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List Inconsequential: The Donna Reed Show

It Ain’t Easy Being Reed (or) Oh, Donna!

To celebrate the 50th Anniversary of The Donna Reed Show, a TV milestone only recently released on DVD, Arts Alliance America has put out all 37 episodes of the show’s first season. As such, I sat through it all; surprisingly not nearly as outdated or maudlin as one would expect. And so, here they are: 37 Things About The Donna Reed Show. You’ll never look at television the same again.

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The Donna Reed Show drinking game. Let’s jump right into it, shall we? What age-old TV show box set would be complete without a proper drinking game to go along with the proceedings? And, so, the perfect imbibing entertainment to supplement your Donna viewing is to have a shot or sip every time Donna’s eponymous character, last name of “Stone,” tells a lie. She may have beauty and wit but she also tends as often as not to prevaricate in order to get her way or to protect her family. The Silent Majority, indeed!

Place your bets on this and other drinking games. Well, you could in theory on gamebookers where you can bet on just about any game. It’s fun and you can enjoy the party at the same time. Here’s to the last one standing!

Donna vs. the Red Means. I’ve always found that watching old 1950s sitcoms right before bed can be very comforting. They lull you into a false sense of security that everything is all right, and I suppose that’s why they were created to begin with. The Donna Reed Show is no different. Money might be tight, roommate may be driving you crazy, the wrong president won the election, but still you can sit back, turn on Donna, and know that everything will be all right, at least for the subsequent 26 minutes or so.

American Beauty. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems clear as day that the staging of those infamous “family dinner” sequences in American Beauty was taken directly from the The Donna Reed Show. Everything from the mise en scene (those curtains, the table, the candles) to the very framing and even where the family members are placed (less the fact that Donna has a girl and boy) seems strangely familiar. Could it be that Beauty director Sam Mendes is a fan not only of trite, melodramatic theater, but also of our dear Donna Reed Show?

Winner of the Rodney Dangerfield Award for Most Clever One-Liner. Swinging bachelor and friend of the family Bo confesses that, “I’ve always wanted to have a chat with a librarian… Most of them just say, ‘Shhh!'”

Paradigm for the sex-crazed neighbor. And speaking of Bo, I think it’s rather obvious that he’s the prototype for the sex-crazed sitcom neighbor/friend. There’s a little bit of Bo in everyone from Larry on Three’s Company to Quagmire on Family Guy. And to make matters more interesting, ol’ Bo there is the town obstetrician. “Just a glorified delivery boy,” he tells us.

Little boys in the 1950s never, ever stopped eating, apparently. Jeff Stone, Donna’s son on the show, is never seen without something in his hand to munch on, whether it’s an apple, banana, sandwich or piece of cake.

Donna completely runs the town. Along with constantly lying her way out of every possible situation, Donna is one hell of a meddler. She’d put Lucille Ball to shame, and has an iron grip on the township to boot. It seems no trouble for her to find herself plopped down in front of the bank president, she can harangue the mayor all she wants without batting an eyelash, and even finds time to administrate (and name) the local charity, “Have a Heart Hilldale.”

Jonas Mekas and Stan Brakhage, eat your hearts out! Here’s a fun trick for some extra-cinematic fun with your Donna Reed Show box set: pause the DVD during one of what David Lynch would refer to as “a nice, slow dissolve,” and you’ll find yourself with something worthy of a Whitney Biennial.

Derivation of ‘swell.’
As with any patriotic, red-blooded young American, Jeff–along with his equally rambunctious friends–always makes sure to explain that good things are “swell.” But, just what the hell does it mean to be swell? First employed in 1606, in reference to “the rising of the sea,” the term soon transmogrified its meaning into being a “high-class person” in 1786, a “dandy” or “fop” in 1810 (swell: get it? as in “puffed-up” and thus “prissy”). It was first used to mean something that was “good” in 1897, and in 1930, the idiom became a stand-alone synonym for “satisfactory.”

“Nothing has changed” means that the episode’s denouement has come to a proper conclusion. Again, it’s the 1950s, and what Americans wanted most was for all of the craziness to settle down simply without anything being permanently altered, all before bedtime. At least, that seemed to be true of clean-cut, white, upper-middle class Americans. But, who’s counting?

The painting by the Stones’ front door is far better than that Le Chat Noir reprint you bought from Ikea. It’s true. I don’t know what it is about that painting–a young woman turned away from us, fashioned in bold, simplistic strokes. I can’t tell if it’s Chagall, or what, but it forever caught my eye every time any family member or friend of the family stood by the door.

Winner of the Best Quote Award
. “Eggs and raisin bread don’t go with Ibsen.” Turning to husband Dr. Alex Stone, Donna–who is reading for the part of Nora in A Doll’s House–makes it clear to the family that her artistic yearnings will in no way adversely affect her domestic responsibilities. I’d like to think that this simple quote encapsulates the underpinning theme of the entire series.

The lonely little bastard who ran away from military school and lies his way into your heart.
Pint-sized Charles Herbert–who played similar roles in over 60 television series before he was old enough to drive–plays mischievous David Barker, a regular on The Donna Reed Show, who pops up every time the audience needs to see an adorable little tyke break a lamp. Though he is even more duplicitous than Donna herself, the family forever welcomes him into their awaiting arms, and he really is an adorable scamp, at that. Kinda reminds one of Leonardo Di Caprio on Growing Pains, redheaded Sam on Diff’rent Strokes, and Seven on Married… With Children.

Progenitors of David Cassidy and Joey Lawrence? Yes, there was always Ricky Nelson of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, but The Donna Reed Show definitely had its share of TV pop stardom in its two young actors. Paul Petersen, who played son Jeff and–surprise, surprise–started his career as a Mouseketeer on The Mickey Mouse Club, became somewhat of a minor teen heartthrob when he decided that he’d throw down his prop ball and bat and pick up a guitar. Shelley Fabares, on the other hand, went on to sing a few pop hits of her own, including the swooning madrigal, “Johnny Angel.” Both Shelley and Paul later admitted that their vocal talents were indeed “limited.”

Scold’s bridle may be just the thing
. After eight years and 274 episodes of The Donna Reed Show, Donna earned herself four Emmy nominations, a Golden Globe for Best Female TV Star, and, in 1964, a Golden Apple Award. The Apple, in case you’re wondering, was bestowed upon television’s “most cooperative actress.”

Captain of the football team, my left foot!
Daughter Mary Stone’s on-again-off-again boyfriend George is the captain of every team, the love of all Mary’s friends, and remains the envy of all the other fellas at Mary’s high school. And yet, look at the guy! Though he doesn’t appear on the IMDB main page of The Donna Reed Show for some strange reason (or maybe not so strange?), the guy looks like Ichabod Crane and sounds like the pimply-faced teen from The Simpsons. What gives? Heck, I coulda beaten George up if I lived back then!

Every male friend of Donna and her husband are an “uncle” to the kids.
This one was weird, but I guess that’s how it went back then: when women were women, men were men, and n… uh, well you know the rest of that fun little phrase. Sure enough, none of Jeff and Mary’s avuncular friends of the family seemed to be related and yet they were forever known as “Uncle” Bo or as “Uncle” Biff.

Boys will be… loony? In episode “Boys Will Be Boys,” after Jeff and David scarf down Mom’s chocolate cake while staying up all night watching thrilling cowboy and gangster television programs, Jeff clearly says, “Boy, that was delicious,” and yet what we hear is, “Boy, that was loony.” I caught the odd dubbing during my first run-through and knew that there was something wrong. I watched it again and again, even employing the “subtitle” option on my DVD, and sure enough: “loony” is what I heard and read… but that’s not what Jeff’s lips said! I’m telling you, he says, “Delicious.” Is this the work of circa Hayes Office toughs or of the same contemporary digital fairies responsible for replacing the guns in E.T. with walkie-talkies? You decide!

Now I know why they created HMOs. “The doctor’s the first to be called and the last to be paid,” sighs Donna to pediatrician husband Alex in episode “Operation Deadbeat.” And, by gum, it’s a running theme throughout that though Alex is the town pediatrician, and though he has the humble townsfolk’s esteem and respect, he sometimes seems to be struggling financially. My, how times change.

La Donna e donna. Donna, by all accounts and as various characters on the show go on to say ad infinitum, is a woman. Much of the time when we are made to understand this prosaic syllogism, it’s Donna herself explaining what it means to be a woman, as she proselytizes young Mary into channeling what Donna constantly refers to as her “feminine wiles” into a force that can be reckoned with. Mothers, lock up your sons!

Kids from the 1950s decorated their walls with a heck of a lot of pendants
. Mary and Jeff Stone have a number of decorative school pendants on their walls… even though, when you actually read the damn things, you find they represent competing high schools.

Dr. Alex Stone reminds me of a young Bruce Willis or perhaps Superman. Check it out for yourself, and you’ll see that the resemblance is astonishing, particularly of Willis. Every now and then, while watching Carl Betz, who plays Doc Stone, I would honestly mistake him for BW until I remembered what I was viewing. Also, I don’t know how or why, but when Alex’s eyes light up, it looks rather as though he’s possessed or possibly a Terry Gilliam cartoon.

Episode in which Donna is the most evil. And the winner is: “Advice To Young Lovers.” Donna may be a meddler and a liar, but she normally holds fast to some semblance of morality. Not in this particular episode. Aside from everything else, Donna reveals to the children at last that she lied her way into husband Alex’s heart by tricking him into going on a star-crossed duck hunting trip with her… even though Alex was at the time seeing another gal. The anecdote is one thing, but she uses this lubricious tale to instruct daughter Mary on the proper way to nab a man! The episode ends with Donna considering what her life would’ve been like had she married the man she was involved with at the time of her little duck hunting tryst, and she sees a fat, balding, cigar smoking loser where Alex should be. Alex is no better, looking back on her and seeing who he would’ve ended up with and sees a woman who Donna herself states, “Was the type who would get fat.” Alex steps up to his wife, picks her up into his arms, and lovingly tells her, “It’s not that you’re so smart, but so attractive!” The end.

I wish I had milkmen and laundrymen who were close acquaintances. Donna and the rest of the family seem to be quite close with their various servicemen, be they the milkman, the launderer, or what-have-you. No meat men to speak of, but Donna’s definitely known on a first-name basis by her local grocer who I believe moonlights as the butcher.

No beards allowed! Though one or two of the more Semitic and/or bookish characters might sport a slight mustache, there is absolutely no male character who allows his beard to grow in the Donna Reed universe.

Clearly, those goofy nicknames boys had in the 1950s were self-imposed. Ever wonder why everyone in the 1950s seemed to have names like Butch, Stinky, Tiny or Mug? When it’s revealed once or twice on Donna why some of Jeff’s friends have names along the lines of Mousie or Peewee, we learn that even Donna agrees that sometimes a sobriquet can be just the ticket to hide one’s shameful Christian name.

Most Accidental Sexual Innuendo Thanks to Change in Vernacular. In episode “The Hero,” Alex’s roommate from college pays a visit to the Stone household and explains to everyone that he’s the “best kinda friend to have. I know. I never woulda played in the Rose Bowl game. I was flunkin’! Best buddy here kept me up three nights boning!”

It is my ardent belief that Donna is a direct ascendant of Marge Simpson.
Just look at the woman. With her trademark pearl necklace around her skinny neck, to her tight, one-piece dress/gown, poofy hair, and slender figure, it’s more than obvious.

That new-fangled “psychology guff.” Particularly in the earlier episodes of this debut season, many of the characters go off on tangents about the “psychology” of why people do what it is they do. Of course, the show’s writers are clever enough to always make sure that it’s usually someone not very informed who reveals their rather thin knowledge of the new science: usually it’s Jeff (“I read it in one of Pop’s medical books!”) or Donna herself. Doc Stone always seems to be the voice of reason, who, with his upturned, wry smirk, will inevitably put the bearer of said “medical facts” in his or her place. Really, it’s the best of both worlds: a show for believers and non-believers alike.

April Fools! There are perhaps three or four episodes of the show that, for reasons beyond me, have a slightly altered intro sequence. This would make a bit more sense if, as with later series, the intro were completely different–maybe the characters, as with their actor counterparts, are older now–but, no. Starting with episode “April Fool,” everything remains exactly the same, but the opening score is a bit slower, ends with a clanging percussive movement, and the font of the show title and cast member names is more playful than the staid Times New Roman of the traditional introduction sequence.

Donna does enjoy her meetings. Ostensibly bored as all can be of her mundane, monastic existence (two beds in the master bedroom, for goodness sakes!), Donna’s forever getting herself involved in charity drives, organizations, and book clubs. Maybe that accounts for the fact that she has a surprisingly extensive vocabulary for someone who never went to college, was married at 18, and spends the rest of her day cooking, cleaning, and propping her husband’s slippered feet comfortably onto the living room ottoman.

Nepotism’s in the blood.
One of the show’s main writers was Mr. John Whedon. His last name may sound rather familiar, as his grandson is none other than Joss Whedon, the creator and head writer of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, amongst many other series. And that’s not all: John’s son Tom was a writer on such programs as: Captain Kangaroo, The Dick Cavett Show, The Golden Girls, Benson, Alice and The Electric Company.

“Fathers feel everything mothers feel, without having to wail, ‘My baby’s grown up!'” It’s true. Just ask Doc Stone.

I don’t understand why girls can’t look like Mary Stone anymore. Yes, we have a few of these retro girls going around with their hipster costumes, but it’s simply not the same. I’ll just say it here, folks: Mary Stone is hot, as were most of the girls from the 1950s. That full, thick lipstick. Clean, alabaster faces. Hair put up just right. Those eyes, her nose, and clothes that really show off her figure without being meretricious. Ladies, let’s get on the bandwagon, eh? It is, after all, the American way. Tell Gloria Steinem to get out!

Best Cameo Appearance: Buster Keaton. In episode “A Very Merry Christmas,” who should show up to play the beaten-down janitor whose only joy in life is to dress up as Santa Claus every year? Why, Buster Keaton himself. Runner up: Kathleen Freeman, who is a regular on the show, playing nosy neighbor Mrs. Wilgus. Freeman, you’ll remember, was a character actress in almost 200 different TV shows and movies, including the voicing of Peg’s Mom on Married… With Children.

It is physically impossible to watch more than four episodes of the show in one sitting.Try it, if you would. As with swallowing a tablespoon of cinnamon powder, it’s something you think you can do, but upon first attempt, you find you simply can’t.

Four months worth of solid entertainment. That said, I must confess now that though there are enough Donna Reed Show episodes in the First Season box set for four months of viewing (if you were to watch one a week, as the show originally aired), I sat through all 37 episodes in about three weeks. I don’t know if that makes me a winner or a loser. And of what, exactly?

By Mathew Klickstein

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