The Cheaters (1929)

Directed, written, and produced by Paulette McDonagh

In the 1920s, three Australian sisters shared a vision for the Australian film industry. They watched Hollywood films obsessively, and they craved the high glamour and society drama of what they saw. Whilst the Hollywood aesthetic dominated screens and beyond in Australia, the complete collapse of Australian filmmaking and exhibition was seemingly inevitable. The McDonaugh sisters, however, wanted to appropriate Hollywood formulas on their home soil. With two behind the camera and one on screen, these three sisters made their dream a reality, with some great successes.

The Cheaters had an interesting production history. The original silent version was completed in 1929, then vetoed by exhibitors due to silent film’s sudden and violent decline of public favour. It was subsequently remade in sound. The sound version was eventually exhibited in 1930, advertised as the first sound film made in Australia, but it does not survive today; the original silent version, the version that was never originally seen, is now the only version that remains. Like F. W. Murnau’s sublime 1930 film/s City Girl, it is only the never-seen-by-contemporary-audiences silent version that remains, like a snapshot in time and place, like a message in a bottle that was never read, a direct message from past to present untarnished – both new and old at once. It is an incredibly eerie and magical thing. I was lucky enough to view this film on the big screen at the opening night of the Melbourne Women in Film Festival this month, on 16mm, accompanied by a live band, which was a real treat.

The Cheaters tells the story of young woman Paula Marsh, played by Marie Lorraine (stage name for Isabella McDonagh), who works as a bait for her family’s elaborate theft schemes. Exquisitely dressed in furs, feathers and frills, the cupid’s bow-lipped beauty is a vision of Hollywood mimicry, sincerely emoting to the camera and knowingly winking to the audience in equal measure. In a predictable turn of events, a disguised Paula falls in love with a man who then becomes her target – and is caught red-handed, of course. Her lover is portrayed by a brooding, if bordering on menacing, Josef Bambach, and the respective older gentlemen of the story are portrayed in a decidedly silent-film-patriarchal-figure sort of way – judging by the audience’s reactions when I viewed the film, these supporting performances have not aged particularly well.

It has become a part of silent Hollywood lore that the least amount of title cards required to communicate a story to an audience, the better. The Cheaters was evidently not a participator in this exercise, presenting most of its information through long title cards. To be fair, there is a chunk of exposition required at the beginning of any silent film, and The Cheaters is no exception; however the labouring dialogue in particular was jarring. Unfortunately, the extent of the title cards interrupted the flow of the actors’ performances. My most overwhelming reaction to The Cheaters is that it was a silent film that wanted to be in sound. I’m glad that is what it eventually became.

Phyllis, Isabella, and Paulette McDonagh were a force to be reckoned with. In a time where women around the world had far more creative control in film than they do now, these three sisters took the reigns, and did some amazing things. The Cheaters, like all films are, is not just a film. It is a historical document, one which speaks to a moment in Australian culture and its relationship to an art form that time simply forgot. The shot picturing Bambach seated in front of a view of the Sydney Harbour puts this moment into perspective perfectly. Here’s why. In the background is the Sydney Harbour Bridge itself mid-construction. It is a beautiful moment in time. Did the filmmakers fully grasp the importance of what they were capturing? Perhaps so, because the wonderful moment of inertia was indeed captured and framed by the camerawoman. And so we are reminded that Australia was not born, it was not pre-destined, it was made, created, built.

The twist in The Cheaters‘ plot is amusing, as it is when a character in a soap opera is revealed to be another’s long lost child, switched at birth. It may be more The Bold and the Beautiful than The Crowd, but it is an extremely charming and visually satisfying ride – made all the more sweet for knowing that a team of women drove it from beginning to end. From that joy comes melancholy, however, as one cannot help but wish for that creative control for women in the present day. The Cheaters, and the McDonagh sisters, were in a way ahead of their time, but also, they were so of their time, a time of invention and possibility that may not ever happen again.

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