TV on DVD: “Donna Reed: Season Four – The Lost Episodes”

Written by Popdose Interviews, Television, TV on DVD

Long-lost episodes from the classic series are finally available on DVD, and we have Donna Reed’s real-life daughter to thank.

All good sitcom episodes have happy endings. So it stands to reason that the uncertainty over whether there would ever be a DVD release of the seldom-seen fourth season of The Donna Reed Show resolved itself like an episode of the show – cheerfully. The Donna Reed Show: Season Four – The Lost Episodes will be released through MPI Home Video Dec. 20, after having been originally slated for a Mother’s Day release earlier in the year.

One reason for the release is the enthusiasm of the show’s fans, which include two generations of viewers: those who followed it during its initial airing (1958-66) and those who discovered it in its decade-long run on Nick at Nite (1985-94). Both generations lobbied for the release of the fourth season, voicing their complaints on message boards and launching a campaign called “Bring The Donna Reed Show Season Four to DVD” on Facebook (the page is now deleted, but a related YouTube video survives).

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Had this been an episode of the show, Reed’s fictional daughter, Mary Stone, would have probably played into the plot. But in this real life drama, it was Reed’s actual daughter, Mary Owen, who saved the day by making it her priority to make sure the fourth season of the show got released.

“It’s been a huge learning curve for me,” Owen says by phone from her home in New York. “But I feel it’s really important — I consider the show part of our American heritage and think it’s really important to keep the DVD releases going.”

To understand why the fourth season’s DVD release was delayed for over a year, some back story is in order.

First, it’s been up to Owen and her siblings to see that the show made it to DVD, since the rights to the show (or at least the first five seasons) are owned by them personally, not a media conglomerate. Owen’s mother and father (Tony Owen), who co-produced the show, had entered into a distribution agreement with the show’s production company, Screen Gems, way back in the 1960s. Since this was before DVDs or even VCR tapes were invented, there was no thought that there would be much of a market for the show in the distant future, so Screen Gems gave the show’s rights back to the family starting in 2003.

“When my parents died, we found out the show’s rights reverted back to us (children),” Owen explains. “I’m sure in their minds not only had they moved on, but probably never thought The Donna Reed Show would ever see the light of day again.”

For the first three seasons, Owen chose Allied Arts Alliance America (which became Virgil Films Entertainment) to put out the DVDs. “We signed up with them and we were really excited and the president is a huge fan of my mother’s career,” she says.

But she found she needed to change companies when producing the fourth season on DVD posed a challenge. Since the season had never been syndicated as part of the Nick at Night package, the episodes were disorganized and sometimes had to be pieced back together. Of course, it was the very fact that this season hadn’t been broadcast since the early 1970s that had fans of the show wanting to see it.

Why did Nick at Nite decide never to broadcast the fourth season (as well as the sixth and seventh)?

“I think because the show had a total of 275 episodes, they just didn’t want that much volume,” Owen says. “So somebody just made a decision to snip here and there and chose to broadcast mostly seasons 1, 2, 3, 5 and 8.”

After the release of the shows’ third season on DVD in 2009, “the market started tumbling down and putting out the fourth season was going to prove to be expensive because of the lack of syndication,” Owen says. So she chose to go with MPI Home Video which, she says, “has more experience with classic television.

“Season Four was never transferred to tape, so the digitizing is all from the original 35 millimeter stock,” Owen explains. “And there were a lot of missing end credits because of the way the original show ran. Originally it had a lot of sponsors and there were product placements in the end credits as well as in the intros. So it’s been a matter of finding the pieces and putting them all back together.”

Matching the various end credits to the right episodes became, she says, “kind of like a Sherlock Holmes investigation but luckily everything was found. MPI was incredible at finding everything. We’re so lucky — a lot of older shows weren’t that well cared for and a lot of stuff is missing.”

According to Owen, a DVD set for the show’s fifth season is already being planned and should be much easier to assemble since most of those episodes were syndicated. Sony holds the rights to the final three seasons of the show and Owen isn’t certain about whether those will come out on DVD.

But the fourth season DVD set, which contains 39 episodes spread over five discs, should be enough to keep fans occupied for a while. The episode that is likely to receive the most attention is Donna’s Prima Donna, which has Mary Stone forsaking college to start a singing career and debuting the song “Johnny Angel” on national television. The song, as released on the Colpix Records label, became a number one hit for Shelley Fabares, who starred as Mary.

The season four DVD package, Owen says, is also the first to feature bonus material, which will come in the form of interviews with both Fabares and Stu Phillips, the latter of whom founded the Colpix label, produced “Johnny Angel,” and then went on to work on another show that heavily featured pop music, “The Monkees.”

The season also featured a plethora of guest stars, including James Darren (another Colpix artist), Cloris Leachman, John Astin, Swoozie Kurtz and baseball great Don Drysdale.

To celebrate the launch of the new DVD set, MPI organized a reunion and tribute program featuring some of the show’s surviving actors (Reed passed away in 1986). The event was held Dec. 6 in Los Angeles’ Paley Center and was attended by Fabares, co-star Paul Petersen, Darren and Phillips.

Watching the “lost” episodes again on DVD left a big impression on Owen. “There are some poignant and subtly dramatic moments that are impressive and just make me think that it’s time again for ‘The Donna Reed Show,’” she says. “There are so many gentle lessons and great images about the American family, which I feel is not currently in the best condition.”

The Donna Reed Show’s depiction of the American family is what it’s best remembered for, and likely the reason viewers from two separate generations made it a hit. When the show started, it centered around the adventures of the four-member Stone family, which included Donna (played by Reed), her physician husband Alex (Carl Betz), their teenage daughter Mary and their precocious pre-adolescent son Jeff (Paul Petersen).

As the show progressed, that formula would be altered, with Paul Petersen’s younger sister Patty becoming a cast member when Fabares left the show. But it was the family-centric thrust of the show that attracted its initial flurry of viewers, who probably saw it was a reflection of their own lives when it originally aired.

Scroll ahead twenty years to the Generation Xers who rediscovered it in reruns, and you’d probably find they saw the show as an expression of what they would have liked their family lives to be like: harmonious, with an intact family unit and parents that actually cared and gave good advice to the kids.

The show’s purported “wholesomeness” drew its share of criticism over the years, as Donna Reed came to symbolize the stereotypical 1950s suburban housewife, with all the cultural baggage that comes with that image. Although there’s some truth to that, the show was never that simplistic. The dynamic between the characters was more believable than that of most other shows of its era, and it sometimes dealt with real life issues, albeit gently. Once in a while the show even tackled risky subjects like drug abuse, which was the central theme of the eighth season episode The Big League Shock.

The show was actually proto-feminist in some respects. Not only did it bear the name of its star, it was partly developed by Reed and invariably showed Reed’s character as being the backbone of the family – solving the problems, keeping things running. And while the show’s initial opening segment did picture Reed’s character as the standard “happy housewife” seeing her family off as they go out the door in the morning, later seasons showed her leaving for work as well.

That sounds like subversion of the norm of the 1950s and 1960s rather than the norm itself. All of which may have endeared it to its second generation audience, which was able to see the show as nostalgic, but not embarrassingly so.

“It’s been frustrating for me, especially when I was in college because the ’70s wave of feminism considered what she represented in the show to be pretty bad,” Owen says. “I felt like they were missing the fact that she was way ahead of her time. They had it completely wrong.

“My mother grew up on a farm,” she continues, “and in those days the work was equally divided between men and women. I don’t think my mother was consciously a feminist, but I think she naturally felt having worked early in her life and been part of the MGM film system that women were just as capable as men.”

By the time the show started, Reed was also a veteran film actress who had won a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her role in “From Here to Eternity.” She and producer/husband Tony Owen had heavy input into the creative process of the show throughout the show’s run.

“Her creative input can be seen by the way the show was run,” Owen says. “Ida Lupino directed a couple of episodes and Barbara Avedon cut her teeth there, writing and directing episodes, and she went on to create (the 1980s female detective show) ‘Cagney & Lacey.’”

Some of the above issues might be familiar to viewers of more modern television, since they were raised in an early “Gilmore Girls” episode, That Damn Donna Reed. In fact, the small town world of Hilldale depicted on “The Donna Reed Show” isn’t so far removed from the town of Stars Hollow where “Gilmore Girls” took place – only there’s less irony and fewer references to pop culture.

“I think Donna Stone was a very modern character,” Owen says. “Within each episode she kind of went outside the boundaries of being a 1950s stay at home mom. And by the end of each episode she kind of comes back to that role. But I think she’s got a very modern quality, which is why it was so popular on Nick at Nite.”