Re-assessing the Demise of the McDonagh Sisters

When we consider the achievements of Paulette, Phyllis and Isabel McDonagh, it is tempting to regard the first Australian women to own a production company, and receive credit as filmmakers in their own right as victims of industrial conditions that limited production, distribution and exhibition opportunities for Australian films. Indeed, the narrative that emerges from scholarship on the McDonaghs situates the sisters as darlings of the Australian film industry whose initial successes with Those Who Love (1926) and The Far Paradise (1928) were followed by a reversal of fortune precipitated by the ill-fated decision to rush production on a talking version of The Cheaters (1933). This move was intended to enable the sisters to compete for the Commonwealth Film Prize, an initiative by the Federal government to stimulate the local film industry. [1] The film’s failure to win a cash prize or recoup production costs at the box office left McDonagh Productions Ltd in dire straits financially, and the subsequent poor commercial performance of Two Minutes’ Silence (1934) prompted the sisters to dissolve the company. While financial problems, industrial conditions and the challenges of adapting to sound technology influenced the sisters’ career trajectory, regarding these as career-ending factors ignores the business opportunities available to the sisters and fails to consider the impact of the sisters’ creative values on their work and business decisions. Drawing upon coverage in the trade and popular press, testimony given during the 1927 Royal Commission on the Moving Picture Industry in Australia and published interviews with the sisters and those who knew them, this article seeks to provide a more nuanced explanation of the demise of McDonagh Productions Ltd. These sources provide compelling evidence that, although the local film industry provided opportunities for the sisters to continue making films, they did not accept those offers because they preferred to make films independently, on their own terms, or not at all.

This reappraisal heeds Jane Gaines’ call for film histories that acknowledge contributory influences of co-creators, technology, industrial infrastructure and audiences. In a thoughtful engagement with Jean-Louis Baudry’s essay, ‘Author and Analyzable Subject’, she notes the imperative to recognise the contributions of women, but cautions against implicating female authorship as the locus of textual meaning. She does not deny that the gender and sexuality of women like Dorothy Arzner probably influenced the way they filmed sequences, but she rejects the notion that traces of a uniquely (and highly essential) feminine sensibility can be identified in filmic texts. [2] She is equally critical of using authorship as a justification for psychoanalysing the director because such arguments ignore the contributory influences of co-creators, technology, industrial infrastructure and audiences – all of which play a role in shaping the outcome of the production. Where Baudry posits movies as the projections of filmmakers’ fantasies, which invite critics to investigate “what fantasy the desire to make movies might refer to,” [3] Gaines focuses on filmmaking as a discursive space in which the producer’s desire is mixed with the workings of an inanimate machine, and where the desire to make movies exists in symmetry with the desire to see them and work is “validated” through the perception of the spectator. Following Baudry’s acknowledgement of “constraints” and “limitations” on the “‘materiality of cinema as well as its intermediaries’ that/who intervene between artist and work,” she advocates the need to account for the efforts of co-creators and “other industrial elements that contribute to the function of the apparatus.” [4] Drawing upon Elizabeth Cowie’s suggestion that “[f]antasy involves, is characterized by, not the achievement of desired objects, but the arranging of, a setting out of, desire”, Gaines asserts that the pleasure of filmmaking lies “in the planning, the orchestration … [the] setting out, not the having of the objects.” [5]

Consequently, this essay adopts a methodology that both explores the pleasures the McDonaghs derived from the planning and orchestration of their films and considers how their desire to make films on their own terms informed their relationship with audiences, other players in the Australian film industry and changing technologies of filmmaking. While it is noted that this approach has implications in terms of ongoing debates around the complex dynamics of gender, pleasure and cinema, this essay is not intended as a direct intervention in such debates. That said, it is acknowledged that the privileging of the sisters’ desires around film viewing and filmmaking registers their agency in a way that has been obscured in critical assessments that consider their career purely in terms of profits, longevity and other industry-centric indicators of success. The sisters explicitly rejected efforts to read too much into their motivation and storytelling. [6] Therefore, because a core premise of this revisionist reading of the McDonaghs is that sufficient attention has not been paid previously to how the women themselves understood their motivations and values as filmmakers, this essay privileges a conceptualization of pleasure that aligns with the sisters’ point of view. However, it is hoped that this revisionist perspective on the sisters will facilitate further consideration of their work, including how their understanding of cinematic pleasure might be situated vis-à-vis contemporary theoretical discourses.

As daughters of an affluent honorary surgeon to the J.C. Williamson theatrical company, the sisters inhabited a world of artists, actors and Sydney’s social elite. Their experiences led them to adopt bohemian sensibilities including a disregard for gender roles that confined women to the domestic sphere as wives and mothers, as they contemplated career opportunities. [7] The family’s passion for the arts inspired the sisters’ particular obsession with cinema, though family support also took more tangible forms. [8] Inherited money combined with their own savings provided the initial capital to form McDonagh Productions Ltd. Family connections gave the sisters access to performers and filming locations in and around Sydney, including the family’s stately residence, Drummoyne House. [9] Paulette was credited as scenario writer and director; Phyllis as art-director and producer; and Isabel as leading lady under her stage name, Marie Lorraine. Together, they produced four feature films plus a number of documentaries on local subjects including Phar Lap, cricketing legend Donald Bradman and a kangaroo hunt.

Marilyn Dooley’s assessment that the sisters “didn’t make films for the Australian film industry … ultimately, they made them for themselves” directs critical attention to the importance of desire and pleasure as motivating factors in the McDonaghs’ production career. [10] The women took immense pleasure in film-going, and their approach to producing films was rooted in a desire to make the sort of movies they enjoyed watching. Eschewing the “crude Australian images” [11] of local films, the sisters preferred Hollywood and European productions. These preferences inspired the production of sophisticated melodramas whose visual style echoed German Expressionism and whose plotlines revolved around spirited heroines, cross-class unions and the triumph of true love. Some critics, like F. E. Baume of The Sunday Sun and Guardian, took the sisters to task for the lack of a specifically Australian atmosphere in their films. [12] However, the overarching alignment between the sisters’ cinematic tastes and those of filmgoers enabled what Graham Shirley described as a unique “chemistry with the audience”, as well as box office success for the sisters’ first two features. [13] This interplay between the visual pleasures the sisters experienced as viewers and producers, and the visual pleasures their films provided for mass audiences invites future consideration in the context of larger debates about the role of pleasure in female spectatorship and film production.

In the absence of formal training, the cinema served as the sisters’ classroom. Paulette recalled going to morning screenings and, if she enjoyed the film, returning for the matinee and evening screenings to analyse cinematography, editing and performance. [14] Family members confirm that the sisters’ preferred working method was to collaborate on every detail of filmmaking, and this opportunity for the close-knit trio to work together was an essential aspect of the pleasure they derived from making films. [15] Indeed, the trio famously engaged in lively debates amongst themselves to thrash out scenarios and scripts. [16] Naturalistic performances by Marie Lorraine and the rest of the cast also demonstrate the care that was paid to working with actors to achieve the right emotional register for scenes. [17] Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper note that the women insisted on adopting a hands-on approach to developing budgets, managing tight shooting schedules, conducting vigorous publicity campaigns and attending carefully to every last detail in dressing sets so that their films always retained a look of quality. [18] Initially, to compensate for their lack of formal training in direction, photography and editing, they enlisted the services of director PJ Ramster, and former Hollywood cameraman Jack Fletcher. However, the collaboration with Ramster came to an abrupt end when he clashed with the sisters over the filming of Those Who Love. Their decision to sack the industry veteran and assume total responsibility for making and marketing their films was a significant move, given the long-standing tradition of female film pioneers forming collaborations with men who took part or all of the credit for work done by women. [19] On a more personal level, the act signified not only the McDonaghs’ desire to immerse themselves in all aspects of the filmmaking process, but the great importance they attached to preserving the production process as a space in which they had complete freedom to do as they pleased, without being challenged by others.

The desire to defy gender norms that positioned women as wives and reproducers, and gratifying the desire to buck those social expectations also figured heavily into the pleasures the sisters derived from filmmaking. As family historian Yvonne Dornan observed, they “had a sense of themselves and they recognized that there was a division in what people could do if they were male or female. They just wanted to do it, and they did it.” [20] Indeed, Paulette even declared in a 1977 interview that she did not believe in marriage because she “always wanted to be [her] own woman.” [21] Phyllis echoed these sentiments when she explained that the sisters made films because “[i]t was our own thing. We just had to do it.” [22] These reflections confirm that having a project that was their own, over which they exerted complete control, and through which they could express themselves, was a potent source of pleasure for the sisters because it satisfied their desire for independence and agency.

The success of Those Who Love and The Far Paradise was tied closely to the McDonaghs’ ability to forge a positive relationship with audiences, critics and leading figures in the industry. [23] The success of these films, particularly Those Who Love, which beat Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush in the popularity stakes, provides tangible evidence of the sisters’ ability to connect with audiences. Additionally, coverage in the popular press both reflected and contributed to favourable estimations of the sisters. Articles routinely emphasised themes that were in line with the sisters’ objectives for embarking on a filmmaking career. Writers noted the novelty of producers who were not only female, but sisters as well. For example, Irene Norton Dexter of The Sydney Mail acknowledged the sisters’ departure from gender norms when she observed, “the McDonagh girls had long dreamed of the time when they could prove the ability of their sex in the making of films.” [24] Praise for the sisters’ industriousness and integrity was another common theme in trade press coverage. Everyones noted that:

With very little else but pluck and determination, they went ahead and the results of their enterprise have been more than amply justified … These young ladies have certain very definite ideas with regard to motion pictures and have the courage of their convictions. [25]

However, as John Tulloch observes, the trade press had a particular ideological investment in highlighting the sisters’ success as evidence that industrial factors did not pose a hindrance to the development of a vibrant Australian national cinema. [26]

Another important source of information about the McDonaghs’ position in the industry is the Royal Commission convened by the Federal government to investigate issues such as film censorship, content quotas and tariffs on film imports. Significantly, the Royal Commission heard from industry representatives whose testimony indicated strong support for the sisters. Stanley Crick, the Managing Director of Fox Films Corporation of Australasia, testified that The Far Paradise impressed him so much that he agreed to handle its distribution. [27] George Griffiths, Managing Director of Hoyts Theatres Limited, stated that his firm was “prepared to find the money for [the sisters] to do as many more pictures as they like on the same standard.” [28] While Isabel McDonagh’s testimony cited difficulties in finding distributors and exhibitors, she acknowledged the support of Stuart Doyle and other industry figures, and made reference to other potentially lucrative business opportunities related to the distribution of the sisters’ films. [29] She stated that Hoyts Theatres were keen to handle future projects, and that J. C. Williamson had agreed to handle films on a percentage basis, leaving the sisters free to sell copies of the print to exhibitors. [30] Given such favorable conditions, it seems that the issue is not over why the Australian film industry failed to provide opportunities for the McDonaghs to make films, but rather, why the women didn’t take up those opportunities.

Reflections by the sisters themselves and those who knew them suggest that the reasons why McDonagh Productions ceased trading after only four feature films related to the sisters’ lack of business sense and an unwillingness to compromise on their independence and autonomy. Paula Dornan, the youngest of the McDonagh siblings, recalls that her eldest sisters had no head for money – an assessment that is supported by the fact that they famously spent the proceeds from Those Who Love on lavish parties and failed to make the contractual arrangements necessary to ensure they received a proper share of the profits generated by their productions. [31] For reasons linked to patriotism as much as to profit-motive, the sisters turned down Universal’s offer to distribute The Far Paradise in favour of a deal with British Dominion Films. [32] When the arrangement fell through, Universal honoured the original proposal as an act of good will, but at a fraction of the original offer because the film was no longer needed to meet Universal’s British film quota. While such fiscal mismanagement seems baffling when viewed through a rational economic paradigm in which profits and growth are paramount, it is consistent with the sisters’ general approach to filmmaking as an exercise in pursuing activities that gave them pleasure, rather than a business venture.

Furthermore, a combination of industrial issues, technological problems and the sisters’ own creative prerogative over the making of The Cheaters worked in tandem to undermine the viability of McDonagh Productions. Although the film was originally produced as a silent, the sisters delayed its release to re-make it with synchronized sound sequences in order to compete for the Commonwealth Film Prize established by the Australian Government to promote innovation within the local film industry. Due to technological limitations within the film industry, the sisters had no option but to utilize a primitive sound-on-disc system that entailed recording the soundtrack onto a disc which was played while the film was projected separately. Progress on the production was further delayed when the Musician’s Union refused to permit members to record soundtracks for talkies. [33] The sisters persevered by advertising in newspapers for musicians and decamping to Melbourne to make the recording. [34] During a special trade screening in Sydney, the sound-on-disc playback fell out of sync with the image and the projectionist failed to modulate the volume in accordance with what was happening on screen. Family friend Neville Macken recalled the screening was an unmitigated disaster because the film’s well-crafted dramatic moments were reduced to base comedy as roars of laughter from the audience sealed the sisters’ humiliation. [35] While Irene Norton Dexter complimented their ambitiousness and brave departure from “the old reliable outback themes” she ridiculed the film’s “unconvincing and bodiless” plot and slated the picture as an amateur offering that “marks no advancement on previous efforts.” [36] Likewise, The Sydney Morning Herald deprecated the old-fashioned dialogue, weak acting, inappropriate pace and “bombastically sentimental style of outworn melodrama.” [37] As film historian Graham Shirley observed, the film’s “heartfelt, engaging romantic tragedy” was reduced to “mechanical basics” when dialogue that worked beautifully as inter-titles fell flat when spoken and when reflective passages that invested the film with a tantalizing “dream-like quality” were sacrificed to make room for new sound sequences that failed to recoup the dramatic effect that had been lost. [38] The McDonaghs and their industry contemporaries had yet to understand fully the artistry involved in producing talkies.

Nevertheless, when The Cheaters came a disappointing fourth place in the Commonwealth Film Prize, the trade press leapt to the sisters’ defence. Film Weekly called upon the judges to give The Cheaters a second chance and declared that, “if the McDonaghs have not given us a highly meritorious production, they have at least made history in presenting … a talkie that, taking all things into consideration, is quite an achievement, and one meriting the support of the Commonwealth Government.” [39] Writing in Everyones, Gayne Dexter blamed the prize for creating conditions that required the sisters to invest more money in re-shooting a picture that was recorded with sub-par sound technology and produced in a rush in order to make the deadline for submissions. [40] When calls for the Appeal Board to reconsider fell on deaf ears, the sisters made a final effort to recoup their losses by re-recording it with a new sound-on-film system developed by Jack Fletcher at the Standardtone Recording Studios. [41] Because sound was recorded directly onto film, this technology avoided the synchronization issues of the sound-on-disc system to provide a more reliable means of delivering talking pictures. By the time the re-recorded version was complete, however, the sisters determined that its plotlines and hemlines were too dated to compete against the increasing quality of Hollywood talkies. [42] Rather than allow the release of a film that failed to meet their exacting standards, the sisters opted to shelve the project and absorb the financial loss.

This decision was made despite expressions of interest in handling the talking version of The Cheaters from industry players like Charles Hardy of Celebrity Pictures and Frank Thring, the managing director at Hoyts Theatres. Thring had been so impressed with the sisters’ work and the commercial possibilities of The Cheaters that he offered to organise the distribution and exhibition of the film. When the sisters asked for an advance in the form of a weekly salary of £250 per week for five weeks, Thring’s refusal prompted their rejection of his offer. Paulette would later regret the decision and describe it as a “further mistake in their business inexperience” which eliminated opportunities for future involvement in Thring’s Efftee Films production company. [43] Determined to overcome financial setbacks, the sisters set out to make a film adaptation of Leslie Haylen’s World War I-themed stageplay, Two Minutes Silence, with the help of a £1500 investment from Isabel’s fiancé, Charles Stuart. Paulette described the film as “the hardest job we’ve ever tackled,” and noted that, “at times it seemed almost impossible to continue. But we realized we had to, and … well … we just did.” [44] After a limited run in Canberra and Sydney, the film initially failed to secure a distributor, and without profits from The Cheaters and Two Minutes Silence, the McDonagh Productions lacked the capital to mount another film project. Thus, having made their mark upon Australian cinema, the sisters made the decision to embark on new chapters in their lives: Isabel married and moved to London, Phyllis moved to New Zealand to work in newspaper publishing and Paulette remained in Sydney, where she made a number of unsuccessful attempts to secure funding for film projects.

When viewed as ‘casualties of the industry’, the McDonaghs’ withdrawal from filmmaking seems like a decision taken as a last resort in the face of circumstances beyond their control. However, by positioning the production process – the making of phase – as a locus of pleasure and desire where technologies of filmmaking simultaneously advanced and undermined the sisters’ ambitions, this essay highlights the McDonaghs’ agency. Working together in the cinematic medium they loved, and defying gender conventions to prove they were a creative force to be taken seriously, were the core sources of pleasure for the sisters. They achieved what they set out to do. Thus, when posed with the choice of either accepting business offers that required the sisters to compromise the autonomy they enjoyed over the production process or closing McDonagh Productions Ltd, they continued to follow the path dictated by their desires. As Phyllis explained, “we thought we’d done our bit and we wanted (italics mine) to move on to other things separately.” [45] Far from being victims of industrial conditions beyond their control, the McDonagh sisters departed from the industry just as they had arrived: on their own terms.


Research for this essay was carried out with the support of an Australian Bicentennial Fellowship awarded by the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, King’s College London. I am grateful to Ian Henderson and Frank Bongiorno for their support in developing this project. I also wish to acknowledge David Atfield and National Film and Sound Archive of Australia staff for facilitating access to archival holdings on the sisters. A special note of thanks goes to Graham Shirley for generously sharing his insights and personal experiences interviewing the McDonaghs.

[1] Graham Shirley, “Australian Cinema: 1896 to the renaissance,” in Australian Cinema, ed. Scott Murray (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1994), 5-44; Graham Shirley, “The Cheaters,” in “Films we love 1: legions of the lost, forgotten, and neglected Australian films,” Cinema Papers 100 (1994): 18-20; Graham Shirley and Brian Adams, Australian Cinema: The First Eighty Years, revised ed., (Sydney: Currency Press, 1989); Graham Shirley, “McDonaghs of Australian Cinema,” Filmnews 8, no. 12, (December 1978): 1, 5, 15 – 18; Joan Long, “Australian Women Filmmakers Part 1,” Cinema Papers (June-July 1976): 34-89; Joan Long and Martin Long, The Pictures that Moved: A Picture History of the Australian Cinema 1896-1929 (Richmond: Hutchinson, 1982), 92-99; Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper, Australian Film 1900-1977 (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1980); Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper, “The McDonagh Sisters,” Cinema Papers (July 1974): 260-1; John Tulloch, Legends on the Screen: The Narrative Film in Australia 1919-1929 (Sydney: Currency, 1981), chapter 8; Ken Berryman, “McDonagh sisters talk,” Filmnews (August 1988): 11-12; Suzanne Spunner and Sue Johnston, “Interview: Phyllis McDonagh,” Lip 3, no. 2, (1977): 101-3; Sally Speed, “Voices from the Silent Era,” in Don’t Shoot Darling!: Women’s Independent Filmmaking in Australia, (ed.) Annette Blonski, Barbara Creed and Freda Freiberg (Richmond: Greenhouse, 1987), 25-35; M Ruth Magaw, “‘Happy Ever After’: The image of women in four Australian feature films in the 1920s,” Journal of Australian Studies, 7 (November 1980): 55-72; and Andree Wright, Brilliant Careers: Women in Australian Cinema (Sydney: Pan, 1986), chapter 3.
[2] Jane M Gaines, ‘Of Cabbage and Authors’, in A Feminist Reader in Early Cinema (eds) Jennifer M Bean and Diane Negra (Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2002), 100-1.
[3] Ibid.,101.
[4] Ibid., 107.
[5] Ibid., 109-10.
[6] Spunner and Johnston, “Interview: Phyllis McDonagh.”
[7] As noted in Shirley, “McDonaghs of Australian Cinema,” 15, a friend of the family described the sisters as “more bohemian than anything around now.”
[8] “Enter Madam,” Everyones, December 22, 1926, 3; Long, “Australian Women Filmmakers,” and Shirley, “McDonaghs of Australian Cinema.”
[9] Barbara Alysen, “Australian Women in Film,” in An Australian Film Reader, eds Albert Moran and Tom O’Regan (Sydney: Currency Press, 1985), 304.
[10] Marilyn Dooley qtd. in The McDonagh Sisters, directed by Rebecca Barry. 2003. Sydney: Australian Film, Television and Radio School, short film.
[11] “Australian Women Filmmakers Part 1,” 38.
[12] F E Baume, “McDonagh Sisters: Why Pick a Play That Could Be Filmed Better Abroad?” Sunday Sun and Guardian, January 22, 1933, 26.
[13] Shirley qtd. in McDonagh Sisters, (dir. Barry).
[14] Wright, Brilliant Careers, 34.
[15] Spunner and Johnston, “Interview: Phyllis McDonagh.” Charles, Alan and Sandra Stewart (the children of Isabel McDonagh) also stressed the importance of the collaborative nature of the sisters’ work on all aspects of production during a personal conversation, March 19, 2009.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Wright, Brilliant Careers, 38.
[18] Pike and Cooper, Australian Film, 176.
[19] In the Australian context, for example, the achievements of film pioneers like Lottie Lyell, Kate Howarde, Yvonne Pavis and Louise Lovely had either been ignored completely or acknowledged as collaborative efforts with Raymond Longford, Charles Villiers, Lawson Harris and Wilton Welch respectively.
[20] Yvonne Dornan qtd. in The McDonagh Sisters, (dir. Barry).
[21] Paulette McDonagh qtd. in Wright, Brilliant Careers, 43.
[22] Spunner and Johnston, “Interview: Phyllis McDonagh,” 101.
[23] Australian Women’s Weekly, for example, praised Those Who Love as a “love story … which became a phenomenon of its time and place. See “When Three Dashing Sisters Made a Movie,” The Australian Women’s Weekly (1933 – 1982) (1933 – 1982: National Library of Australia), April 21, 1971, 4. Retrieved September 28, 2014.
[24] Irene Norton Dexter, “Film Theatres and Players,” The Sydney Mail, June 6, 1928, 22.
[25] “Enter Madame!” See also “Pluck of Three Sydney Girls: Enterprise Leads to Ambitious Film’,” Everyones, November 24, 1926, 36.
[26] Tulloch, Legends, 305.
[27] Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, Minutes of Evidence of the Royal Commission on the Moving Picture Industry (Canberra: H J Green, Government Printer, 1927) 952.
[28] Ibid., 403.
[29] Ibid., 926-7.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Paula Dornan, interviewed by Jude Kelly, 5 February 1983, NFSA Oral Collection, Item no. 330324 and Joan Long, “Australian Women Filmmakers,” 89.
[32] Tulloch, Legends, 304.
[33] “Musicians Won’t Play for McDonaghs,” Everyones, 12 March 1930, 5.
[34] “Musicians Will Make Talkie Melodies,” The Register News-Pictorial, 18 March 1930,
[35] Shirley, ‘McDonaghs’ of Australian Cinema, 17 and Wright, Brilliant Careers, 39-40.
[36] Irene Norton Dexter, “At the Pictures,” The Sydney Mail, June 11, 1930, 28.
[37] “Australian Film: ‘The Cheaters,’” The Sydney Morning Herald, June 2, 1930.
[38] Shirley, “The Cheaters,” 101.
[39] “Screening “The Cheaters,” Film Weekly, June 5, 1930, 3.
[40] Quoted in Berryman, “McDonagh sisters talk,” 11.
[41] Neville Macken, interviewed by Graham Shirley, 7 August 1971, NFSA Oral History Collection, Item no. 227531.
[42] Berryman, “McDonagh sisters talk,” 12.
[43] Shirley, “McDonaghs of Australian Cinema,” 16.
[44] “Private Views,” The Australian Women’s Weekly, 28, 1933. 32.
[45] “When Three Dashing Sisters Made a Movie,” The Australian Women’s Weekly (1933 – 1982) April 21, 1971. 4.

About the Author

Ann-Marie Cook

About the Author

Ann-Marie Cook

Ann-Marie Cook is Director of Development at Inter-Disciplinary.Net, a non-profit research and education organisation. Her current projects deal with McDonagh sisters, British heritage films of the 1990s and a critical analysis of the television series Skins as a transmedia phenomenon.View all posts by Ann-Marie Cook →