McDonagh, Paulette (c. 1901–1978)

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McDonagh, Paulette (c. 1901–1978)

Australian filmmaker . Born in Sydney, Australia, around 1901; died on October 11, 1978, in Sydney;one of seven children of Dr. J. McDonagh (a resident doctor for the J.C. Williams theater company); sister of Isobel McDonagh (c. 1899–1982) and Phyllis McDonagh (c. 1900–1978).


Those Who Love (1926); The Far Paradise (1928); The Cheaters (1930); Two Minutes' Silence (1933).

Paulette McDonagh, the first woman to write and direct silent films for the commercial cinema in Australia, was born around 1901 in Sydney and educated there. She was an avid moviegoer and was particularly intrigued with films exported from Hollywood. With no other option open to her, McDonagh taught herself to direct by viewing the same movie over and over. After a short stint at P.J. Ramster's acting school, McDonagh decided to make a movie. She wrote several drafts of her first script, Those Who Love, then hired her former teacher, P.J. Ramster, to direct it. When he proved unsatisfactory, McDonagh finished directing the project herself.

Produced in 1926, Those Who Love is a romantic melodrama, typical of the era, about a daughter who gets revenge on her dying mother's unfaithful paramour. The movie was shot in the McDonagh family home, and Paulette recruited her sister Phyllis McDonagh to serve as producer and her eldest sister Isobel McDonagh to star. Isobel, working under the stage name Marie Lorraine, had an established acting career, having appeared in Beaumont Studios' Joe (1924) and another film titled Painted Daughter (1925). Despite its melodramatic plot, the few extant scenes of Those Who Love clearly establish McDonagh as a talented director with a sense of realism rarely seen in silent movies, particularly those made by Australians.

In 1928, the McDonagh Sisters, as they were known, resumed their previous roles to make The Far Paradise, another melodrama similar in tone and story to Those Who Love. A box-office success, the movie established the threesome as popular and unique filmmakers, and emboldened them to take on more risky material. Naturalistic in style, their next film, The Cheaters, was a radical departure from melodrama. Fans of the McDonaghs were nonplussed by the story of a woman safecracker, and the premiere was a disaster. Even so, critics greeted the film with good reviews.

The McDonaghs' next film was also the last Paulette ever directed. Made in 1933, Two Minutes' Silence was a serious drama based on a play by Leslie Hayden. Decidedly antiwar in sentiment, it was a box-office disaster. Years later, McDonagh told Andree Wright : "We were fools to have made Two Minutes' Silence. The whole world would have eaten out of our hands if we'd made another romantic film. Two Minutes' Silence was too true." Because of the film's failure, McDonagh was unable to raise money to direct a planned picture about the Royal Flying Doctors' Service. Though she directed a series of documentaries, including a film about the legendary Australian race horse Phar Lap, she was never able to direct a commercial feature again. Film historians have often wondered whether her career would have continued to flourish had she left Australia.

Not long after the release of Two Minutes' Silence, Isobel married Charles Stewart and moved to London, where she would die nearly 50 years later on April 14, 1982. Phyllis McDonagh had a long career as a journalist and respected film critic. In August 1978, the McDonaghs were presented with the prestigious Langford Award from the Australian Film Institute. Paulette McDonagh died in Sydney two months afterward on October 11, 1978. Her sister Phyllis died a few weeks later.


Foster, Gwendolyn. Women Film Directors: An International Bio-Critical Dictionary. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995.

Kuhn, Annette, and Susannah Radstone, eds. Women's Companion to International Film. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990.

McFarlane, Brian. Australian Cinema. NY: Columbia University Press, 1988.

Tulloch, John. Legends on the Screen in Narrative Film in Australia 1919–1929. Sydney: Currency Press, 1981.

Wright, Andree. Brilliant Careers. Sydney: Pan Books, 1986.

Deborah Jones , Studio City, California

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McDonagh, Paulette (c. 1901–1978)

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