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Isabella, Phyllis and Pailette McDonagh

The McDonagh sisters were the first Australian women to direct, produce and write feature films.

Honour Roll

Isabel, Phyllis and Paulette were the eldest of seven children born in Macquarie Place, Sydney. Their father, John, had migrated to Australia from Ireland and married an Australian woman. He had a prestigious medical practice. The girls were educated at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Elizabeth Bay.

In 1925, Isabel made her acting debut as 'Marie Lorraine' in two films, Joe and Painted Daughters. That year, Paulette also worked as an extra on a movie and then attended a film-acting school run by P.J.Ramster. This was their first experience in an industry which they had been exposed to since their childhood. Owing to their father's interest in show business they had watched many Hollywood movies, studying every aspect of their production. Paulette also learned to use the camera and editing techniques from cameraman Jack Fletcher.

In 1926, they produced their first feature film, Those Who Love, written by Paulette. It was a social drama produced on a budget of 1000 pounds and filmed in ten days. Initially, Ramster was brought in to direct the film but none of the sisters were happy with his work so Paulette gradually assumed control. Isabel was the principal actress and Phyllis was the business manager, publicist and art director. It was filmed at the family's palatial home, Drummoyne House.

As their father was honorary surgeon to the J.C.Williamson Company, J.C.Williamson distributed this film and it premiered in Sydney in 1926 to much acclaim. The profits from their first success were put towards the second film, The Far Paradise. This was released in July 1928 and enjoyed a long run. Their third film, The Cheaters was initially produced as a silent film in 1929, however as talkies were becoming popular they went back in 1930 and added some talking scenes to try to improve its commercial potential. The film is a fine crime melodrama, which revealed the sisters' growing interest in the European expressionist techniques.

Their last feature film, Two Minutes Silence starred Isabel alongside professional stage actors who had to modify their methods for film. Adapted from a stage play it was an antiwar statement set in London on Armistice Day. Paulette considered it to be their best film although it received only a mediocre response from Australian audiences. It premiered in Sydney in 1934, however as it was the first Australian sound feature to deal with social issues it was generally not accepted.

They also made some sporting documentaries, Australia in the Swim featuring 'Boy' Charlton, How I Play Cricket with Sir Donald Bradman and The Mighty Conqueror about Phar Lap.

The sisters then dissolved their film-making partnership. In 1932, Isobel married a Scottish born rubber broker and they left for England until 1935. She acted on stage for a while in 1959 and in 1965 returned to England where she died in 1982. Phyllis went to New Zealand where she became a journalist and eventually editor of New Zealand Truth. She married a salesman in 1941 and returned to Sydney. In 1978, she attended the Australian Film Institute's awards where she accepted the Raymond Longford Award for the sisters' contribution to Australian film. She died a few months later. Paulette remained in Australia working in the film industry for a few years, however she did not have the finances to continue as an independent film maker. She lived with her younger sisters until 1940 and then moved to Kings Cross where she stayed until her death in 1978.

The McDonagh sisters were able to express themselves in film because of their financial and artistic independence. They were not forced to produce mainstream movies and were influenced by the best aspects of both American and European cinema. They avoided the typical Australian bush stories and concentrated on good acting and interesting urban storylines. They were forgotten for many years until two of their works were screened in the 1970s.