces of story construction where nothing is as it first seems. Visually the film shows influences of American and German crime films of the 1920s, many of which made strong use of darkness and chiaroscuro lighting. The theme of a criminal mastermind lurking in an elaborate hideaway had appeared most notably in Fritz Lang’s two-part German film, Dr Mabuse, the Gambler (1922-23), which drew substantial audiences and high praise when released in Australia as Dr Mabuse in 1924.
But The Cheaters’ focus on crime and its accompanying world-weary atmosphere compromises the emotional through-line that had made The Far Paradise such an emotionally engaging experience. While the first two-thirds of The Cheaters effectively builds viewer interest in the romance between central characters Paula and Lee, that interest dwindles in a final third where too much screen time is devoted to what happens to Paula’s adoptive father, Bill Marsh. Pacing is at times too slow, providing another contrast with The Far Paradise, where every moment counted.
According to a 1975 interview with veteran projectionist Albert Wright, the sound-on-disc version was screened in the early 1930s at Melbourne’s St Kilda Palais. After the Palais screening, this version of The Cheaters disappeared from public view. In the 1960s the Film Division of the National Library of Australia (which later included the National Film Archive, predecessor to NFSA) copied the silent version from a 35mm nitrate print held by Melbourne collector Harry Davidson. The film was subsequently made available through the NLA’s Film Study Collection. In 1975 the silent Cheaters screened to appreciative Australian audiences at the Sydney Film Festival and at the International Women’s Film Festival. Since then it has continued to screen at festivals and film societies around the world.
Notes by Graham Shirley