Isabel, Phyllis, and Paulette McDonagh were sisters, business partners, and creative collaborators who made films in Sydney, Australia, in the 1920s and 1930s. Isabel, the eldest, was the actress and star of all their films under the name Marie Lorraine. Phyllis took on the role of art director, publicist, and producer. Paulette, the youngest of the three, was the writer and director of all their films. The sisters grew up in Drummoyne in Sydney. Drummoyne House, the grand family home, was filled with antique furniture and became the movie set and backdrop for their films.
The McDonagh Sisters’ first film Those Who Love (1926) was funded by family money.
Being their first foray into the filmmaking business, the sisters engaged the services of P. J. Ramster, who ran an acting school in Sydney. After creative differences with Ramster, Paulette took over the reins of directing the screenplay which she had written. The risk paid off, and the release of the film was triumphant. Those Who Loved received rave reviews in 1926 from the publication Everyone’s, which declared that “The result is a dazzling triumph and which is said to be the best Australian film that has yet graced the screen”. Everyone’s was positive again commenting about Isabel’s performance: “A Sydney girl whose histrionic ability is remarkable. Her splendid performance ranks with some of the best characterisations ever given to the screen by the world’s greatest stars”. Those Who Love was a box office hit, earning more money in the Australian domestic market than the Charlie Chaplin film that year, The Gold Rush.
As the result of this success, the sisters were able to finance their next feature The Far Paradise(1928). According to Smith’s Weekly, “The Far Paradise has a smoothness and finish rare in Australian Films”. The Far Paradise was also a box office hit, but the distribution arrangement meant that the money didn’t go to the McDonagh Sisters. The Cheaters (1930) was the next film up for production. The sisters were summoned to the offices of Frank Thring, Sr., managing director of Hoyts Theatres, who offered them a lucrative distribution and exhibition deal, but the sisters declined the offer and later lived to regret the decision.
The sisters persevered with another film Two Minutes Silence (1933), an antiwar film, a move away from their typical romantic melodramas. Sadly, this picture was a failure at the box office, and the sisters never made a film together again. It would be over 40 years before another Australian woman directed a film; Gillian Armstrong, with My Brilliant Career in 1979.