cover image In Search of Donna Reed

In Search of Donna Reed

Jay Fultz. University of Iowa Press, $25.95 (264pp) ISBN 978-0-87745-625-4

""Donna Reed probably came closer than any other actress to being the archetypal sweetheart, wife and mother,"" asserts Fultz, in this workmanlike biography. Probably best known as Mary in It's a Wonderful Life, the Iowa-born Reed (1921-1986) embodied the ""nice"" girl and the ""good"" woman in most of her films, although she earned an Oscar for her portrayal as a (rather sanitized) prostitute in From Here to Eternity. When film roles dwindled in the late 1950s, Reed turned to television and, with her producer husband, Tony Owen, developed The Donna Reed Show, which became a solid hit and ran for eight years. With the Vietnam War escalating in the 1960s, Reed, long a staunch Republican, began to move closer to the political center; as the mother of two sons of draftable age, she was committed to the antiwar effort. Her return to TV in the 1970s was marred by her unhappiness over what she saw as slipshod TV production and, later, her bitterness over her unexplained firing from Dallas in 1985. It was her last role, as she died in January 1986 of pancreatic cancer. The prose is often awkward (""Donna's two sons would be fodder for the Viet maw"" or ""Social life resumed in Sunny Cal""), and Fultz's efforts to characterize Reed as a feminist seem somewhat arbitrary, although in later life she did become more politicized. But what comes through most clearly is the image of a traditional woman committed to family--i.e., Donna Reed. (June) FYI: Fultz has served as editor of Univ. of Nebraska's Bison Books and was the primary source for A&E's Biography presentation of the life of Donna Reed.