charlie-oscar2A weekly feature in which my four-year-old son is let loose on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one of the most popular tourist attractions in Los Angeles, and chooses a star from among the more than 2,500 honorees. His “random” picks sometimes reveal unexplained connections such as the summer day in 2012 when he sat down on the star of actress Celeste Holm and refused to budge. We later learned that the Oscar-winning actress had died only hours earlier.

With Thanksgiving approaching, Charlie seems to be getting into a holiday mood with his choice of lovely Donna Reed. The Oscar-winning actress has become synonymous with Christmas thanks to her performance as Mary Hatch Bailey in Frank Capra’s near-perfect It’s a Wonderful Life. While Reed was not Capra’s first choice to play Jimmy Stewart’s wife (Jean Arthur, Olivia de Havilland, and Ginger Rogers were among the actresses who had turned down the part), the 25-year-old actress made an indelible impression that lives on in annual holiday screenings.

Donna Reed was born Donna Belle Mullenger on an Iowa farm on January 27, 1921. She was spotted by MGM talent scouts while attending college in Los Angeles and was signed to a multi-year contract at the age of 20. Following a name change by the studio, the “girl-next-door” got parts in some of MGM’s better series, including Shadow of the Thin Man with William Powell and Myrna Loy, The Courtship of Any Hardy with Mickey Rooney, and Calling Dr. Gillespie with Lionel Barrymore. She played Mickey Rooney’s sister in William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy, starred opposite Robert Walker in See Here, Private Hargrove, and appeared in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.

reed-itsawonderfullifeBut it was Reed’s loan-out to RKO for It’s a Wonderful Life that earned her a solid place in movie history.  The beloved film was not a box office hit during its initial release, but the story of George Bailey, a man who is on the brink of suicide when his guardian angel intervenes to show him what life would be like in Bedford Falls had he never been born, is now recognized as one of the most acclaimed films of all time. The Internet was abuzz in recent weeks about a sequel to the film that is planned for a 2015 release. While there were a few denials in the days that followed, the purported sequel would feature some of the original actors from the 1946 film including Kathryn Grimes who played little Zuzu, Stewart and Reed’s youngest child. While many seemed horrified at the prospect, at least the film would not be recasting Jimmy Stewart or Donna Reed’s parts but would be focusing on the grandchildren of the original Bedford Falls characters.

donnareed-fromheretoeternityDonna Reed continued to make movies in the late 1940s and early 1950s but it wasn’t until her against-type performance as the seductive Alma “Lorene” Burke in Fred Zinemman’s From Here to Eternity that she really came into her own as a dramatic actress. The controversial film about the exploits of three soliders (Burt Lancaster, Frank Sinatra and Montgomery Clift) in the months leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor, was the top-grossing film of 1953 and was nominated for a whopping 13 Academy Awards. It won eight including Oscars for Sinatra and Donna Reed. Unfortunately, the acclaim she received for this film did not extend to better movie roles.


The actress soon turned to television, appearing as a guest star in several shows until her own series, The Donna Reed Show, premiered in 1958. Lasting until 1966, the award-winning family-oriented sitcom also starred Carl Betz as Donna’s pediatrician husband and Shelley Fabares and Paul Peterson as her teenaged children. In a recent L.A. Times interview, Fabares paid tribute to her TV mom: “Donna Reed definitely became my second mother. She was a role model and remains so to this day. I just adored her. There is a bedrock decency to people in the Midwest. They are thoughtful and ready to help you if something needs to be done. She never lost that Midwest girl.”

In her final acting role, Donna Reed took over the part of J.R.’s mother Miss Ellie on the popular nighttime soap Dallas after Barbara Bel Geddes left the series. The following year, when producers lured Bel Geddes back, they abruptly fired Reed. The actress sued for breach of contract and was awarded a settlement of over a million dollars. You go, girl! Donna Reed became a political activist and helped to found the anti-war advocacy organization Another Mother for Peace, the group that coined the phrase “War is not healthy for children and other living things.” She died of cancer on January 14, 1986, at the age of 64.