Australia's pioneering McDonagh sisters formed a production company in the 1920s and successfully produced several feature films and short documentaries.
Historian Graham Shirley writes below about the value that the McDonaghs' location filming adds to their work – and reports on discovering some of the previously unknown Sydney locales where they filmed.
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.
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 and The Far Paradise.
There was also Tamarama Beach, where they filmed some of what survives of Those Who Love, and the Palm Court of 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.
These images from The Far Paradise feature the ballroom used for the masked ball sequence:
These images from the sound version of The Cheaters in the gallery below feature another unknown location – 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:
For many years I suspected that a bushland weir which appears in The Cheaters was Audley Weir in the Royal National Park south of Sydney. But this was only an approximate guess.
In November 2022, film scholar Camille Scaysbrook wrote to the NFSA with information that the ‘Bushland weir scene’ mentioned in an earlier version of this article 'is not the Audley Weir, which was known in the 1920s as the "Lower Causeway", but a structure further south, known as the "Upper Causeway". It crossed the Hacking River at the present-day intersection of McKell Ave and Lady Wakehurst Drive.'
To support her statement, Camille provided online links to 2 photographs of the Upper Causeway. The first, whose original is held by the State Archives and Records Authority of New South Wales, appears to have been taken (judging by the clothing worn by the woman seated in the foreground) in the late 1800s or early 1900s, and shows the Upper Causeway covered by water. The second, published in the Newcastle Sun of 10 December 1934, shows a car crossing the Upper Causeway in drier weather.
Camille continues, 'As seen in [The Cheaters], shallow water would sometimes wash over the causeway. I believe it was concreted over in the late 1930s. It can still be seen on the western side of McKell Avenue as you cross the river.'
I’ve not yet visited this location, although I intend to. An online search of the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service website reveals the location of an Upper Causeway Picnic Area at the junction of McKell Avenue and Lady Wakehurst Drive in the southern precinct of the Royal National Park, near the suburb of Waterfall.
See images of The Cheaters location, the Upper Causeway and Audley Weir in the image gallery below:
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.
After I completed the majority of the research for this article, I spoke to film historian Tony Martin Jones, who told me he thought the shipyard location in which the lovers of Those Who Love (1926) meet for lunch might have been Mort’s Dock on the shores of Sydney Harbour.
At his suggestion, I visited Mort’s Dock and noted the existence of a railway line along the former dock front which seemed to match the rail line in the Those Who Love dock footage. I also noted seeing a similarity between the hillside at the southern end of the bay and the one in the background in the footage.
I took photos of the former dock as it appears today, which can be seen in the gallery below, alongside images of the film location:
While conducting new research into the lives and career of the McDonagh sisters in 2019, I found an article from Sydney’s Daily Telegraph (8 June 1926) which confirmed Mort’s Dock had indeed appeared in the film.
With regard to the grand rural hotel exteriors for The Cheaters (1929, 1931), while researching NSW Southern Highlands heritage properties, I happened across an online historical photo of the Ranelagh Hotel, Robertson. The hotel exactly matched the hotel of The Cheaters exterior shots. Today the former Ranelagh Hotel building is still open as the Robertson Hotel.
If you have any information that might help the NFSA identify these locations, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read about the McDonagh sisters and Drummoyne House on the Drummoyne Sailing Club blog and find out more about about their filmmaking via the 'More to explore' links below.
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