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17 years after the death of the Hollywood star, Mary Owen made a shocking discovery about her mother.

It was 2003 when the daughter of Donna Reed and Tony Owen discovered several shoeboxes filled with more than 350 letters from World War II soldiers. They had been carefully saved by the matriarch in a trunk that had been kept in the garage of her Beverly Hills, California home for over 40 years.

“When World War II ended, nobody wanted to talk about it anymore because everybody was in it,” Owen told Fox News Digital. “I knew nothing about these letters.”

Clockwise from top: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Carol Coombs, Jimmy Hawkins, Larry Sims and Carolyn Grimes in It’s a Wonderful Life.
(Herbert Dorfman/Corbis via Getty Images)

Reed, the Oscar-winning actress best known for playing the loving wife Mary Hatch Bailey in the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life, died in 1986 at the age of 64. He was one of the many show business stars who used their talents. and proudly participated in the war to raise American troops.


The Hollywood Diner, which opened its doors in 1942, became a haven for servicemen, where they could enjoy a free hot meal, watch a show and even dance with their favorite stars. In 1942-1945, more than 3 million people visited.

“I still have my mom’s rations,” Owen smiled. “He was going on a bond walk. When he visited his parents in Iowa, he sold bonds. She danced with the guys at the Hollywood Diner and stuff. Several of his films were… screened at base camps. So he started getting these emails right. around 1940, 1941, but really closer to the end of the war in the last two or three years. And he answered them.”

American actress Donna Reed was an in-demand pinup during World War II.

American actress Donna Reed was an in-demand pinup during World War II.
(Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

At the time, Reed was a popular pinup, helping to keep our troops morale away from home. All the soldiers who wrote to her from bases and battlefields wanted an autographed photo of the glamor girl. But the letters also detailed their hopes and dreams as they faced uncertainty on the front lines. Some admitted their loneliness, while others were candid about their fears. Some soldiers just wanted to make Reed laugh, while others happily shared their doodling skills.

Donna Reed posed for her first portrait since signing a long-term contract with MGM.  He appeared in many movies and TV shows from the 40's to the 80's.

Donna Reed posed for her first portrait since signing a long-term contract with MGM. He appeared in many movies and TV shows from the 40’s to the 80’s.
(Collection of John Springer/Corbis via Getty Images)

Owen said reading the letters made him feel an immediate connection to those who find solace in his mother’s talent and beauty. In his later years, Reed became an anti-war campaigner. During the Vietnam era, she served as co-chair of the advocacy group Another Mother for Peace. Owen believes It’s a Wonderful Life and World War II will forever be linked.


“I feel World War II had an impact on the making of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,'” Owen explained. “[Director] Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart participated in the war. 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 joined the Army Corps and was filming Why We Fight. They were both different people coming back from the experience of making ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’

Donna Reed, circa 1942.  The actress was not Frank Capra's first choice. "it's a wonderful life" but he proved to be perfect for the role.

Donna Reed, circa 1942. The actress was not Frank Capra’s first choice for It’s a Wonderful Life, but she was perfect for the role.
(Archive photos/Getty Images)

According to Owen, Reed was not the first choice 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 on the MGM lot, he “knew right away” that the “country girl” from Iowa, who originally had plans to become a teacher, was perfect for the part.

“My mother was incredibly beautiful,” Owen said. “Without makeup or any of that, she was incredibly gorgeous… And I know her experience working with Frank Capra was unlike any other before or since. It was demanding work, but it was his most deeply satisfying work.” Ever experience. He had worked in MGM films up until that point and I’m sure they were doing something. But Capra was independent and visionary. He did things completely differently. And he loved it.”

It would take decades before that "It's a wonderful life" became a sensation among new audiences.

It would take decades for It’s a Wonderful Life to become a sensation among new audiences.
(Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

“My mom had a really strong softball arm,” Owen chuckled. “So when it came time to throw the rock at Granville’s house [in the film] they had a stuntman ready to break the glass. He said. “No, that won’t be necessary.” He broke the glass on the first try.

“Also, the pool scene, I went up to Beverly Hills and swam in that pool and played basketball on the court that opened up. But growing up in Iowa, she didn’t really know how to swim. So I think that scene made Him very nervous. They could use a double for a real drop.”


Despite James Stewart and Donna Reed "excellent" chemistry, the partners have not stayed in touch, Mary Owen said.

Despite James Stewart and Donna Reed’s “excellent” chemistry, the actors haven’t stayed in touch, Mary Owen said.
(Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

The film became a huge hit nearly 40 years after its release. When it was first shown, some critics thought it was too sentimental. And while it was nominated for five Academy Awards, including best actor and director, it reportedly only made $3.4 million in today’s money after spending $3.7 million.

The film about a suicidal man who is visited by an angel to show him what life would be like if he never existed flopped at the box office.

“I’m sure [my mother] assumed the film would do well,” Owen said. “So there was disappointment that it didn’t, even though it was a critical success. And he loved his experience.”

Although Reed and Stewart have “excellent” chemistry, the stars have not stayed in touch.

In 1954, Donna Reed won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress "From here to eternity."

In 1954, Donna Reed won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in the film From Here to Eternity.
(Earl Leaf/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

“In 1940, Stewart won an Oscar for The Philadelphia Story, so he was at his best,” Owen explained. “But he’s been gone for five years [and then came] back to hollywood. He actually blamed my mother for the film not doing well. … That’s too bad because, obviously, that’s not true.”


It wasn’t until decades later that television brought the film back, airing it consistently throughout the holiday season. Not only did it resonate with a new audience, but it lived on in almost every film of its time. Today, it is recognized by the American Film Institute as one of the greatest films ever made.

“When film started coming back to television in the late ’70s and ’80s, [my mother] was so happy,” Owen said. “He felt kind of vindicated because the movie just wasn’t successful, even though it … had all these elements that you would think would make it a hit.

“I first saw it on the big screen when I was in college. 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 realized that my mother was not only an actress, but she was a good actress. But this was before he became famous on television. There was a little shyness…

Donna Reed starred in more than 40 films.

Donna Reed starred in more than 40 films.
(CBS via Getty Images)

Reed appeared in more than 40 films. In the early days of television, she hosted The Donna Reed Show, a weekly comedy series on ABC from 1958 to 1966. In 1984, Reed joined the cast of “Dallas” and took on the role of Miss Ellie under actress Barbara Bell. Geddes fell ill.

Owen said that despite his rise to stardom, Reed never forgot his Iowa roots. Today, Owen calls Iowa City home.


“We all grew up in Beverly Hills and lived in houses with pools,” she said. “[My mother] had wealth and success and all that could fall upon him and make him disrespect his humble beginnings. But not for a second did he do that.

“Even when my mom was sick, she said she was using her big Iowa strength to get through it. He always gave back. He never took his power and success for granted.”

Donna Reed with husband Tony Owen, producer "The Donna Reed Show" and their daughter, Mary Owen.

Donna Reed with her husband Tony Owen, producer of “The Donna Reed Show” and their daughter Mary Owen.
(ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images)

Today, the late star’s legacy continues to give back to the Donna Reed Foundation for the Performing Arts. The Iowa-based nonprofit maintains historical archives and offers scholarships to students studying the arts.

And It’s a Wonderful Life keeps on being the Christmas gift that keeps on giving.

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“I think it gives people hope,” Owen said. “There aren’t many movies you can watch over and over again without getting bored. I have seen it many times. Sometimes I see something else that I have never seen before, or it hits me in a different way. Mary Bailey has become much more talked about. He was so strong. And I love it.”


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