Young Margaret Rutherford: Eccentric British Actress Had Curious Start

Rutherford’s personal background was tragic and her entry to the acting profession was inauspicious.

The great comedy actress Margaret Rutherford was a late developer. Born in 1892, she was in effect orphaned at the age of three. “In effect” because while her mother died when Margaret was three, her father did not. But he was quite lost to Margaret – he spent most of his adult life locked away in mental asylums, including the notorious prison for the criminally insane, Broadmoor. Her mother’s tragic end was by suicide.

Shameful secret

As a teenager, Margaret learnt the secret of her father’s incarceration, and she was affected by a fear of hereditary madness for the rest of her life. She certainly never wanted to be known as a great ‘eccentric’, and kicked against the definition throughout her later career.

Imaginative child

It was through childish dressing-up and family theatrics in the parlour that Margaret discovered her love of play-acting, and set her heart on going on the stage. Having attended a boarding school for young ladies, at 19 she ignored her headmistress’s advice to become a schoolteacher, and settled into an unfulfilling job as a private piano tutor.

She added elocution lessons to her repertoire, but remained less than happy as a teacher. Only after the deaths of her father and her guardian aunt did Margaret take her first decisive step towards a career in acting.

She won herself an audition for a place at the Old Vic as a student actor, and despite a less-than-enthusiastic reception by the Vic’s presiding genius, Lilian Baylis, she was accepted. It was 1925 and Margaret, well over 30, was a rather mature beginner.

Single ‘Old Vic’ season

After her first season of ‘walking on’ at the then home of Shakespeare, the Old Vic, Margaret was dismissed. But by now she had experienced the irresistible smell of real greasepaint, and was completely hooked. Although by nature she was shy and racked by self-doubt about her looks and skills, Margaret could be determined. She persisted in the insecure world of acting, enduring numerous rejections and dead-ends, until finally appearing on a West End stage at the age of 41, as a housekeeper.

Scene-stealer

It was another two years before she became the scene-stealer we still remember from subsequent film work. The breakthrough came in the 1935 play ‘Short Story’ by Robert Morley. Margaret was encouraged by director Tyrone Guthrie to go for as many laughs as she could. This she duly did, even when it meant incurring the jealous wrath of the star of the show, Marie Tempest – a lady famous for hogging the limelight for herself.

Much as Margaret would have loved to be a tragic or romantic heroine, her success throughout Britain in ‘Short Story’ meant that she could no longer doubt her audience appeal as a comedy ‘character’. Further pre-War stage hits like ‘Spring Meeting’ (as Aunt Bijou)and ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ (Miss Prism) only confirmed her as the archetypal dotty old spinster.

Main Sources:

  • Margaret Rutherford,’Theatre World’ Monograph 7, Eric Keown, 1956
  • Margaret Rutherford: An Autobiography, co-author Gwen Robyns, WH Allen 1972

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