Born 100 Years Ago Today: Donna Reed

Born 100 years ago today, Donna Reed (Donna Belle Mullenger, 1921-86).

Reed was a farm girl from Iowa, possessed of a loveliness so great that she was drafted for the film business at the age of 19 with no more training or experience than a handful of college theatre productions. Initially she played supporting roles in Thin Man, Dr. Gillespie and Mickey Rooney movies. But her appearance was so striking (it’s impossible for some of us not to fall in love with her) that she was rapidly promoted to more central roles. The comedy See Here, Private Hargrove (1944) opposite the similarly “wholesome, all-American” Robert Walker was one of the first of these. Her best known cinematic role remains the central part of Mary Bailey in Frank Capra’s perennial Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life (1947). She was given a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her part in From Here to Eternity (1953), in which she went against type to play a party girl who becomes involved with Montgomery Clift. Her other notable films include The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), They Were Expendable (1945), Green Dolphin Street (1947), Hangman’s Knot (1952) with Randolph Scott, The Caddy (1953) with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954), and The Benny Goodman Story (1956). Overall her cinematic footprint was not huge, and things were definitely winding down by the end of the 1950s. Like many in her industry at the time, she jumped ship to make her mark in television.

Reed’s sitcom The Donna Reed Show ran an unbelievable NINE years, 1958-66, amounting to a television phenomenon. Few shows survive at all, let alone make it anywhere near that long. The Donna Reed Show has a lot in common with the Robert Young vehicle Father Knows Best, a show about a “typical American family” with a movie star not known as a comedian at its center. The 50s valued niceness and comformity and conventionality. Sitcoms of the time were often gentle and bland by modern standards. What set The Donna Reed Show apart from Father Knows Best, Ozzie and Harriet, and Leave it to Beaver was that the housewife was at its center. Unlike I Love Lucy or I Married Joan, also ostensibly about housewives, the comedy on The Donna Reed Show was derived from the main character’s almost superhuman competence. There was also a bit of a serious substratum to it. Her pediatrician husband (Carl Betz) was on call 24/7, leaving Reed’s character to carry the whole burden of raising the children, while also playing the social role of doctor’s wife and community citizen (belonging to women’s clubs and charities and so forth). The show was later heavily criticized by critics and feminists for its propagandistic elevation of the “woman as homemaker” concept. In some ways, the fact that her character is so smart and resourceful seems to make her comfort with her subservient role worse, if anything. But, the fact that it does focus on a female perspective does make it unique for its time, and a sort of (very small) baby step towards more progressive fare.

The other really interesting thing about the show (to me) is that Reed’s daughter was played by Shelly Fabares, Nanette Fabray’s niece, was had a #1 hit with “Johnny Angel” and is probably best known to people my age and younger from her central role on the ’90s sitcom Coach, although she did a lot of other TV and film work, including several Elvis movies.

A TV powerhouse at the time The Donna Reed Show went off the air, Reed’s life took a suprising turn during its next phase. Previously a Goldwater Republican, she became an anti-war activist, protesting Vietnam, supporting Eugene McCarthy in ’68, and later opposing nukes!

After over a decade away from screen acting, Reed returned in a made for tv movie called The Best Place on Earth (1979). In 1984 she appeared in a two-part Love Boat episode, and then replaced Barbara Bel Geddes as Miss Ellie Ewing on Dallas for one season (1984-85). Her death in early 1986 was due to pancreatic cancer.