Donna Reed was born Donna Mullenger, and she grew up an Iowa farm girl. She wanted to become a teacher and on the advice of a relative, she went to college in Los Angeles. While working on her degree, she was spotted by MGM talent scouts. Donna was signed to a motion picture contract with the studio, but because America was about to enter the war, and there was a bias against Germans, her last name was changed to Reed.
She had a lead role in a remake of PUBLIC HERO NO. 1, which was titled THE GET-AWAY. It was a hit, but different from the kinds of wholesome pictures the studio would start to place her in. She soon worked with Mickey Rooney in an Andy Hardy picture; played little Bobby Blake’s mom in the family comedy MOKEY; and she had a role in the western comedy GENTLE ANNIE. During this time, her image became popular with American service personnel.
As a result of her popularity with soldiers, MGM decided to cast Donna as Robert Walker’s girlfriend in the military satire SEE HERE, PRIVATE HARGROVE. There was also an assignment in John Ford’s war drama THEY WERE EXPENDABLE, where she played opposite fellow Iowa native John Wayne. Donna and Duke would work together again in the 50s, in the college football comedy-drama TROUBLE ALONG THE WAY. From this point forward Donna was generally typecast as the girl-next-door.
As a result of her screen image, RKO requested to use her for Frank Capra’s postwar drama IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. It’s probably Donna’s most well-known film, with her cast as James Stewart’s small town sweetheart. After the success of this picture, Donna returned to Metro but was dissatisfied with subsequent roles and asked to be let out of her contract. She did two films at Paramount with Alan Ladd, then signed with Columbia. And at Columbia, she successfully played against type in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, earning an Oscar.
By the late 50s, Donna’s movie career was in decline. She and her producer husband sought to re-establish her on television. For eight years, she starred in The Donna Reed Show, playing (what else) an all-American suburban mom. After the sitcom left the airwaves in 1966, Donna went into semi-retirement. But in the mid-80s, producers Leonard Goldberg and Aaron Spelling lured her back to television for a movie of the week and a special two-part episode of The Love Boat. Then when Barbara Bel Geddes temporarily vacated her role on the primetime sudser Dallas, producers of that program enticed Donna to step in for a year to play Miss Ellie.
- the get-away (1941); mgm; crime; robert sterling; 89 mins.
- the courtship of andy hardy (1942); mgm; comedy; mickey rooney; 95 mins.
- mokey (1942); mgm; comedy; bobby blake; 88 mins.
- see here, private hargrove (1945); mgm; comedy; robert walker; 101 mins.
- they were expendable (1945); mgm; war; john wayne; 135 mins.
- it’s a wonderful life (1946); rko; comedy drama; james stewart; 130 mins.
- beyond glory (1948); paramount; drama; alan ladd; 82 mins.
- trouble along the way (1953); warners; comedy drama; john wayne; 110 mins.
- from here to eternity (1953); columbia; war; montgomery clift; 118 mins.
- backlash (1956); universal; western; richard widmark; 84 mins.