To commemorate the 91st anniversary of actress Donna Reed‘s birth, TCM will present a double-feature of two of her rarely seen films on Friday, January 27 as part of a day of courtroom drama-themed films.
Born January 27, 1921, the Oscar-winning actress (1954’s From Here to Eternity) is of course best remembered for her 1946 role opposite James Stewart in the now-classic Frank Capra holiday favorite, It’s A Wonderful Life. Yes, TCM could have played it safe by airing From Here to Eternity, It’s A Wonderful Life or even 1954’s The Last Time I Saw Paris, but instead they’ve uncovered two lesser-known films with just as much history.
Up first, at 11:45/10:45c is The Get-Away, released in 1941. While it may bear a similar title to Jim Thompson‘s 1959 novel and both 1972’s Steve McQueen/Ali MacGraw prison-escape thriller The Getaway, and it’s 1994 remake starring yet another real-life couple, onetime marrieds, Alec Baldwin andKim Basinger, Reed‘s 1941 film has nothing to do with the two subsequent flix. Instead, Reed‘s The Get-Away, as it turns out was a remake of 1935’s Public Hero No. 1 starring Lionel Barrymore, Jean Arthur and Chester Morris.
The Get-Away casts Reed as Maria Teresa ‘Terry’ O’Reilly, a young woman who gets mixed up with undercover FBI agent,Jeff Crane (Robert Sterling) in a plot to infiltrate a notorious group of mobsters. Adding a bit of personal drama to the plot, young Terry just so happens to be the sister of the primary mobster Crane has his sights on taking down.
While the film is typical cops and mobsters melodrama typical of the period, what makes The Get-Away notable, as far as Reed‘s career is concerned is the fact that the film marked the young actress’ acting debut. It’s also interesting that J. Walter Ruben produced the 1941 version, having directed and written the original story of for 1935’s Public Enemy No. 1.
For their second scarcely seen Donna Reed film of the day, TCM has chosen Dr. Gillespie’s Criminal Case (1943). Just three years after Barrymore starred in Public Enemy No. 1, he was cast along with Lew Ayres and Samuel S. Hinds in Young Dr. Kildare. From 1938 until 1947, Barrymore starred in a total of 15 feature films as Dr. Leonard Gillespie. In 1942, Van Johnson joined the franchise as young Dr. Randall ‘Red’ Adams in Dr. Gillespie’s New Assistant. That same year, Reed made her first of two appearances in the franchise in 1942’s Calling Dr. Gillespie. Both Reed and Johnson reprised their respective roles the following year in TCM‘s secondReed film, Dr. Gillespie’s Criminal Case.
The plot of Dr. Gillespie’s Criminal Case features socialite Marsha Bradburn (Reed) returning to seek the help of Dr. Gillespie a year after the events depicted in Calling Dr. Gillespie. In the time since, Bradburn‘s former finace has been convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Marsha has moved on with her life, and is contemplating marriage to her new boyfriend, Sgt. Patrick Orisin (Michael Duane), but fears for their safety should her crazed boyfriend learn of their plans. She seeks the help of Dr. Gillespie to once again attempt to have her former boyfriend committed to an asylum, something he failed to do in the earlier film. To aide in his analysis, Dr. Gillespie brings Dr. Adams (Johnnson) along with him on a prison visit. There are numerous subplots throughout the film, including a bit of romance for Johnson, making it easy to understand how the franchise eventually spun off into a very popular weekly TV medical drama in the mid-60s.
Of course these two early films were only the beginning of Reed‘s popularity as an actress. Besides the previously mentioned films, Reed appeared in some 40 movies, including The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), Scandal Sheet (1952), Ransom! and The Benny Goodman Story (both released in 1956) and others.
Not one to snub the new medium of TV, Reed made her first appearance on the small screen as her film career seemed to be waning with an starring role in the December 16, 1954 episode of The Ford Television Theatre‘s production of Portrait of Lydia. Interestingly, the episode was based on a story written by Winnie The Pooh author, A.A. Milne.
Reed would go on to guest in a number of other weekly series, as well as star in her own hugely successful 1950s-60s TV series, The Donna Reed Show. For four years in a row, Reed was nominated for an Emmy. While she never took home Emmy, in 1963, she was named Best Female TV Star at the annual Golden Globe Awards.
After three decades of non-stop work, Reed took a bit of a break from Hollywood during the 70s, making only a single film and one made-for-TV movie. Another TV movie in the early 80s must have reminded someone of Reed‘s talent and popularity, as she was cast in yet another TV movie and a two-part Love Boat story arch.
A new generation of TV viewers were introduced to Reed in 1984, when she temporarily took over the role of Barbara Bel Geddes‘ Miss Ellie Ewing in CBS‘ ratings king, Dallas while Bel Geddes recuperated from heart surgery. When Bel Geddes was well enough to return to the role, CBS unceremoniously fired Reed in order to reinstate Bel Geddes as the beloved matriarch of fictional Southfork Ranch.
According to published reports of the day, Reed retaliated by filing suit against CBS and Dallas‘ Lorimar Productions in an effort to be reinstated in the role. She lost the lawsuit, but was awarded a settlement of one million dollars. Not long after her court battle, Reed was admitted to Cedars Sinai Medical Center in late 1985. It was then discovered that the actress had pancreatic cancer. Just weeks shy of her 65th birthday, Reed died at her home in Beverly Hills on January 14, 1986 with third husband, retired Army Colonel Grover Asmus by her side.
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