Dame Margaret Rutherford, DBE
Dame Margaret Rutherford, DBE (Mrs Stringer Davis), the actress, died
at her home yesterday, aged 80, having, in the words of one of her
characters in Jean Anouilh, survived the birth of the airplane, the
death of the corset, short hair and two world wars.
Eccentric middle-aged ladies were her speciality. That they were
unconscious of their eccentricity, that they combined it with
shrewdness and an air of authority, and that they liked the world and
felt at home there, were among the reasons why a large public found
She made a late beginning and a slow one. Born at Balham on May 11,
1892, and educated at Wimbledon and Seaford, she qualified as a
Licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music, but did nothing to further
her wish to act professionally, till, at the age of 33, she inherited
a small income from an aunt. A letter of introduction from John
Drinkwater then led to her joining the Old Vic Company as a student
player in 1925. She actually palyed Juliet's mother to the nurse of
Edith Evans. But at the end of the season she had to go back to
teaching at Wimbledon, and two more years passed before her engagement
by Nigel Playfair as an understudy at the Lyric, Hammersmith, enabled
her to start afresh.
From Hammersmith she went to Croydon, to Epsom, and to the old Oxford
Playhouse, working in weekly repertory, and at Oxford she made the
acquaintance of Tyrone Guthrie. Under his direction, as a member of
the cast headed by Marie Tempest, Margaret Rutherford caught the eye
of the critics - incidentally incurring and surviving the professional
jealousy of Miss Tempest - as a village spinster in a comedy by Robert
Morley. Next year she made her first two films, one of them for Carol
Reed. Two parts she played in the theatre in productions by John
Gielgud in 1938 and 1939, Miss Bijou Furse, the surreptitious punter
in "Spring Meeting", and Miss Prism in "The Importance of Being
Earnest", established her in comedy and farce as a star performer.
The baleful housekeeper in "Rebecca" showed an entirely different side
to her, but the occasion of a triumph in her special comic line was
provided by Madame Arcati, the medium, in Noel Coward's "Blithe
Spirit", "you have taken up my pen and written it yourself," said the
author. On this performance she was also congratulated by members of
Mme Arcati's profession, because she had avoided guying it. At later
stages of the war she was seen in company with Ivor Novello on a tour
of France and Belgium, and in London, in "Alice in Wonderland",
alternating the White Queen with Sybil Thorndike.
After supporting Novello in his stage musical "Perchance to Dream",
she took over Lady Bracknell from Edith Evans when the Gielgud company
played Wilde's farce in New York in 1947. On her return there was
unqualified praise for her headmistress in a new farce, "The Happiest
Days of Your Life", and for her chatelaine in Anouilh's "Ring Round
the Moon", but in the Gielgud revival of "The Way of the World" she
seemed inhibited, possibly by the heartlessness of Congreve's
characterization. Nevertheless she again played the part in John
Clement's revival in 1956.
Meanwhile she had continued to make films in England, but her roles
when they were not old friends from the theatrical past like Madame
Arcati and Miss Prism were either too short or too obviously contrived
to offer scope. In 1962, however, film audiences in the United States
began to take her measure, on seeing her amateur detective, Miss
Marple, in an adaptation of a novel by Agatha Christie, renamed
"Murder She Said", and presented by MGM. (She was to play Miss Marple
again in at least two other "murder" films). By then she had completed
a long tour of Australia in Anouilh's "Time Remembered"; had starred
on Broadway in a short-lived English comedy; and at home had appeared
"in the round" in a programme of distinguished one-act plays and at
the Haymarket under Gielgud's direction as Mrs Candour in "The School
for Scandal". In 1963 she was chosen by the Academy of Motion Picture
Arts and Sciences as the best supporting actress of the year for her
support of the Burtons in Anthony Asquith's "The VIPs".
Margaret Rutherford was married in 1945 to Mr Stringer Davis, the
actor. They had met as fellow members of the company at the Oxford
Playhouse in 1930, and they often acted together in the theatre and in
films after their marriage. She never turned her back on the position
to which the public had elected her, that of its favourite feminine
exponent of robust eccentricity, but she once said that if she could
choose her work, it would be to help to understand the beauty of
words; and her poetry recitals for the Apollo Society and in
association with Malcolm Troup, the pianist, in Norway and elsewhere
were important to her
Miss Marple's final case: real-life crime mystery of late Oscar-winning actor
The Guardian, Tuesday 30 September 2008 / http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2008/sep/30/2
She was an Academy Award-winning character actor best known in later life for her flamboyant screen portrayal of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple.
But after her death, Dame Margaret Rutherford became the victim of a crime mystery worthy of the spinster detective herself.
The case involved Rutherford's live-in companion, the disappearance of an Oscar, and a Fulham antiques dealer.
Rutherford, who played Miss Marple in four films between 1961 and 1964, appearing alongside her real-life husband, Stringer Davis, employed a down on her luck former soprano as a companion in her declining years.
Violet Lang-Davis lived at the couple's home in Chalfont St Peter, Buckinghamshire, before Rutherford died in 1972. Lang-Davis, then in her 60s, stayed on to look after Rutherford's widower and grew so close to him that they contemplated marriage. But he died in August 1973 before they could tie the knot.
He left a will which bequeathed everything to his wife, even though she was dead. All the silver, china and furniture the grande dame of the English stage and screen had accumulated in her career was due to pass to Stringer Davis's distant cousin William James Davis. Lang-Davis was left nothing.
As Detective Sergeant Paul Hunter of the Gerrards Cross police told the director of public prosecutions: "She then embarked on a series of actions designed to secure the inheritance of the late Mr Davis," according to a Whitehall file released this month at the National Archives.
She went to see her old priest in Brook Green, west London, Father Joseph Williams, who had agreed to marry her and Davis. She left a copy of a will naming herself as sole beneficiary while Williams was out visiting parishioners. An accompanying note asked him to act as an executor and to forward it to the Rutherford family solicitors.
At the same time she set about selling off the actor's possessions, including the Oscar and Golden Globe she won in 1964 as best supporting actress in The VIPs, a star vehicle for Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Lang-Davis approached a Fulham antiques dealer, John Harvey, telling him she was Rutherford's niece, and he paid her £1,013 in a mixture of cash and cheques for the valuables.
As befitted a dame of the British empire, the collection included dinner services by Copeland, Doulton and Minton, two matching pairs of solid silver candlesticks, a Meissen vase, a solid silver canteen of cutlery and a bottle of Courvoisier. Harvey sold everything except the Oscar (which he paid £30 for) and the Golden Globe, which he kept.
"I was desperate for money so I sold the Oscar and the Globe and one or two other items to Mr Harvey," Lang-Davis told Hunter, according to the newly released DPP file. "I was worrying about the items I had sold Mr Harvey. I decided to telephone the police and pretend there had been a burglary and some of the items had been stolen in the burglary."
In June 1974 Hunter launched a burglary investigation, but when his inquiries reached the Fulham antiques shop, Harvey told him about Lang-Davis. At first she tried to claim the antiques dealer had stolen the Oscar and Globe from her but under questioning admitted what she had done: "I sold all these things because I needed the money. I needed the money desperately in order to live." A handwriting expert proved the will a forgery.
In October 1975 Lang-Davis, then aged 63, was arrested and remanded in Holloway pending her trial at Reading crown court on charges of theft, criminal deception and forgery. But when the day of the trial arrived she did not appear, and a warrant for her arrest was issued but never executed.
The file does not explain this mystery, except to say that by this time Hunter had been seconded to Hong Kong, but it does contain one final twist.
In 1985 two of Rutherford's medals - her DBE and a Variety Club award - turned up for sale at Sotheby's. Hunter, back in Britain, impounded them. He knew Lang-Davis had not reported them stolen in the "burglary" and believed they were the first items she sold. He tried unsuccessfully to trace her. As a prosecutor in the DPP's office noted in 1985: "Lang-Davis, it would appear, never stood trial and is still at large."
James Mason, asked to name his favorite leading lady, said that he tried rating them all by stars and that the only five-star lady was Margaret Rutherford. She was an exceptional and well-loved comedienne, who began her working life as a teacher of piano and elocution before a small legacy enabled her to attend the Old Vic school to study drama. She had various successful stage roles before making her first film in 1936, Dusty Ermine . She had a highly unorthodox appearance—the demeanor of a startled turkey-cock, the jaws of a bloodhound and a highly unwieldy frame. All of this marked her out to be a character actress, a term applied to women not considered attractive enough to be the love interest in films. Margaret Rutherford's screen career depended on her playing variations on the theme of delightfully dotty "spinster," either intense, gushing, and absentminded or tweedy and austere.
She played all her roles with aplomb and perspicacity and had a superb sense of timing. She was the irrepressible and flamboyant Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit , the enthusiastic Medieval expert in Ealing Studio's Passport to Pimlico , and the unforgettably fluttering and forgetful Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest . InThe Happiest Days of Your Life she starred with Alastair Sim, who played the headmaster of the school upon which Rutherford and her truculent "gels" are billeted with uproarious consequences (shades of St. Trinian's). He was her male counterpart in the realms of the British Eccentric—realms that they ruled with equal gusto and gladiatorial insouciance. Raymond Durgnat writing in A Mirror for England noted that "British qualms about the grinding effect of puritanical submission to the system are often expressed in two ways: their veneration for eccentrics and their much touted sense of humour . . . (they) are usually 'upperclass' in origin and either of independent means or firmly ensconced in authority . . . they are usually variations on old-fashioned father and aunt figures and the eccentricity is not eccentricity at all, but the old upperclass way of speaking out boldly and rudely."
Several other eccentric roles followed for Margaret Rutherford for she played Miss Marple in several MGM Agatha Christie films, where once again her unlikely and sexually "unappealing" exterior hid a true and marvelous ingenuity and a remarkable and scrupulous intelligence. Her elegant comic touch and her warmth were triumphant in every role she played—a glorious galleon in full sail firing salvos at all who crossed her bow.
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Nationality: British. Born: London, 11 May 1892. Education: Attended Wimbledon Hill School; Ravenscroft. Family: Married Stringer Davis, 1945. Career: Taught speech and piano; then studied acting at the Old Vic, London; 1925—stage debut; then in repertory in Oxford, Croydon, and London; 1936—film debut in Dusty Ermine ; 1939—first appearance as Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest , London; repeated the role in film version, 1952; 1940—stage role of Mme. Arcati in Blithe Spirit ; repeated in film, 1945; 1948—stage role of Miss Whitchurch in The Happiest Days of Your Life ; repeated in film, 1950. Awards: Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for The V.I.P.s , 1963. Dame Commander, Order of the British Empire, 1967. Died: 22 May 1972.
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