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Donna Reed: Fire and Ice

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This article was originally published on March 28, 1964.

Donna Reed

© SEPS

Not long ago, as she parked her bronze Rolls-Royce at Columbia studios in Hollywood, Donna Reed spied the talkative TV personality and producer David Susskind standing nearby. He was gazing covetously at the car. The stage was thereby set for the unlikely meeting of the pretty star of ABC-TV’s Donna Reed Show and the man who, on his Open End, had attacked her series as “pure drivel.” There ensued, according to Donna, the following dialogue:

Susskind: Is this your car? If so, I must say I’m impressed. And who, my dear, are you?

Miss Reed: I happen to be your favorite TV actress.

Susskind: And who might that be?

Miss Reed: (icily) For your information, Mr. Susskind, I am Donna Reed.

Susskind: (peering through windshield) Donna Reed? Oh. Uh, er, don’t you find this car rather — uh, large?

Miss Reed: (voice raised as Susskind retreats) If you ever get a good series of your own, maybe you’ll be able to afford one just like it!

Since that encounter Miss Reed has heard no further public criticism from Susskind. She scores the incident as a point for her side. “I think Susskind is a conceited blabbermouth,” she says.

Frank Sinatra and Donna Reed

Courtesy The Academy Awards

The tart tongue may seem at odds with the popular Donna Reed ­image, but the incident typifies the unshrinking nature of a star who occupies a select niche as one of the few female performers who still head their own series. When cornered, Donna Reed’s patience flies out the window. Six years ago, when the ratings showed that the opposition had outpointed her premiere show, the network curtly ordered her to change the format of the series, which casts Donna as the wife of a small-town pediatrician. Donna, on the phone to New York, fired back, “We’re not going to change our format. Maybe you’d better change your network.” The series not only won a quick toehold, but has proved so successful that Donna recently signed up for two additional seasons with the network.

Speaking with typical bluntness, Donna recently unloosed a pet notion of hers: “We have proved on our show that the public really does want to see a healthy woman, not a girl, not a neurotic, not a sexpot. We proved you don’t have to have an astonishing bosom or be involved in some Liz-­Dickie-­Eddie scandal. The public doesn’t give a damn about such things. Another thing — on my show I wear one kind of bra, and it’s not too small, and it’s not stuffed with cotton, and I’m not pushed up, pushed out, squeezed in, out or sideways. I simply wear a bra that fits. Forty movies I was in, and all I remember is, ‘What kind of a bra will you be wearing, honey?’ That was always the area of big decision — from the neck to the navel. Even with all the girl-next-door parts I played, there would usually be someone on the set whose job it was to look me up and down and say, ‘Is that dress tight enough, baby?’

“I get so fed up with immature ‘sex’ and stories about kooky, amoral, sick women. … I’m sick of this kind of misfit role, and I think the public is too.”

If pressed, Donna will sound off on other related avenues of show business in equally pungent fashion.

On Hollywood: “Everything they say about it is true. It’s a walled-in city bounded on all sides by arrogance. What’s more, the people in Hollywood who make motion pictures simply do not know about people or, often as not, about making motion pictures either.”

On actresses: “It’s a lousy profession for a woman. Being an actress turns you into a looking-glass girl, always absorbed in how you look. Always self, self, self. Too many actresses have loused up their lives because all they were capable of was taking.”

On actors: “The vanity of the average actor exceeds that of any actress.”

Donna is one of the few TV stars with an Academy Award. This triumph climaxed a fierce campaign to win the part of Alma, the prostitute who befriends Montgomery Clift in From Here to Eternity, a sharp turn from her usual roles.

Her performance in Eternity won her an Oscar in 1954. It also earned her, Donna says, the resentment of studio moguls who were unhappy about the role, which disrupted the sweet-thing image they had so meticulously fostered. “But the whole point about Alma was that she was a prostitute who didn’t look like one,” Donna says. “Try telling that to the studios. All the Oscar brought me was more bland Goody Two Shoes parts.” Over the years, Donna also has engaged in squabbles with a number of movie directors. Her opinion of that lofty profession is disdainful. “Most movie directors,” she says, “are a bunch of hackneyed craftsmen. They’re scared to death of actors and even more scared of actresses. And they hate women, which is why they make the female characters in their pictures as unpleasant as possible.”

This article is featured in the September/October 2017 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

 

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  • I don’t usually ‘binge watch’ TV very often, but did so last winter on Decades-TV when they featured ‘The Doris Day Show’, ‘Green Acres’ and ‘The Donna Reed Show’ which was the one that was “new” to me. I knew of it, but was too young when it was on originally, and it wasn’t repeated like other shows.

    The stereotypes of her being “perfect” and ideal no woman could ever touch, simply wasn’t true. This was also true of June Cleaver on ‘Leave It to Beaver’, but Donna was the one really singled-out, and very unfairly tarred and feathered. I’m not sure how much of this was during the 1958-’66 original run, or after it ended.

    ‘Donna Stone’ frequently found herself in some awkward jams ‘Carol Brady’ never did a number of years later. Donna didn’t have a housekeeper to do the real work either!

    Of course all of these shows were idealized and not fully realistic: that was kind of the point back then. Another contemporary of Donna’s in a sitcom was Danny Thomas’ wife ‘Kathy’ played by Marjorie Lord and she wasn’t given this flack. Would she have if the show had been under her name, and Donna Reed not if it had been ‘The Carl Betz Show’? Good questions if I do ask so myself.

    Shame on David Susskind for his treatment of Reed in the more distant past, and present at the time this article was published. She told him off but good, but was still classy about it. Same thing with her brutal honesty on Hollywood, actors, actresses, directors and more.

    She was also ahead of her time in defending women who choose a career over motherhood; that it can be equally or (frankly) MORE fulfilling for women to do that instead, or do both. Pretty bold talk from a woman who was “thought” to be the last woman you’d hear such talk from. In early 1964, it was bold for anyone to be saying that, and I’m glad SHE was the one! Donna Reed rocks—then and now!

    It took some stones too for The Post to have run “this kind” of article on her! I’m so glad they did then, and you current Post editors now. The Post of that time is just as enjoyable and relevant to look back on now, just as Donna Reed’s movies and TV shows are today as well; more so I say!

  • Bob Wilson

    The long lasting problem with ‘Donna Reed’for millions of married and unmarried men, is that secretly we are in love with her forever and a day. In this article, it suggests she was manufactured by the studios if that was true then why didn’t they make or find hundreds more like her? And how come then before she entered the film world she won an Iowa beauty contest and soon afterward was voted college Campus Queen? Donna Reed was born in the midwestern town of Denison, Iowa, on January 27, 1921, as Donna Belle Mullenger. Donna grew up as a farm girl. Her first minor role was in MGM’s The Getaway (1941) followed by a number of small film parts. In 1945 Donna starred in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), in 1946 she starred as the wife of James Stewart in the classic It’s a Wonderful Life. The next year Donna starred with Alan Ladd. In 1953, she starred as the hostess Alma in the film From Here to Eternity (1953). She was so outstanding in that film she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Donna Mullenger was a class act, and long may her memory live on.

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