One of the enduring mysteries of the mid-twentieth century is why The Donna Reed Show lasted a full 8 seasons. The half-hour situation comedy starring the Academy Award-winning namesake was one of several shows based around a family and its rather ordinary and mildly comical situations. And while The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet lasted an interminable 14 seasons, more popular shows like Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best lasted only 5 and 6 seasons, respectively. And The Donna Reed Show may have continued longer had Reed not grown tired of the grind of producing a weekly television program. And yet the show only rated in the top 25 once during its 8 years.
The main difference between The Donna Reed Show and the other family sit-coms of its day was that Reed, playing housewife Donna Stone, was the star and center of the show. There were other female-led TV shows at the time--The Ann Sothern Show, The Betty Hutton Show, and The Barbara Stanwyck Show--and while the first two of these were situation comedies, their stars played single women. Stanwyck's show was a drama omnibus featuring Stanwyck in the lead role playing a different character with a different cast each week. So Reed's show was the only one that showed a mother as the central character, as David Tucker has pointed out in The Women Who Made Television Funny.
One of the factors that makes the show an enigma is that Reed's character Donna Stone is a bit hard to pin down--she can change her attitude and position on situations and people sometimes multiple times within a single episode. At times she seems flighty and easily manipulated. This changeability makes it difficult to get a handle on who she really is. But at the core what I believe that Reed and husband producer Tony Owen wanted to portray was that Donna Stone is first and foremost a mother. And in this they captured some of the realistic traits of a mother, like the belief that her children are exceptional. In "The Perfect Pitch" (March 24, 1960), Donna learns that her son Jeff (Paul Petersen) has been told by his music teacher that he has perfect pitch. So Donna leaps to the conclusion that he is a musical prodigy and that he must be given music lessons, in this case on the trumpet, whether he wants them or not and whether he really shows any musical talent or not. After much pain and suffering for everyone involved, Donna is finally made to see that perfect pitch does not equate to musical talent. And in "Higher Learning" (November 10, 1960), even though Jeff's standing in his class has been falling since he began a concerted effort to make the football team, Donna has no problem believing that he is a genius when his school's principal tells her that Jeff scored exceptionally high on an I.Q. test. Though her husband Alex (Carl Betz) has a hard time believing that Jeff is a genius, she is ready to send him away to an exclusive school in Chicago for gifted children, until it finally becomes apparent that his high score on the test was a fluke.
At other times, she is overly sympathetic to what she believes is a child's suffering. In "The Broken Spirit," Alex chastises Jeff for being inconsiderate of others, but Donna interjects a rationalization for each of Jeff's inappropriate behaviors, as if to excuse him. When Jeff suddenly starts behaving appropriately but also seems disinterested in his usual favorite things, Donna is quick to believe that Alex has been too hard on him, when actually he incorrectly believes that he caused an old man's broken leg and is trying to build up good will so that his inevitable punishment will be lessened. And in "Someone Is Watching" (December 22, 1960), Donna is easily duped by Jeff's manipulative friend Gordie, who fakes an injury to get Donna's attention and later plans to use it to get his father to buy him a trampoline.
But even though Donna is depicted as a flawed, easily fooled mother, we are intended to see her as someone with her heart in the right place, more to be admired than criticized. And occasionally she steps out of her stereotypical housewife role to take on an important issue, as in the episode "Just a Housewife" (January 28, 1960) in which Donna stands up for the rights and respect of all housewives, who by her reckoning are part diplomat, part psychologist, part philosopher, and so on. She expresses her opinion on a fluffy radio show hosted by a glib comedian in the local grocery store and soon has all of Hilldale in an uproar--women support her, while men think she is getting out of hand. Even though she is hardly disturbing the convention of the housewife's role, merely demanding the respect she is due, the episode has a proto-feminist flavor to it. However, in "The Career Woman" (April 28, 1960), Donna's old friend Molly Duncan, who has become a world-famous fashion designer, feels unfulfilled and visits Donna to convince herself that she won't be happy until she has a husband and children. So overall the show did more to uphold the status quo rather than challenge it.
Another somewhat serious topic is covered in the episode "The Editorial" (March 3, 1960) in which Jeff becomes the editor of his school newspaper and wants to run an opinion piece complaining that teachers assign too much homework. But the faculty advisor of the paper, Mrs. Walters, will not let him run it, which amounts to censorship. Jeff secretly has a friend run off copies of his piece on a toy printing press and hands them out to his classmates, which results in his being fired from the paper. Jeff then leads a revolt of his fellow students in refusing to turn in their homework, even though they have completed it. But the episode then takes a turn back to the establishment when Alex points out to Jeff that Mrs. Walters spends her summer vacations going to college on her own dime to make herself a better teacher, while Jeff and his friends are taking it easy. This shames Jeff into abandoning the revolt, essentially arguing that suppressing freedom of speech is alright if you do some extra work you don't have to.
But thankfully, The Donna Reed Show doesn't often fall into the weekly sermon rut that so many family sit-coms of the era lived by. One exception is "How the Other Side Lives" (October 20, 1960) in which Mary (Shelley Fabares) visits a wealthy friend Ginny and then comes home embarrassed by her simple, middle-class family. Donna has to set her straight after Ginny comes to visit them, showing her that she has become a snob, whereas Ginny enjoys being in an environment that is less formal.
One other strike against the show is that most of the characters are not particularly likeable. Besides the nebulous Donna Stone, teenagers Mary and Jeff both have their annoying traits. Jeff is often inconsiderate and entirely self-centered. He gets away with whatever he can, constantly torments Mary, and even talks back to his parents. And yet, we are supposed to find him amusing. Mary is mostly whiny and obsessed with boys and the trivialities of high school girl competition, though she does occasionally show a more mature side. In "Mary's Crusade" (May 12, 1960), she stands up for her friend Ellen, who is too intelligent to attract boys and not classically pretty. Mary refuses to go to the school dance unless someone asks Ellen to go. She later struggles with her decision and tries to work her way out of it, but in the end she stands firm on her principle. In "A Night to Howl" (February 25, 1960) she complains that everyone in the family is in a rut and that the girls at school are only concerned with boys and silly things (as is she in almost every other episode) rather than being interested in poetry, beauty, and romance. Her complaint has an effect on her parents, who decide to try something different in going out for the evening, only it quickly turns into a disaster. But it makes them appreciate the comfortable rut of their usual existence all the more.
Alex is perhaps the most likeable character: he has a good sense of humor and never takes himself too seriously, even when he is trying to be in control, as in "Alex Runs the House" (April 21, 1960). Like Donna, he can be misled, but his character always seems to squeeze more comedy out of being mistaken.
The theme music for the show, written by William Loose and John Seely, is a bouncy instrumental called "Happy Days" almost in the same spirit as "Holiday for Strings." Starting with the third episode of Season 3, the show briefly switched to a slightly slower, more lush arrangement, heavy on strings with considerably less bounce. But this only continued for a few episodes before switching back to the more sprightly version heard throughout Season 2. The scenes depicted while this music played were all variations on the original sequence of Donna seeing the children off to school and Alex off to work, but at least three different versions were used during 1960, each showing Donna with a different hair-do and outfit. The sequence used most often in Season 3 also showed Mary and Jeff as being older with more grown up outfits.
Donna Reed grew up on a farm in Iowa as Donna Belle Mullenger. She was a beauty contest winner in her hometown of Denison but left for Los Angeles when she matriculated to college with the intention of becoming a movie actress, which she accomplished after being spotted by an MGM talent scout at one of her college theatre productions. She started with small roles in 1941, which grew increasingly bigger until she starred in The Picture of Dorian Gray in 1945 and then played Jimmy Stewart's wife in It's a Wonderful Life the following year. She won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in From Here to Eternity in 1953 and donned heavy brown makeup to play Native American Sacajawea opposite Charlton Heston and Fred MacMurray as Lewis & Clark in The Far Horizons in 1955. After filming The Whole Truth in 1958 she began her television career, which lasted until 1966. After that, she appeared in only a couple of TV movies and a role for one season on Dallas. She died of pancreatic cancer at age 64 on January 14, 1986.
Born in Pittsburgh, Betz got the acting bug early, forming a repertory group while still in high school. He played tailback for what is now Carnegie Mellon against TCU in the 1938 Sugar Bowl. After World War II, he worked as a radio announcer before landing an acting contract with Twentieth Century-Fox. His film career included supporting roles, until he moved over to television.
After The Donna Reed Show, he starred in his own series, Judd for the Defense, from 1967-69 as defense attorney Clinton Judd. Thereafter he made guest appearances on shows like Mod Squad, The F.B.I., and Mission: Impossible and played in TV movies until his death from lung cancer January 18, 1978 at age 56.
The niece of singer and comedienne Nanette Fabray, Shelley was tap dancing by age 3 and modeling while still in elementary school. She began appearing on TV shows like Captain Midnight as early as 1954, and while starring on The Donna Reed Show had a #1 hit record with the teen anthem "Johnny Angel," even though she admittedly had no vocal talent whatsoever. Perhaps coincidentally she married record super producer Lou Adler two years later in 1964.
After leaving The Donna Reed Show, she starred in teen-themed movies like Ride the Wild Surf and Hold On with Peter Noone of Herman's Hermits, then appeared in three Elvis Presley movies--Girl Happy, Spinout, and Clambake. She later tried more serious fare, appearing as James Caan's wife in Brian's Song but in the 1980s returned to TV with a regular role on One Day at a Time and later as Craig T. Nelson's wife on Coach. She has more recently done voice work on animated super hero cartoons such as Superman and Justice League.
Born in Glendale, California, Petersen was pushed into show business by his mother and by age 8 was a Mouseketeer, a job he was fired from for "conduct unbecoming" to a producer who repeatedly called him a "mouse." He also appeared in the film Houseboat with Cary Grant and Sophia Loren before landing his spot on The Donna Reed Show. Like Shelley Fabares, Petersen became a teen favorite and scored a pop hit with "My Dad," which reached #6 on the charts in 1962.
After The Donna Reed Show Petersen had a smattering of guest appearances on show like F Troop, Mannix, The Flying Nun, and several appearances on Matt Houston. He also appeared in occasional movies, such as the Disney Fred MacMurray comedy The Happiest Millionaire. But Petersen came to feel abandoned by Hollywood, unable to escape the shadow of The Donna Reed Show, and never landed any leading roles after it. After the death of former child actor Rusty Hamer, he founded the advocacy agency A Minor Consideration to improve working conditions for child actors and help them make the transition to adult life. He eventually left acting himself, went to college, and began writing adventure novels and running his own limousine service. He has maintained his connection to his TV mother by serving on the board of The Donna Reed Foundation and participates in the Donna Reed Festival in her hometown of Denison, Iowa.
Notable Guest Stars
Season 2, Episode 16, "The Broken Spirit": Raymond Hatton (starred in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Lord Jim, Alice in Wonderland, as Rusty Joslin in 8 different westerns, and as Marshal Sandy Hopkins in 25 other westerns) plays Mr. Hatton, who Jeff believes has broken his leg due to Jeff's negligence.
Season 2, Episode 17, "The Secret": Roberta Shore (Henrietta Gogerty on The Bob Cummings Show and Betsy Garth on The Virginian) plays Mary's friend Carol, who has a secret she wants Mary to keep.
Season 2, Episode 18, "The New Mother": Charles Herbert (starred in The Fly and 13 Ghosts and who played Peter McCauley on Men Into Space) plays Jeff's friend David, who runs away from his military school.
Season 2, Episode 19, "Just a Housewife": Jerry Hausner (Jerry on I Love Lucy and was the voice of Waldo on Mister Magoo) plays annoying radio personality Jerry Parker.
Season 2, Episode 20, "The Free Soul": Myron McCormick (starred in No Time for Sergeants and The Hustler) plays Alex's old family friend and free-spirited drifter Dan Harris.
Season 2, Episode 22, "A Place to Go": Stafford Repp (Chief O'Hara on Batman and Brink on The New Phil Silvers Show) plays Sgt. McDermott, who catches Jeff and his friends in an abandoned house.
Season 2, Episode 26, "The Fatal Leap": Jack Albertson (played Lt. Harry Evans on The Thin Man, Walter Burton on Room for One More, Lt. Cmdr. Virgil Stoner on Ensign O'Toole, Paul Fenton on Mister Ed, and Ed Brown on Chico and the Man) plays Alex's friend Jack, with whom he is going to a bachelor party.
Season 2, Episode 31, "The Career Woman": Esther Williams (star of many "aqua musicals" such as Bathing Beauty, Million Dollar Mermaid, and Dangerous When Wet) plays Donna's old friend and world-famous fashion designer Molly Duncan.
Season 2, Episode 34, "The First Time We Met": Bob Hastings (Lt. Elroy Carpenter on McHale's Navy , Tommy Kelsey on All in the Family, and was the voice of the Raven on The Munsters) plays bachelor Dr. Landers, for whom Donna is trying to play matchmaker.
Season 2, Episode 35, "The Gossip": Elisabeth Fraser (MSgt. Joan Hogan on The Phil Silvers Show, Mildred Hogan on One Happy Family, and Miss Warner on McKeever & the Colonel) plays Donna's gossipy friend Emily.
Season 2, Episode 37, "The Wedding Present": Harriet E. MacGibbon (Margaret Drysdale on The Beverly Hillbillies) plays socialite Mrs. Manning. Tommy Farrell (Chet Holliday on This Is Alice, Jay O'Hanlon on Bourbon Street Beat, Riff Ryan on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, and Fred on Room for One More) plays interior decorator Mr. Jason.
Season 2, Episode 38, "Cool Cat": Jimmy Hawkins (Tagg Oakley on Annie Oakley, Jonathon Baylor on Ichabod and Me, Jimmy on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Orville Miggs on Petticoat Junction, and later played Scotty on The Donna Reed Show) plays Mary's friend Jerry.
Season 3, Episode 3, "Donna Decorates": Jay North (Dennis Mitchell on Dennis the Menace) plays Dennis the Menace, who tries to help Donna paint her house. Joseph Kearns (Mr. Wilson on Dennis the Menace) plays Mr. Wilson. George Cisar (Sgt. Theodore Mooney on Dennis the Menace and Cyrus Tankersly on The Andy Griffith Show and Mayberry R.F.D.) plays Baxter the electrician.
Season 3, Episode 4, "The Love Letter": Jay Novello (Juan Greco on Zorro and Mayor Mario Lugatto on McHale's Navy) plays the Stone's cleaning man Nick Melinas. Irene Vernon (Louise Tate on Bewitched) plays Donna's acquaintance Mrs. Brown.
Season 3, Episode 6, "Alex's Twin": Jack Albertson (see "The Fatal Leap" above) plays Alex's architect friend Jack Richards. Cheerio Meredith (Love Hackett on One Happy Family and Emma Brand on The Andy Griffith Show) plays Alex's former teacher Mrs. Graham.
Season 3, Episode 7, "Worried, Anyone?": Jimmy Hawkins (see "Cool Cat" above) plays Mary's dance date Scotty Simpson.
Season 3, Episode 8, "Higher Learning": Richard Deacon (Mel Cooley on The Dick Van Dyke Show and Roger Buell on The Mothers-in-Law) plays Jeff's principal Mr. Conroy.
Season 3, Episode 9, "Never Marry a Doctor": Maxine Stuart (Maureen on Norby, Ruth Burton on Room for One More, Mrs. Hewitt on Peyton Place, Marge Newberry on Executive Suite, Amanda Earp on The Rousters, and Eleanor "Gram" Rutledge on The Pursuit of Happiness) plays wealthy and unsympathetic Mrs. Cruikshank.
Season 3, Episode 10, "It Only Hurts When I Laugh": Helen Kleeb (Mamie Baldwin on The Waltons) plays Nurse Jane.
Season 3, Episode 11, "The Model Daughter": Henry Beckman (Commander Paul Richards on Flash Gordon, Mulligan on I'm Dickens, He's Fenster, George Anderson on Peyton Place, Colonel Harrigan on McHale's Navy, Capt. Roland Frances Clancey on Here Come the Brides, Pat Harwell on Funny Face, Harry Mark on Bronk, and Alf Scully on Check It Out) plays Alex's nosy neighbor Hal.
Season 3, Episode 12, "Decisions, Decisions, Decisions": Harvey Korman (various characters on The Carol Burnett Show, the voice of The Great Gazoo on The Flintstones, Harvey A. Kavanuagh on The Harvey Korman Show, Leo Green on Leo & Liz in Beverly Hills, and Reginald J. Tarkington on The Nutt House) plays the headwaiter at The Flamingo. Dick Wilson (Dino Barone on McHale's Navy) plays the waiter.
Season 3, Episode 14, "Someone Is Watching": Michael McGreevey (Jimmy "Chip" Kessler on Riverboat) plays manipulative youngster Gordie Pratt.