Mary Owen made a shocking discovery about her mother 17 years after the Hollywood star died.
It was 2003 when the daughter of Donna Reed and Tony Owen discovered several shoe boxes filled with over 350 letters from World War II soldiers. They had been carefully saved by the matriarch in a trunk stored in the garage of her Beverly Hills, California, home for more than 40 years.
“When WWII was over, nobody really wanted to talk about it anymore because everyone participated in it,” Owen told Fox News Digital. “I didn’t know anything about these letters.”
Reed, an Oscar-winning actress best known for playing loving wife Mary Hatch Bailey in the holiday classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” died in 1986 at age 64. She was one of many show business stars who put their talents to good use and proudly participated in the war effort to uplift the American troops.
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The Hollywood Canteen, which opened its doors in 1942, became a haven for servicemen where they could enjoy a hot meal, watch a show and even dance with their favorite stars free of charge. Between 1942 and 1945, more than 3 million visited.
“I still have my mother’s ration cards,” Owen chuckled. “She went on bond drives. Whenever she visited her parents in Iowa, she sold bonds. She danced with the guys at the Hollywood Canteen and so on. Several of her movies … were shown at base camps. So she started getting these letters right around 1940, 1941, but really closer to the end of the war during the last two to three years. And she responded to them.”
At the time, Reed was a popular pinup who helped maintain the morale of our troops far from home. All the soldiers who wrote to her from bases and battlefields wanted a signed photo of the glamour girl. But the letters also detailed their hopes and dreams as they faced uncertainty on the front lines. Some admitted their loneliness and others were candid about their fears. Some soldiers simply wanted to make Reed laugh and some happily shared their doodling skills.
Owen said reading the letters made her feel instantly connected to those who found solace in her mother’s talent and beauty. In her later years, Reed became an antiwar campaigner. During the Vietnam era, she served as a co-chairwoman of the advocacy group Another Mother for Peace. Owen believes that “It’s a Wonderful Life” and World War II will forever be connected.
“I feel like WWII had an influence on the making of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’” Owen explained. “[Director] Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart participated in the war effort. Jimmy Stewart was an Air Force bomber pilot, and he was away from Hollywood for five years. Capra was too old to enlist, but he had joined the Army Corps and was making the ‘Why We Fight’ series. They were both different people coming back from those experiences going into the making ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’”
According to Owen, Reed wasn’t the first choice considered for the role of the beloved matriarch. Capra originally wanted Jean Arthur or Ginger Rogers for the role, but both actresses were unavailable at the time. When Capra met Reed at the MGM lot, he “knew right away” that the Iowa “farm girl” who originally had plans to become a teacher was perfect for the part.
“My mother was incredibly beautiful,” said Owen. “Without makeup or any of that, she was unbelievably gorgeous … And I know her experience of working with Frank Capra was nothing like she’d ever experienced before or after. It was demanding work, but it was the most deeply satisfying work she’d ever experienced. She had worked in MGM films up to that point, and I’m sure they did things in a certain way. But Capra was independent and a visionary. He did things completely differently. And she loved it.”
“My mother had a really strong softball arm,” Owen chuckled. “So when it came time to throw the rock at the Granville house [in the film] to break the glass, they had a stunt person ready to do that. She said, ‘No, that won’t be necessary.’ She broke the glass on the first try.
“Also, the swimming pool scene, I went to Beverly Hills High and swam in that pool and played basketball on that court that opened up. But growing up in Iowa, she didn’t really know how to swim. So I think that scene made her very nervous. They might have used a double for the actual fall.”
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The film turned out to be a huge hit — about 40 years after it was released. When it first premiered, some critics believed it was overly sentimental. And while it was nominated for five Academy Awards, including best actor and director, it reportedly earned a mere $3.4 million in today’s money after costing $3.7 million to make.
The film about a suicidal man who gets a visit from an angel to show him what life would have been like had he never existed was a box office flop.
“I’m sure [my mother] assumed that the film would do well,” said Owen. “So there was the disappointment that it didn’t, even though it was critically successful. And she loved her experience.”
Despite Reed and Stewart having “excellent” chemistry, the co-stars didn’t stay in touch.
“In 1940, Stewart won the Oscar for ‘The Philadelphia Story,’ so he was at the top of his game,” Owen explained. “But he was away for five years [and then came] back to Hollywood. He actually blamed my mother for the movie not doing well. … It is too bad because, obviously, that’s not true.”
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It wouldn’t be until decades later that television brought the film back to life, airing it consistently during the holiday season. It not only resonated with new audiences, but it went on to outlive nearly every film made during its time. Today, it’s recognized by the American Film Institute as one of the best movies ever made.
“When the film started coming back on television in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, [my mother] was so happy,” said Owen. “She felt vindicated in a way because the movie just wasn’t successful even though it … had all these elements that you would think would make it a hit.
“I saw it for the first time when I was in college on the big screen. One of my best friends knew it was playing, and he took me to see it. And I loved it. And then, it was like a revelation. I got that my mom was not only an actress, but she was a good actress. But this was before it started becoming popular on television. There was a little shyness … of her talking about the film.”
Reed starred in more than 40 movies. In the early days of television, she launched “The Donna Reed Show,” a weekly comedy series on ABC from 1958 to 1966. In 1984, Reed joined the cast of “Dallas” and took over the role of Miss Ellie after actress Barbara Bel Geddes became ill.
Owen said that despite achieving stardom, Reed never forgot her Iowa roots. Today, Owen calls Iowa City home.
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“We all grew up in Beverly Hills and lived in homes with pools,” she said. “[My mother] had wealth and success and everything that could have gone to her head and make her disrespect her humble beginnings. But never for a second did she ever do that.
“Even when my mother took ill, she said she was using her great Iowa strength to get through it. She was always giving back. She never took her power and her success for granted.”
Today, the late star’s legacy continues to give back with The Donna Reed Foundation for the Performing Arts. The Iowa-based nonprofit preserves historical archives and offers scholarships to students who study the arts.
And “It’s a Wonderful Life” continues to be the Christmas gift that keeps on giving.
“I think it gives people hope,” said Owen. “There aren’t many movies that you can see over and over again without them weakening. I’ve seen it so many times. I sometimes see something different that I’ve never seen, or it hits me differently. Mary Bailey has become much more talked about. She was so strong. And I love that.”