Remembering Donna Reed on Her Centennial

January 27, 2021 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Donna Reed, born Donna Belle Mullenger in Denison, Iowa. Reed left her family’s farm at the age of seventeen with no aspirations of fame, but managed to win an Academy Award and enter American homes weekly as the quintessential wife and mother in the 1950s and 1960s.

Donna Belle Mullenger was the daughter of William Richard Mullenger, a WWII veteran and farmer, and Hazel Shivers, who did her share of the farm work in addition to raising five kids The eldest of five children, Donna was painfully shy and prone to caring for her siblings. Trying to get her to open up a bit in High School, one of her teachers suggested she join a few clubs, which she did, including the debate team and the theater club. Donna was soon receiving accolades for her talent. By the time she finished her studies at Denison High School, the formerly shy Donna was the lead in the school play.

Donna Mullenger’s dream included a college career following by radio. With the help of one of her aunts who lived in Los Angeles, she enrolled in Los Angeles City College in 1938 to prepare for a secretarial degree although news reports published she was an English and Drama major. In any case, it was with the blessing of her family that Donna Mullenger left Iowa for the first time in her life. 

While studying, Donna continued to dabble in acting, entered and won a beauty contest, and began to be noticed in local circles. By the end of her college career, Donna Mullenger from Iowa was voted the ‘Most Beautiful Co-Ed’ at Los Angeles City College. The notice appeared on the front page of the Los Angeles Times and many people took notice.

In April 1941, Donna Mullenger signed a seven-year contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) for 75 dollars a week and changed her name to Donna Reed after a short stint as Donna Adams. Her first credited role was in Edward Buzzell’s gangster picture, The Getaway with Robert Sterling and Charles Winninger, a remake of Public Hero Number One from 1935. The 1941 picture and Ms. Reed received positive notices. During her first year in the movies, Donna Reed was voted “Star of Tomorrow” by theater owners. 

Miss Reed during the making of The Getaway

As Reed honed her craft at MGM, producers and directors requested her for supporting roles in their pictures. She appeared in such established series films as Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), The Courtship of Andy Hardy (1942), and from the Dr. Kildare series, Dr. Gillespie’s Criminal Case (1943).

Nineteen forty three brought Donna Reed her first ‘A’ picture, Clarence Brown’s The Human Comedy starring Mickey Rooney. By this point Donna’s lovely face was familiar to theatergoers and she had fans across the country.

When WWII began, Donna’s popularity proved an important part of Hollywood’s war effort both on and off the screen. Take a look at a CBS story about “Donna Reed’s Wartime Letters” and this one from The New York Times, “Dear Donna: A Pinup So Swell She Kept G.I. Mail.”

“Donna Reed with servicemen during World War II. She was a popular pinup because so many saw her as a hometown girl.” from The Donna Reed Foundation

Ms. Reed’s work during WWII gives us a wonderful sense of what she was made of. Reed brought her passion for service members to the forefront later in her life as well during the Vietnam War as one of its earliest opponents. She was an active founding member of “Another Mother for Peace,” which worked to “to educate women to take an active role in eliminating war as a means of solving disputes between nations, people and ideologies.” (Anothermother)

Donna Reed made other memorable films in the 1940s including Albert Lewin’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and John Ford’s They Were Expendable in 1945, and Frank Capra’s eternal classic It’s a Wonderful Life in 1946. Although the latter was not well received at the time of its release, it forever cemented Reed’s image in my mind and that of millions of others as the small-town girl who captures the heart of George Bailey in Bedford Falls. MGM loaned Donna Reed to Frank Capra for the small, independent movie that lassos the moon.

Since old-time radio matters to this fan it should probably be mentioned that Donna Reed did some radio work during her years in the movies. Here are two examples for a taste of Donna Reed on the radio:

From March 1947, a reunion with Jimmy Stewart for the Lux Radio Theatre presentation of “It’s a Wonderful Life”:

From October 1950, the Family Theater production of “Jane Eyre” with Joan Evans and Vincent Price:

Despite Donna Reed appearing in and delivering great performances opposite super stars Jimmy Stewart, Robert Montgomery and John Wayne in first-rate movies, Reed’s career did not benefit, as it should have. Nor did it after Reed made dramatic adventure, Green Dolphin Street directed by Victor Saville in 1947. Here she played opposite Lana Turner and Van Heflin and an impressive supporting cast made up of stalwarts Frank Morgan, May Whitty, Edmund Gwenn, and Gladys Cooper. When MGM cast Reed in The Bride Goes Wild as her next assignment, she refused it and decided to sit out the rest of her contract at that studio. 

With Gladys Cooper in Green Dolphin Street

Donna Reed’s first marriage, to MGM make-up artist William ‘Bill’ Tuttle in 1943, ended in divorce after two years. In 1945, she met Hollywood agent Tony Owen and the two fell for each other instantly. They married in June of that year (divorced in 1971). After leaving MGM Donna concentrated on her growing family, three children with Owen by 1948, before a fourth child would make up the family. Soon after she signed a long-term contract with Columbia where she made a string of ‘B’ pictures. It took work for her to get the role she had been waiting for.

Reed continued to work steadily throughout the 1950s making a few memorable ‘darker’ pictures like Phil Karlson’s Scandal Sheet in 1952. Ms. Reed tried to get meatier roles, something other than good girl ingénues, for years, but studio executives had carefully nurtured her good girl image. When the role of Alma, the call girl/hostess who falls for Montgomery Clift’s character in Fred Zinnemann’s From Here to Eternity, came up she fought for it and resentment at the studio surfaced. Zinnemann was vehemently opposed to her casting and she was forced to do three screen tests. “The whole point about Alma was she was a prostitute who didn’t look like one,” Miss Reed said. ”Try telling that to the studios.”

Donna Reed’s insistence paid off. She won Zinnemann over and at Academy Award time was named Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her performance. She beat Grace Kelly for Mogambo, Geraldine Page for Hondo, Marjorie Rambeau for Torch Song, and Thelma Ritter for Pickup on South Street that day. Donna Reed is terrific in From Here to Eternity, delivering a beautifully layered performance. From Here to Eternity and Donna Reed were huge successes with audiences and critics alike. Still, although Reed’s Oscar win brought her earning power, it did little to bring better roles her way, as she stated, “All the Oscar brought me was more bland Goody-Two-Shoes parts.”

Reed made a few notable pictures in the 1950s including Richard Brooks’ melodrama The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954), of which I am a big fan, and Valentine Davies’ The Benny Goodman Story (1956). But the majority of movies brought to her were more forgettable ‘B’ pictures. With her disappointment in the movie industry by this time, Donna Reed set her sights on television where she would make her biggest mark and garner the most success. Taking advantage of television’s growing popularity, Owen and Reed started their own production company and developed The Donna Reed Show created by William S. Roberts. The show premiered in September 1958.

The Stone family played by Shelley Fabares, Paul Petersen. Seated-Carl Betz and Donna Reed.

The member of the Stone family are Dr. Alex Stone, the dad and father played by Carl Betz; Donna Reed played Donna Stone, the sweet, but tough heart of the family; Shelley Fabares as teenage daughter Mary, and Paul Peterson as son Jeff. Patty Petersen joined the show later as Trisha, adopted by the Stone’s after Mary left for college. 

With The Donna Reed Show Donna Reed became “the wife and mother everybody wanted” as Shelley Fabares said during an interview. The Donna Stone character helped Reed transition from her former role as favorite sweet small-town girl. Although everything always ended hunky dory on The Donna Reed Show, the star played as close to real life as was possible. In other words, she got down and dirty when need be. Donna Stone was not always dressed in pearls and perfectly coiffed, which made her all the more admirable. 

Donna Reed not only acted in the situation comedy, receiving numerous Emmy Award nominations and a Golden Globe win for her portrayal, but she was also active behind the scenes, making sure stories met her standards with episodes telling half-hour moral stories about family for the show’s eight-year run. Reed often fought pressure from ABC and the show’s sponsor, Campbell Soup, to tell stories that had depth. In addition, she worked closely with her producer husband on casting. As Paul Petersen said during a presentation on the show, Donna Reed had learned producing details during her days with MGM and she put them to use on The Donna Reed Show.

It is refreshing to look back at behind-the behind stories of the making of The Donna Reed Show because in every instance word is that Donna Reed and the rest of the cast were joys to work with – always prepared, always professional, lovely people. Reed’s daughter, Mary Owen, who talks about her mother being ahead of her time as a working mother when it was not popular to be one, tells one of my favorite anecdotes. The fact is that since Donna Reed worked in real life, Mary and her siblings did not know her as she was on the show, serving coffee and dinner for the family, so Mary says she learned about that sort of mother from The Donna Reed Show.

The Reed show was not an instant hit, but it became one of the most successful situation comedies on the air during its run. I can vouch for the show myself since I watch it every chance I get. The show is a wonderful blend of talent, humor and heart, the blend that makes truly classic golden age shows so memorable. I have several favorite episodes, to many to list in fact, but a few stand out. “Mary’s Driving Lesson” from 1960, in which semi-regular Jimmy Hawkins appears, is one. I must admit I have a crush on Jimmy Hawkins who appeared in dozens of classic TV shows, but I know him best from co-starring with Elvis Presley and Shelley Fabares in Girl Happy (1965). Oh, and Hawkins also happened to play Jimmy Stewart’s and Donna Reed’s son Tommy in It’s a Wonderful Life. 

Another episode worth watching to whet your appetites is from 1950, “A Difference of Opinion” directed by Ida Lupino, just one of the legendary directors involved with the show. In that episode, Donna and Alex are invited to dinner by a couple they do not like, which causes a big argument they try to hide from the kids.

There are other reasons to watch the show if you find the time. For instance, The Donna Reed Show had great guest stars appear through the years, my favorite being Buster Keaton who made two appearances, in the 1958 episode, “A Very Merry Christmas” and from 1965, “Now You See It, Now You Don’t.” 

Throughout her life and career, Donna Reed proved as tough and determined as Donna Stone did. Only more so. Reed consistently made tough decisions to try to energize her career when the yes-men at the studios wanted to tie her down. Reed also took center stage on huge world issues no matter how tough. This beautiful actor had serious spine.

Donna Reed’s final performance was as Miss Elli on CBS’s prime time soap, Dallas appearing in 24 episodes in the 1984-85 season. Reed replaced Barbara Bel Geddes in the show after the original Miss Ellie left due to heart surgery. After Barbara Bel Geddes recovered, she was rehired to play Miss Ellie, which meant the show broke Donna Reed’s three-year contract. Reed sued and accepted a one million dollar settlement. 

Donna Reed died of pancreatic cancer in 1986, not long after her Dallas appearances. She was only 64. Her children Penny, Tony, Timothy and Mary Owen and her third husband, retired Army colonel Grover Asmus, survived Reed. Grover Asmus established The Donna Reed Foundation for the Performing Arts in her honor. 

Donna Reed (January 27, 1921 – January 14, 1986) – remembered.

8 thoughts

  1. Lovely tribute to a fine actress. Donna is in one of my favourite westerns, “Hangman’s Knot.”
    (Sorry, my ‘like’ button only works when it wants to.)

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