Production Company: McDonagh Productions
Budget: n/a, low. According to film historian Graham Shirley, it was funded by Neville Macken, a retired wool grazier and family friend.
Locations: in and around Sydney, including eastern suburbs; some scenes in Melbourne; Australasian Films studio in Bondi Junction. The Ambassadors Cafe in the basement of Sydney's Strand Arcade and the Gowan Brae mansion in North Parramatta were featured locations.
Filmed: according to Shirley, initially a five week shoot, begun in June 1929, but with additional scenes filmed March 1930 in Melbourne using a sound-on-disc system.
Australian distributor: none
Australian release: June 1st 1930 premiere trade preview Roxy Theatre Parramatta. There were virtually no commercial screenings thereafter.
Rating: not rated.
35mm black and white silent, then part-talkie, using the "Standardtone" system
Running time: 6,000 feet (Oxford Australian Film)
NSFA VHS time: 1'30"38 (excluding added appended talkie sequence running c. 6.50")
Box office: virtually nil
The film was entered in the first Commonwealth Film competition, but failed to win a prize.
It was placed fourth, with Fellers winning third prize.
No prizes were allocated for first and second place. This was a substantial disappointment to the McDonagh sisters, who had rushed to upgrade the film from silent to part-talkie, with a disc-based soundtrack in time for the competition's deadline.
The film has been released on VHS by the National Film and Sound Archive. This has been available through the Australian library system, and copies derived from this source also circulate on DVD amongst collectors, the quality variable according to the tape used as source material.
The revised VHS release presents the film as a silent picture, with new music added, and with three scenes from the talkie version running c. 6'50" appended. The image is tinted in the silent/early talkie style.
An earlier release through the library system presented the film strictly as a silent untinted show. The later restored version with music, tinting and bonus 'talkie' footage is to be preferred. It is however more difficult to find.
For those who think that a few film clips are the way to see a feature film, the ASO has three here. Ozmovie cultists will head straight for the film, but in the interim, the notes on the site by film historian Graham Shirley are worth a read.
It would however seem to be a matter of some perversity that the film has never been released in a digital edition, and that collectors must therefore hunt out a VHS copy.
The film was initially shot in the middle of June 1929 as a silent film, by the three McDonagh sisters. Paulette directed, Phyllis was the art director, and Isabel starred under her stage name of Marie Lorraine.
Unfortunately, the McDonagh sisters couldn't find a distributor, and found competition from talkies a significant barrier for their silent film.
Accordingly they shot additional scenes in Melbourne in March 1930 using a sound-on-disc system, in time for entry for the first Commonwealth Film competition, which must have then seemed like the best way for them to recoup some of the production costs.
The talkie scenes included the heroine Paula sitting at a piano singing a song to her beloved Lee. A fancy-dress party sequence was also turned into a talkie component.
The talkie plans were complicated by C. Trevelyan, general manager of the Musicians' Union in Melbourne, announcing that the union would maintain its fight against "canned" music, and banning unemployed members of the union from taking work in a professional orchestra playing music for the film in a recording session (a ban which then extended to all work for all motion pictures).
The McDonaghs needed to complete their talkie version by the closing date for entries into the Commonwealth Prize on March 31st, and the result was that they planned only four "audible sequences" for the film.
Despite the embargo, some 200 musicians rolled up ready to participate in the recording session, and the revised show was completed in time to enter the awards. (This was the time of the Great Depression, with a particular impact on casual musicians).
2. The first talkie?
The film entered the Australian record books by claiming to be the first Australian "talkie".
Some give this honour to the Higgins/Fay film Fellers, which unlike The Cheaters received a commercial season in a theatre in Sydney in August 1930 - though this was a self-distribution effort by the film-makers. Others award the title to later films which contained fully synchronised soundtracks.
The McDonagh sisters actively promoted their film as the first Australian-made talkie, but it was incomplete, and the sound-on-disc system imperfect. The film failed to attract the interest of commercial distributors or exhibitors.
Both The Cheaters and Fellers were entered in the Commonwealth competition, with entries closing 31st March 1931.
The Cheaters did not win a prize, Fellers won third prize (no other prizes were awarded).
In summary regarding the first talkie claim:
The Cheaters was given a trade screen showing on the 1st June 1930 at the Roxy Theatre Parramatta, but there were few commercial screenings thereafter.
Fellers did get a commercial screening, because the film-makers four-walled the Theatre Royal in Sydney for a couple of weeks, and then only from 23rd August 1930.
As both films were ready for the Commonwealth competition by the end of March, it might be called a draw.
If the definition is the first invited trade and press partly synch talkie screening, then The Cheaters wins as the first Australian talkie.
If the definition is the first partly synch commercial season, then Fellers wins.
If the definition is the first fully talkie film given a theatrical release, then other later contenders emerge.
Since the sound systems used by both The Cheaters and Fellers were judged to be only partial in terms of scenes, and technically execrable by contemporaries, another winner might be A. R. Harwood's 1931 films Spur of the Moment and Isle of Intrigue - released in tandem - which just pipped - by a couple of weeks - F. W. Thring's Diggers into the theatres on 26th September 1931. Thring's film used a more competent - if still rough - sound system for the entire length of the film.
The only reason to know any of this is to win a pub quiz competition dedicated to useless and arcane information. Set the question correctly, and win.
According to Graham Shirley, citing a 1975 interview with projectionist Albert Wright, the sound-on-disc version was screened in the early 1930s, before then disappearing from public view.
While the silent version was the one that survived in the archives, the VHS release of the film by the NFSA did include three of the 'talkie' scenes that were later added to the film.
4. The Commonwealth Government Australian Film Competition:
The Commonwealth Government announced a competition to stimulate the development of the motion picture industry in Australia in 1930. Prizes offered were £5,000 for first prize, £2,500 for second, and £1,500 as third prize (and with other prizes in relation to best scenarios). The judging was conducted according to a definition of what constituted an Australian film, and according to a points scheme for quality, with judging by the Commonwealth Film Censorship Appeal Board.
The board advised the Acting Minister of Customs (Mr. Forde) that the films fell short, and that only the prize for third should be awarded to Fellers (the other films were rated in order of merit The Cheaters, Tiger Island and The Nation To-morrow).
There was an uproar in the press about the decision. The Perth Sunday Times on 15th June 1930 was typical of the agitation, including the claim that The Cheaters had been hard done by:
Wherever politics enters into business, it seems impossible to avoid confusion, neglect, and general foolishness. In the manner of conducting the competition to discover the head Australian-produced films we can see all this illustrated anew.
The competition has just ended with the amazing announcement that the Artaus Ltd, film, "Fellers," a part-sound effort, dealing with the story of the Light Horse in the Great War, had been adjudged the winner of the competition with the third prize-money as its reward. Why third prize money and not second prize money? Such a question could only be answered by officialdom or politicians. The plain citizen would be quite unable to achieve it.
Quite as amazing is the decision of the judges with regard to "The Cheaters," the talkie produced by the McDonagh Sisters which, in its luxurious settings, expert direction, competent cast, and complete synchronisation, constitutes a box-office attraction never previously attempted in Australia. Despite the thousands of pounds spent in the production, and the hard work put in by the plucky pioneer sisters, the Film Censorship Board has failed to award a prize. Again, the plain man, remembering that the purpose of this competition was to encourage the youthful film industry of the Commonwealth, will have difficulty in comprehending the judgment …
Particularly in regard to the McDonagh Sisters' production do we find the weakness in the competition. For settings, cast, expert direction, and synchronisation, a bare six points were awarded out of a possible 100. In contradistinction, 44 points were awarded for acting and 33 for story, a meagre six points were allowed for photography, and four points for continuity and titling, Now this scale is entirely disproportionate. It is obvious from it that the Film Censorship Appeal Board does not realise what are the elements that go to the making of a successful picture. In America where, when all is said and done, the moving picture industry has reached undreamt-of heights of development, a gold medal is awarded for the best direction of the year. Yet, in Australia, direction, which is all important in securing a successful and artistic production that shall be at the same time of a standard attractive for bookings, was brushed aside as immaterial …
Even more unjust is the treatment of the film of the McDonagh Sisters. Undoubtedly this is a fine effort, on which neither money nor ideas have been stinted. It is the first legitimate sound, synchronised and part-talkie Australia has produced, and it breaks new ground in this infant industry. The Film Censorship Appeal Board has attempted to damn it by not even admitting it to third prize-money…
If the Commonwealth authorities are really anxious to build up the moving picture industry in Australia, they have proceeded about the initial steps in an extraordinary fashion. Up to date, their efforts appear to be more designed to the diverting of the Commonwealth Government Film Prize towards balancing the Budget. (The full front page at Trove, here).
Despite the controversy and the protests, this was almost the final blow for the McDonagh sisters, who now had a film on their hands that couldn't attract distributors, and which as a part-talkie couldn't sell internationally against the quality talkie films then emerging from the United States (and changing the market forever).
After struggling to produce a number of films during the silent years, and having some success with their silent film Those Who Love, the McDonagh sisters would return one more time in 1933 with Two Minutes Silence, and then claim that as Australia's first genuine talkie (Australian Women's Weekly 21st April 1971).
The McDonagh sisters had been started on their way with a $2,000 gift from their father, a Sydney doctor, and when he suddenly died, they moved into Drummoyne House, a 22 room mansion with an underground passage that led to the water. Two wings were set aside for a convalescent home (their mother was a trained nurse), and the sisters used the rest of the house to live and film in.
"We packed our living quarters with father's treasures - great Venetian mirrors, large gold-framed oils, ornaments, furniture pieces, and tapestries.
The house, with its 40ft. hall and long, high-ceilinged reception-room, was a ready-made studio - and furnished with wonderful props." (Australian Womens Weekly April 21 1971)