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Unlike MGM's expensive, classic musicals of the 1950s, the modest, light-hearted but equally delicious "Athena" has been all-but-forgotten. A shame, because this lilting, lively melodious lark is not only a wryly amusing satire on an eccentric family of health-food nutritionists/numerologists, but, most importantly, a dazzling showcase for some of the most tuneful musical numbers to grace any film of its era. The score, by Ralph Martin and Hugh Blane (of "Meet Me in St. Louis" fame), offers such treats as Jane Powell singing the poignant, haunting ballad "Love Can Change the Stars" (which should have become a popular hit); Powell, Debbie Reynolds and their 5 sisters performing a breathtakingly energetic, knockout song-and-dance production number "I Never Felt Better"; and Ms. Powell (never more bewitchingly alluring) setting off vocal fireworks with her superb rendition of Donizetti's "Chacun Le Sait" from the operetta "Daughter of the Regiment." The plot, wherein Powell & Ms. Reynolds defie their nutritionist fanatic grandfather's (a delightful Louis Calhern) dictums by falling in love with, respectively, Edmund Purdom and Vic Damone (two carnivores with the wrong "signs") is decades ahead of its time in its wise, gentle and good-humored satire of life-styles and fads (culminating in a body-builder contest where one of Calhern's proteges is Steve Reeves, who would a mere 4 years later attain international screen stardom as "Hercules"). Amusing as it is, the plot rightfully takes second-place to the wondrous cast of MGM's most gifted young musical talents of the day--in their full vocal and dancing glory captured in glistening pasteled Technicolor. (Sadly, they were all soon to be given their walking papers when Television became the new national rage, and the first of the terrified studio's contract players to be dismissed were the stars of its taken-for-granted musicals. Indeed, Powell, Reynolds and Damone would co-star in only one more MGM songfest, "Hit the Deck"--as warm, charming, and tuneful as "Athena"--as well as a boxoffice disappointment.) Meanwhile, tune in "Athena" the next time TCM shows it--and don't be surprised if, weeks later, you find yourself humming, whistling or singing Ms. Powell's glorious delivery of what is perhaps this delectable movie's most rousing, catchy tune--the zesty, jubilant "Vocalize"!
Bodybuilding had a disreputable allure in the Eisenhower and Kennedy years.
Few would admit to its hold on them, but how else could you explain the
box-office success of movies like "Hercules Unchained" and subsequent
gladiator trash with a fleet of amply-endowed stars like Gordon Scott, Mark
Forrest, Dan Vadis, Mickey Hargitay, and Brad Harris bulging flagrantly in
front of the camera?
The premiere member of this elite group was a former Mr. Universe--the dark, statuesque Steve Reeves. Before the days when he was sporting a leather loincloth, chained at the wrists, tensing his biceps, and literally bringing the house down, Reeves was introduced for the public's delectation in the 1954 musical "Athena." In it, he plays Ed Perkins, the prize stallion of a stable of physical culturalists groomed by the barrel-chested Louis Calhern--handlebar moustache, bluster and all--as Ulysses Mulvain, a septagenarian who espouses to a neo-Spartan approach to life, replete with vegetarian diet, and plenty of fresh air and exercise. Reeves vies for the affection of the title character, Mulvain's granddaughter (Jane Powell), who, much to the chagrin of the "stars," has eyes for a stuffy, young lawyer (played by the impossibly handsome Edmund Purdom--if there ever was an actor with a silky-milky-white complexion, it's him), himself being primed and tweaked for a U.S. senate seat. Reeves settles for a supporting role in his first major outing on the screen and sits on the sidelines while Powell charts her inevitable course with Purdom glowering at her incessantly. The body beautiful has his big scene with taking the title at a re-creation of the Mr. Universe contest that for insiders must have seemed pretty hokey.
That aside, if you're willing to go with it, "Athena" can be fun--a kind of stilted mixture of numerology, prurient interest, and music--all served up by the not-so-discerning minds of writers William Ludwig ("The Student Prince"), Leonard Spigelgass, and the by-then renowned songwriting team of Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane. Their classic "The Boy Next Door" changes sex with Vic Damone singing it, and their "Love Can Change The Stars" is just syrupy enough for the sweet tooths of hopeless romantics. (My favorite is the spry "I Never Felt Better.") But none of these compares with the grandeur of blazingly blonde Powell's rendition of "Chacun Le Sait" from Donizetti's "La Fille du Regiment." It's full of passion and indignation and fire, and Powell has never achieved so high a note of glory on screen as she has in these few much-too-short minutes.
Also on the sidelines--Debbie Reynolds as Athena's sister Minerva, and, descending from the clouds of Hollywood movie mysticism, Evelyn Varden as Salome Mulvain, grandmother of the nymphs, greeting everyone with something that sounds like "Namari gongo par" and coming out trances every so often to bestow upon her loved ones the will of the stars.
Athena is a musical that grows better with time. Starring lovely Jane
Powell, handsome Edmund Purdom, lively Debbie Reynolds, and cute Vic
Damone, this story of a new age family living in the hills of
California, whose tenants include numerology, spiritualism,
vegetarianism, no smoking or drinking, astrology, weight building,
group singing, etc. manages to be a delight today, whereas other
musicals of that era look rather dated. At the time it premiered it was
considered rather a flop, but today it looks fresh and sparkling and
topical. It's time for an official DVD release so we can obtain the
film in a nice crisp digital print, instead of fuzzy VHS.
The few songs in the film are all beautiful and snappy, with a touch of irony and humor. I wish they were available in sheet music form, so that those of us who love "Love Can Change The Stars" can warble it while playing on our pianos or guitars.
I'm glad TCM plays it occasionally, it's always a treat, and nice to know that, at the time of this writing, all the major stars still seem to be alive and kicking. There was just something about the early training of the stars at MGM that helped the performers achieve longevity. Look at most of the major MGM musical stars of the 1940's and 1950's and many lived into their 80's or 90's, or are still with us. I guess it taught them endurance. So much better than being a couch potato! ;)
I wish the old fashioned musical would come back to our theaters, but failing that, we always have these golden oldies to dream upon, whenever we need a break from this cruel world.
I caught this film on TCM the other day and I must say I was strangely enthralled by it. There was something magical about the atmosphere created in this film with the sets and the star fields. Jane Powell's singing of "Love can change the Stars" was especially mesmerizing and it made me want to immediately go and get "Seven Brides For Seven Brothers". Steve Reeves was especially notable in this film. The weightlifting competition was yet another treat to behold. The song and dance numbers were lively and Debbie Reynolds was a dynamo. All in all, I taped this film and have reviewed it many times since.
I watch this movie on an average of twice a week and still find it as delightful as the first time. The teaming up of Vic Damone & Debbie Reynolds was a wonderful choice, they certainly compliment each other both in voice as well as temperament, they are a delight to watch. Edmund Purdom is absolutely priceless with his dry wit & pompous superior air, and the bantering dialogue between him & Vic Damone lends an extra dimension to the movie. Always a pleasure to watch him on screen. Charles Purdom was correct when he said Edmund was a natural on stage. What can one say about Jane Powell, always a delight to watch and her voice needs no comment from anyone, it is always superb and a joy to listen to. Louis Calhern & Evelyn Vardin are well matched again as in "The Student Prince". What I do not understand is that everyone seems to forget "Miss Seely", Kathleen Freeman, what a delight it is to watch her as the ever willing secretary to Adam Calhorn Shaw, even to chomping away at a carrot to fit in with his new health regime. Lets not forget about "Roy", Henry Nakamura, also a little gem & a delight in his movies. I wonder what happened to him as he seemed to have had a very short movie career. All told, this may not have been a box office hit, but will always remain one of my favourite movies to watch.
The robust smash hit of 7 Brides For 7 brothers literally spawned this star struck mini musical of 1954....and if one has a closer look in reels 1 2 and 3 (instead of 4 5 and 6) one can almost hear the board room pitch quoting the 7 Brides box office as the excuse to rush ATHENA into production: "That what they want! healthy boys and girls with an appetite for life living on some farm. The boys flex their muscles and the girls tend their.......er......garden." and so we have what is a lively and funny musical for the 20 year olds market that was called the teen market very soon after........quite rightly predating the AIP Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello frolics ten years later in Muscle Beach Party etc. Athena is good fun and well made. The muscle contest at the end to the tune "Jealousy" is well coded with beefcake antics....and all filmed from what might be called the bulging cossie angle. Hilarious! I would be fascinated to see the missing ten minutes as reported on the IMDb that the original running time was 115 minutes as opposed to the 95 mins only now available. I wonder was edited out and where can the footage be seen?
On a visit some weeks ago to my local Hollywood Video store, I noticed
title available among the VHS tapes in the Musicals section. Since I knew
it had not been produced in CinemaScope (and therefore wouldn't suffer
the dread "formatting") and being a Jane Powell fan from 'way back, I
it. It is certainly an odd concoction for a very conservative major
of the mid-Fifties era; studio bound; directed by the pedestrian Richard
Thorpe; packed with a cast selected to appeal, presumably, to the the
younger members of its potential audience; and not as overflowing with
musical numbers as I had hoped.
Jane is as pretty as ever, in overlit but warmly rich Eastmancolor, chirrupping in her matchless colortura; Debbie Reynolds lends her usual lively support; Vic Damone, despite his eminently listenable baritone, once again demonstrates why he never became a top boxoffice draw; and Edmund Purdom is perfectly cast as an unlikely stuffed-shirt suitor to Jane's way-out-there Athena. One can only imagine the chasm of misunderstandings that would bedevil their future marital bliss. With the elegant Louis Calhern as an unlikely patriarch, health and fitness obsessed, and the lovable Evelyn Varden as his woozy mate, convinced that astrology is the key to happiness. Add a passel of pre-steroid Muscle Beach denizens, including the handsome Steve Reeves and Ed Fury, before their emigration to Italy to appear in all those Hercules epics, and you've got a brew that's not really indigestible but doesn't really coalesce as its makers may have hoped.
Middling musical filled with pretty people. Edmund Purdom may not have been the greatest actor but was an extremely handsome man. Jane and Debbie, in one of the several films they were paired in together in their early careers, are bubbly and fresh as sisters. The best performance comes from the terrific Louis Calhern as the somewhat daffy grandfather, with a twinkle in his eye and his breezy line readings he's a hoot. Interesting to compare Evelyn Varden's spacey Grandma here and her portrayal of the vicious Icey Spoon in the next year's Night of the Hunter. Probably the only movie, musical or otherwise that stops cold to have a Mr. Universe contest stuffed into it. Pleasant but minor.
Two out of seven modern-day sisters, each named after a Greek Goddess and living with their vegetarian, health-conscious grandparents (no word on what happened to their actual mother and father!), find romance as destined by the stars. Numerologist Jane Powell quickly lays her lips upon stuffy lawyer Edmund Purdom, while pony-tailed Debbie Reynolds is matched with spiritless crooner Vic Damone. Opening predicament with Damone being sued by his agent is quickly dropped, as are Purdom's plans to run for Congress (!). Instead, the two men get involved in the lives of their lovely ladies--as well as with grandpa Louis Calhern, who is in the midst of training musclemen for the Mr. Universe contest. No memorable songs, but the presentation is colorful, airy, and pleasant. The hot-headed characters keep running off half-cocked, while the script becomes more and more illogical. Still, the energy displayed is infectious and the supporting cast is solid. **1/2 from ****
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I love Jane Powell and have started collecting her movies on DVD. This is the first film I have seen. Jane Powell and Debbic Reynolds play 2 of 7 sisters who believe in the stars and a healthy lifestyle. I have no problem with a healthy lifestyle, but believing in the stars is bunk(take a star off for that). Jane courts Edmund Purdom and Debbie courts Vic Damone. Both men do a good job in the film and they have good chemistry with their partner. Jane, Debbie and Vic all sing and the songs are good, but not great(take another star away). The plot states that Jane must marry before Debbie can marry. Jane and Edmund like each other and then they meet one another's friends and the different lifestyle almost destroy the relationship. However, both try to make changes and they end up together in the end. Louis Calhern is a favorite of mine and he plays the girls grandfather. He is kind of the leader of the pack. I wished he had a bigger part. He only had three scenes in the movie. The other highlight of the film was seeing Jane in a nice short skirt while she served dinner. I really liked her figure. She is really a beautiful woman, especially with blonde hair. Overall this is a film worth watching.
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