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Rutherford, Margaret (1892-1972)


Main image of Rutherford, Margaret (1892-1972)

Margaret Rutherford was a much-loved English comic character actress, her quiddity summed up in The Demi-Paradise (d. Anthony Asquith, 1943) where Penelope Dudley Ward tries to explain her to Olivier's Russian visitor and ends up just laughing helplessly "Well, you've seen her for yourself!"

Her dumpling shape typically tented in capacious blouses, skirts, and capes, often of clashing patterns that lent oddity to their determined sensibleness, she played a succession of indomitable spinster enthusiasts and determinedly sexless, often authoritarian, eccentrics, both middle-class and aristocratic, as well as pursuing a notable stage career.

She was originally a teacher of elocution, which left its mark on the highly developed comic instrument of her voice. In films from 1936, in 1945 she played the first of her great roles (which she had also performed on stage), the clairvoyant Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit (d. David Lean, 1945).

She was unflappable as Nurse Carey, undisturbed that Glynis Johns was a mermaid, in Miranda (d. Ken Annakin, 1948), academically absorbed as Professor Hatton-Jones proving Pimlico to be Burgundy in Passport to Pimlico (d. Henry Cornelius, 1949), and inimitable as that distant daughter of Miss Buss and Miss Beale, Miss Whitchurch, headmistress of St Swithin's, locked in conflict with Alastair Sim, in The Happiest Days of Your Life (d. Frank Launder, 1950).

She was Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest (d. Anthony Asquith, 1952), a petshop owner versed in animal languages in An Alligator Named Daisy (d. J. Lee Thompson, 1955), and quite properly part of those self-conscious celebrations of British cinema, The Magic Box (d. John Boulting, 1951) and The Smallest Show on Earth (d. Basil Dearden, 1959).

Surviving into the age of satire, she played Ian Carmichael's aunt in I'm All Right Jack (d. John Boulting, 1959) and then attained a more foregrounded stardom as a robust serial inflection of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, beginning with Murder She Said (d. George Pollock, 1961).

Orson Welles made art-house tribute by casting her as Mistress Quickly in Chimes at Midnight (Spain/Switzerland, 1966), the year she was made DBE, and after she had won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in The VIPs (d. Anthony Asquith, 1963). She was long married to Stringer Davis.

Biography: Margaret Rutherford: A Blithe Spirit by Dawn Langley Simmons (1983)

Bruce Babington, Encyclopedia of British Cinema

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Thumbnail image of Alligator Named Daisy, An (1955)Alligator Named Daisy, An (1955)

All-star farce starring Donald Sinden, Diana Dors and an alligator

Thumbnail image of Big Fella (1937)Big Fella (1937)

Paul Robeson musical comedy set on the Marseilles waterfront

Thumbnail image of Blithe Spirit (1945)Blithe Spirit (1945)

Noël Coward comedy about a ghost who won't stay still

Thumbnail image of Curtain Up (1952)Curtain Up (1952)

Margaret Rutherford and Robert Morley star in a provincial theatre comedy

Thumbnail image of Happiest Days of Your Life, The (1950)Happiest Days of Your Life, The (1950)

Comedy with two very different schools forced to share a building

Thumbnail image of I'm All Right Jack (1959)I'm All Right Jack (1959)

Peter Sellers is a militant trade unionist in this peerless workplace satire

Thumbnail image of Importance of Being Earnest, The (1952)Importance of Being Earnest, The (1952)

Glorious adaptation of Oscar Wilde's classic play

Thumbnail image of Just My Luck (1957)Just My Luck (1957)

Comedy with Norman Wisdom as a shop assistant who takes up gambling

Thumbnail image of Magic Box, The (1951)Magic Box, The (1951)

Star-studded biopic of British film pioneer William Friese-Greene

Thumbnail image of Miranda (1948)Miranda (1948)

Glynis Johns plays a mermaid in this light fishy comedy

Thumbnail image of Passport to Pimlico (1949)Passport to Pimlico (1949)

Cherished comedy in which a Pimlico street declares its independence

Thumbnail image of Smallest Show on Earth, The (1957)Smallest Show on Earth, The (1957)

Nostalgic comedy about a couple who inherit a failing cinema

Thumbnail image of Trouble In Store (1953)Trouble In Store (1953)

Comedy in which Norman Wisdom foils a robbery in a department store.

Thumbnail image of V.I.P.s, The (1963)V.I.P.s, The (1963)

Assorted celebrities are stranded in an airport when fog hits the runway

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