Dame Margaret Taylor Rutherford, DBE (11 May 1892 – 22 May 1972) was an English character actress, who first came to prominence following World War II in the film adaptations of Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit, and Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. In 1963 she won the best supporting actress Oscar as The Duchess of Brighton in The VIPs.
Margaret Rutherford's father, William Rutherford Benn, suffered from mental illness. During his honeymoon he had a nervous breakdown and was confined to an asylum. He was eventually released on holiday and on 4 March 1883, he murdered his father, the Reverend Julius Benn, a Congregational church minister, by bludgeoning him to death with a chamberpot (Worcester Spode). Shortly afterwards, William tried to kill himself as well, by slashing his throat with a pocketknife. After the murder, William Benn was confined to the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Several years later he was released, reportedly cured of his mental affliction. He changed his surname to Rutherford, and returned to his wife, Ann (née Taylor).
Margaret Rutherford was born in 1892 in Balham, the only child of William Rutherford Benn and his second wife Florence, née Nicholson. Her father's brother Sir John Benn, 1st Baronet was a British politician, and her first cousin once removed is British politician Tony Benn. As an infant, Margaret Rutherford and her parents moved to India. She was returned to Britain when she was three to live with an aunt, a professional governess Bessie Nicholson, in Wimbledon, London, after her pregnant mother, Florence, committed suicide by hanging herself from a tree. Her father returned to England as well. His continued mental illness resulted in his being confined once more to Broadmoor in 1904.
Margaret Rutherford was educated at Wimbledon High School, and, from the age of about 13, at Raven's Croft School, a boarding school at Sutton Avenue, Seaford, where she is listed, aged 18, on the 1911 census.
Rutherford worked as a teacher of elocution and then went into acting later in life, making her stage debut at the Old Vic in 1925, aged 33. Her physical appearance was such that romantic heroines were out of the question, and she soon established her name in comedy, appearing in many of the most successful British plays and films. "I never intended to play for laughs. I am always surprised that the audience thinks me funny at all", Rutherford wrote in her autobiography. Rutherford made her first appearance in London's West End in 1933 but her talent was not recognised by the critics until her performance as Miss Prism in the play The Importance of Being Earnest at the Globe Theatre in 1939. In 1941 Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit opened on the London stage at the Piccadilly Theatre, with Coward himself directing. Rutherford played Madame Arcati, the bumbling medium, a role which Coward had earlier envisaged for her.
Rutherford had a distinguished theatrical career alongside her film successes. Totally against type, she played the sinister housekeeper Mrs Danvers in Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca at the Queen's Theatre in 1940. Her post-war theatre credits included Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest again at the Haymarket Theatre in 1946 and Lady Bracknell when the same play transferred to New York in 1947. She played an officious headmistress in The Happiest Days of Your Life at the Apollo Theatre in 1948 and such classical roles as Madame Desmortes in Ring Round the Moon (Globe Theatre, 1950), Lady Wishfort in The Way of the World (Lyric Hammersmith, 1953 and Saville Theatre, 1956) and Mrs Candour in The School for Scandal (Haymarket Theatre, 1962). Her final stage performance came in 1966 when she played Mrs Malaprop in The Rivals at the Haymarket Theatre, alongside Sir Ralph Richardson. Unfortunately, her declining health meant she had reluctantly to give up the role after a few weeks.
Although she made her film debut in 1936, it would be Rutherford's turn as Madame Arcati in David Lean's film of Blithe Spirit (1945) that would actually establish her screen success. This would become one of her most memorable performances, with her cycling about the Kent countryside, cape fluttering behind her. Interestingly, it would also establish the model for portraying that role forever thereafter. She was Nurse Carey in Miranda (1948) and Professor Hatton Jones in Passport to Pimlico (1949). She reprised her stage roles of the headmistress alongside Alastair Sim in The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950) and Miss Prism in Anthony Asquith's film adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest (1952).
More comedies followed, including Trouble in Store (1953) with Norman Wisdom, The Runaway Bus (1954) with Frankie Howerd and An Alligator Named Daisy (1955) with Donald Sinden and Diana Dors. Rutherford then rejoined Norman Wisdom in Just My Luck and co-starred in The Smallest Show on Earth with Virginia McKenna, Peter Sellers and Leslie Phillips (both 1957). She also joined a host of distinguished comedy stars, including Ian Carmichael and Peter Sellers, in the Boulting Brothers' satire I'm All Right Jack (1959).
In the early 1960s she became synonymous with Miss Jane Marple in a series of four films loosely based on the novels of Agatha Christie. Rutherford, then aged 70, insisted on wearing her own clothes for the part and having her husband appear alongside her. In 1963 Christie dedicated her novel The Mirror Crack'd : "To Margaret Rutherford in admiration". But Christie reportedly did not approve of the 1960s films as they portrayed Marple as a comedy character and were not faithful to the original plots. Rutherford reprised the role of Miss Marple very briefly for a 30 second uncredited cameo appearance in the 1965 film The Alphabet Murders.
In 1963 Rutherford won an Academy Award and Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actress for her performance as the absent-minded, impoverished, pill-popping Duchess of Brighton, the only light relief, in Terence Rattigan's The V.I.P.s, a film featuring a star-studded cast led by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. She appeared as Mistress Quickly in Orson Welles' film Chimes at Midnight (1965) and was directed by Charlie Chaplin in A Countess from Hong Kong (1967), starring Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren, which was one of her final films.
Rutherford was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1961 and a Dame Commander (DBE) in 1967.
Rutherford married character actor Stringer Davis in 1945 and the couple appeared in many productions together. They were happily together until Rutherford's death in 1972. Davis adored Rutherford, with one friend noting: "For him she was not only a great talent but, above all, a beauty." Davis rarely left her side. He was private secretary and general dogsbody – lugging bags, teapots, hot water bottles, teddy bears and nursing Rutherford through periods of depression. These illnesses, often involving stays in mental hospitals and electric shock treatment, were kept hidden from the press during Rutherford's life. In the 1950s, Rutherford and Davis unofficially adopted the writer Gordon Langley Hall, then in his twenties. Hall later had gender reassignment surgery and became Dawn Langley Simmons, under which name she wrote a biography of Rutherford in 1983.
Rutherford suffered from Alzheimer's disease at the end of her life and was unable to work. Davis cared for his wife devotedly at their Buckinghamshire home but she died on 22 May 1972, aged 80. Many of Britain's top actors, including John Gielgud, Robert Morley and Joyce Grenfell, paid tribute at a memorial service, where 90-year-old Sybil Thorndike praised her friend's enormous talent and recalled that Rutherford had "never said anything horrid about anyone".
Rutherford and Davis (who died in 1973) are interred at the graveyard of St. James's Church, Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire.
|1961||Murder, She Said||Miss Jane Marple|
|1963||Murder at the Gallop||Miss Jane Marple|
|1964||Murder Most Foul||Miss Jane Marple|
|1964||Murder Ahoy!||Miss Jane Marple|