Sunday 11 October 2020

The Cheaters (Paulette McDonagh, 1930)

Sydney's pioneering McDonagh sisters made several self-funded films, including Those Who Love and The Far Paradise.  Their third silent festure, The Cheaters, was filmed in 1929 and released the following year, when the McDonaghs filmed some additional scenes in an effort to convert the film into a partial talkie using an improvised sound recoding device; sadly, the makeshift system, however ingenious, didn't achieve the desired results, and the film worked better as a silent feature—although it still underperformed on its limited domestic release, with a deluge of American sound films brushing it aside.  The film has now been lovingly restored by Australia's National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA), with this new print of the film (in its original silent version) enjoying some outings at festivals including Melbourne and Sydney; it screens at the London Film Festival from today until Wednesday.

The Cheaters finds Paulette McDonagh in the role of writer-director, while Phyllis McDonagh serves as the film's art director.  Isabella McDonagh, under her stage name Marie Lorraine, stars as Paula Marsh, whose father is a career criminal bent on taking revenge on the man who once shopped him for embezzling from his employer.  Paula is part of her father's operation and is involved in scams such as the theft of an expensive necklace, which is depicted in an early, entertaining sequence.  Business is good for the Marsh family, but the situation grows more complicated when Paula falls in love with the son of the man her father's aiming to take down.  While Paula would very much like to leave her life of crime behind and marry the man of her dreams, her father wants her to take part in one last heist—and we all know how those tend to work out.  What could possibly go wrong?

Although The Cheaters starts out strongly—the aforementioned scene in which the Marsh gang swindle a jeweller out of a pricey item really is great stuff—it soon runs out of steam as Paula's love life takes precedence over her criminal activities, and what promised to be a fun caper film soon gets bogged down by an unappealing love story.  While silent movies were always at an obvious disadvantage and often had to concentrate on quickly driving the plot forward, usually at the expense of nuanced storytelling, The Cheaters finds itself in the strange position where it slows down the pace, but then proceeds to do very little with the time and space it has carved out; the result stretches the already-thin topic of Paula's romance to breaking point.  It's a pity the film judders to a halt like this, as it really does come roaring out of the traps, and the setup is extremely promising.  Given the time in which the film was made, there was only going to be one outcome for the villain of the piece (Paula's father), which makes for a conclusion that may well prove unsatisfying for present-day audiences.  On a more positive note, the production values are excellent, as is the use of locations.

To criticise The Cheaters for its long, dull stretch may be to miss the point of this release, which is to show off a sparkling new print of a film that, like Chess of the Wind, could very easily have been lost to the sands of time.  It is estimated that up to 90% of silent films are gone, so the survival of The Cheaters is something to be celebrated.  Since its inception five years ago, the NFSA's restoration program has seen more than 20 Australian classics—ranging from silent movies to films from the early 1990s—preserved and restored before being re-released in cinemas.  The Cheaters may not be the best example of silent cinema, but we should all be extremely grateful for the chance to see it. 

Darren Arnold