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Those Dashing McDonagh Sisters: Australia’s First Filmmaking Team

When it comes to Australian achievers, we are often swamped by sporting stars – those who excel in their field at a national or international level. They range from Olympic athletes and Wimbledon champions to jockeys who win the Melbourne cup. The media hype ensures they become household names. Even champion race horses become national heroes – from Phar Lap to Black Caviar with the former the subject of a 1983 feature film and the latter the subject of her own biography.

This media preoccupation with sports stars means that relatively few high achievers in other fields such as science and the arts receive the same public fame and recognition.

When it comes to the performing arts such as cinema, its high achievers fare rather better. In the last few decades, Australia has come into its own in terms of international cinema. Names such as Nicole Kidman, Chris Hemsworth, Cate Blanchett and Baz Luhrmann to name but a few are world famous.

However, this notoriety followed a long hiatus in Australian films. It was not until the 1970s that Australian cinema came into its international renaissance. Decades earlier Australia not only had a film industry but it produced a few  firsts in cinema history: the McDonagh sisters were one of these firsts. 

Australia’s pioneering role in world cinema is often overlooked, perhaps a reflection of how we neglect our own history generally (unless sport is involved). For example, how many are aware that Australia produced the very first feature film? Long before there was a Hollywood film industry, people were treated to ‘The Story of the Kelly Gang’ in 1906. At over an hour in length it was the longest narrative film made up to that time.

Add to this canon of Australian cinema, three talented sisters who without a formal production company produced a number of box office successes in the 1920s and early 1930s. 

The McDonagh Sisters

The daughters of a prominent doctor, they were the three eldest of seven siblings. Paulette wrote and directed most of the scenarios; Phyllis undertook production, art direction and publicity while Isabel acted the lead under a screen name of Marie Lorraine. Since they lived under the same roof there would have been considerable overlap within these roles. Their interest in films began as young adults when they would discuss and analyse films they had seen at the cinema. They were resourceful, talented and driven to create innovative movies. 

As the author of Those Dashing McDonagh Sisters Mandy Sayer, points out; ‘…in the history of the cinema, there has never been a trio of sisters that has formed an independent film company, producing full-length features.’  something to be celebrated especially as their films were both critical and commercial successes.

This detailed biography follows their trials and tribulations as well as their innovative approach to cinema. We learn the novel themes of their films, the extent they went to finance and publicise them and how their individual talents combined to make them a force to be reckoned with. Their first feature Those Who Love, (1926) was an instant hit, taking in more at the box office than the latest hit by Charlie Chaplin.

Those Dashing McDonagh Sisters: Australia’s First Filmmaking Team by Mandy Sayer. NewSouth Publishing, Sydney, 2022.

Their innovation began with their choice of subjects. Up until then, Australian films tended to have a particular rural stamp, namely that of the outback or the bush or the convict past. The titles of many Australian films of the 1910s and the 1920s reflect this: Robbery Under Arms, For the Term of his Natural Life, The Eureka Stockade, The Kelly Gang, The Breaking of the Drought,  Even classics like The Sentimental Bloke (1919) were a  touch  parochial.

The McDonagh sisters avoided the stereotypes of farms and bushrangers. Their films unfolded in urban settings giving them a more universal appeal which, together with their original plots, brought a certain sophistication to their movies. In addition, they made female characters central to the plot. 

Their heroines were not conventional tropes of farmer’s wives and daughters. Not only did they dance the Charleston on the beach but they did more unconventional things on screen such as crack safes, brandish pistols, and even give birth as a result of sexual assault! (Radical stuff for the 1920s) Their female protagonists were not passive wall flowers but women who reflected their own strong sense of identity and purpose.

Their innovations went beyond content to actual form. Not only did they cover new ground in subject matter but they also employed innovative editing techniques. By the skilful use of close ups and avoidance of melodramatic acting their screen style was one of subtle naturalism. Moreover, their skills extended beyond the film set to more practical matters such as acquiring the funds, props, costumes, locations and arranging the publicity to get their unique films made and ensure their success. 

Unfortunately, they could not continue their independent screen careers. Circumstances combined to stifle their creative enterprise. They could not compete with the Hollywood studio system which controlled film distribution in this country. Furthermore, they had no major state funding as at the time the government was not interested in developing a local film industry. Added to this, the Great Depression of the 1930s further limited their prospects. 

However financial constraints and the monopoly of the studio system were not the only factors which curtailed their film careers. Had they been co-opted into the studio system they would have had to compromise their artistic independence which was what gave their films originality. 

Paulette McDonagh directing The Cheaters. Image: National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. 

These three McDonagh sisters are now long gone and unfortunately, none of their films now survive in a complete form: a sign of how we neglect the work of our screen pioneers. This biography goes some way to rectifying this neglect. 

While their films do not survive intact, enough footage exists to have been preserved and digitalised by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. However, as the author points out, none of their surviving work has ever been made available to a public audience through any streaming service or DVD or any other means. No wonder they are largely forgotten in their own country.

This biography is this first detailed work on the lives and accomplishments of these pioneering movie makers who have not been given their due. They were talented, innovative and resourceful and their private lives were also eventful filled with triumphs and personal tragedy. This is the their first biography coming 40 years after the death of the last of this famous trio.

Those Dashing McDonagh Sisters is an excellent and detailed book about three exceptional Australian artists. Hopefully a film adaption will follow… one day. 

What better way to commemorate exceptional film makers than by making an exceptional film about them?