A column from the Donna Reed Foundation.
Sleuthing in the Donna Reed Archives.
by Judy Miller
The 1940s and 1950s were a busy and productive couple of decades for Donna
Reed, both personally and professionally.
In June of 1945, she was united in marriage with agent/producer Tony Owen. They started their family together almost immediately. By 1948 they had adopted Penny and Tony Jr.
They welcomed their first biological child Tim, in 1949. Their last biological child, Mary, came along in the Spring of 1957.
Working mothers were hardly the norm during that period; nevertheless, Donna was under a seven-year contract with MGM and worked nearly nonstop while raising her young family. MGM seems to have typecast Donna as a wholesome, but spunky girl next door. As near as I can determine she made 45 movies during this time, both feature films and B movies, with genres ranging from light drama war movies to crime to westerns, and even horror as in The Portrait of Dorian Gray (1945).
Occasionally MGM would loan Donna to another studio at a director's request. This was the case when Frank Capra specifically asked to cast her as Mary Hatch, the love interest and eventual wife of George Bailey played by James Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life (1946). This movie, which has become an Iconic Christmas classic, opened to lukewarm reviews and was not a big money maker.
Jimmy Stewart was 37 during the making of the film, his first after returning from the war. Donna was just 25 and less well-known. According to Donna’s daughter, Mary Anne Owen, Stewart could not understand the movie’s lack of box office success. At the time, he blamed his co-star’s less-established visibility and refused to work with her again. (After her passing in 1986, he praised her as a wonderful woman and the ideal actor for her role in that film, his favorite after his own long career.)
Time would agree with him. Years later Through the Clutter ranked It's a Wonderful Life as the best of Donna's movies, with From Here to Eternity (1953) ranked second, and Mokey (1942) in which Donna plays a young stepmother to a troubled child, ranked as worst.
From Here to Eternity was a big risk for Donna in several ways. It was a supporting role rather than a leading role; it was considered quite risque for sexual content; and she was cast as a prostitute with a heart of gold in a role far different from her usual good girl roles.
It is a story set in Honolulu, Oahu, Hawaii in the days leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor. She worked with notables Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Debrah Kerr, and Frank Sinatra, among others. The movie won her an Oscar in 1954 for Best Supporting Actress, beating out Grace Kelly, Geraldine Page, Marjorie Rambeau, and Thelma Ritter for the honor. Her Oscar is currently on display at the historic McHenry House here in Denison.
It looked like this might have been a breakaway role for Donna, but though the Oscar increased her earning power, it did not bring better roles. Donna is quoted in The New York Times: "All the Oscar brought me was more bland Goody-Two-Shoes parts."