Monday, March 17, 2014

The Miss Marple Mysteries with Margaret Rutherford

Miss Jane Marple, the wiry framed spinster from St. Mary Mead, whose hobbies include knitting and solving crimes, is one of Agatha Christie's most endearing creations. Quiet and sedate, she was the complete opposite of Hercule Poirot, Christie's very own Sherlock Holmes, but went on to become the star of the show in twelve novels and thirty-two short stories between 1926 and 1976. 

It's no wonder then that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer saw an ideal character to bring to the screen. In early 1960 the studio purchased the rights to most of the author's stories for the comely sum of three million dollars in the hopes of creating a television series around the lovable sleuth. When this idea fell through, they set their sights on securing 72-year-old Margaret Rutherford, one of Great Britain's most beloved character actresses to play the part in a film version of one of Miss Marple's most entertaining novels, "4:50 from Paddington". 

Agatha Christie had disapproved of this casting from the start. She had modeled Miss Marple after a favorite aunt and Margaret Rutherford bore no resemblance to her whatsoever. Rutherford did not wish to play the part either, saying "Murder, you see, is not the sort of thing I could get close to. I never found it amusing. I don't like anything that tends to lower or debase or degrade". It was not until director George Pollack sent her the script for Murder She Said, the first Miss Marple film planned, and convinced her that Miss Marple would be a helpful character, one who took a gamesman-like approach to crime solving. Rutherford was then gung-ho about the part and made Miss Marple completely her own. Her husband and closest companion, Stringer Davis, was pulled in for the ride as well in a part that was created especially for him at Rutherford's insistence. As the timid librarian Jim Stringer, he was the perfect partner for the indomitable Jane. 


Rutherford's Miss Marple was a completely transformed character from the St. Mary's Mead citizen that Christie had penned some thirty-five years back. In fact, she did not even live in St. Mary's Mead anymore, her cottage home now being situated in Milchester ( filmed in Denham ). Here the jaunty heroine lives in contented peace until a mystery falls at her feet and she takes on the task of solving the crime herself when the local police force doubt her theories. The local police force being Inspector Craddock ( admirably played by Australian actor Charles "Bud" Tingwell ) and his aide Sergeant Bacon. Craddock was another character written in especially for the film and he proved to be a capital foil in the crime-solving endeavors of Miss Marple. His attitude towards Miss Marple was much like a kindly nephew, loving and protective and yet at times quite aggravated over her interference in police matters and the dangers the old gal was putting herself into. 

The sprightly harpsichord strains of Ron Goodwin's Miss Marple theme quickly set the tempo and mood for the films that were to follow, all of them being light-hearted tea and crumpet mysteries. Just as one enjoys curling up with a good mystery before bedtime to carry one off to slumberland, so these films were a relaxing escape from the typical juvenile crime flicks, period dramas, and psychological capers of the times. And, as an added bonus, they gave us opportunity to nod our heads in blessed slumber during many a scene. 

Between 1961 and 1965, MGM made four Miss Marple films starring Margaret Rutherford. Each film in the series was directed by George Pollock and featured scripts written by David Pursall and Jack Seddon. Although none of them bore any resemblance to the books on which they were based, each of them had their redeeming charms and to this day all of the films have their loyal following of fans. 

Whatever Miss Christie intended her stories to be, is completely thrown out the window. Margaret Rutherford is the unreputable star of these films. Plump, energetic and commanding, Rutherford created a newly emancipated Miss Marple, a gal brimming with spunk. With jowls jiggling and her tongue jutted firmly in her cheek, Jane would swing her tweed cape about her, square her shoulders and be ready to face any danger that stood in the way of her amateur sleuthing. 


Murder She Said ( 1961 ) 


En route from Paddington station to her home in Milchester, Miss Marple witnesses a murder onboard a passing train. When the authorities investigate and find no clues, Miss Marple is determined to investigate herself. With the help of her good friend, Mr. Stringer, they track the body to the Ackenthorpe Estate. Here she goes undercover as a maid and in between the housework and the cooking, hunts for clues. The entire family comes for a visit and when the body turns up in the stable, each member, including Miss Marple herself, becomes a suspect....and one by one start being killed off themselves. 


Margaret Rutherford is splendid as the elderly amateur sleuth who is excited to put her knowledge of mystery stories to the test and try crime-detection on a personal level. She proves to be more perceptive than the police and more daring, often jeopardizing herself much to the chagrin of Inspector Craddock, who feels personally responsible for the dear gal's safety. 

Our cast of suspects is a colorful lot of crooked family members, each one of them waiting for the blustery old codger, Mr. Ackenthorpe ( played with splendid bark by James Robertson Justice ) to die so they can inherit his money, his land and his house. Muriel Pavlow, playing Ackenthorpe's daughter provides the romantic interest in the film with love blossoming between her and the American doctor ( Arthur Kennedy ) who's looking after the old man. Most engaging of all the characters however, is cheeky little Alexander ( Ronnie Raymond ), a playful dodger who tries to hide his mischeivous pranks with his overte gentlemanly manner. He and Miss Marple quickly become chums and he provides her with many an inside scoop in the whereabouts of the family skeletons. Thorley Walters, Ron Howard ( son of Leslie Howard ), Conrad Phillips, Gerald Cross and Joan Hickson round out the cast. Joan Hickson later picked up the Miss Marple mantle herself in a PBS series during the 1980s. 

Margaret Rutherford's immense appeal and the delightful mystery plot she was involved with in Murder She Said made the film an instant box office success and it was quickly followed by three more Miss Marple mysteries. Murder She Said was the only one of the three actually based on one of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple mysteries, "4:50 from Paddington" ( known as "What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw" in Great Britain ). A few major alternations from the 1957 novel resulted in a more cohesive and less complicated film. In the novel Miss Marple is a relatively minor character. In the film however, she takes on the activities of three of the characters from the novel : Mrs. McGillicuddy, who first witnesses the murder, Lucy Eyesbarrow, housekeeper at the Crackenthorpe estate, and herself. 



Murder at the Gallop ( 1963 ) 


George Pollock returned to take the helm in the second Miss Marple movie, Murder at the Gallop, this time taking place at a riding establishment, the Gallop Hotel, where members of the Enderby family are staying. Mr. Enderby, an elderly recluse, ( played by Finlay Currie )was frightened to death - by a cat - in circumstances that Miss Marple believes was deliberate murder. After Aunt Cora announces those same suspicions to the family members during the reading of the will and is quickly dispatched herself - with a hairpin, by george! - Miss Marple declares "murder most foul" and is off to capture the culprit herself. Once again Inspector Craddock's insistence against her meddling prove useless in stopping the indomitable dame from charging. 


Many of the elements used in Murder She Said are repeated for this second outing, notably the family inheritance plot line, the eccentric male lead ( this time played by the perpetually baffled-faced Robert Morley ), the surly stableman, and the multiple murders. Yes, when Miss Marple attempts to solve a case, murder is never a solitary occurrance. Even the finale of Miss Marple receiving a marriage proposal is repeated. 

Many of the Enderby family members are not as engaging as the Ackenthorpes however and this time around most of the entertaining scenes belong solely to Margaret Rutherford, which thankfully there are plenty of. Highlights include Miss Marple and Mr. Stringer collecting donations to help rehabilitate criminals and the duo performing the twist in preparation for the climatic ending.The extremely talented character actress, Flora Robson, has a wonderful part in Murder at the Gallop as the frightened companion to Aunt Cora and Robert Urquhart, Katya Douglas, and James Villiers complete the cast. 

Murder at the Gallop was based on the Poirot mystery "After the Funeral". The film had its premiere in a tent at a garden party in rural Cheshire during a fundraiser and once again received good critic reviews after its national premiere. One critic however did not find the film amusing... Agatha Christie called it "incredibly silly" and often argued with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer over the scripts and characterizations of her stories, but to no avail. The London Times agreed, "The whole thing is happily calculated to convince foreigners yet again that everything they have been told about the English is absolutely true and only a trifle understated."


Murder Ahoy ( 1964 ) 



The next Miss Marple film to be released, Murder Ahoy, was actually the final one in the series to be filmed, with Murder Most Foul being temporarily delayed in its release. 

This film has the distinction of being the only one of the four pictures based on an original script, and unfortunately, that was a mistake...the movie suffers badly with long stretches of sleep-inducing sequences. Ron Goodwin's jaunty Marple theme fails to revive one, even in the film's most exciting moments. 

One redeeming quality however, is the change of locale. Filmed at St. Mawes, on the Cornwall coast, Murder Ahoy gives one the impression of being on a seaside holiday. Miss Marple enjoys the respite herself, and decks herself in full-rigged naval dress, complete with brass buttons and tricorn hat. Quite fitting regalia indeed for a trustee of the H.M.S Battledore, a training ship used for rehabilitating juvenile delinquents. During the annual meeting of the trustees, Mr. Folly-Hardwicke snuffs himself out and drops dead before announcing a most dreadful finding - one of the instructors onboard the Battledore is an embezzler! 

Miss Marple brings out her trusty Slocum's Chemistry Set for Girls, discovers strychnine in the snuff, shanghai's her sweetheart Mr.Stringer, and then boldly sets out to board the Battledore and hoist the culprit on the highest yardarms. She makes an impressive splash and puts every member of the frigate properly ill at ease, before confronting the killer with crossed swords in a climatic finale. "It won't be as easy as you think" she burbles stoutly, "I was ladies' fencing champion in 1931". Whereupon she lunges to attack for a swashbuckling finish. 


The inimitable character actor Lionel Jeffries plays the eccentric lead, Captain Rhumstone, in this seafaring outing that also features William Mervyn, Francis Matthews, Joan Benham and Gerald Cross. 


Murder Most Foul ( 1965 ) 



In this final installment in the series our doughty heroine finds herself in the blazing spotlights of a stage; a stage where murder and mayhem are being played out. After the former actress, Mrs.McGinty, is found hanging in her house with roses and money strewn on the floor about her, a young man is promptly arrested as the leading suspect. Miss Marple, serving on the jury during the trial, believes him innocent and decides to prove just that. Clues lead her to the Cosgood Players, a mixed lot of theatrical characters, and to one player in particular, a scheming murderer who kills twice more before Miss Marple drops the final curtain on him. 

Ron Moody, best known for his portrayal of Fagin in Oliver!, plays the leading supporting character Clifford Cosgood, head of the Cosgood Players, and not unlike Fagin, he is a thoroughly shifty-eyed sort. The marvelous Megs Jenkins has an all too brief appearance as Mrs. Thomas, the dead actress' sister who has taken a bit of a fancy to the dear Mr. Stringer, and Andrew Cruickshank, Ralph Michael, James Bolam, and Annette Kerr complete our cast of suspects. 

Margaret Rutherford gets to recite a splendid piece, "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" during her audition to become one of the Cosgood Players. This was one of Rutherford's favorite pieces and at one time she had to be dissuaded from performing it at a women's prison. "It was a good, bloodcurdling bit, which I thought the poor women would enjoy as they must have been disillusioned by the men in their lives," she said. These are words that prove what a beloved, albeit dotty, character one of the most popular British actresses of all time had. 


Murder Most Foul picks up on the pace once again after Murder Ahoy dropped the slack, but alas....it was not enough to draw fans into the theatres in droves and the declining box-office reciepts were a sign that the Miss Marple series had reached their end. Such a shame too, for there were so many more good mysteries Margaret Rutherford's Miss Marple could have solved. 


This post was our contribution to Movie Silently's Sleuthathon : A Blogathon of Gumshoes. Be sure to check out all the other mysterious contributions and baffling blogs featuring your favorite detectives! 

24 comments:

  1. Thanks for great review of all the Margaret Rutherford Miss Marples., all of which I have seen. Charles Tingwall also had success as a doctor in a popular British T.V. series ,Emergency Ward 10.

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    1. I did not know that!...although now that you mention it, a doctor seems like a very suitable part for him. I heard that Tingwell was practically an institution in Australia. I'm glad you enjoyed our post Vienna!

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  2. I too love Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple -- she was a hoot!

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    1. She certainly is a hoot...such a lovable character. :-)

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  3. She's not our Jane, but she's Margaret Rutherford and we love her. A most excellent look at a most entertaining series.

    If I had my way and a theme song, I would want Ron Goodwin's Marple theme to play every time I enter a room. I love a musical joke, and it's in "Murder Most Foul" (isn't it?) where the soundtrack features a snatch of the TV theme for "Dr. Kildare" while they're in a hospital scene. Guffaw!

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    1. Oh dear, now that you mention that I'll have to keep my ears perked up the next time I watch the series. Hospital scene, eh....could that have been when Inspector Craddock got thumped on the head ( Murder Ahoy )? You're quite right about having Goodwin's tune as a theme song..it's so jaunty!

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  4. Great post! These bear hardly any resemblance to Agatha Christie's original novels featuring the Marple character, as you say, but if you approach them as their own unique thing, they are a good deal of fun, and how can you not enjoy Margaret Rutherford poking around, creating havoc and cornering murderers? Agreed that MURDER, SHE SAID is arguably the best in the series, though I enjoyed all the others to varying degrees, thanks mostly to the casts, light tone and of course, Ms. Rutherford's full-on performance.

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    1. When we first started watching this series ( with our grandmother ) we always stuck to seeing our two favorites, Murder She Said and Murder at the Gallop and ALWAYS avoided Murder Most Foul. But lately, that has become one of our favorites as well...especially the opening scenes when Marple & Stringer do they collecting bit for the jumble sale. Murder Ahoy has its good points and could have been really entertaining had the characters had a bit more depth...some of them just seemed a little too cardboard to hold one's interest, but I do love the seaside locales. Oh heck, they're all good!

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  5. HOORAY for Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple. I'm so glad you included her in the Sleuthathon. These are very entertaining movies, and Rutherford is utterly charming as Miss Marple.

    They are remarkable in another way, too. Which present-day studio is committed to making a series of movies starring an older woman? Men get to do this all the time but, sadly, a Miss Marple (or equivalent) series does not come along every day.

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    1. How true. And I'm so glad Margaret Rutherford agreed to do the series after all. I wonder who the studio execs would have chosen had she refused the part. Another great series that highlights an older actress and features some ripping good mystery plots are the Hildegarde Withers films with Edna May Oliver. Like Rutherford, she hogs the spotlight to no end and that's what makes the series so great.

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  6. I believe that director George Pollock also directed TEN LITTLE INDIANS and THE ALPHABET MURDERS, two other Agatha Christie adaptations.

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    1. How interesting! Pollock must of enjoyed filming mysteries, or else the studio gave him those projects because they saw how well he did with the Miss Marple series.

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    2. Pollock did direct TEN LITTLE INDIANS (it was his last feature) but Frank Tashlin directed THE ALPHABET MURDERS, which of course has a fun little cameo from Rutherford more or less in character as Miss Marple.

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  7. Marvelous breakdown of the Rutherford/Marple series! I confess to being a devotee of the Joan Hickson series but who said that we have to be exclusive with our Marple love? Thanks for the wonderful contributions!

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    1. Someone who had written another post about this Miss Marple series ( can't remember the site! ) made a good point saying "if you just think of these as being the Margaret Rutherford Mysteries than they are great fun, if you think of them as Miss Marple adaptations then they are disappointing". Since it was this series that introduced me to the Miss Marple character, I actually felt the opposite....I couldn't understand why Mr. Stringer or Inspector Craddock were not featured in the stories that I read!

      We're very glad you enjoyed the post Fritzi and thank you again for putting together such a great blogathon.

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  8. I love Margaret Rutherford! This post reminds me that I not only need to see those films, but also read more of Agatha Christie's works...
    Thanks for the kind comment!
    Kisses!

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    1. Agatha Christie's stories are so addictive once they are started. This series introduced me to Margaret Rutherford, and - as the old saying goes - first loves never die. They will always be my favorite of Christie's film adaptations, unfaithful as they are. Enjoy rewatching the films Le!

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  9. I like Margaret Rutherford and I have enjoyed the two or three movies of this group that I have seen and I love the musical theme, but I just don't think of her as Miss Marple. I liked Joan Hickson and more recently Geraldine McEwan in television adaptions.

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    1. Just keep on not thinking of her as Miss Marple, and then you'll continue to find the films truly entertaining Joe. I'm sure that if the studio changed her character's name to Miss Bumblebee mid-way through the series, none of the audience would have noticed. They were Margaret Rutherford's films entirely ( step aside Agatha Christie! ).

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  10. Reall yenjoyed your post - worth pointing out that, unlike int he US, in the UK AHOY was released in 1965 while MOST FOUL was released in 1964. In the case of MURDER, SHE SAID I think the plot of '4.50 From Paddington' is followed fairly closely - the main difference is the Marple characterisation and her (very sensible) substitution for Lucy Eyelesbarrow.

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    1. Hmmm...that's interesting. Thank you for noting that Sergio. I wonder why the release was delayed in the States. You're quite right, Murder She Said adhered to the plot of 4:50 from Paddington quite closely...whereas with the other films they ( the screenwriters ) took some liberties. Enjoyable liberties....but liberties just the same.

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  11. What a great post! My little sisters and I absolutely love Margaret Rutherford's Miss Marple movies.I agree with everything you wrote: the movies and Miss Rutherford herself are absolutely fabulous. Even if they aren't very true to the source novels (and the later movies were complete fabrications), I feel they have become a real part of the Agatha Christie film canon, and a wonderful addition at that. I'm so glad you mentioned how she was the "women's fencing champion" in your summary of Murder, Ahoy- it's one of my favorite lines from all four films. If you have a chance, check out my latest post (http://theartofilm.blogspot.com/2014/03/the-reappearing-portrait-from-murder.html) about a mystery painting in Murder, She Said. I think you'll find it very intriguing and perhaps you'll be able to help me out. Thanks again for your wonderful post!! It's always a pleasure reading your work.
    Yours, always, Dan from "The Art of Film"

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    1. Thank you very much, Dan! We're glad you enjoyed the post and what a fantastic topic you brought up on your site. I did not have the keen eyes to spot that painting, let alone to recognize it in another film. Good luck with solving that mystery!

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  12. The 'Alphabet Murders' production appears to have been a Poirot follow-on to the Rutherford pictures but it was an unfunny disaster: as with 'Murder At The Gallop', it brought horses into the frame but they failed to add anything to the outcome. Robert Morley was completely wasted, too.

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