As the star of her own ABC sitcom between 1958 and 1966, Donna Reed epitomized selfless American motherhood, but her crowning achievement had been winning an Academy Award for playing a prostitute. Reed specialized in girl-next-door types after signing with MGM in 1941. Her role as a courageous Navy nurse in John Ford's "They Were Expendable" (1945) brought her to the attention of Frank Capra, who paired her with James Stewart in "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946). Long before it was canonized as a holiday classic, Capra's paean to small-town American life was written off as a failure, prompting the producers of the baseball biopic "The Stratton Story" (1949) to drop Reed from the cast when Stewart signed on. Reed rebounded with a role in Fred Zinnemann's "From Here to Eternity" (1953) and took home an Oscar for playing a hooker entangled in a tortured relationship with army private Montgomery Clift. Disappearing from public life after the cancelation of "The Donna Reed Show," the actress returned in 1984 to replace Barbara Bel Geddes for a season on the prime time ABC soap opera "Dallas" (1978-1991). Fired a year later with the return of Bel Geddes, Reed won a hefty settlement from the series' producers for breach of contract but succumbed to pancreatic cancer early in 1986. The revaluation of "It's a Wonderful Life" boosted Reed's posthumous Hollywood stock, drawing new fans to her signature roles and to an appreciation of her unique blend of beauty, intelligence and unflappable poise.
Donna Reed was born Donna Belle Mullenger in the small Iowa town of Dennison on Jan. 27, 1924. The first-born of five children, she grew up on her father's farm and was raised with her siblings in the Methodist faith. Reed attended Denison High School, graduating at the top of her class and winning the title of Beauty Queen. She had hoped to attend college with an aim toward becoming a teacher, but the family lacked sufficient funds to send her. On the advice of an aunt, Reed headed for Los Angeles, where secretarial courses at Los Angeles City College cost five dollars a semester. While a student at LACC, Reed participated in campus dramatics and was crowned Campus Queen. Scouts from the Hollywood studios began making offers of a contract but Reed insisted on finishing her secretarial studies, interested more in the promise of steady work as a stenographer and its median salary of $15 per week.
Reed was signed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1941. That same year, she made her feature film debut as Donna Adams in the crime drama "The Get-Away." A remake of "Public Hero No. 1" (1935), the film found Reed's Irish-American nice girl Mary Theresa O'Reilly torn between loyalty to her gangster-on-the-lam brother Dan Dailey and the stirrings of love for undercover fed Robert Sterling. Additional wholesome roles followed in "Shadow of the Thin Man" (1941), with the actress cast as the girlfriend of murder suspect Paul Clarke, and opposite Mickey Rooney in "The Courtship of Andy Hardy" (1942), for which MGM played up Reed's childhood past by announcing that they would film the feature's trailer on the Mullenger family farm. Reed reteamed with Rooney for "The Human Comedy" (1943), while also appearing with Lionel Barrymore in both "Calling Dr. Gillespie" (1942) and "Dr. Gillespie's Criminal Case" (1943), spin-offs of MGM's popular cycle of hospital films sparked by "Young Dr. Kildare" (1938).
An atypical role for Reed was as the Spanish heroine of "Apache Trail" (1942), opposite Lloyd Nolan and William Lundigan as a pair of outlaw brothers. She enjoyed third billing in Albert Lewin's Academy Award-winning "The Picture of Dorian Gray" (1945), an adaptation of the novel by Oscar Wilde. Cast as the upright love interest of star Hurd Hatfield, Reed was overshadowed by Angela Landsbury's Golden Globe-winning turn as a dance hall singer who gets the worst of Dorian Gray. During World War II, her corn-fed Iowa beauty proved popular with U.S. troops stationed overseas and she played her part in the war effort by dancing with serviceman at the Hollywood Canteen. Between 1943 and 1945, Reed was married to makeup man William Tuttle. Obtaining a quickie divorce in Mexico, Reed married producer Tony Owen.
It was Reed's performance as a Navy nurse in John Ford's "They Were Expendable" (1945) that earned her consideration for the female lead in "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946). Capra had initially approached Jean Arthur and Ginger Rogers for the role of Mary Hatch, dutiful wife of James Stewart's beleaguered small-town hero. When both actresses turned him down, feeling the part was not dynamically proportionate to their star status, Capra requested that Reed be loaned from MGM to RKO Radio Pictures. Not an immediate success, "It's a Wonderful Life" attained cult status with the lapse of its copyright and repeat TV broadcasts. Next up, Reed was Lana Turner's sister in "Green Dolphin Street" (1947), a melodrama set against New Zealand's 1845 Maori uprising. She had been cast opposite Van Johnson in "The Stratton Story" (1949) but when Johnson was replaced by James Stewart, the film's producers dropped Reed in favor of June Allyson, fearful of reteaming the stars of the then-failed "It's a Wonderful Life."
At Paramount Pictures for Lewis Allen's flashback-driven "Chicago Deadline" (1949), Reed played comely murder victim Rosita D'Ur, whose sad tale comes to light through the pains of reporter Alan Ladd. Signed with Columbia Pictures, she appeared in Phil Karlson's "Scandal Sheet" (1952), as a resourceful newspaper reporter who helps colleague John Derek unmask Manhattan's Lonelyhearts Killer as their own editor-in-chief, Broderick Crawford. Reed seemed miscast as the aristocratic lover of pirate John Payne in the swashbuckler "Raiders of the Seven Seas" (1953) but her next assignment was a career changer. Tapped to appear with actor Aldo Ray in a screen test for Fred Zinnemann's "From Here to Eternity" (1953), Reed walked away with the role of Alma, a prostitute involved in a tortured love affair with a nonconformist army bugler - a role that went to Montgomery Clift. Among the film's many Academy Awards was one for Reed, as Best Actress in a Supporting Role.
Despite her Oscar win in a gritty role that was at impressive odds with her onscreen reputation for wholesomeness, Reed had difficulty capitalizing on her success. She enjoyed work in a few hit films, among them the Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis vehicle "The Caddy" (1953) and "The Last Time I Saw Paris" (1954), which featured Elizabeth Taylor and Van Johnson as leads. As the Shoshoni guide Sacajawea, she nursed explorer Charlton Heston to health and interracial romance in "The Far Horizons" (1955), but she was reduced to tears and hand-wringing as the anguished mother of a kidnapped child in "Ransom!" (1956) with Glenn Ford. Cutting her losses on the big screen, Reed turned to the medium of television to make her next big career move.
"The Donna Reed Show" (ABC, 1958-1966) cast the 34-year-old actress as the quintessential TV mom, a loving wife and mother with an indispensable cache of tender words and good advice. Developed and produced by Reed with husband Tony Owen, the sitcom was not an instant hit with viewing audiences but ratings improved when it was shifted from Wednesdays to Thursday nights. By 1963, the series was among television's Top 25 shows, its popularity aided by hit songs recorded by Reed's juvenile co-stars Shelley Fabares and Paul Peterson. Between 1959 and 1962, Reed received four Emmy award nominations, and in 1963, she took home a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Leading Role in a Comedy Series.
Retreating to private life after the 1966 cancellation of her show, Reed stayed out of the limelight for more than a decade. An outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, she co-chaired the political advocacy group Another Mother for Peace. In 1971, Reed and Owen were divorced. In 1979, she returned to acting with a starring role in the NBC telefilm "The Best Place to Be," playing a lonely widow who takes her first uncertain steps toward a new beginning. In ABC's "Deadly Lessons" (1983), she was the autocratic and somewhat suspect headmistress of an exclusive finishing school plagued by a serial killer. In February 1984, Reed appeared in a two-hour special episode of "The Love Boat" (ABC, 1977-1986).
That same year, the producers of "Dallas" (ABC, 1978-1991) brought Reed in as a replacement for Barbara Bel Geddes, who had quit the primetime soap opera over unmet salary demands. Reed slipped easily into the role of oil matriarch Eleanor "Miss Ellie" Ewing, varying the characterization enough to make the part her own. The series' ratings remained consistently high during Reed's single season and at the end of her first year, her year contract was expanded to encompass two more. Yet when Bel Geddes approached the series' producers about returning to "Dallas," Reed was unceremoniously fired. Suing for breach of contract, Reed collected $1.25 million in damages. In December 1985, Reed was rushed to L.A.'s Cedars Sinai Hospital for treatment of a bleeding ulcer. A diagnosis was made of advanced pancreatic cancer. Given only a limited life expectancy, she was released from the hospital on Christmas Eve to be with her family. On Jan. 14, 1986, Reed succumbed to the disease, dying two weeks short of what would have been her 65th birthday.
By Richard Harland Smith