Silver Screen Standards: Margaret Rutherford
The 2018 documentary, Truly Miss Marple – The Curious Case of Margaret Rutherford, is currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime, so this is a perfect time to learn more about the iconic character actor and revisit some of her most memorable roles. Agatha Christie fans, of course, know her as the original film incarnation of the lovable busybody Miss Marple, but Margaret Rutherford also made an impression with her portrayals of other quirky characters, eventually winning an Oscar for her performance as the Duchess of Brighton in The V.I.P.s (1963). Although Rutherford came to acting rather late in life and never possessed the glamorous beauty of traditional leading ladies, she deserves a place of honor among the many great character actors of classic cinema because she always delights and amuses with her distinctive screen presence.
As one might expect from the title, Truly Miss Marple focuses primarily on Rutherford’s embodiment of the spinster sleuth first introduced by Agatha Christie in a short story in 1927, a role that has since been played by Angela Lansbury, Helen Hayes, Joan Hickson, Geraldine McEwan, and Julia McKenzie. Rutherford, despite being quite different from Christie’s vision of the character, had the advantage of being the first actor to play Miss Marple on screen, starting with Murder, She Said in 1961. Three more Miss Marple films followed: Murder at the Gallop (1963), Murder Most Foul (1964), and Murder Ahoy (1964). While Agatha Christie was not thrilled with the light, comical turn of the pictures, she liked Rutherford enough to dedicate one of the Miss Marple novels, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962), to the performer. Like the various screen versions of Philip Marlowe, Sherlock Holmes, and Hercule Poirot, every Miss Marple is different and has her devotees, but Rutherford’s Marple pictures are great fun even if they stray far afield from their source material. Along as the sleuth’s sidekick in each movie is Rutherford’s real life husband, Stringer Davis, and the oddball chemistry between the two companions is part of the films’ appeal.
Rutherford, however, was much more than Miss Marple, with a career that spanned thirty years and over 50 film and television appearances, not including her extensive work in live theater. Born in 1892, Rutherford became a stage actor at 33 and was already 44 years old when she made her screen debut in 1936. She played a number of small roles in various British pictures but got her first really memorable part in the 1945 film adaptation of Noel Coward’s play, Blithe Spirit, in which Rutherford reprised her role as Madame Arcati from the stage production.
Stage play adaptations continued to be fertile ground for Rutherford, who went on to play not one but two different characters in different adaptations of The Importance of Being Earnest; she appeared as the indomitable Lady Bracknell in a 1946 TV movie but really made a mark with her portrayal of the flighty Miss Prism in the 1952 film version directed by Anthony Asquith. In 1950 she also reprised her stage role from The Happiest Days of Your Life for the film adaptation co-starring Alastair Sim. Other notable film roles include Mistress Quickly in Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight (1965) and, of course, her Oscar-winning turn as the Duchess of Brighton in The V.I.P.s (1963), but I’m personally quite fond of her performance as Nurse Carey in the delightfully odd mermaid comedy, Miranda (1948), and its sequel, Mad About Men (1954).
Rutherford’s real life was as unconventional as her film characters, although it was tinged with early tragedies that affected her deeply. Her father murdered his own father in a fit of insanity, her mother committed suicide while living in India, and Margaret was told that her father had died when in fact he had ended up being committed again to a psychiatric hospital. Rutherford herself suffered from depression and anxiety and eventually succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease; her devoted husband, Stringer Davis, died within a year of her own passing. Truly Miss Marple delves into these darker elements of Rutherford’s life and provides interviews with some of Rutherford’s friends, making it a very intimate source for insights on her personal history. If you’re already familiar with the most notable of Rutherford’s film roles, the documentary is an excellent way to learn more about her, but if you haven’t actually seen Margaret Rutherford in action then start with Blithe Spirit, The Importance of Being Earnest, and Murder, She Said to get a sense of her legacy before diving into the details of her biography.
–Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub
Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.
Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.