Woman The McDonagh Sisters

Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Film producer
Alternative Names
  • Lorraine, Marie (Isobel) (Pen name)
  • McDonagh, Paulette
  • O'Brien nee McDonagh, Phyllis
  • Stewart nee McDonagh, Isobel

Written by Jennifer Coombes, National Film and Sound Archive

In 1926, three remarkable sisters made history by becoming the first Australian women to own and run a film production company. They were also among the first to produce a talkie in Australia. Professionally known as the McDonagh sisters, they followed in the footsteps of Australian female film pioneers such as Lottie Lyell and Louise Lovely. However, the social and economic advantages of being born into a well-to-do Sydney family offered more opportunities for this new trio. The sisters collaborated to make both feature-length dramas and documentaries, with Paulette working as the director and writer, Phyllis as a producer and Isobel, acting under the name 'Marie Lorraine', being their featured star.

Isobel (b.1899), Phyllis (b.1900) and Paulette (b.1901) were the eldest of seven children of John Michael McDonagh, the surgeon to J.C .Williamson's theatrical companies, and his wife Annie. During their childhood, they were taken regularly to the theatre and met local actors and artists at their parent's weekend soirees. They were frequent film goers and developed a keen interest in Australian films. However, it was the imported Hollywood productions of that merged melodramatic plots, naturalistic direction and the themes of class difference, family conflict, romance and crime that appealed to them most and influenced their creative endeavours. The McDonaghs aimed to tell stories that were entertaining to them. During their final year at their school, Kincoppal Convent in Elizabeth Bay, Paulette and Phyllis wrote the script for what would later become their first feature film Those Who Love, about a rich outcast who falls in love with a low-class showgirl. After leaving school, Paulette worked as an extra on Arthur Shirley's The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1925), as well as attending a film acting school run by P. J. Ramster. She later hired Ramster to help with their first film. In between working as a nurse and modelling for artist Thea Proctor, Isobel made her acting debut in Beaumont Smith's feature film Joe (1925).

The McDonagh sisters' debut film premiered in 26 November 1926 in Newcastle, New South Wales, and produced enough revenue to finance their second picture The Far Paradise in 1928. Their subsequent feature films were The Cheaters (1930) and Two Minutes Silence (1933). Those Who Love and The Far Paradise were both popular at the box office and critically well-received, but the failure of The Cheaters and Two Minutes Silence ultimately bankrupted McDonagh Productions. Originally conceived as a silent film, The Cheaters became trapped in the widespread enthusiasm for the new talkies phenomenon. Shortly before its 1930 release, the sisters added three sound-on-disc sequences but the disappointing results greatly weakened the strong performances, script and cinematography. The sisters' later attempt to create a complete sound-on-film version by re-shooting the film's closeups and dubbing its wide shots was creatively compromised to the extent that it failed to obtain a release at all.

The sisters' first two films were filmed substantially at their family residence, the historic Drummoyne House, which gave them a classic and distinctive style at little extra expense. The films all had an urban setting, which set them apart from the mostly rural Australian films being made at the time. Another unique feature was the portrayal of the heroines, played by Isobel. In carefully crafted scripts written by Phyllis and Paulette, they created scenarios for a more spirited and independent heroine than the norm; someone who broke into houses, fought with their father and took charge of an action packed destiny as well as playing the traditional love interest. Isobel's acting style was also praised for its naturalism when compared with the outright melodrama favoured by many of her silent film contemporaries.

Despite the Depression, the sisters continued to make short documentaries, including Australia in the Swim with the Olympic swimming team, Sir Donald Bradman in How I Play Cricket, Phar Lap in The Mighty Conqueror and a study of kangaroos with The Trail of the 'Roo. Their last feature film, Two Minutes Silence, was made in 1933 and first screened commercially in Canberra on 18 October of that year. Unlike their earlier romantic melodramas, the film tackled a serious antiwar message. It opens in London at 11 o' clock on Armistice Day. The two minutes silence awakens memories in a number of characters, including an orphaned French girl, a digger and a butler. Critics however were mostly dismissive, complaining that it lacked any real dramatic impact. One notable exception was Australian poet Kenneth Slessor, who wrote in Smith's Weekly that he found it to 'a powerful and convincing story, intelligently directed and capable of challenging comparison with world standards' (Slessor, Smith's Weekly, 1934).

Meanwhile, life started to take the McDonagh sisters in new and different directions. In September 1932, Isobel married businessman Charles Stewart. They went to London where the first of their three children was born in 1933. Isobel returned to Sydney in 1935 to be near her family but eventually relocated to London again in 1965 and died there on 5 March 1982, survived by her children. Phyllis accepted a position as editor of New Zealand Truth and married a salesman, Leo Francis Joseph O'Brien, in 1941. Like Isobel, she later returned to Sydney to work as a journalist and short story writer, and from 1960 was the social editor on the North Shore Times. She died on 17 October 1978.

With difficulty, Paulette continued alone with film-making. In 1934 she worked on a romantic epic based on the life of flying pioneer doctor Reverend John Flynn. However, she was unable to raise the necessary budget, and without her sisters' involvement, saw no point in trying to continue. She lived with her younger sisters until 1940, when she moved to Kings Cross. Paulette died in Sydney on 30 August 1978.

After rejecting Hollywood offers to work abroad in the 1920s, the McDonaghs' work disappeared from public view until the 1950s, when two titles turned up in private collections. They were eventually followed by rescreening in the early 1970s of prints of The Far Paradise and The Cheaters (now held, like a fragment of Those Who Love and three of the McDonagh documentaries in the National Film and Sound Archive). Paulette was among the audience when the silent version of The Cheaters ran to warm public response at the Sydney Film Festival in 1975, and it was subsequently screened at women's film festivals. In August 1978, Phyllis received the Australian Film Institute's Raymond Longford award on behalf of the sisters, in fitting acknowledgement of their significant contribution to Australian film-making. Today, Phyllis, Paulette and Isobel McDonagh are remembered for their talent, their originality and vision as ground-breaking early Australian film-makers.

Additional sources: Slessor, K. Smith's weekly, 10 February 1934.

Archival Resources

National Film and Sound Archive

  • Dornan, Paula: Interviewed by Judith Kelly: Oral History, 5 February 1983, 330324; National Film and Sound Archive. Details
  • The McDonagh Sisters, 2003, 601887; National Film and Sound Archive. Details

Published Resources

Book Sections

  • Shirley, G, 'Australian Cinema: 1896 to the renaissance', in Muray, S. (ed.), Australian Cinema, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, New South Wales, 1994, pp. 18 - 20. Details

Journal Articles

  • Berryman, K., 'McDonagh sisters talk', Film News, August, 1988, pp. 11 - 12. Details
  • Shirley, G., '"The Cheaters", in, Films we love 1: legions of the lost, forgotten, underrated and neglected Australian films', Cinema Papers, vol. 100, 1994, pp. 18 - 20. Details
  • Shirley, Graham, 'McDonough's of Australian Cinema', Filmnews, vol. 8, no. 12, December 1978, pp. 1; 5; 15 - 18. Details
  • Spunner, Suzanne and Johnson, Sue, 'Interview: Phyllis McDonagh', Lip, Interview Transcript, no. 2 and 3, 1977, pp. 101 - 103. Details

Online Resources

See also

Digital Resources

Don Bradman in How I Play Cricket
Audio Visual
National Film and Sound Archive