The McDonagh sisters, Isabel, Paulette and Phyllis, pictured from the waist up, wearing coats and hats and standing on the deck of a ship.
https://www.nfsa.gov.au/sites/default/files/collection/hero_image02-2020/mcdonagh-sisters-collection-hero-image.jpg

The McDonagh Sisters

The McDonagh Sisters: Early Australian Female Filmmakers

The pioneering sisters of Australian film

This collection celebrates the work of the McDonagh sisters. In the 1920s, they became the first women to own and operate a film production company in Australia.

Paulette (1901–1978) wrote and directed the films, while Phyllis (1900–1978) was art director and publicist, and Isabel (1899–1982) played lead roles under her stage name Marie Lorraine.

In a film landscape that was heavily dominated by men and mostly featured films set in the bush, the sisters carved their own niche.

They enjoyed critical and box-office success with their 1920s silent features before Paulette directed some notable short documentaries in the 1930s. 

With the work of female filmmakers now gaining increased recognition around the globe, we highlight these Australian pioneers through documents, photographs and video and audio clips of their work.

Main image: Isabel, Paulette and Phyllis McDonagh on board a ship. Sydney, late 2920s. NFSA title: 354132. 

The McDonagh Sisters: Introducing Isobel, Phyllis and Paulette
NFSA-ID:
NFSA ID
601887
Courtesy:
Australian Film Television and Radio School
Year:
Year

This excerpt from the Rebecca Barry documentary The McDonagh Sisters (2003) introduces us to Isabel, Phyllis and Paulette McDonagh.

In the 1920s, these three sisters became the first Australian women to own and run their own film production company.

This clip effectively conveys a wealth of information in a short time. It incorporates several techniques: archival photographs and clips, voice-over narration (by Rachel Ward) and a sepia-toned re-enactment of the sisters filming.

Though brief, the re-enactment sets a vibrant 1920s mood through the use of fashion and decor. It also places the sisters in a setting that implies wealth, without needing to spell it out.

The voices of interviewees Graham Shirley and Marilyn Dooley add context around the changing roles of women in the 1920s.

Overall, the clip gives us a sense of the sisters' brilliance, eccentricities, resourcefulness and remarkable achievements. 

The Cheaters: 'Clever Fingers'
NFSA-ID:
NFSA ID
1522719
Year:
Year

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

The Cheaters: 'I want you to be my wife!'
NFSA-ID:
NFSA ID
7361
Year:
Year

A scene from the Australian silent film The Cheaters (1929) featuring the flapper-style 1920s sequined evening dress worn by Paula Marsh (played by Isabel McDonagh, credited as Marie Lorraine).

Paula Marsh has been sent to a fancy hotel by her father who heads an embezzling gang to rob wealthy guests. She becomes sidetracked by the dashing Lee Travers (Josef Bambach), the adopted son of her father’s nemesis, with whom she falls deeply in love. 

In this scene, a tearful Paula realises that her romance must end soon and that she will have to return to her true life as a cheater (thief). Lee asks Paula to be his wife, and she is torn by love and loyalty. 

Actress Isabel McDonagh wears an exquisite sequined flapper dress which had been purchased in Paris in 1925 by a close school friend of the McDonagh sisters, Kathleen Coen. Isabel borrowed it for the wardrobe of her character in the film.

The Cheaters: 'There is no excuse'
NFSA-ID:
NFSA ID
1522719
Year:
Year

Paula Marsh’s (Isabel McDonagh billed as 'Marie Lorraine’) attempt to rob the Travers family safe is interrupted by the arrival of Lee Travers (Josef Bambach).

Summary by Graham Shirley

The McDonagh Sisters: Outside Influences
NFSA-ID:
NFSA ID
601887
Courtesy:
Australian Film Television and Radio School
Year:
Year

This short clip from the documentary The McDonagh Sisters (2003), directed by Rebecca Barry, gives remarkable insight into the motivations of the three young filmmaking pioneers.

While film historians Marilyn Dooley and Graham Shirley explain how the sisters flouted the conventions of 1920s Australian filmmaking, we see snippets from the McDonaghs' features that reinforce the experts' opinions.

The interviewees observe that none of the McDonaghs' feature films are set against a typically Australian landscape, and also draw attention to how the set designs and plots have been shaped by American and German – rather than local – influences.

These insights combine to make a compelling argument that appealing to the average Australian cinema audience was not the dominant concern of the sisters; rather, they ventured into filmmaking to please themselves.

The McDonagh Sisters: 'Best Friends'
NFSA-ID:
NFSA ID
601887
Courtesy:
Australian Film Television and Radio School
Year:
Year

In this clip from Rebecca Barry's documentary The McDonagh Sisters (2003), narrator Rachel Ward reveals what became of the sisters after their filmmaking venture came to an end.

With no known film footage, and only a handful of photographs of all three sisters together, this sequence relies heavily on still images and newspaper clippings as the narrator summarises the details of each of the women's subsequent careers and personal lives.

It's remarkable how the simple and judicious use of archival images can be so engaging.

A final re-enactment shows the sisters celebrating. The scene is largely superfluous except for leaving us in a happy mood by depicting their friendship.

It also strongly reinforces what historians and fans have come to believe about the McDonagh sisters: they were bold and unconventional women who remained the best of friends, even after their production company had folded.

Marie Lorraine Screen Test, 1926
NFSA-ID:
NFSA ID
249017
Year:
Year

This short silent footage captures a screen test of film actress Isabel McDonagh (who acted under her stage name, Marie Lorraine), circa 1926.

Isabel was the eldest of the three McDonagh sisters who were famous for being the first Australian women to own and run a film production company in the 1920s. 

While this film is of poor quality and has suffered significant deterioration, it is extremely rare for a screen test from this period to have survived.

Three quarter length photograph of silent filmmaker Phyllis McDonagh posing for camera with her hands on her hips.
https://www.nfsa.gov.au/sites/default/files/02-2020/phyllis-mcdonagh.jpg
Phyllis McDonagh Portrait
NFSA-ID:
NFSA ID
561746
Year:
Year

This photograph is a publicity portrait of Phyllis McDonagh, circa 1920.

The exact date, photographer and location of the photograph are unknown.

Phyllis was one of the three McDonagh sisters, along with Isabel and Paulette, who were famous for their silent-era films. They were the first women in Australia to own and run their own film production company.

Phyllis had the role of art director and publicist within the company.

Silent era film director, Paulette McDonagh seated on an outdoor bench with her legs crossed.
https://www.nfsa.gov.au/sites/default/files/02-2020/776773_paulette-mcdonagh-00089933.jpg
Paulette McDonagh
NFSA-ID:
NFSA ID
349203

Silent-era film director Paulette McDonagh is seen here seated on a bench in a garden in the 1920s.

The exact date, location and photographer are unknown. 

Those Who Love: Film Trailer
NFSA-ID:
NFSA ID
7561
Year:
Year

The single reel containing the almost three minutes that survive of Those Who Love consists of extracts from four scenes – dancers at a beach party, events surrounding Barry’s and Lola’s first meeting at a cabaret, and a romantic scene on a wharf between Barry (William Carter) and Lola (Isabel McDonagh billed as 'Marie Lorraine’).

Summary by Graham Shirley

A group of men and women at Sydney's Tamarama beach filming a party scene for the film Those Who Love (1926)
https://www.nfsa.gov.au/sites/default/files/02-2020/00046945_those-who-love_filming-at-tamarama.jpg
Those Who Love: Filming at Tamarama
NFSA-ID:
NFSA ID
637411
Year:
Year

The McDonagh Sisters' first feature film, Those Who Love (1926), included beach scenes filmed at Tamarama Beach in Sydney's eastern suburbs.

This high-angled still captures the cast and crew filming a beach party. Visible are couples dancing on the sand while a large crowd of onlookers gather on the sand and nearby rocks.

The Far Paradise: 'The missing letter'
NFSA-ID:
NFSA ID
7009
Year:
Year

At breakfast, James Carson (Gaston Mervale) conceals a letter addressed to his daughter Cherry (Isable McDonagh billed as 'Marie Lorraine’) before claiming that no letters have arrived for her.

Note: The original aspect ratio is 1.33:1 (Academy full frame). The print of The Far Paradise obtained by the NFSA had been incorrectly duplicated at a 1.37:1 (Academy) ratio, which has cut approximately 3mm off the top and left-hand side off the frame.

Summary by Graham Shirley

The Far Paradise: 'The Social Whirl'
NFSA-ID:
NFSA ID
7009
Year:
Year

Cherry Carson (Isabel McDonagh billed as 'Marie Lorraine’) and James Carson (Gaston Mervale) arrive at a society masked ball. Carson’s business partner Karl Rossi (Arthur McLaglen) keeps an eye on guests.

Note: The original aspect ratio is 1.33:1 (Academy full frame). The print of The Far Paradise obtained by the NFSA had been incorrectly duplicated at an 1.37:1 (Academy) ratio, which has cut approximately 3mm off the top and left-hand side off the frame.

Summary by Graham Shirley

The Far Paradise: 'Have you no justice?'
NFSA-ID:
NFSA ID
7009
Year:
Year

A year after Cherry Carson (Isabel McDonagh billed as 'Marie Lorraine’) and her father (Gaston Mervale) have hidden at a remote farm, Peter Lawton (Paul Longuet) tracks her down. Peter is aghast at Cherry’s living conditions, and Cherry is upset by what she sees as invasion of her father’s privacy.

Note: The original aspect ratio is 1.33:1 (Academy full frame). The print of The Far Paradise obtained by the NFSA had been incorrectly duplicated at an 1.37:1 (Academy) ratio, which has cut approximately 3mm off the top and left-hand side off the frame.

Summary by Graham Shirley

The Far Paradise: McDonagh Sisters Scrapbook
NFSA-ID:
NFSA ID
358418
Year:
Year

A scrapbook of clippings about the silent feature film The Far Paradise (1928), made by the McDonaghs – sisters Paulette, Phyllis and Isabel.

The scrapbook includes images, press clippings of film reviews, profile pieces about the three sisters and advertisements.

Paulette McDonagh directing a scene from the silent film The Far Paradise outside an old shed. You can also see a camera man and the lead actor.
https://www.nfsa.gov.au/sites/default/files/02-2020/00024598_paulette-directing-the-far-paradise.jpg
Paulette McDonagh directing The Far Paradise
NFSA-ID:
NFSA ID
595415
Year:
Year

Production shot from the silent-era film The Far Paradise (1928), directed by Paulette McDonagh.

The handwritten text on the back of the photograph reads: 'Paulette McDonagh directing a scene from The Far Paradise on a farm some 20 miles outside Melbourne'.

A film studio where you can see the director, crew and actors filming a scene.
https://www.nfsa.gov.au/sites/default/files/02-2020/production-still-from-two-minutes-silence.jpg
Paulette McDonagh directing Two Minutes Silence
NFSA-ID:
NFSA ID
641865
Year:
Year

This still is from the production of the McDonagh sisters film Two Minutes Silence (1932).

It features lead actors Isabel McDonagh (billed as Marie Lorraine), Arthur Greenaway and Campbell Copelin being directed by Paulette McDonagh. Visitors to the set look on from behind the crew.

According to film historian Graham Shirley, Two Minutes Silence was Australia's first anti-war film. It was an adaptation of a stage play by Sydney journalist Leslie Haylen, about the lasting trauma of the First World War. 

While the film itself is lost, many production stills survive in the NFSA collection and are available to view online

The Mighty Conqueror
NFSA-ID:
NFSA ID
9014
Year:
Year

This ten-minute film is the only documentary made about racehorse Phar Lap during his lifetime. It was produced by Neville Macken and directed by pioneer female filmmaker Paulette McDonagh.

The film features superb close-ups of Phar Lap with handler Tommy Woodcock, who feeds him sugar cubes, and rare footage of him doing track work. The narrator informs us that he cost only £168 and has won £56,420 in winnings to date.

A photograph of part-owner and trainer Harry Telford’s son Gerald, whose nickname was Cappy, atop the horse 'like a pimple on a pumpkin' is followed by a still of Phar Lap after the AJC Derby victory.

In a press interview Telford talks about Phar Lap’s racing success, total earnings and the origins of his name. His name came from the Thai-Zhuang word for lightning - ‘like a flash on the sky’ - Farlap. Telford liked the name, suggested by physician Dr Aubrey Ping, but changed the F to Ph so he could create a seven letter word and then split it in two in keeping with the dominant naming pattern of Melbourne Cup winners.

Phar Lap is shown winning several races including the 1930 Melbourne Cup and the 1931 Randwick Plate – the only known footage of this race and the last time he would run at a Sydney race meet. Jockey Jimmy Pike, who rode Phar Lap to his victory at the Melbourne Cup in 1930 is interviewed after the victory commenting, 'I don’t think we’ll ever see his equal again’, and talking about the horse's intelligence and power.

The film finishes with Phar Lap being loaded onto the Ulimaroa at Sydney docks in November 1931, ultimately bound for the USA where he died tragically on 5 April 1932. The narrator says poignantly, 'Well old fella, this was your last race at Randwick. We're going to lose you and we're going to miss you, but we're with you to a man, Phar Lap. The rest is up to you.'

How I Play Cricket
NFSA-ID:
NFSA ID
44179
Year:
Year

In this clip, a young Donald Bradman demonstrates the innovative methods he used to develop his reflexes, hand-eye coordination and concentration when he was an aspiring cricketer growing up in Bowral.

Bradman is shown hitting a golf ball against a water tank with a cricket stump, and demonstrates taking some classic catches from a paling fence.

The excerpt is from a short documentary, How I Play Cricket, directed by Paulette McDonagh in 1932. McDonagh was one of three sisters who made history in 1926 by becoming the first Australian women to own and run a film production company.

Professionally known as the 'McDonagh Sisters', they were among the first to produce a 'talkie' in Australia. Their collaborations led to both feature-length dramas and documentaries, with Paulette working as the director and writer, Phyllis as a producer and Isabel acting under the name 'Marie Lorraine'.

Paulette McDonagh on filming Don Bradman
NFSA-ID:
NFSA ID
799472
Courtesy:
Graham Shirley
Year:
Year

In this excerpt from a 1974 oral history interview with silent-era filmmaker Paulette McDonagh, she recalls her experience filming Don Bradman at the height of his cricketing career for the short documentary How I Play Cricket (1932).

The oral history interview was conducted in Paulette's Kings Cross home in Sydney by film historian Graham Shirley and producer and director Joan Long. 

A Lobby Card for the film 'the Far Paradise' by the McDonagh sisters. The card shows the name of the film and the star, Isobel McDonagh (billed as Marie Lorraine).
https://www.nfsa.gov.au/sites/default/files/02-2020/00024596_the-far-paradise_lobby-card.jpg
The Far Paradise: Lobby card
NFSA-ID:
NFSA ID
595414
Year:
Year

A cinema lobby card for the McDonagh sisters' 1928 silent film The Far Paradise

The card features an inset of Isabel McDonagh (billed as Marie Lorraine) who starred in all of the McDonagh feature films.

Newspaper advertisement for the film 'The Cheaters from 1929, featuring a circle with an image of the 2 leads embracing one another and to the right of the picture is written introduction about 'The First Australian Talking Picture'.
https://www.nfsa.gov.au/sites/default/files/02-2020/00011487_advertisement-for-the-cheaters.jpg
The Cheaters: Newspaper Advertisement
NFSA-ID:
NFSA ID
360626
Year:
Year

This newspaper advertisement features the two stars of the film The Cheaters, Isabel McDonagh (billed as Marie Lorraine) and Josef Bambach.

The Cheaters had initially been completed as a silent film in 1929 but, as this advertisement suggests, was later reinvented as a talking picture.

It had in fact been converted to a partial talkie to improve its commercial prospects, since local audiences had by then largely abandoned silent feature films for films with sound.

The exact date and source of this advertisement are unknown.

The Cheaters: The Story of a Dress
Year:
Year

Author Meg Stewart tells the story of a dress worn by Isabel McDonagh in the classic Australian film The Cheaters (1929). She donated the dress, originally owned by her great-aunt Kathleen Coen, to the NFSA in 2015.

The Cheaters was one of the earliest Australian films made by a team of female filmmakers. The McDonagh sisters - Paulette (director), Phyllis (art director) and actress Isabel (billed as Marie Lorraine) - made the film as a silent movie in 1929. It arrived in cinemas after the release of the first talking pictures and the McDonagh sisters converted it to a part-talkie and later to a full-talkie film in 1931.

Front view of a flapper-style 1920s sequined evening dress bought in Paris and worn in the Australian silent film The Cheaters
https://www.nfsa.gov.au/sites/default/files/01-2018/1245461_2.jpg
The Cheaters: 1920s sequined evening dress
NFSA-ID:
NFSA ID
1245461
Year:
Year

A flapper-style 1920s sequined evening dress bought in Paris and worn by Isabel McDonagh (credited as Marie Lorraine) in the Australian silent film The Cheaters (1929).

The sleeveless, knee-length dress is ivory yellow with a drop waist and round neck. It is decorated with sequins, giving it a mother-of-pearl effect of blue, pink and green. There is an additional grey and silver sequin pattern on the front with silver and grey lacework at the bottom front of the dress.

Vertical strips of sequin fabric form a fringe-like effect around the entire bottom half of the dress. Four of these strips are detached from the dress; two are sewn together. The underlining silk is the most fragile part of the dress.

Author Meg Stewart donated the dress, originally owned by her great-aunt Kathleen Coen, to the NFSA in 2015.

The Cheaters was one of the earliest Australian films made by a team of female filmmakers. The McDonagh sisters - Paulette (director), Phyllis (art director) and actress Isabel - made the film as a silent movie in 1929. It arrived in cinemas after the release of the first talking pictures and the McDonagh sisters converted it to a part-talkie and later to a full-talkie film in 1931.

A black and white photo of Paulette McDonagh directing an actor on-set. There is a two men in the forground. One of them is operating a film camera.
https://www.nfsa.gov.au/sites/default/files/08-2018/00132457.jpg
Paulette McDonagh directing The Cheaters
NFSA-ID:
NFSA ID
764800
Year:
Year

A behind-the-scenes photo from the set of The Cheaters (silent version, 1929).

Pictured left to right: Bill Shepherd, Jack Fletcher (cinematographer), unidentified bit player and director Paulette McDonagh.

A 1926 motor vehicle parked outside a mansion, a man and woman stand beside the car.
https://www.nfsa.gov.au/sites/default/files/02-2020/00046949_those-who-love_rothsay-house-car.jpg
Those Who Love: production still
NFSA-ID:
NFSA ID
637432
Year:
Year

William Carter (Barry Manton) and Sylvia Newland (Bebe Doree) in a scene from Those Who Love (1926).

The pair are standing next to a Packard Roadster motor vehicle, which is parked outside 'Rothesay House' in Sydney's Bellevue Hill.

This was the first silent feature film by the McDonagh sisters and also featured Isabel McDonagh in a leading role, billed as Marie Lorraine. 

Image of a white Victorian classical style mansion.
https://www.nfsa.gov.au/sites/default/files/02-2020/00046943_those-who-love_rothsay-house_filming-location.jpg
Those Who Love: Rothesay House filming location
NFSA-ID:
NFSA ID
637404
Year:
Year

'Rothesay House' appeared in the McDonagh sisters' first feature film, Those Who Love (1926).

The film included many well-known locations in and around Sydney, including this classical Victorian mansion on New South Head Road in Bellevue Hill. 

The house was built in 1896 and still stands today. While it has undergone renovation and remodelling over the past century, the distinct facade including the turret and tower room remain intact.

The Royal Sydney Golf Club in Rose Bay pictured in 1926.
https://www.nfsa.gov.au/sites/default/files/02-2020/00024634_the-far-paradise-filming-location_sydney-golf-club.jpg
The Far Paradise: Royal Sydney Golf Club filming location
NFSA-ID:
NFSA ID
595687
Year:
Year

The McDonagh sisters filmed a variety of notable 1920s Sydney landmarks when making their feature films. 

Pictured here is the Clubhouse at the Royal Sydney Golf Club in Rose Bay in Sydney's eastern suburbs.

It appeared in the McDonaghs' 1928 silent film, The Far Paradise.

The Cheaters: Before and After Restoration Trailer
Year:
Year

The NFSA has completed a digital restoration of the silent version of The Cheaters (1929), one of the earliest Australian films made by a team of female filmmakers.

The McDonagh sisters - Paulette (director), Phyllis (art director) and actress Isabel (billed as Marie Lorraine) - experienced great success with their first two films, Those Who Love (1926) and The Far Paradise (1928). 

In The Cheaters, Paula Marsh (played by 'Marie Lorraine') decides to end her career as a thief after falling in love with Lee Travers (Josef Bambach), son of a wealthy businessman.

The film was completed as a silent movie in 1929, after American 'talking pictures' were already flooding the market. The McDonagh sisters tried to broaden the film's appeal by converting it to a part-talkie and later to a full-talkie film in 1931, but it was too late.

Today it is the original silent film that survives as the most complete version of The Cheaters. The restoration is based on the only 35mm (nitrate) film print known to exist.

The digital clean-up achieved significant improvements in re-stabilising, de-flickering and grading the image, and extra time was needed to address some remaining distracting scratches and spots and return the image to a condition as close as possible to the original without changing it.

The McDonagh sisters wearing costumes and playacting on rocks, possibly on the Hawkesbury River, with their brother John who is also in costume wearing a turban on his head and holding a sword.
https://www.nfsa.gov.au/sites/default/files/02-2020/mcdonagh-siblings-play-acting.jpg
The McDonagh Siblings
NFSA-ID:
NFSA ID
351001

The McDonagh siblings, clockwise from top: John, Phyllis, Isabel and Paulette.

The siblings are wearing fancy dress and appear to be play-acting outdoors. 

The date and location of this photograph is unknown, but it may have been taken somewhere along the Hawkesbury River in New South Wales in the 1920s.

Portrait of the McDonagh children, circa 1910
https://www.nfsa.gov.au/sites/default/files/02-2020/mcdonagh-children.jpg
The McDonagh Children Family Portrait
NFSA-ID:
NFSA ID
349388

Four of the McDonagh children pose for a photograph with their Aunt Mary. 

Pictured clockwise from top left: Isabel, Aunt Mary, Phyllis, Paulette, John and Anita (on Mary's knee).

The exact date of the picture is unknown but it was perhaps taken before 1910, given the ages of the children.