From the archives: Iowa values carried Donna Reed to Hollywood stardom and an Oscar

Des Moines Register

Editor's note: This story by Register reporter Tom Longden is part of our Famous Iowans database, where we feature hundreds of notable names from actor John Wayne to astronaut Peggy Whitson.

Donna Reed was a fresh-faced farm girl who was wholesome in countless movie roles until her performance as a prostitute brought her an Oscar. 

Donna Belle Mullenger was born on a farm southeast of Denison, the oldest of five children of William Mullenger and his wife, Hazel. 

Donna Reed in 1961.

Their daughter belonged to 4-H, milked cows, fed chickens and won a State Fair blue ribbon for her biscuits. She did well in school plays and was homecoming queen. She saw a movie for the first time when she was in high school. She attended Los Angeles City College, won a beauty contest and was signed by MGM, which changed her name twice. 

She started out in movies in 1941 as Donna Adams, appearing in "The Getaway" and "Babes on Broadway." 

The 5-foot-3 actress was in countless movies in the 1940s, although the one she is best remembered for is the 1946 Christmas classic "It's a Wonderful Life," opposite James Stewart. 

Going against type, she snagged the Academy Award for best supporting actress for her 1953 performance as Alma in the World War II drama "From Here to Eternity."

RELATED: The ultimate list movies made in or about Iowa

The award did not lead to better roles, and Reed turned to TV with "The Donna Reed Show," a popular sitcom that ran from 1958 to 1966. She played Donna Stone, the wife of a pediatrician, and became a symbol of the perfect American wife and mother.

Academy Award won by Iowans Donna Reed seen at the Hollywood in the Heartland exhibit at the State Historical Museum on Thursday, June 26, 2014, in Des Moines, Iowa.

In real life, the thrice-wed actress raised four children. 

Late in her career, Reed took over the role of Miss Ellie on TV's "Dallas," then sued the producers when they dropped her. Reed settled for $1 million. 

She died of pancreatic cancer in 1986.

The Donna Reed Festival for the Performing Arts is held each June in Denison.