A life in pictures: Margaret Rutherford

James Oliver 

Margaret Rutherford will always be known as the harmless battleaxe of black and white British cinema. Not only was she one of the great performers of her age, but also one of the most loved. Film buff James Oliver takes us on a journey through her career in pictures. 

Repelling boarders 

Margaret Rutherford wasn't just one of the best British actresses of the last century or so, she was probably the most popular.

No-one could play the slightly eccentric old woman as well as this glorious comedienne and her performances remain one of the purest delights in cinema.


Putting the wind up Celia Johnson

Celia Johnson
As the terrifying Mrs Danvers, putting the wind up poor Celia Johnson in the stage adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca

She was, though, something of a late bloomer—opportunity didn't knock until she was in nearly fifty. She'd been born in 1892 and raised by an aunt who indulged her desire to become an actress.

Producers felt she lacked the looks to become a leading lady but she developed a valuable reputation as a character player on stage, most often in roles very different to the eccentrics she'd later specialise in, as the above photograph demonstrates all too clearly.


On stage with Kay Hammond and Fay Compton

If she wasn't a star, though, she didn't lack for admirers. One of those was the infamous theatrical aristocrat Noel Coward, who wrote the part of the scatty medium Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit just for her.

It was a role she recreated for David Lean's film, which finally launched her on screen.


In a frown off with Alastair Sim

with Stringer Davis
Pictured in The Happiest Days of your Life

Filmmakers and audiences loved her but Rutherford chose her roles with care.

She nursed a mermaid in Miranda, dived into the archives as the dotty historian in the delightful Passport to Pimlico and was surely the only choice to play Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Ernest.

Best of all was The Happiest Days of Your Life, in which she plays the headmistress of a girl's school which is merged with an establishment for boys led by Alastair Sim.

The results are every bit as good as you expect the meeting of two of the world's very greatest comic actors to be, a veritable masterclass in how to make funny.


With her husband, Stringer Davis

with stringer
Appearing together in Murder Ahoy

Margaret Rutherford met James Buckley Stringer Davis—known to one and all as Stringer Davis—in 1930 and they began a relationship soon after.

They did not marry, though, until 1945: not because they held progressive views on cohabitation or because either was already encumbered with a partner but because his mother did not approve of a union between her son and his beloved.

So they had to wait until she was out of the way before they could tie the knot but when they did, it was a famously happy marriage.


With Agatha Christie

These days, Margaret Rutherford is probably best remembered for her performances as Miss Marple, in a series of films adapted from Agatha Christie's novels.

Although Margaret Rutherford was not quite the character Dame Agatha described, she was impressed enough to dedicate her novel The Mirror Crack'd From Side to Side to Rutherford, 'In Admiration'.

Read more: 6 Enduring Agatha Christie adaptations


A poster for Murder Ahoy

Murder Ahoy
Image via Movie Poster

As this poster makes clear, the Miss Marple films in which Margaret Rutherford starred were a touch on the broad side, with the old gal getting into all sorts of scrapes that Agatha Christie never got around to recording.

If you watch Murder at the Gallop, you'll even get to see her jiving with Stringer Davis (who appears in the series as her sidekick 'Mr. Stringer').

Incidentally, note that this illustration shows Miss Marple holding an Oscar—the Best Supporting Actress Oscar Rutherford won for her turn as a daffy duchess in the all-star jet-set flick The VIPs, in which she upstaged Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor AND Orson Welles.

Read more: Orson Welles's life in pictures


Making Jeanne Moreau chuckle

Talking of Orson Welles, he must have been impressed by her performance in The VIPs because he cast her in Chimes at Midnight, his compendium of Shakespeare's history plays.

She took the role of Mistress Quickly, proprietress of Falstaff's favourite watering hole, The Boar's Head.


Sophia Loren, Charlie Chaplin and a REAL legend

sophia loren
Image via BFI

It says something about Margaret Rutherford's reputation that no less than Charlie Chaplin hired her for what would prove to be his final film, A Countess From Hong Kong, opposite Marlon Brandon and Sophia Loren. It says much about her talent that he let her upstage them.

A Countess From Hong Kong would, sadly, prove to be her penultimate film; she was not well and soon the cause was diagnosed. It was Alzheimer's and she would die in 1972, aged 80, nursed to the end by the ever-loyal Stringer Davis, who died just a year later.

Read more: Charlie Chaplin's life in pictures


The lovers


Let’s leave on a happier note, with Margaret and Stringer—near the end, but together.


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