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A Brief Profile of Margaret Rutherford

A Brief Profile of Margaret Rutherford

Early Life

The comedy character actress Margaret Rutherford was born Margaret Taylor Rutherford-Benn on 11 May 1892 in Balham, South London. She was the only child of William and Florence Rutherford-Benn. Shortly after the couple married in 1882, William had a nervous breakdown and was sent to a mental institution. A few months later, just after his release, he murdered his father and then attempted to commit suicide. Following the inquest, Benn was certified insane and committed to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. He was discharged in July 1890 and reunited with his wife.

Soon after Margaret was born, in 1992, the family emigrated to India to begin a new life. However, further family tragedy struck when she was only 3 years old – her pregnant mother hung herself. This saw Margaret return to the UK to live with an aunt in Wimbledon. Soon after she was soon given the news that her father had suddenly. Years later, Margaret found out that her father had actually been readmitted to Broadmoor in 1903, where he remained to his death in 1921.

Until the age of 13, Rutherford was educated at Wimbledon High School. She then attended Raven’s Croft School, a boarding school in Seaford, East Sussex, until she was 18. During her time at Raven’s Croft, she developed an interest in amateur dramatics and acting.

Early Career

Rutherford initially worked as a piano and elocution teacher. However, because of her great interest in the theatre, her aunt paid for her to have private acting lessons. She later attended the Old Vic as a repertory actor, curtsey of a legacy from her guardian aunt’s will. Rutherford made her professional stage debut at the Old Vic in 1925, aged 33. Her sturdy appearance meant she was never destined to play the leading lady. Thus, her early stage career mostly consisted of small walk-on parts.

In 1933, Rutherford made her first London West End appearance. She made her big-screen debut, appearing as an extra in Troubled Waters (1936), starring James Mason and Alastair Sim. She appeared in a further six films over the next 2 years. However, it was not until 1939 that she received any real critical acclaim. That’s when she was cast as Miss Prism in John Gielgud’s The Importance of Being Earnest at the Globe Theatre. In 1940, she played Mrs. Danvers in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca at the Queen’s Theatre to rave reviews. A year later, she won both audience and critical acclaim in her role as Mrs. Arcati in Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit.

Film Career

In 1941, Rutherford resurrected her film career after a 4-year hiatus, appearing in five films over 3 years. Her first major film role came as Mrs Acrati in David Lean’s screen adaption of Blithe Spirit (1945). Some of Rutherford’s other well-remembered films of the time include the Ealing comedy Passport to Pimlico (1949), The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950) in which she starred with Alastair Sim, and the film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1952).

Rutherford was mostly cast in comedy roles for the rest of her career. Some of her stand-out films of the 1950s include Castle in the Air (1952) with David Tomlinson, Trouble in Store (1953) with Norman Wisdom, The Runaway Bus (1954) with Frankie Howerd, and again with Wisdom in Just My Luck (1957). She also co-starred in The Smallest Show on Earth (1957) with Virginia McKenna and Peter Sellers. In the satirical comedy I’m All Right Jack (1959) she teamed up for a second time with Peter Sellers, along with Ian Carmichael and Richard Attenborough.

Rutherford as Miss Marple in The Alphabet Murder.        Photo credit: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED

Later Career

In 1963, Rutherford played the Duchess of Brighton in the MGM comedy-drama The V.I.P.s, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. She went on to win an Oscar and a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress in the role. It was also during the 1960s that Rutherford made the role of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple her own. Arguably it’s the role for which she is best remembered. She starred as the elderly amateur detective in four films; Murder She Said (1961), Murder at the Gallop (1963), Murder Ahoy (1964), and Murder Most Foul (1964). She appeared in the role a fifth time in an uncredited cameo in The Alphabet Murders (1965).

In all, Rutherford appeared in some 45 movies in a film career that stretched from 1936 to 1967. Her very last film outing was to provide the voice of Mother Goose in the animated musical The Wacky World of Mother Goose (1967). Her extensive stage career, which began in 1925, ended in 1966 while playing Mrs. Malaprop in The Rivals at the Haymarket Theatre. She had reluctantly given up the role after only a few weeks due to ill health.

Personal Life

Rutherford had a somewhat untypical personal life. In 1945, aged 53, she married the known homosexual character actor Stringer Davis. They had a 15-year courtship, not marrying until the death of Stringer’s mother, who had not approved of her son’s relationship with Rutherford.

The couple became almost inseparable during their marriage. Rutherford even stipulated that Stringer should appear in the cast in many of her films so they could be together on set. The devoted husband and personal assistant took care of all of Rutherford’s career needs.

Rutherford often suffered bouts of depression, which may not be surprising given her traumatic childhood. It was Stringer who often nursed through these periods of illness. Treatment often involved stays in mental hospitals and electric shock treatment. However, this was kept secret from the general public during Rutherford’s life. The couple remained happily married until Rutherford died in 1972.

In the 1950s, the couple unofficially adopted the writer Gordon Langley Hall, when in his twenties. He later had gender reassignment surgery and became Dawn Langley Simmons. Simmons wrote a biography of Rutherford in 1983.

Rutherford was awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1961 and made a Dame Commander (DBE) in 1967.


Towards the end of her life, Rutherford suffered from dementia. Her devoted husband took care of her at their Buckinghamshire home, until she passed away on 22 May 1972, aged 80. Many of Britain’s top actors attended the funeral at Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire.

Rutherford was buried at St. James’s Church, Gerrards Cross. Her bereaved husband died the following year and was interred in the same grave.


Header image credit:  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED

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