Donna Reed's show reflects an era when mother, too, knew best
December 27, 2011 10:00 AM
The TV series "The Donna Reed Show," 1958-66, centered on the Stone family -- Shelley Fabares, left, Donna Reed, Carl Betz and Paul Petersen.
By Tom Gilbert The New York Times
To baby boomers of a certain age, Donna Reed was a sunny-bright television fixture for eight seasons, the perfect mom -- at least according to the prevailing values of the day -- radiantly gliding down the staircase every week to answer the beckoning phone, its ringing augmented by an impossibly perky musical theme fittingly titled "Happy Days."
"The Donna Reed Show" is seldom rerun, hobbled by its black-and-white photography, but its eponymous star is still regularly beamed back to mind this time of year with broadcasts of "It's a Wonderful Life," the beloved Frank Capra film in which she co-stars with Jimmy Stewart, reminding viewers of her soft-spoken, wholesome appeal. The long-unseen fourth season of the 1958-66 series was released this month on DVD (from MPI Home Video), making it available for the first time to a new generation of viewers and older ones eager to become reacquainted.
Unquestionably white bread with its generic Midwestern locale (the fictional Hilldale), "The Donna Reed Show" can be seen as a filmed affirmation of a simpler, more prosperous epoch, a feel-good interpretation by TV creative types and their sponsors that didn't exactly reflect society at large. It was about as low concept as you can get: a pleasant if unremarkable family sitcom centered on the life and trials of Donna Stone, the gracious wife of a handsome pediatrician and a loving mother of two teenagers, a precocious boy and his sensible older sister.
Pretty, charming and conservatively glamorous, Reed was also wise, tender and occasionally enterprising. For millions she represented the ideal wife and mother, the complete antithesis of a succession of harried, less-than-perfect moms that began with "Roseanne" in the 1980s and continues today with Patricia Heaton's Frankie Heck of "The Middle."
Most of the show's situations revolve around a family member's quandary, such as how to get out of a blind date with an unattractive boy (potentially a son's problem in our "Modern Family" era, but strictly a feminine conundrum back in Donna's days). Other pivotal plot points: getting bad advice from a friend or suffering the consequences of spreading gossip. Notably, the new fourth-season set includes "Donna's Prima Donna," the episode in which Shelley Fabares sings the debut of her 1962 No. 1 pop hit, "Johnny Angel," itself another touchstone of the era.
"The Donna Reed Show" didn't offer the sharply written, kids-world humor of "Leave It to Beaver," the down-home warmth of Mayberry of "The Andy Griffith Show" or the neatly crafted, spiritually uplifting morality plays of a similar, often-mentioned-in-the-same-breath series of the era, "Father Knows Best," all shows that have had a more durable life in syndication. But it did boast a glamorous Oscar winner as its star, a female perspective and a set of appealing kids in Ms. Fabares and Paul Petersen (and later, his real-life sister Patti, who popped up mid-run as an orphan conveniently adopted by the Stones when Ms. Fabares left the series to pursue new opportunities). Uniquely it also carried a slightly sensual undercurrent courtesy of its comparatively sexy leads.
Unlike most of the other TV couples of the era -- the Andersons, the Cleavers or even the real-life marrieds Ozzie and Harriet -- the shapely Reed and her co-star, Carl Betz, with his chiseled face and palpable masculinity, had a chemistry that suggested their characters might actually enjoy the circumstances of the dangerous, sponsor-scaring conjugal bed. In the opening credits, when Betz returns to the front door assertively to kiss Reed goodbye, there's an almost lascivious gleam in his eye, an unspoken promise to be back later for more.
Feminists criticized the show for its perpetuation of the image of the subservient, content-to-stay-at-home wife, although Reed, a working mother of four who became associated with her housewife character, took umbrage during a 1979 interview with the Associated Press: "I played a strong woman who could manage her family. That was offensive to a lot of people."
For Reed, who died in 1986, transplanting herself to television represented a big gamble. A small-town beauty queen who found her way to Hollywood and an MGM contract in 1941, she had enjoyed a 17-year film career that peaked with the Academy Award for best supporting actress in the 1953 film "From Here to Eternity." Then, as now, a move to the small screen was the equivalent to admitting an A-list movie career was over. But Reed was smart about it and teamed with her producer-husband, Tony Owen, to own and produce the show under their Todon Productions banner, following the leads of the ex-movie stars Lucille Ball (with Desi Arnaz) and Loretta Young (with Tom Lewis) before her.
Donna Stone's was a world that espoused longstanding moral virtues, one in which people always strove to present their best selves and, at all costs, keep unpleasantness and dirty laundry safe from the neighbors' view. Impeccable housekeeping (did humans actually live in that house?) and fastidiously mowed lawns were de rigueur, as were financial stability and a promising future. Its milieu embraced and reaffirmed the aspirations of "the 99 percent" of the early Cold War years, a mirror of how middle class people of the time thought they should be living.
At the same time "Reed" and its milky ilk tacitly reinforced the pervasive pressure to conform to a shallow, unrealistic societal model that dominated Eisenhower America. In explaining the show's approach, Owen, quoted in David C. Tucker's book "The Women Who Made Television Funny: Ten Stars of 1950s Sitcoms," said: "There's a good side and a bad side to everyone. Sure, they'll go for the nasty stuff at first, but you have to give them an ideal to look up to."
That idealized fantasy world would, of course, be torn asunder and turned on its head by the civil rights movement, the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War, women's liberation and all the other varieties of social upheaval soon to arrive. As the show's run ended, U.S. society was already in the throes of drastic change, and the star herself became an anti-war and anti-nuclear activist.
To the joy and relief of wistful, graying baby boomers, however, the world that Donna Reed inhabited and perpetuated in prime time remains pristine, an exquisitely preserved time capsule packed safely away in film cans, stored on digital tape, or entrusted to the cold care of hard drives.