Born May 11, 1892 in London, England, Margaret Rutherford was the only child of William Rutherford Benn, a journalist and poet and his wife, Florence. Her parents were married in 1882. In 1883, her father murdered his father, a Congregational Church minister, was declared insane and admitted to Bethnal House Lunatic Asylum where he spent seven years. Released in 1890, he was reunited with his wife two years before his daughter was born, legally dropping Benn as his last name. After Margaret’s birth, they moved to India to start a new life. In 1895, Margaret’s pregnant mother committed suicide by hanging herself from a tree. Her father died of a broken heart soon after and three-year-old Margaret was returned to England where she was raised by a maiden aunt.
Contrary to popular folklore, Rutherford did not wait until she was in her 50s to become an actress. She began working as an actress at 33, which at the time (1925) was considered “late in life” but not as late as it would have been if she had waited until her 50s.
Rutherford met character actor Stringer Davis in 1930, whose marriage proposal she immediately accepted, but due to his mother’s dislike of her, postponed marriage until after the woman’s death in 1945. The two acted together in minor roles until Rutherford became something of a star as Miss Prism in John Gielgud’s 1939 production of The Importance of Being Earnest after which he played minor roles on stage and eventually in films in which she had more important roles.
Noel Coward’s 1941 production of Blithe Spirit made her a full-fledged star as Madame Arcati at 49. She lost the Broadway version to Mildred Natwick but became a world-wide sensation in David Lean’s 1945 film version at 53. She then took The Importance of Being Earnest to Broadway as Lady Bracknell, but was back playing Miss Prism in the 1952 film version with Edith Evans resuming her classic portrayal of Lady Bracknell.
A mainstay of British comedy films such as 1953’s Innocents in Paris, 1955’s An Alligator Named Daisy and 1959’s I’m All Right Jack, Rutherford achieved her greatest fame as Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple in four films in the early 1960s, beginning with 1961’s Murder She Said in which her husband, Stringer Davis, played the supporting role of Mr. Stringer, a character not in the Christie novels that was written just for him at Rutherford’s request.
In the midst of filming the Marple series, Rutherford took a break to play the impoverished duchess in 1963’s The V.I.P.s for which she won an Oscar. Following her involvement with the Miss Marple films, Rutherford was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1967 the year she made her last three films, most notably A Countess from Hong Kong in which she played a delightful cameo.
Rutherford was approached to appear in more films, but by this time she was suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s Disease. Her husband, Stringer Davis, nursed her at home until she died on May 22, 1972 at 80. Davis died two years later at 74.
BLITHE SPIRIT (1945), directed by David Lean
Rutherford became a star with her 1941 London stage portrayal of the eccentric British medium, Madame Arcati, written especially for her by Noel Coward, lost the role in the Broadway production to Mildred Natwick, but achieved international renown with her reemergence in the role under Lean’s direction in this beloved 1945 adaptation co-starring Rex Harrison, Constance Cummings and Kay Hammond. Subsequent Arcatis, in addition to Natwick, have included Ruth Gordon, Geraldine Page and Angela Lansbury who won her fifth Tony for her portrayal of her, but Rutherford’s indelible portrayal is to date the only one on screen.
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST (1952), directed by Anthony Asquith
Rutherford made a big impression as Miss Prism in John Gielgud’s 1939 London production with Edith Evans as the definitive Lady Bracknell, then after Blithe Spirit made her a star, played Lady Brackenell on Broadway before resuming her career as other beloved eccentrics in British film. She returned to Miss Prism with Evans recreating her classic portrayal of Lady Bracknell in this classic 1952 film starring Michael Redgrave and Michael Denison as the two men who call themselves Ernest, even though one of them is really named Algernon. Joan Greenwood and Dorothy Tutin co-starred.
MURDER SHE SAID (1961), directed by George Pollock
The first of four films she made as Agatha Christie’s beloved Miss Marple, this one ran and ran until 1963’s Murder at the Gallop opened. Based on Christie’s 4:50 to Paddington aka What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw, titles under which it was later filmed for TV, this version had Marple doing more than observing as she takes on the role of a spying maid relegated to another character in the novel. Her husband, Stringer Davis, played a role not in the novel or other interpretations of it, created for him at Rutherford’s insistence. Purists be damned, everyone including Christie loved it.
THE V.I.P.s (1963), directed by Anthony Asquith
Rutherford joined the all-star cast of Asquith’s film, with a screenplay by Terence Rattigan, centering on a group of passengers headed to New York form London, stranded at Heathrow Airport as they wait out a storm. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were the nominal stars with Louis Jourdan, Elsa Martinelli and Orson Welles in prominent supporting roles, but it was Rutherford and the emerging Maggie Smith who stole the film, Smith as a secretary in love with her boss (Rod Taylor) and Rutherford as an impoverished duchess with all the funny lines, insuring her a well-deserved Oscar.
A COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG (1967), directed by Charles Chaplin
Chaplin’s last film, his only one in color, was also one of Rutherford’s last. Before Alzheimer’s claimed what was left of her, she gave another great account of herself as the improbably named Miss Gaulswallow in a cameo as an old lady mistaken for Sophia Loren that left audiences in fits of laughter. The film itself was a showcase for Loren, but suffered from Marlon Brando’s miscasting in a role better suited to Cary Grant. The best thing about it was Chaplin’s beautiful score, the theme of which was set to lyrics as “This Is My Song”, providing Petula Clark with one of her biggest hits.
MARGARET RUTHERFORD AND OSCAR
- The V.I.P.s (1963) – Oscar – Best Supporting Actress