For International Women's Day, we take a closer look at the lives and careers of the McDonagh sisters.
During the era of Australian silent cinema (1896–1930), when opportunities for women filmmakers were rare, the McDonagh sisters – Isabel, Paulette (pictured right) and Phyllis – had instant success with their first feature, Those Who Love (1926). For that film and their second, The Far Paradise (1928), they were financially rewarded and publicly acclaimed, praised for their cleverness, courage, 'vim and enthusiasm'. In their capacities as co-producers, leading actor (Isabel), director-writer (Paulette) and art director-publicist (Phyllis), the sisters generated this initial success by making films that were Australian variations of popular Hollywood melodramas. After these two films, the McDonaghs’ biggest challenges were to cope with the coming of sound and to tap into sound cinema’s rapidly changing audience tastes.
The fact that the McDonagh sisters had been brought up, as Paulette put it, 'in the lap of luxury', helped give them confidence and independence at a time when many women faced marriage as a sole option. But the sisters’ achievement becomes even more remarkable when it is realised that the wealth that had given them such confidence was ebbing away by the time they started filmmaking.
Isabella Mercia (1899–1982), Phyllis Glory (1900–1978) and Paulette De Vere (1901–1978) nee McDonagh were the eldest of the seven children of Dr John McDonagh and his wife Anita ('Annie', nee Amora). Dr McDonagh was an honorary surgeon to the JC Williamson theatre circuit. Since their parents ran weekly soirees for Australian and visiting overseas actors, the McDonagh children became immersed in the world of theatre from early childhood. The eldest sisters soon became keen filmgoers with a liking for Hollywood dramas. Paulette in later years recalled how she saw the same films repeatedly, often in a single day, to learn how the best of them derived emotional power from the way they were shot and edited.
Dr McDonagh died in January 1920, leading to the discovery that by the time of his death his savings were meagre. To make ends meet, and assisted by Isabel, Annie McDonagh in 1921 opened and ran a nursing home at Drummoyne House, a colonial mansion in the Sydney suburb of Drummoyne, which the family had bought the previous year. This enterprise was comparatively short-lived, since Annie McDonagh died in March 1924. According to Phyllis McDonagh, their father had willed his eldest three daughters £1000 for the making of a film. In the several years before they made that film, Paulette wrote two scripts, attended Sydney filmmaker PJ Ramster’s film school and appeared as an extra in Arthur Shirley’s The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1925). Isabel appeared in Beaumont Smith’s feature Joe (1924) and F Stuart Whyte’s Painted Daughters (1925).