Though Margaret Rutherford was a real-life dame, given the British Dame-Capital-D title (DBE) in 1967, to fans she is best remembered and well-loved as Agatha Christie’s super sleuth dame Miss Marple. (Personally, I most cherish her role as a fantastic Madame Arcati in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit.)
During her heyday, Margaret was a familiar, and a wee bit unconventional, face on stage, screen and television. Starting out as a pianist and elocution teacher, Rutherford took up acting relatively late in life, making her stage debut at age 33 in 1925. While her age, “spaniel jowls” and husky frame prevented her from assaying romantic leads, the very attributes that kept her from playing debutantes helped make her a beloved comedy staple for decades. (Kenneth Tynan wrote, “The unique thing about Margaret Rutherford is that she can act with her chin alone.”) Though Margaret wrote in her autobiography, “I never intended to play for laughs. I am always surprised that the audience thinks me funny at all”, she had a knack for always making eccentricity more loveable than annoying.
Rutherford made her first big splash with critics and the audience with her performance as Miss Prism in John Gielgud’s 1939 production of The Importance of Being Earnest at the Globe. She was a big success in a role at the opposite end of the spectrum, when she played an ominous Mrs. Danvers on-stage in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca the following year. (Since the Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Rebecca is one of my favorites, I’d love to have seen how Margaret’s version differed from Judith Anderson’s sinister impassivity.)
In 1941 Noël Coward wrote and directed his comedy Blithe Spirit, with Margaret scoring rave reviews for her bulky bohemian medium Madame Arcati, a role which Coward created with Rutherford in mind. The play was a hit in London and then on Broadway. Although she made her film debut in 1936, it was her turn as Madame Arcati in David Lean‘s 1945 film version of Blithe Spirit that solidified her screen presence. According to Wikipedia, “Her jaunty performance, cycling about the Kent countryside, head held high, back straight, and cape fluttering behind her, established the model for portraying that role thereafter.”
After the war she returned to The Importance of Being Earnest, first playing Miss Prism again in 1946, and then Lady Bracknell when the play crossed the Atlantic to Broadway. (Happily, her Miss Prism is immortalized in the 1952 film version of Wilde’s play.)
One of the most striking and touching aspects of Margaret Rutherford’s life was her relationship with her husband Stringer Davis. They courted for 15 years (!), postponing marriage because Stringer’s mother didn’t approve. (Paging Dr. Freud, paging Dr. Freud.) They finally married in 1945 after Davis’s mom died. By the time they reached the altar, Rutherford was 53 and her husband was 46. By all accounts Margaret’s younger husband absolutely adored his wife, seldom leaving her side, joining her onstage in many of her theatrical and film productions. Stringer acted as the actress’s private secretary and all-around gofer, but he was no milquetoast lackey. Her husband nursed and comforted her through her frequent bouts of debilitating depression, which included stays at mental hospitals and electric shock therapy. Davis joined her on stage and in films, including the Miss Marple movies. Margaret’s husband was deeeee-voted and loved her the way all women would love to be loved. One friend described his admiration: “For him she was not only a great talent but, above all, a beauty.” The man had the eye of the beholder thing down, and despite an unfortunate childhood (to put it mildly), Margaret was lucky in love.
Rutherford’s depression isn’t surprising when you learn about her family history. One month after her dad married her mother, a “nervous breakdown” got him committed to a “lunatic asylum.” Released under his family’s supervision, Margaret’s dad then murdered his dad by bludgeoning him to death with a chamber pot, and then slashed his own throat, not fatally, with a pocket knife. At the inquest William Rutherford Benn was certified insane and went back to his old insane asylum. He was discharged seven years later; he then dropped his surname and reunited with his wife. (Reunited with his wife? Was he that hard up? I mean, there were one or two red flags here and there.)
Our girl, born in 1892, was William and Florence’s only child. The family went to India for a bit, but when she was three-years-old Margaret was returned to England…after her pregnant mother hanged herself from a tree. Told that her father died of a broken heart, Margaret later learned he’d actually been re-admitted to “the looney bin” in 1903 and died there almost 20 years later. An anxious fear that she’d be affected by mental issues like those that plagued her parents dogged Rutherford her entire life – and likely influenced her deep depressions.
Soooo…it makes Margaret’s gift as a performer who brings audiences so much joy all the more incredible. “She had a quirky charisma that drew attention and had her innocently stealing any scene she appeared in, even in supporting roles”. She finally got a series of lead roles for which she is perhaps most famous – playing Miss Jane Marple in an early ‘60s series of four films very loosely based on Agatha Christie’s popular amateur detective. (Rutherford reprised the role of Miss Marple in a very brief, uncredited cameo in the 1965 film The Alphabet Murders.) It wasn’t just the films’ plots that diverged from Christie’s stories, the actual character is very different from the woman depicted in Ms. Christie’s stories. The movies shaped Miss Marple to play to Rutherford’s charm, and the films’ detective is much more eccentric and assertive than the one found in Christie’s texts. In the book Reflecting on Miss Marple, the authors (clearly fans – they wrote an effin’ book on Miss Marple, for God’s sake) complained that the movies added a “dotty element in the character” that undermined “the quietness and sharpness” that fans admired in the novels.
Agatha Christie felt the same way, at first. She was livid that the films strayed from her plots (or made them up entirely), and was cheesed that Rutherford played her beloved creation for laughs, weakening Miss Marple’s gravitas. But Christie eventually came around (no doubt the success of the films played a factor) and actually dedicated her 1963 novel, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, “To Margaret Rutherford in admiration”.
By the time the Marple movies came around, Rutherford was in her 70s, and earned the right to insist on wearing her own clothes in the films and that Stringer appear in the films with her (playing a kind of platonic beau, a role that likely mirrored their IRL relationship). As Wikipedia put it, “The Marple films capture something of the couple’s public personae as projected in the press at the time: their cozy domesticity, erratic housekeeping and almost childlike innocence and affection.”
Rutherford once again played to type as an idiosyncratic, destitute Duchess of Brighton in 1963’s all-star The V.I.P.s. Rutherford was the only comic relief among turgid storylines featuring Maggie Smith, Louis Jourdan, Rod Taylor, and the recently married Liz and Dick. Margaret won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress. At the time she set a record for the oldest woman to win an Oscar, and she remains the last born in the nineteenth century to win one.
Margaret retired from the stage and screen as she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, and as he had throughout their partnership together, Stringer devoted himself to caring for his wife until she died in 1972 at age 80. (Margaret’s husband died just a year later.) Acting legends, including Sir John Gielgud, Sir Ralph Richardson, and Dame Flora Robson attended Rutherford’s memorial Service of Thanksgiving at the Actors’ Church in Covent Garden, where 90-year-old Dame Sybil Thorndike praised her friend’s goodness on and off-stage, remembering she’d “never said anything horrid about anyone”.
Though Rutherford and her husband had no children of their own, in the 1950s they unofficially ‘adopted’ a young man in his 20s, writer Gordon Langley Hall. Later Gordon had sex reassignment surgery and became Dawn Langley Simmons, and she went on to write a biography of Rutherford in 1983. (Margaret wrote her own autobiography while Andy Merriman wrote the most recent, accessible bio.) Though I’m sure each book is filled with fascinating facts and wonderful anecdotes of her life as a thespian, I actually just want to dwell on the legacy she left on-screen.
I get such a kick out of watching Margaret as Madame Arcati, Miss Prism, Miss Marple, even her performance in the otherwise enervating The V.I.P.s. In all her roles, Margaret plays a woman oblivious to how others see her, or at least one immune to their judgement. She’s a woman comfortable in her own skin, savvy and self-reliant. Despite an appearance rated unorthodox by society, she merrily carries on, never complaining, never explaining, perfectly adept at attracting companions eager to share her company. I always found her funny, and as I age I find her so inspiring. “A Blithe Spirit” is inscribed on her memorial stone, and though it’s an obvious reference to the play, it fits the real-life woman who carried on despite all her life’s misfortunes and who gave so much pleasure to so many.