Margaret Rutherford was an Academy Award-winning British actress, who mesmerized the audience with her memorable performances both on stage and screen. She was given her mother’s surname because her father was a mental patient. Her aunt raised her in London where she developed an interest in acting while studying in school. She first took private acting lessons and then joined Old Vic School in London at the age of 33. Eventually, her stage career began, and she made her first appearance on West End at the age of 40. Her movie career started when she was 43 years old. Rutherford was never offered any romantic roles because of her bulky frame and pronounced jowls, but that did not come in the way of her popularity. Today, she is best remembered as Miss Marple in Agatha Christie’s detective series, ‘Murder She Said’, ‘Murder at the Gallop’, ‘Murder Ahoy’, and ‘Murder Most Foul’.
Childhood & Early Life
Margaret Taylor Rutherford was born in 1892 in Balham, South London, to William Benn and Florence Rutherford. Her father, who was a poet and journalist, had a history of nervous breakdowns and was confined to a lunatic asylum for the greater part of his life.
Soon after her birth, the family relocated to India, where she lived until the age of three. After her mother committed suicide, she was brought back to London to be raised by her mother’s sister Bessie Nicholson. She was told that his father had died of a broken heart.
Until the age of 12, Rutherford studied at Wimbledon High School. Thereafter, she moved to Raven's Croft School in Seaford, where she became interested in dramatics and began to participate in plays.
Upon graduating from school, she began her career as a piano and elocution teacher. Around this time, she also began to take private acting lessons, which to a large extent were financed by her aunt.
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Margaret Rutherford’s aunt Bessie Nicholson passed away in 1925, leaving behind a legacy for her niece. Rutherford used the money to enroll in the Old Vic School in London. In the same year, she debuted on stage with small walk-on roles.
In 1928, she became an understudy to Mabel Terry-Lewis at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith. Thereafter, she began to work with different repertory theatres, slowly establishing herself as a comedy artist.
In 1933, she made her first appearance at the West End. However, she was mostly ignored by the critics despite her obvious talent. Nonetheless, she continued to work on stage, appearing in plays like ‘The Master Builder’, ‘Harvey House’, ‘Tavern in the Town’, 'The Melody That Got Lost' and ‘Spring Meeting’.
In 1936, she debuted in films with ‘Dusty Ermine’, which was followed by ‘Talk of the Devil’ and ‘Troubled Waters’. Hereafter, she started focusing on her film career, in addition to appearing in several plays. Overall, she was part of 45 movies in her career.
Margaret Rutherford was first noticed in 1939 when she essayed the role of Miss Prism in the stage production of Oscar Wilde's ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ at the Globe Theatre. It was followed by ‘Rebecca’ (1940), in which she played Mrs. Danvers and received critical acclaim for her role.
Her depiction of Aunty Bijou in the film version of ‘Spring Meeting’ was widely appreciated in 1941. Concurrently, she continued working on stage and appeared as Madame Arcati in ‘Blithe Spirit’ at the Piccadilly Theatre. She later successfully reprised the role in its film version in 1945.
In 1944, Rutherford traveled to Belgium and France with Entertainments National Service Association. Three years later, she traveled to the USA, where she played Lady Bracknell in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ at the Royale Theatre, New York.
She reprised the role of Miss Prism in the film version of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ in 1952, earning great reviews for her performance. Thereafter, she travelled to Australia in 1957 for her film and stage projects.
In the 1960s, Rutherford appeared as Miss Jane Marple in four Agatha Christie films: ‘Murder, She Said’ (1961), ‘Murder at the Gallop’ (1963), ‘Murder Most Foul’ (1964) and ‘Murder Ahoy!’ (1964). Meanwhile in 1963, she appeared as The Duchess of Brighton in the film ‘The V.I.P.s’, a role that earned her several awards.
Her last stage performance was in the play ‘The Rival’ (1966), whereas her last film as an actress was ‘Arabella’ (1967). Her last film credit, however, was for ‘The Wacky World of Mother Goose’, in which she voice acted for the role of Mother Goose.
Margaret Rutherford is best known for her role of Miss Marple in Agatha Christie's murder series. In these films, the character that she depicted was of a bold and eccentric nature, which was a deviation from Christie’s original creation. Although Christie was not initially pleased with it, she later dedicated her book, ‘Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side’ to Rutherford.
Family & Personal Life
Margaret Rutherford married Stringer Davis in 1945 when she was 53 years old. Davis was a 46 years old ex-serviceman and character actor at that time. They unofficially adopted writer Gordon Langley Hall, who after a sex change operation became Dawn Langley Simmons.
Rutherford learned about her father’s mental condition at the age of 12, and she began to worry that she too might have inherited that malady. As a result, she often suffered from debilitating depression. In her later years, she was often hospitalized and had to undergo shock treatment.
Towards the end of her life, she became a patient of Alzheimer's disease. She died on May 22, 1972 at her home in Buckinghamshire and was interred at the graveyard of St. James Church.