||THE DONNA REED SHOW
Domestic sitcom about a middle class couple and their kids in the 1950s.
275 episodes of 30 minutes duration. ABC 1958-1966.
A family-oriented situation comedy in the mould of “Leave It To Beaver” and “Father Knows Best,” “The Donna Reed Show” had a long and successful eight-year run. It was not funnier than other shows (though it wasn’t bad for its genre) nor was it a radical departure from the norm (though it had its own twists). The main reason people watched was Donna Reed, the Academy Award-winning actress who was one of the few women of the late 1950's to have behind-the-scenes control of her own television series. And though she came off as “goody two-shoes” on the screen, she was anything but passive in real life.
Donna Belle Mullenger was born January 27th, 1921 on an Iowa farm. As she grew up, her beauty helped her win various pageants in the area. After graduation from high school, she went to Los Angeles to study acting. It was during that time an MGM talent scout spotted the young woman and signed to a contract. Now billed as “Donna Reed,” she appeared in a number of the studio’s films, starting with a role in 1941's “The Get-Away.”
Five years later, she co-starred with James Stewart in what would become her best-known screen role as Mary Hatch Bailey in the Frank Capra holiday classic “It’s A Wonderful Life.” After “Life”, Reed’s roles were mostly of the good-girl, wholesome type. She tried to break that stereotype, playing the prostitute Alma Burke in the film “From Here To Eternity.” But despite winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, the part did not lead to more serious or showy roles. Her husband, Tony Owen, urged her to consider television. As a result, the pair formed Todon Productions and sold their series to Screen Gems (the television studio arm of Columbia Pictures).
“The Donna Reed Show” premiered September 24th, 1958 on ABC. It was in the mould Donna wanted: herself as Donna Stone, mother and housewife in the fictional town of Hilldale. Husband Alex (Carl Betz) was a doctor who made house calls, usually leaving Donna to handle the trials and tribulations of their two children, son Jeff (Paul Petersen) and teenage daughter Mary (Shelley Fabares). Not unlike many comedies, there were misunderstandings and minor crisis, but all was well before the final commercial for the show’s sponsors, Campbell Soup and health care giant Johnson & Johnson.
The situations were reasonable if a bit exaggerated; as Reed put it at the time, “We’ve worked very hard to put together a believable family and a realistic picture of family life...I’m fed up to here with stories about kooky, amoral or sick women.” Donna Stone was anything but kooky, amoral or sick. She was the mom every child wanted and the wife every man wanted to marry. Son Jeff provided the laughs; daughter Mary was the subject of teenage fantasies (girls wanted to be like her; boys wanted to date her.)
In an unusual move for a comedy of the time, the two young actors had brief but successful recording careers. Thanks to Columbia’s Colpix music division, Paul Petersen hit the charts with such songs as “My Dad” and “She Can’t Find Her Keys.” But it was Shelley Fabares who had the biggest hit of the pair; her romantic ode, “Johnny Angel,” was a Number One song in 1962. Both sang their respective sons on the show; Fabares was against the idea, telling producers she couldn’t sing. Record buyers didn’t care; “Johnny Angel” was a well-produced and pleasant song about love that obviously hit a chord with fans.
In 1963, Fabares left the show (she was written out as going to college.) The Stones adopt a young orphan named Trisha (Patty Petersen, younger sister of Paul) and have the mandatory next-door neighbours, fellow Doctor David Kelsey (a pre-“Hogan’s Heroes” Bob Crane) and wife Midge (Ann McCrea). But through it all was Donna Reed who, according to the Donna Reed Foundation For The Performing Arts website (www.donnareed.org) noted, was the “uncredited producer and director of the show, studying and mastering lighting and cinematography–roles rarely handled by women at that time.”
By this time, Donna Reed became increasingly tired of her television role; she threatened to quit several times but was always soothed by more money and a reduced workload. Her threat to quit was real when she called it quits in 1966 after eight years and 275 episodes. (She never won an Emmy for her Donna Stone role, even though she was nominated four times.) Not long after “Donna Reed” went into syndicated reruns, the woman who played the perfect homemaker and wife divorced husband Tony Oden; became an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War and was chairperson of an organization called “Another Mother For Peace.”
And it turned out Donna Reed was a feminist, denouncing the “two-dimensional, stereotyped woman” she played, and despised what she called the “male mentalities that control TV programming.” But she never achieved the success of “The Donna Reed Show” again; the actress appeared in several made-for-television films after the show’s run. Her last major role was on the prime time drama “Dallas,” where she replaced Barbara Bel Geddes as Miss Ellie. After only one season, Reed was fired and Bel Geddes returned to the role. Reed was so angry; she sued Lorimar, the company that produced “Dallas” for breach of contract. She won her battle with the “Dallas” folks (a seven-figure settlement), but the 64-year-old actress lost her battle with pancreatic cancer on January 14th, 1986.
Years later, the picture of Donna Reed/Donna Stone remains that of the perfect housewife and mom. In a 2001 episode of the mother-daughter saga “Gilmore Girls,” Rory’s boyfriend Dean angered her when he admitted he liked the idea of a Donna Stone-like girlfriend after watching the reruns:
Questions Site Information Contact
Dean: (about Donna Reed) She seems happy.
Lorelai: She's medicated.
Rory: And acting from a script.
Lorelai: Written by a man.
Rory: Well said, Sister Suffragette.
Even today, “The Donna Reed Show” can divide the most modern of television women.
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