Finding 1920s Sydney film locations

BY GRAHAM SHIRLEY

For International Women's Day, we're highlighting the contribution of Australia's pioneering McDonagh sisters, who 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.

2020 Update – Dock and Hotel Locations Found

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.

Since completing the majority of the research for this article a few years ago, I have continued to keep a look-out for the locations that appear in the films made by the Sydney-based McDonagh sisters.

Film historian Tony Martin Jones, for instance, 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, and he suggested I visit that location for comparison’s sake. 

In 2015 I did visit 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:

Then, early in 2019 while conducting new research into the lives and career of the McDonagh sisters, 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.

For more information on still unknown McDonagh filming locations, keep reading below. As for confirming the identity of the remaining 1920s McDonagh film locations, I will keep looking...

Sophisticated Sydney

Bushland weir 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.

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 Ambassadors Café, in the basement of Sydney’s Strand Arcade, for which they filmed a hotel dining-room sequence for The Cheaters.

Do you know these locations?

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. 

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

These images from the sound version of The Cheaters feature two unknown locations. First is 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.

Then there is the bushland weir scene, which I suspect may have been filmed at Audley Weir in the Royal National Park south of Sydney. Today’s Audley Weir, modernised but with a bush backdrop that could conceivably match that of the weir in The Cheaters, can also be seen in the gallery below:

More McDonaghs

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

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: