If I were asked to name my all-time favorite actress, immediately I should answer, Dame Margaret Rutherford. Thoughts of her currently abound as this past weekend my Good Wife and I watched one of her greatest film performances in the 1963 movie, “The V.I.P.s.” For it she received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Role as the Duchess of Brighton.
In all of her roles, Dame Margaret essentially played herself, as personally she was a character of such might that a mere role seemed subsidiary. As the Duchess, she bumbled along as an elderly aristocrat, fearful of losing her home should she be unable to pay her taxes. The movie starred Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Orson Welles, and a large bevy of celebrated actors and actresses, however all of them appeared more to be supporting her than vice versa.
Dame Margaret was born in 1892, and she died at 80 in 1972. She acted on stage and screen for six decades, but her popularity came in her later years from “The V.I.P.s” and the four other films from the 1960s in which she played Agatha Christie’s most famous character, Miss Marple. Her initial breakthrough as an actress came when she appeared in Noel Coward’s 1945 film, “Blithe Spirit.”
Of the latter she engaged in a saber duel in “Murder Ahoy,” a pistol standoff in “Murder Most Foul,” and a rendition of the Frug in “Murder at the Gallop.” To use the trite, but appropriate, expression, in every venue, she stole the scene. In each instance she was abetted by her actor husband, Stringer Davis, as she required in her contracts that every film in which she appeared must also have a role for him.
Stringer was an interesting figure in his own right, indeed how could he not be, married to her? He was seven years her junior, and both on and off screen, he doted on her. He had served as a lieutenant in the British Army in both the First and Second World Wars. He and Dame Margaret dated for 15 years, and married only after his mother’s death, as she had opposed his marriage to that “older actress woman.” After their 1945 marriage, Stringer never left her side, and he died slightly over a year after her death, perhaps he was lost without her? His life span almost exactly paralleled that of Noel Coward.
As with his wife, Stringer Davis essentially played himself, but being a gifted actor on his own, he was more than merely an uxorious husband. Together their gambits across numerous films have been both touching and amusing. In “Murder Ahoy,” he spent the night sleeping in a shoreside dingy in order to be able to communicate with Miss Marple by signaling her on board the ship in the harbor. In “The V.I.P.s,” he played a doting hotel employee, eager to bow before the Duchess, truly a role that came quite naturally to him.
Dame Margaret and Stringer were above the fray of more modern movies. They engaged in no crude or vulgar behavior. They used no curse words. They spoke with a diction that was pleasant to the ears of their attendees. Now, nearly a half century after their deaths, their words and actions still entertain, in many cases generations not yet born while they were alive. The B.E.s grew up watching Miss Marple’s antics.
As I watched “The V.I.P.s” my nostalgia for the “good old days” of film-making caused me to realize that at least today we have access to great actors and the roles they played thanks to modern communications, thus Dame Margaret and Stringer live again.