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Donna Reed (Star of the Month)
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Donna Reed Profile
* Films in Bold Type on TCM

For some, Donna Reed will always be the epitome of the perfect wife and mom. Where this image comes from depends largely on age and cultural reference point. For those who were raised in the 1950s and '60s on a diet of television, Donna Reed is indelibly the suburban middle-class doctor's wife from her self-named hit sitcom, which aired from 1958 to 1966 and earned her Emmy nominations each of the first four years of the series' run. But as popular as that show was, the majority of people around the world are probably most familiar with the actress as James Stewart's long-suffering but steadfast wife in the holiday classic It's a Wonderful Life (1946).

Reed wasn't even the first choice to play Mary Hatch Bailey; director Frank Capra wanted Jean Arthur, the acclaimed comedienne who starred in several of his biggest pictures of the 1930s. But Reed proved up to the part, adeptly handling both the humor and the pathos. She also brought a special bonus to the role Ð a strong arm and sure aim, thanks to childhood expertise on the baseball diamond. In the scene where she and Stewart (as future husband George) engage in a bit of mischief at an abandoned house, Donna was able to haul a rock at some distance and break a window on cue without benefit of either special effects or a stunt double. A modest success on its initial release, the film has since become an annual phenomenon, and during the holiday season it's almost impossible not to catch it on one TV station or another at any hour of the day or night. As a result, the solid American dependability and sense of good-natured companionship Reed portrays in the film have become part of her image forever.

She came by her wholesome nature through an unpretentious upbringing, as a farm-raised girl (born Donna Belle Mullenger in 1921) from Denison, Iowa. But it was her looks that got her to Hollywood, first as the crowned beauty of her hometown high school and then as winner of the Campus Queen title at Los Angeles City College, where she took part in school dramatics. She was discovered there by MGM and signed to a contract, making her screen debut in The Get-Away (1941), playing the good girl trying in vain to reform gangster Dan Dailey. From there on, she was usually cast as the pretty but generally virtuous and uncomplicated All-American girl. She perfected that type in spin-offs of the studio's popular Dr. Kildare series, including Calling Dr. Gillespie (1942) and Dr. Gillespie's Criminal Case (1943), and in several Mickey Rooney films, including Clarence Brown's Oscar®-winning (Best Original Story) adaptation of William Saroyan's The Human Comedy (1943) and an installment of the studio's highly popular Andy Hardy series as Mickey Rooney's love interest in The Courtship of Andy Hardy (1942).

Reed got to show her acting skills to better effect in some mid-40s films that established her as a respected leading lady: opposite Robert Walker in the wartime comedy See Here, Private Hargrove (1944), as the only pure element left in the decadent life of Hurd Hatfield's title character in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), and her best notices up to that date as the no-nonsense Navy nurse opposite John Wayne and Robert Montgomery in John Ford's They Were Expendable (1945). Soon after, MGM lent her to Capra for It's a Wonderful Life, but she was quickly back at her home studio playing Lana Turner's sister in the lush period romance Green Dolphin Street (1947), her last picture under contract. She next turned up in a couple of Alan Ladd movies at Paramount (Beyond Glory (1948), Chicago Deadline, 1949) before signing on at Columbia.

Over the next few years, she appeared at the side of a number of leading men in a range of genres: with both John Derek and John Wayne, respectively, in the football tales Saturday's Hero (1951) and Trouble Along the Way (1953); with Randolph Scott in the western Hangman's Knot (1952); Derek again, and Broderick Crawford, in Phil Karlson's film noir Scandal Sheet (1952); and, in a role perhaps more suited to Maureen O'Hara or Yvonne DeCarlo, as a Spanish countess opposite John Payne as legendary pirate Barbarossa in Raiders of the Seven Seas (1953). But it was her next picture that would most notably shatter her nice-girl image and earn her an Academy Award for her efforts.

It's fairly common wisdom in Hollywood that one sure way to earn an Oscar® is to take on a role that totally reverses your typical screen persona. It worked for Elizabeth Taylor, going from glamour icon to overweight harridan in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), for squeaky-clean musical star Shirley Jones as the fallen lady of Elmer Gantry (1960), and for supermodel-gorgeous Charlize Theron as a homely, desperate serial killer in Monster (2003). And it paid off big time for Donna Reed, as a Honolulu hooker in the all-star drama From Here to Eternity (1953). Although the Production Code and the 50s air of repression presented the role of Alma, aka Lurene, as little more than a sympathetic dancehall hostess, Reed managed to bring out some of author James Jones's intentions, and audiences and critics alike responded to the mixture of vulnerability and sensuality in the actress's portrayal.

Despite the success and acclaim she experienced, Reed's subsequent roles didn't quite measure up. She made eleven more pictures, some of them notable hits - with Martin and Lewis in The Caddy (1953) and The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954) with Elizabeth Taylor Ð but she wasn't the star of these, and in 1958 she essentially retired from the big screen to star in her own TV show. She had a cameo role in Pepe (1960), made a film called Yellow-Headed Summer (1974) that was never released, and appeared in a couple of made-for-TV movies. Her final role was once more as a famous mom, replacing the ailing Barbara Bel Geddes as Ewing clan matriarch Miss Ellie in the highly popular TV series Dallas. Producers decided Reed wasn't as appealing in the role as the original star, and when Bel Geddes was feeling healthier, they fired Reed after only a year on the show. She sued and received an undisclosed sum, but not before succumbing to pancreatic cancer in 1986.

Off-screen, Donna Reed was more interesting and unconventional than the image of perfection that characterized her TV series. The "perfect wife" was married three times: to make-up artist William Tuttle, Columbia production executive Tony Owen (who created and produced her TV show), and to Col. Grover Asmus, who after her death created the Donna Reed Foundation in her honor to help those seeking careers in the arts. Reed was also an outspoken anti-nuclear activist and opponent of the Vietnam War and founded the group Another Mother for Peace.

by Rob Nixon
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