This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986
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McDONAGH SISTERS: Isabella Mercia (1899-1982), Phyllis Glory (1900-1978) and Paulette De Vere (1901-1978), film-makers, were born on 3 January 1899, 7 January 1900 and 11 June 1901 at Macquarie Street, Sydney, the eldest of seven children of Dublin-born John Michael McDonagh, medical practitioner, and his Sydney-born wife Annie Jane (Anita), née Amora. They were educated as weekly boarders at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, Elizabeth Bay. Isabel worked as a nurse in her father's hospital at College Street, founded a photographic parlour with Rennie Pardon and modelled for Thea Proctor.
As the daughters of the honorary surgeon to J. C. Williamson's theatrical companies they grew up familiar with show business circles, and showed an early interest in film. Known professionally as 'Marie Lorraine', Isabel made her first acting appearances in Joe, and Painted Daughters, two films made in 1925. That year Paulette worked as an extra on Arthur Shirley's The Mystery of a Hansom Cab. Next she attended a film-acting school run by P. J. Ramster whom she later hired to help with the sisters' first production. Paulette's talents proved superior to Ramster's and she learned more from her close study of Hollywood film-making devices. With cameraman Jack Fletcher she learned to use camera and editing techniques to build the emotional rhythms which she so admired in American films.
Together the McDonaghs made three silent feature films: Those Who Love (1926), The Far Paradise (1928) and The Cheaters (1930). Working in close collaboration, Paulette as director and Phyllis as production manager wrote scenarios which showed Isabel to great advantage. Providing a more interesting heroine than those found in most melodramas, they showed her breaking and entering, and cracking safes, as well as in a lover's arms. They were able, therefore, to give her more screen time than was usual. At a time when over-acting was still the norm, Isabel was praised for her natural and subdued performances achieved under Paulette's careful direction. Made on small budgets, these films were entertaining society melodramas of romance, sacrifice and parental opposition, set against an urban background: a contrast to the bush emphasis in contemporary Australian films. The sisters used the family's colonial home, Drummoyne House, and its antique and elaborate furnishings, to give their films great style at little expense.
The first two films earned great critical acclaim, and the press made much of the fact that Governor Sir Dudley de Chair was moved to tears at the première of Those Who Love. Yet The Cheaters proved a victim of the widespread enthusiasm for the new talkies. Just before its release in 1930 the sisters added some synchronized sound sequences. The result sadly disappointed them: even the tapping of an egg sounded like the 'Anvil Chorus'! The unsophisticated quality of the sound greatly detracted from the impressive script, performances and cinematography.
Despite the Depression, the sisters made several short sporting documentaries with financial backing from Standardtone Film Production Co., including Australia in the Swim with 'Boy' Charlton and the Olympic swimming team, (Sir) Donald Bradman in How I Play Cricket and Phar Lap in The Mighty Conqueror. Only the last survives. The McDonaghs' fourth and final feature, Two Minutes Silence (1933), was based on Les Haylen's stark anti-war play. In strong contrast to their early melodramas, its theme of serious social realism was praised by critics but failed to please audiences craving romance and comedy.
Meanwhile on 14 September 1932 at St Mary's Cathedral Isabel had married Charles Stewart (d.1955), a Scottish-born rubber broker who had served in the Australian Imperial Force. They went to London where her eldest child was born in 1933. She refused a contract offered by (Sir) Alexander Korda before returning to Sydney in 1935 to be near her family. In 1959 she and her three children played in Tennessee Williams's Orpheus Descending at the Ensemble Theatre and next year in Time Remembered. She returned to London in 1965 and, survived by her children, died there on 5 March 1982.
Phyllis also retired from film-making and became editor of New Zealand Truth. On 15 October 1941 at Wellington she married a salesman, Leo Francis Joseph O'Brien. She returned to Sydney as a freelance journalist and short-story writer and from 1960 worked as social editor on the North Shore Times. Survived by her husband, she died childless on 17 October 1978.
Paulette was less than eager to follow their example. In 1934 she worked without remuneration on a romantic epic based on the life of Rev. John Flynn. Unable to raise the necessary budget, Paulette found it difficult to carry on alone as an independent film maker. Her film career over, she continued to live with her younger sisters until 1940, when she moved to Kings Cross. She died in Sydney on 30 August 1978.
At the height of their careers, family ties and inexperience led the sisters to reject Hollywood offers. A decade later their work was all but forgotten until the rescreening in the early 1970s of prints of The Far Paradise and The Cheaters (now held in the National Film and Sound Archive). Shortly before her death Phyllis flew to Perth in August 1978 to receive on behalf of the sisters the Australian Film Institute's Raymond Longford award for their significant contribution to Australian film-making. Today the McDonagh sisters are remembered as 'the most talented of the late silent era film-makers in Australia' and the most courageous of the early talkies era.
Andrée Wright, 'McDonagh, Isabella Mercia (1899–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcdonagh-isabella-mercia-7332/text12723, published in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 11 March 2014.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986