November 14, 2008
In 1958, ABC lobbed an eight-year nightmare of emasculation onto the airwaves, cloaking it under an innocuous title: The Donna Reed Show. Less blatantly Freudian than the same year’s Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, this domestic situation comedy nevertheless postulated its housewife protagonist as a superwoman capable of rendering the male of the species all but obsolete. The surname of Reed’s emblematic TV family was Stone – same as the stuff they build prisons out of.
The eponymous star kept her own first name as the all-purpose wife/mother. Two kids (teenaged Mary and younger son Jeff) and work-at-home pediatrician dad Alex made up the rest of The Donna Reed Show‘s prototypically nuclear clan, huddled together in a cramped-looking suburban two-story.
The standard rap on The Donna Reed Show is that it presents Reed as an impossibly idealized image of domesticity. But in digging through the first ten or so episodes, I was struck by how far Donna’s superpowers extended beyond the regimen of mending clothes and packing lunches.
The debut outing, “Weekend Trip,” has Donna scheming to clear the family schedule so they can enjoy a brief vacation together. And I mean scheming: think Lady Macbeth. Donna manipulates Alex’s colleagues and friends into covering his patients or dropping their demands on his time. She even usurps his professional status, figuring out a psychological motive behind a boy’s illness that eludes Dr. Stone. Alex still manages to wreck things at the last minute, by forgetting to deliver an important phone message – Carl Betz’s “oh, fuck” reaction shot is the biggest laugh in the episode – but Donna has this problem solved in seconds, and doesn’t even deign to issue the expected scolding. From the outset the message is clear: Hubby might be the breadwinner, but his stethoscope is as limp as his … well, you know.
With each new episode, Donna seems to annex another sector of masculine territory. She teaches Jeff how to box (episode two, “Pardon My Gloves”). She takes a group of boys on a camping trip (episode three, “The Hike”). Finally the question of Donna’s incontrovertible superiority comes to the fore in the fourth segment, “Male Ego,” which really chucks poor Alex under the bus: Mary delivers an overblown speech extolling her mother’s virtues, and dad comes off as a whinging ingrate when he bristles at being undervalued. By the time the infamous twin beds turn up in the spousal bedroom during in the final scene of “Male Ego,” you can’t help but muse that it’s Donna who decides if and when they get pushed together, and Alex who’s on the bottom during the activity that ensues.
The punchlines to these gags undercut a full-on feminist reading. Hopeless at tent construction and other outdoor skills, Donna hires a caterer to provide the hunter’s stew. But the overwhelming impression is of a family unit in which husband and even kids are superfluous appendages.
It’s possible to assess much of the popular American entertainment of the fifties as a post-war retrenchment of traditional gender roles. This is especially relevant in television, where the major works of the first generation of dramatists (Rod Serling, Reginald Rose, Stirling Silliphant) often retreated into all-male worlds, or unfolded as one-sided and rather hysterical monologues on female sexuality and independence. (Silliphant’s early Route 66 segment “A Lance of Straw,” available on DVD, gives this type of anxiety a rigorous workout.) In that context, The Donna Reed Show seems less about female empowerment (or its opposite) than male fear.
I have, of course, offered a somewhat radical counter-reading here. But I think the worthwhile comedy shows of the fifties sustain these kinds of sidelong interpretations, and even encourage them. Programs like The Donna Reed Show or Father Knows Best are thought of as reinforcing social norms – the Eisenhower ideal of the nuclear family, pounded into your head until you want to impale yourself on a white picket fence. But humor derives from the defiance of expectations, so it follows that only the most banal (and now forgotten) early sitcoms could have failed to challenge, in some way, the institutions that they depicted.
For instance. I’ve always thought of Leave It to Beaver not as a wholesome family show but as an exercise in witty insult humor. You have June’s cheery putdowns of Ward’s stuffiness; his slow-on-the-uptake double takes; Lumpy Rutherford and his father Fred, sharply etched caricatures of mediocrity; and of course Eddie Haskell, a human diarrhea of sarcasm that splatters all over every totem of ethics or decorum. And watch Wally Cleaver closely. Tony Dow’s “aw, shucks” delivery, and the long penumbra of Ken Osmond’s more verbal Eddie, conceal a steady, passive-aggressive stream of unanswered rebukes to every correction offered by his parents, and a devastatingly accurate assessment of “the little creep”‘s (Beaver’s) shortcomings. It’s the prototype for a later, raunchier classic of spoofed suburban malaise, Married with Children, and I’m very much convinced that Beaver’s original audience was in on the joke.
Apart from a few clips, I’ve never seen The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, but I’m fascinated by Tim Lucas’s considerations of the surrealism and technical innovation in that series – qualities which would seem to refute, or at least sidestep, the common perceptions of the Nelsons’ fourteen-season opus as a simple-minded exercise in domestic harmony. Lucas’s work strikes me as a useful example of how to look at media that might seem dated or irrelevant today: through contemporary eyes, but with a close and open-minded examination of the texts.
Fifties sitcoms seem particularly vulnerable to brutalization at the hands of ideologues. Nostalgists respond to them with misty-eyed diatribes exalting the narrow-minded, conformist “family values” of the fifties. In this limited view, The Donna Reed Show becomes a club to wield against today’s more permissive popular culture or even (by devaluing that which the Stones’ world excludes) against the sort of social progress that has made possible the election of a black president. Where’s that African-American version of the Stone family? Oh, right – they were busy getting block-busted out of the suburbs over on East Side/West Side.
At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve run into academics who see fifties sitcoms as objects of condescension or ridicule. When I was in film school, the old cliche of June Cleaver wearing pearls while doing housework came up as an example of how out of touch shows like Leave It to Beaver were with the reality of their own era. When I pointed out that June wore pearls because the cameraman sought to conceal Barbara Billingsley’s unattractive neck – and cited a source, Jeff Kisseloff’s The Box: An Oral History of Television 1920-1961 – no one was particularly interested. But to me, such clues are critical in trying to gauge the gap between reality and representation.
I’ve drifted pretty far away from The Donna Reed Show, which I had not sampled until its first season appeared on DVD (in an attractive, well-produced set from Arts Alliance). Is the show any good? It’s certainly competent: there are a few laughs in every episode, and more wit and intelligence than I expected.
I wish I knew more about the production history of the series. The producer was Tony Owen – Reed’s husband – and the associate producer, William Roberts, who is also credited with creating the characters, was apparently the same screenwriter who co-wrote The Magnificent Seven. Roberts penned the funniest episode I’ve seen so far (“Change Partners and Dance”), but The Donna Reed Show doesn’t appear to be the work of a single distinctive voice. Instead, it’s a professional, anonymous effort assembled by a large pool of busy freelance comedy writers. The scripts are inconsistent, not only in quality but in sophistication. “Pardon My Gloves” includes a Hitchcock joke and a subplot about a mangled local theatre production of A Doll’s House that’s only funny if you know a little bit about Ibsen. But in the same episode, Jeff comes home with a black eye (and then another one), and each time his family seems concerned primarily with whether or not he succeeded in beating the other boy even more savagely.
The direction, mostly by Oscar Rudolph, is routine, although the timing and energy of the cast is pretty lively. Someone made the clever decision to write all of Jeff Stone’s lines at an adult level, and Paul Petersen’s delivery of these precocious throwaways is often hilarious (much more so than Danny Bonaduce’s obnoxious take on a similar character in The Partridge Family). Petersen and Shelly Fabares have a fast-paced, natural chemistry, and – as in Leave It to Beaver – their banter is more insult-based than one might expect. (Sample lines from the episode “Change Partners and Dance.” Mary: “What a revolting little freak . . . He makes me sick. I think if I had my way I’d drown all boys at birth.” Jeff: “A formula guaranteed to get rid of ten pounds of ugly fat . . . Cut off your head!”)
Even Carl Betz, a total stiff in his dramatic turn as Judd For the Defense (for which he won an Emmy), proves a nimble straight man.
Oddly, the weakest member of the ensemble is Donna Reed herself. Reed is monotonous, even cloying, in her unflappability; her perma-smile has a robotic quality, like an android grandma from The Twilight Zone. Much more than the material, it’s the star’s unwillingness to bestow any hint of human frailty upon Donna Stone that gives The Donna Reed Show its Stepford reputation. Donna Stone is the antithesis of the warm (and, not insignificantly, ethnic) mama figure of Molly Goldberg.
It’s easy to imagine a child burying his or her face in Mrs. Goldberg’s ample bosom for comfort, but in a similar scene on The Donna Reed Show, I’d be scrutinizing Reed’s face for subtext: will this embrace muss my hair or wrinkle my apron? She’s the kind of parent whose perfection most kids would compare themselves against and come up lacking. How could Jeff and Mary hope to reach their twenties without becoming seething, rebellious head cases? Now that’s one made-for-TV reunion movie I would have liked to see.