Judge Christopher Kulik has long dreamed of being a classic TV mom.
It's a wonderful home life!
Audiences may know actress Donna Reed best from two film classics: Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life and Fred Zinnemann's From Here To Eternity, the latter of which won her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Still, her career was not limited to film, transgressing to the small screen as well. In 1958, she and then-husband Tony Owen came to ABC to produce her own self-titled show. Running eight seasons and earning Reed a Golden Globe, The Donna Reed Show was a bit more than your run-of-the-mill, wholesome family sitcom. Arts Alliance America has stepped forward to celebrate the show's 50th anniversary by presenting the show's first season, for the first time on DVD.
Facts of the Case
The Stone family lives a peaceful existence, in the fictional town of Hilldale. Donna Stone (Reed) is the archetypal wife and mother who cooks, cleans, and runs the household. Alex (Carl Betz, Judd For The Defense) is the breadwinner who works double duty as an in-home pediatrician and on-call at the local hospital. Daughter Mary (Shelley Fabares, Coach) loves rock 'n roll, talking on the phone, and dating boys, while son Jeff (Paul Peterson, The Happiest Millionaire) devotes most of his time to sports and being a brat. Other regulars include snooty neighbor Mrs. Wilgus (Kathleen Freeman, The Blues Brothers), Alex's colleague Dr. Boland (Jackie Kelk, The Pajama Game) and runaway juvenile David Barker (Charles Herbert, 1958's The Fly).
Over the course of 37 episodes, the Stones deal with various issues, whether its origin is Alex's practice, the children's school, or Donna's role as the ideal wife and mother:
Despite its syndicated presence, this was my introduction to Reed's show, and I found it surprisingly delightful. After all, a show which lasted eight seasons, no matter when it was produced, must have something to acknowledge its popularity. What was the secret of this show's success? The humor was soft but sophisticated, lacking the hysteria of I Love Lucy and the syrup of Father Knows Best. Occasionally, the stories were rehashed scenarios from other shows and yet, once you start watching, you forget about its familiarity. In every episode, family values were concrete and obvious, but the show never went overboard with them. The Donna Reed Show somehow walked a fine line between typical and atypical, embracing pleasantness and discarding sappiness.
My theory behind the show's success is simply that the whole family was so damn likeable, particularly the matriarch. Reed may have personified every 1950s wife and mother who found herself imprisoned in a kitchen, but she refused to play Donna Stone with pink femininity and as much brains as a bar of soap. She also didn't go so far as making Mrs. Stone a hair-raising feminist squawking about male dominance in society, despite the fact that Reed was indeed part of the women's movement. If she had, ABC network executives—who were all male at the time—would have shut the show down in a heartbeat. That's not to say there wasn't any place for it, but this was a family show dealing with growing children and a husband who was the working parent.
There were was the occasional scene which would have made Betty Friedan cringe and blush in Marge Simpson-like incense. For example, in "The Hike," Jeff is looking forward to his dad taking him and "the fellas" out camping, but an emergency arises forcing him to cancel. When Donna volunteers for the job, Jeff expresses his disdain by saying, "She's a woman!" Still, Mrs. Stone proves she can deal with hiking and setting up camp, even if her methods are a bit unorthodox. In the follow-up episode ("Male Ego"), it's revealed she used to be a graduate nurse (this is how she met her husband), something very few other TV mothers at the time had accomplished. Still, Alex jokes that women have obtained "too much power," when referring to how much control Donna has over the household. Simply put, Donna Stone was the mother we all wish we had. She was witty, intelligent, good-humored, crafty, sharp, and able to hold her own in any situation. She was also the Mom we wouldn't be embarrassed to be with, even as a child. After Jeff is impressed by how his mom handles herself camping, he rarely questions her abilities from there on out.
It's also hard to deny how attractive she was. In the episode "Change Partners and Dance," a boy Mary likes at school is shy and unable to dance, so she brings him home to talk and he's taken aback at Donna's irresistible cheerfulness. Who is he to refuse, when Donna offers to teach him to dance and he ends up totally ignoring Mary?
She was idealized but, for once, a woman was given the spotlight and permitted to display her acting chops and charm in equal doses. There were times when her sweetness outweighed her flaws, but Reed was determined to make Donna not all peaches 'n cream. One strong example can be found in "Three Part Mother," where her inner thoughts reveal an alternate perspective and her "sweet" label is tested when she begins to realize she hasn't put her foot down enough as a mother. After all, she must not only love her children but discipline them as well. Donna's change of demeanor is evidence that Reed and the writers giving Mrs. Stone more emotional grass to graze on.
The writers of The Donna Reed Show also paid attention to continuity. The supporting characters would return and bring up past events, even if their appearances were limited to only a few episodes. Most of them were part of Donna's women's club (hmm…I smell a revolution!), Alex's patients and fellow doctors, Mary's dates and girlfriends, and Jeff's buddies.
There were times where I questioned Jeff's alternating between football, baseball, and basketball, even when he hardly looks like the jock type. I would be hard pressed to remember a kid from my own middle school who tackled all three sports. Still, most of the episodes about Jeff would usually involve him hiding something from his parents or being sneaky in order to accomplish a goal.
All four actors which make up the Stone family are fun to watch and hard to dislike. While Reed proves how versatile she was, not only an actress but comedienne, her onscreen mate and children are given almost equal screen time. Carl Betz never really got anywhere as an actor, but he makes for a fine Mr. Stone, managing to avoid the cliché of the father finding a solution for everything. Shelley Fabares is both cute and funny as the motivated Mary, but may be better known to modern audiences as Craig T. Nelson's other half in Coach, another sitcom which lasted eight seasons. Still, my personal favorite is Paul Peterson, who sells the bratty-but-lovable son with a knack for causing a ruckus, even in the most subtle of situations. His occasional philosophical approach seem too good to be true, but deserving of the laughs he strives for. One of my favorite lines can be found in "Dough Re-Mi," when a famous French piano player kisses the hands of both Donna and Mary, he says to his father, "Makes us look like amateurs, huh, Pop?" Peterson also proves to be equally adept at physical comedy, mimicking a famous rock 'n roll singer in "April Fool," a definite comic highlight from this first season.
Die-hard fans of the show are no doubt itching to know how The Donna Reed Show looks in its DVD debut. In truth, it's a mixed blessing. Arts Alliance America presents the episodes in their original full frame, broadcast presentation, with no artificial cropping applied. White spots and speckles are unfortunately frequent, but also minute in size and appearance. It's a clean image, for the most part, but whites occasionally bleed, making the picture look a little bleached. It's obvious the show wasn't restored in any way. Rest assured, these visual anomalies will not taint the viewing experience. The sound and dialogue come in beautifully with the 1.0 mono track, with optional English subtitles provided.
While the technical treatment is acceptable, the selection of bonus features is rather discouraging. A "digitally enhanced" television commercial kicks things off, but it's too shoddy and brief to make a fuss about. Next up are 50 images in photo gallery format, yielding some interesting facts—Reed and John Derek promoted Chesterfield cigarettes together, Fabares' popularity in the music business is emphasized with all of her albums on display—but most are simply shots of the actors working on the set or behind-the-scenes. Finally, you can access two PDF files when you insert the final disc in your DVD-ROM drive. One is a short press release and the other contains original 1959 production notes. Here again, interesting, but too little for a popular show as this. I find it hard to believe that Arts Alliance weren't able to get in touch with Fabares or Peterson for supplemental interviews. For goodness sake, Peterson is the board member of the Donna Reed Foundation and would no doubt be more than willing to say a few words. So, here's my advice for Season Two: Begin by going to Paul's personal website at www.paulpeterson.com. It's not that hard. You can do it!
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Spontaneity and surprises are not The Donna Reed Show's strong suit. It's all too easy to detect the outcomes of many of the episodes, even when the charms of the cast carries them a long way. Once you get the characters down, you can guess what their actions and reactions will be. The Stones do grow and the children definitely mature, more than expected. I just wish the writers had more guts to go down the radical, unpredictable route once in awhile. But it's a warm, winning cast which makes you keep watching the show and caring.
If The Donna Reed Show sounds dated, you're right. However, age hasn't dimmed the show's appeal or exceptionally pleasant nature. It holds up remarkably well as a family sitcom, when many other similar wells have run dry much too quickly. Arts Alliance America specifies that a portion of the proceeds goes to benefit the Donna Reed foundation—which is honorable—but they really need to gear up on bonus features for future seasons.
The court lets Arts Alliance go, with the show and the Stones being found not guilty.
Court is adjourned!
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