by Deborah Harter Williams
Jane Marple has been portrayed onscreen by a cadre of fine actresses. The world has been blessed with a veritable, murmuration of Marples. Or would that be a murder of Marples? Or perhaps a marvelization of Marples, because it is quite marvelous to have so many characterizations to choose from.
There were two movie Marples, three BBC Marples, as well as two American TV Marples. The seven sisters of Marpledom.
Miss Marple first appeared in the short story called “The Tuesday Night Club” in the late 1920s. She was described as a tall, straight, white-haired, elderly woman with a pink, crinkled face and China blue eyes.
Marple at the Movies
She had the requisite white hair, but was anything but bird-like, unless the bird is a large turkey. She launches herself into a room with the demeanor of the Queen Mary going out to sea. Just watching her cross the street in the opening credits to Murder Ahoy is to understand that she is a woman of power, reminiscent of Charles Laughton. She insisted upon wearing her own clothes, and that real-life husband, Stringer Davis, appear as the sidekick character “Mr. Stringer.”
The Rutherford series has a lot of comedy. Murder Ahoy features a sequence with people furtively moving around the ship at night; doors open and close in the manner of a French farce. Rutherford plays her role with great physicality, but is not silly. She conducts CSI-like experiments to determine a poison, helms a young group of sailors, and engages in a duel. Christie dedicated the novel The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side to Rutherford. Whether that was by way of compliment, or comment on the nature of stardom is open to interpretation.
In 1980, Angela Lansbury portrayed Marple in the movie The Mirror Crack’d. She co-starred with Elizabeth Taylor, Kim Novak, and Tony Curtis. Her Marple was much more serious, and was said to be intentionally played counter to the Rutherford interpretation. At 55, Lansbury was nobody’s little old lady. This was, however, a fine tryout for the character that would become Jessica Fletcher.
TV Marples: American Style
American TV gave Jane Marple her actual first screen appearance. A 1956 episode of NBC’s Goodyear TV Playhouse featured British singer and comedienne Gracie Fields as Miss M in A Murder Is Announced. Roger Moore and Jessica Tandy co-starred.
In the 80s Helen Hayes reluctantly took on Miss Jane’s mantle. She was a fan of Margaret Rutherford’s portrayal, and felt that that was the definitive Marple. However, she acknowledged to The Christian Science Monitor that Christie’s sister and the solicitor in charge of her estate did not like Rutherford in the role. “When they saw me in a small part in a TV version of Murder Is Easy they said, That’s our Miss Marple.” She did two CBS TV Marple movies: A Caribbean Mystery (with Sue Grafton credited on the screenplay), and Murder with Mirrors (with Bette Davis).
Anyone who has seen Hayes in Arsenic and Old Lace, or with Mildred Natwick on the Snoop Sisters knows that she can play a little old lady to be reckoned with. She lets people underestimate her with a sly smile and a twinkle in her eye.
Marple: the BBC years
Jane Marple might be said to belong to the BBC, having been a presence there for some 17 years. First up: Joan Hickson, (1984-92). Many say she was the real Marple. It was a role decades in the making, and she was in her 80s when she finally played it. After Hickson appeared on stage in Appointment with Death (a Poirot mystery) in 1946, Christie sent her a note saying “I hope one day you will play my Miss Marple.” She also had had a brief part in the Rutherford version of Murder, She Said. Too bad Christie died in 1976 and didn’t get to see Hickson’s portrayal.
Geraldine McKuen took up the Marple mantle from 2004-2008. McEwen was more airy and ethereal than Hickson and, I believe, suffered in comparison. Many of her episodes changed the characters or plots from the original stories, which grated on Christie purists.
Julia McKenzie played the role from 2009-2014, and believes that Christie wrote Marple in two different ways, as she told The Telegraph in 2009, “First, very much what Geraldine McEwan played: a slight, rather Victorian creature. Then, a little sturdier and tweedier. I chose the latter. A lot of people say they don’t like the tweedier version. But they’re both genuine.”
Compare and contrast
Murder with Mirrors is available in the Hayes, Hickson, and McKenzie versions for a Marple binge-watch.
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