The McDonagh sisters, Isabel, Paulette and Phyllis, pictured from the waist up, wearing coats and hats and standing on the deck of a ship.

Deep Dive: The McDonagh Sisters

Deep Dive: Those Dashing McDonagh Sisters – In conversation with Author Mandy Sayer

Those Dashing McDonagh Sisters Interview
 Karina Libbey

In December 2022, Public Engagement Manager Karina Libbey was thrilled to welcome author Mandy Sayer to the NFSA for a discussion about her book, Those Dashing McDonagh Sisters: Australia’s First Female Filmmaking Team (2022).

Who Were the McDonagh Sisters?

The trailblazing McDonagh sisters were the first women in Australia to form their own film production company. Between 1926 and 1933, while they were in their mid-20s, these sisters produced four feature films and several documentaries.   

The youngest, Paulette, was at the time one of only five women film directors in the world. Phyllis produced, art directed and conducted publicity. The eldest sister, Isabel, acted superbly in the leading female roles under her stage name Marie Lorraine.   

Together, the sisters transformed Australian cinema’s preoccupations with the outback and the bush – which they mocked as ‘haystack movies’ – into a thrilling, urban modernity. Although the trio didn’t set out deliberately to blaze a trail of feminism, their collective confidence and independence were striking at a time when there were few career options available to women.   

What stands out in Mandy Sayer’s investigation into the history of the sisters is her vivid picture of the lives they led in and around Sydney from the early 1900s through to the 1970s, when Paulette passed away while still living in Kings Cross. Paulette, Phyllis and Isabel were fascinating, complex, talented women and Those Dashing McDonagh Sisters provides insight into who they were as women, their relationships and the broader family context they grew up in, as well as a fascinating look behind the curtain of the early days of the film production and exhibition industries in Australia.  

Take a listen to our discussion about Mandy’s research and book, preceded by an introduction by NFSA curator Nathan Smith. The audio clip below also features video excerpts from NFSA Restores: The Cheaters (1929) and Those Who Love (1926):

Author Mandy Sayer in conversation with Karina Libbey at the NFSA about Sayer's book, Those Dashing McDonagh Sisters, December 2022. This audio clip also features video excerpts from films The Cheaters (1929) and Those Who Love (1926).


Dive into more incredible content about the McDonagh sisters through our online curated collection, which includes excerpts from the Rebecca Barry documentary The McDonagh Sisters (2003), clips from The Cheaters (1929) and other films, photographs, images of costumes from their films, and more!  

In 2017 the NFSA Restores program completed a digital restoration of the sisters’ third feature, The Cheaters (1929), 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 transformation is incredible – see for yourself by watching this before and after restoration trailer

Read more about a rare scrapbook created by the sisters to document the release and response to their feature film, The Far Paradise (1928), and view a wonderful digital version of the scrapbook.  

Find out more about the Sydney locations where the McDonagh sisters shot their movies, including photographs of some of the locations today, in this updated article by historian Graham Shirley

Learn more about Mandy Sayer on her official website and find out where to order copies of Those Dashing McDonagh Sisters.  


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