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By Susan M. Kelly

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Great Literary Detectives Series I: Miss Marple


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With a sturdy frame and a stony face, Dame Margaret Rutherford wasn’t exactly what Agatha Christie had in mind when she created the wily British spinster Miss Jane Marple.  But with the same dogged determination that she approached the rest of her career, Margaret Rutherford was able to put her own unique stamp on the role, and win over Miss Marple’s creator in the process.

Born in the London suburb of Balham, Margaret Rutherford was introduced to the harsh realities of the world at a very early age.  Her father, William Benn, murdered her grandfather just before she was born and was admitted to the famed Broadmoor mental institution, where he spent the remainder of his life.  The little girl was brought up with her mother’s last name, but Florence Rutherford died when Margaret was just three years old, leaving her to be brought up by her aunts.

Despite her rough beginnings, Margaret grew up to be a bright, inquisitive girl and by the time she was in high school she developed a love for the theater.  One of her aunts paid for her to have private acting lessons, but she put off any thoughts of an acting career, opting instead to become a speech teacher.  It wasn’t until 1925, at the tender age of 33, that she returned to her first love, becoming a student at The Old Vic Theater. 

She appeared in several Shakespearean roles while at The Old Vic and in 1933 she appeared on stage in the West End.  Three years later, at the age of 44, she made her film debut as Miss Butterby in “Dusty Ermine”.   Despite her relatively late acting debut, she quickly made herself indispensable as a go-to character actress, with a particular affinity for playing frumpy, middle aged dowagers.  In 1941, she caught the attention of playwright and director Noel Coward, who cast her as the flamboyant fake psychic Madame Arcadi in “Blithe Spirit”.  Coward had envisioned her in the role and actually tweaked it to even better suit her.  Rutherford didn’t disappoint as she stepped into the role and made it her own.

She inhabited the billowing cape and trusty bicycle of Madame Arcadi once again in the film adaptation of “Blithe Spirit” in 1946.  The previous year she had married fellow character actor Stringer Davis and he began a career long habit of popping up in small roles in each of her films.  She continued her string of successful comedic roles in films such as “The Importance of Being Earnest” (1952); “Aunt Clara” (1954); and “I’m All Right, Jack” (1959). 

In 1961, she stepped into what would become another of her signature roles as she took on Agatha Christie’s shrewd detective Miss Jane Marple in “Murder, She Said”.  An adaptation of Christie’s novel “4.50 From Paddington”, the film found Miss Marple witnessing a woman being strangled on a train.  When the police can find no body and dismiss her account, Miss Marple decides to take matters into her own hands.  Her investigation leads to Ackenthorpe Hall, where she gets herself hired as a domestic and searches for both the body and the murderer.

Rutherford was put out when she discovered that Agatha Christie had reservations about her taking on the roll of Miss Marple.  Miss Christie had written her sleuth as tall and trim and didn’t see the shorter and decidedly stouter Rutherford in the roll, but Rutherford took it on with great panache and won over most of her critics, including Christie herself.  She would go on to portray Miss Marple in three more films: “Murder At The Gallop” (1963); “Murder Ahoy” (1964); and “Murder Most Foul” (1964). 

Having gained much renown in her native country, Rutherford was made an Officer of the British Empire in 1961, and was raised to Dame Commander in 1967.  Her film work began to peter out as her health declined and she was set to film her final appearance in 1970’s “The Virgin and the Gypsy” but had to be replaced by Fay Compton when she was deemed too ill to continue.  Suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, she retreated from public life and died quietly at the age of 82 in 1972.

Though she began her career later in life, Dame Margaret Rutherford made good use of every second she spent on stage and film.  She brought a wonderful comedic bluster to each role and earned the appreciation and devotion of loyal fans as well as colleagues. 

Among aficionados of Agatha Christie’s work, there is some debate whether her characterization of Miss Marple did in fact live up to the original.  But it was the author herself who offered the ultimate response to the question, not to mention the ultimate accolade for a truly unique acting talent, when she dedicated her 1963 novel “The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side” to Dame Margaret Rutherford in admiration.  A fitting tribute indeed for this grand dame who will forever be remembered as the dowager detective.
Susan M. Kelly is a freelance writer who lives and works in Dunellen, New Jersey.  Susan is a regular contributor to The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.

Other Margaret Rutherford and Miss Marple Pages:

DVD Review of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple Movie Collection -- A DVD Review by John Puccio, first published March 8, 2006.  Two pages, a pretty detailed review.
Murder Ahoy (1964) -- From Catherine Savard's Midnight Oil: Movies and More blog, which includes several movie reviews each divided into a post.
Miss Marple - From the Museum of Broadcast Communications.
Miss Marple Classic Movies (1961-1964) Margaret Rutherford -- A movie review from Garden & Health by Vanette Ryanes.