From silence to sound: The McDonagh sisters and The Cheaters (1929-1930) (i)
This family portrait, taken at the beginning of the twentieth century, shows the first five McDonagh children, with their Aunt Mary. At that time the family lived in Macquarie St, Sydney, where their father (Dr John McDonagh) had his consulting rooms. Their dress in this portrait indicates wealth, and Isabel’s beauty is already evident.
As young adults in the 1920s, the three eldest girls formed McDonagh Productions, the only silent film production company in Australia entirely owned and operated by women. This made them newsworthy, and led to their portraits being published, sometimes together (below).
Isabel, the eldest, became the film star Marie Lorraine, around whom the narratives of the McDonagh films were structured. Her image is always central, her sisters peripheral. Paulette, the second sister, was the director, having learned her craft from obsessive viewing of films in Sydney cinemas as she grew up. Phyllis, the youngest of the three, worked in various production roles – finding cast and locations, designing and dressing sets, playing bit parts, assisting with scripts, promoting and advertising the company’s product.
Dr John McDonagh died in 1920, leaving the family in more straitened circumstances than they had expected. Nevertheless, his widow was able to purchase Drummoyne House, a 40-room mansion which she operated as a nursing home and convalescent hospital, with Isabel’s assistance.
The house, lavishly furnished with their father’s antiques, was the ideal location for the society melodramas that the sisters favoured. Their first production, Those Who Love(1924), was filmed in the house. Sumptuous production values, coupled with the novelty of a film produced by women, made distribution easier than for some other local films in the twenties.
Ads, such as that above, appeared in all the Sydney papers, with critical endorsements such as that quoted from the Sunday Times. The image again centred Isabel (Marie Lorraine): this time, it was her male co-star who was relegated to a subordinate position.
The little that survives of this film supports the favourable critical judgments that appeared in the press.
Jack Fletcher’s skill with the camera, and particularly with lighting, is evident.
So, too, is Paulette’s directorial skill. In the frame below, every element is carefully positioned to make the most of Isabel’s screen presence.
The following production still exposes the whole set, revealing how the above scene was created.
This is clearly no amateur effort, and it is unsurprising that the film made enough money to allow a second feature production. – The Far Paradise(1928).
This was another urban society melodrama. From the substantial portion that survives in the National Film and Sound Archive, we can see production values similar to Those Who Love: lavish sets and costumes carrying a sentimental love story with an eventual happy ending.
Once again, Marie Lorraine stars.
This time, much is made of the film being Australian – even a patriotic, with a local star and made by a local company, headed by three women.
Rich and stylish sets and costumes continue (see below), though Drummoyne House had been sold by the time the film was released.
Again, Paulette directed and Jack Fletcher operated the camera.
And then things changed. While the sisters were preparing their third silent feature, sound arrived in cinemas, turning both production and exhibition on its ear! For several years, the film industry was in turmoil as competing recording technologies (sound-on-disc and sound-on-film) struggled for dominance, and as film-makers explored how sound might change long-treasured methods of story-telling. For McDonagh Productions, what should have been a smooth transition into another popular and critical success became a nightmare, a challenge to the sisters’ industrial credentials and reputation, and so a turning-point in their fortunes.
But the crisis took time to develop. The Cheaters was completed and ready for distribution in mid-1929 - a silent film, very much in the style of their first two productions.
The story is, once again, urban society melodrama, told from the perspective of the heroine, Paula Marsh, played- of course- by Marie Lorraine. The action concerns Paula’s growing discomfort with the life of crime in which she has been brought up, as the tool of her adoptive father (Marsh) in his revenge on her natural father (Travers). All this is complicated by her falling in love with the ward of her real father. Yes – this is melodrama, full of excess and co-incidence.
The opening title gives nothing away – it could have been for any other film in the twenties, silent or sound.
A brief prologue, of the Three Fates spinning the web of destiny, introduces the film. The function of this may have been to position the film as ‘serious art’, but it was old-fashioned even for its time – and is uncomfortably so in the twenty-first century:
Bill Shepherd, Jack Fletcher (cinematographer), unidentified bit player (one of the Three Fates) and director Paulette McDonagh on the set of The Cheaters (silent version, 1929).
The production team was the same as for earlier McDonagh films. Paulette’s style of directing was to provide the cinematographer with a shot-by-shot script breakdown and expect him to follow it scrupulously. She was known to check each shot herself.
However, she and Jack Fletcher still seemed to work well together. Fletcher’s skill shows to best advantage in black and white, for instance, as Paula vamps in to Marsh’s office, on her return from the successful heist.
Fletcher’s lighting even manages to almost make convincing Paula’s inadequate disguise for the climactic scene towards the end, where she is caught burgling Travers’ safe.
Other black and white scenes of the lovers are also sharp and skilfully lit.
The soft edges of the tinted scenes provide deliberate contrast.
Visually and narratively, The Cheaters was as impressive as the earlier two McDonagh productions. But the timing of the film’s release was unfortunate. There was little scope for a completely silent film by late 1929, and the sisters decided to add some sound. They also hoped to increase the film’s chances in the 1930 Australian Film Awards, a competition designed by the federal government to encourage film innovation. So they added a complete sound-on-disc musical soundtrack, and three small synchronised sound sequences. One of these was Paula playing the piano.
The strategy did not work. The film received no prize (the judges awarded only a third prize, to Fellers 1929), and no general release followed. No footage from this version survives, though two music discs are held by the NFSA.
But the sisters were not finished yet. They decided to remake the entire film with full sound. Again, their timing was disastrous. Production was delayed by the musicians’ strike, and they continued with sound-on-disc at a time when sound-on-film was emerging as the standard. Nevertheless, a full-sound version was finally completed and a preview screening was organised.
The claim that this was ‘the first Australian talking picture’ is controversial. More significantly, the invited audience at the preview was not impressed and the film faded into oblivion, again with no general release. Some footage now exists in the NFSA, demonstrating that Paulette had already learned important lessons.
That clunky prologue of the Three Fates was replaced with a montage of Sydney scenes demonstrating progress over the twenty years since Marsh’s arrest. An incomplete Sydney Harbour Bridge is briefly glimpsed, and the finished bridge proudly displayed (still with construction cranes visible):
Paulette, however, was still learning how sound film tells a story differently from silent film. In some ways, she learned fast. A scene in the dining room of the hotel, for instance, uses sound skilfully – ambient sound and scripted dialogue are intertwined convincingly to create mood as well as to carry information:
In other parts of the film, the scripted dialogue is laboured: the actors never declaim their lines theatrically, but they do often speak to the camera rather than to each other. They articulate every word carefully and pause after each statement giving it the aura of a pronouncement. They never speak across one another. This style is cumbersome and slows down the action.
There are still technical problems. There should be no need for those occasional intertitles, but they are included as if Paulette does not yet trust the soundtrack. She does not seem to realise that sound makes intertitles redundant.
By this third version of the film, all profits from earlier successes had been used up and costs were mounting without a return from the first two versions. The need for economy led to the re-use of some of the silent footage. Some shots could simply be re-used with a music track. These included long shots such as the car en routeto the hotel, medium shots such as Marsh opening his wall safe, and even some close-ups such as Marsh in his lair, counting his treasures.
Some shots used the new and risky technique of post-synchronisation, usually successfully. Some completely new scenes were shot with synchronised sound. Where these were intercut with silent footage, grading problems are noticeable.
Altogether, the technical quality of the sound version is patchy, the story feels dated, and the overall effect is disappointing. Maybe the complete film would have overcome some of these deficiencies, but we can only judge by what we can now see and hear of what survives in the NFSA. My judgment, with the inevitable hindsight, is that the sisters would have been better advised to release the original silent version, even into a limited market, and get on with learning about sound on their next production.
Instead, none of the three versions of The Cheaters received a general release, and the reputation of McDonagh Productions was tarnished in a world where directors and companies were judged entirely on the success of their latest film. The lives of the sisters were, in any case, starting to drift apart. The company made several short films, mainly on sporting themes, and in 1934 a final feature film – Two Minutes Silence. Though the team remained much the same, the whole spirit of this film was different. This was an adaptation (from Leslie Haylen’s stage success) instead of an original story. It was not set in Australia, but in London. And it was no longer a society melodrama, but a gritty social-realist depiction of war and suffering.
Unfortunately, only a few stills survive from which to judge its success, but critics and audiences were mainly kind.
After this, the lives and careers of the sisters diverged, and McDonagh Productions went into recess. Their reputation, however, has survived, resting mainly on the films that can still be viewed in the NFSA – particularly that substantial part of The Far Paradise, and a probably complete silent version of The Cheaters. The whole story provides an object lesson on the shift of Australian silent film production into sound – the hard way! Hats off to those three brave, resourceful, imaginative, and creative women – the McDonagh sisters …
[i] For more information see Ina Bertrand,‘The Cheaters (1930)’, Metro, no. 206, October 2020, pp.114-123.