In the opening scene of The Cheaters (1930) the three Fates sit spinning the ‘threads of destiny’ to set the emotional register for the film. Yet the 3 remarkable sisters who made the film in 1920s Australia were no victims of fortune. They took fate into their own hands, following their dream to make Hollywood-style movies themselves. 

This was their third feature, a dramatic tale of crime and revenge in which the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons – and daughters. Isabel McDonagh, eldest of the 3, was a beautiful and naturalistic actor, also known as Marie Lorraine. Paulette was the decisive one who wrote and directed, and Phyllis had the visual flair – she did the art direction and publicity for their productions. 

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In a time before women were barred or dissuaded from producing or directing, they were a tight-knit unit determined to make commercially competitive, quality features. As biographer Yvonne Dornan said: “They just wanted to do it and they did it.” 

Coming from a comfortable background in a theatrical milieu, the sisters became enamoured of the movies. Paulette would see a film matinee, then see it again later that day to study the structure, the shots and lighting that made up the finished film. And this attentiveness shows in their own work. The Cheaters is a very competently produced film, with professional camerawork, well designed sets, strong location work and good actors. The image is also nicely tinted, as was the fashion in the late 1920s. 

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The Cheaters (1930)

In the light of the success of their previous 2 films, The Cheaters was eagerly anticipated, but the timing of the release was difficult. As for many other producers in the transition to sound, over the course of 1929 to 1931, the McDonaghs couldn’t sell their silent film, as more and more cinemas were converted as ‘talkie’-only houses. Despite investing heavily in a recorded orchestral score, re-shoots and dialogue sequences, The Cheaters suffered from a botched preview screening, and then the passage of time. Distributors dropped it and it remained largely unseen.  

Over the decades most of the sound film and the original negatives were lost. The reels that eventually made it to the National Sound and Film Archive of Australia were a mixture of different prints, which made the task of restoration doubly difficult. Work overseen by Tara Marykowsky was done at Haghefilm Digitaal, where the badly scratched and in parts decomposed material was copied and scanned, with light restoration to compensate for irreparable damage. 

Some sections had to be in-filled with material from a 16mm print and then graded to match the 35mm source. The tinting was reproduced from the existing reels and is intercut with black-and-white footage, which is probably the result of the reels surviving from different prints with slightly different tinting schemes. There is some evidence of missing material and perhaps missing intertitles, but the underlying quality of the image is a testament to the high standard of the McDonaghs’ filmmaking. Location scenes are particularly vivid. 

Apart from the joy of seeing that very rare animal, a surviving silent film from Australia, not to mention one made by 3 women, my favourite aspect of The Cheaters is the central performance of Marie Lorraine. She plays the daughter of a vengeful criminal gang leader who is forced into a series of jewel thefts, struggling to go straight when the chance of love and a better life offers. Her co-star, Joseph Bambach – the Australian Valentino – doesn’t hurt to look at either. 

Isabel (Marie) and her sisters made one more film, Two Minutes Silence, in 1932, but it didn’t do well. Perhaps audiences struggling with the Great Depression in full swing wanted escapism not realism. The McDonaghs moved on to other things. Isabel’s sons, still living in London and regulars at BFI Southbank, will be watching when the restoration premieres at the LFF in October I hope.

Originally published: 15 September 2020