Since audiences first fell for the flickering light on a cinema screen, the "flicks" have held an enduring appeal with the general public returning to hard-top cinemas despite the industry-disruptive influences of radio, then television, video, cable and now streaming services.
Paulette McDonagh's 1929 silent The Cheaters is something of a lost Australian classic that, now recently digitally restored by the National Film and Sound Archive under its "NFSA Restores" banner, screens Sunday January 14 at 3pm at the NFSA in Canberra.
The film is a jazz-and-flapper-era Sydney-set tale of a convicted embezzler (Arthur Greenaway) who sets his daughter (Marie Lorraine) up as a society figure to better help them rob the wealthy, and it is notable as much for the trio of talented sisters who made it as for their woefully unfortunate timing in producing it as a silent film just as the industry-disruption of "the talkies" arrived.
Men, as ever, get an unhealthy share of the history of Australian film, but the McDonagh sisters –director Paulette, artist/producer Phyllis and actress Isabel (mysteriously billing herself in The Cheaters as the abovementioned Marie Lorraine) – were a brilliant and driven force, equal parts artistically and business minded, working on both feature films and documentary shorts in the final years of the silent era and the cross-over to sound.
Growing up in Sydney's Rose Bay, their family home Drummoyne House served as the backdrop to their family-funded first feature film Those Who Love (1926), which was both critically and commercially successful, returning double its budget and allowing them to produce The Far Paradise (1928) and The Cheaters (1929).
The sisters were sensibly thinking of an international market for their films, with sister Phyllis recalling for a 1971 issue of The Australian Women's Weekly their approach.
"In those days," she said, "every Australian-made film made us out to be bushwackers, on the 'Dad and Dave' theme. The three of us talked and decided if Australia was going to compete overseas we'd have to meet overseas standards."
The Cheaters is a visually-beautiful piece of work, the McDonaghs sharing a wonderful sense of aesthetic and fashion, however evidence points to the film never quite finding an audience, hitting cinemas in 1929 against the novelty of the new "talkies" from America. Like other filmmakers from the era, the sisters tried to rework the film for the new talkie market, adding a partial dialogue soundtrack and re-releasing it in 1930, then giving it a full soundtrack for another attempt in 1931. Despite their efforts, the film disappeared, taking with it much of the momentum from the promising careers of the McDonaghs.
Not only did technology make their film unfashionable, actual fashions of the day changed so rapidly that the couture on-screen made the film dated before it hit the screen.
Fashion was a major part of the film business in the 1920s and remains so today, and placing the right dress on the right actor meant big sales so for Hollywood studios, couture houses often supplied dresses while leading designers were offered costume department positions.
Australian filmmakers weren't so fortunate, and the beautiful flapper-style sequined rainbow-hued gown Isabel wears in the film was loaned from her old school pal, Kathleen Coen - then living in Yass.
The height of fashion when Coen purchased it on a trip to Paris in 1925, the dress helped to unfashionably date the film by the time it was used as a costume four years later.
In a 1934 article for Truth, Paulette McDonagh wrote that "by that time dame fashion was lifting an ironical eye-brow at brevity in skirts! Our film was hopelessly out of date."
"The dress is a masterpiece of 1920s couture," says NFSA curator Jenny Gall. It was donated to the NFSA by Sydney author Meg Stewart, Kathleen's great-niece. It can currently be seen on display as part of the National Portrait Gallery's exhibition Starstruck: Australian Movie Portraits.
"Without the help of loans and donations from friends and relatives all the performers in The Cheaters would have been naked," Gall says, "because then as now the Australian film industry is built on that generosity."
The restoration of The Cheaters has been a painstaking process with NFSA staff, along with film restoration partner Haghefilm Digitaal, working from an original nitrate 35mm film print acquired in the early 1980s and using a later 16mm print to "patch" missing or damaged scenes.
"When I first looked at the 35mm nitrate print I was met with dirty fat thumbprints left behind from film processing, clunky splices, scratches, spots, gunk and a few missing frames," says NFSA curator Tara Marynowsky who supervised the restoration.
"Also the quality of each film reel varied significantly, suggesting that the four-reel feature NFSA owns was possibly cobbled together from completely different prints before finding their way to our collection."
While the newly digitised restored film enjoys a cleaner and crisper picture and a consistency of image quality, a number of scratches and spots remain.
"The question we ask ourselves when managing a digital restoration is 'How far do you go?'," Marynowsky says.
"We aim to return the image to a condition as close as possible to the original without changing it, so defects are only removed if they did not compromise the original image."
Bringing the silent film musically to life is local composer and musician Joe Dolezal who will be performing his new original score live at the January 14 screening.
This is the second collaboration with the National Film and Sound Archive for Dolezal, who studied jazz and composition at ANU School of Music, and has spent his summer working on the project.
"I like interacting through music and with a project like this, the film music is an interaction between the musicians and the film," Dolezal says.
With the film set in the late 1920s – a mid-construction Sydney Harbour Bridge serves as the film's occasional background - Dolezal says he and his ANU School of Music colleague Miroslav Bukovsky have been looking at building a gypsy jazz sound that was popular in Sydney just after the film's cinema release.
Bukovsky's trumpet will be joining Joe Dolezal's guitar-playing for the screening, with contributions from local artists Malcolm Newland on vibraphone and James Luke on bass.
Dolezal says he has enjoyed immersing himself in music from the 1920s and 30s for the score and has fallen for the McDonaghs' film.
"The film's charm is that it is so ambitious," he says. "It is magical, and beautiful like a Hollywood film."
NFSA Restores: The Cheaters screens Sunday 14 January, 3pm, at Arc Cinema at National Film and Sound Archive, McCoy Cct, Acton. Tickets $15/$13 available at nfsa.gov.au/events
Starstruck: Australian Movie Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery, King Edward Tce. Tickets $12/$10 available at http://starstruck.gov.au/booktickets
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