It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 600. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.
This week’s musical:
Athena (1954) – Musical #77
Jane Powell, Jane Powell, Edmund Purdom, Debbie Reynolds, Vic Damone, Louis Calhern, Virginia Gibson, Jane Fischer, Cecile Rogers, Nancy Kilgas, Dolores Starr, Evelyn Varden, Linda Christian, Ray Collins, Richard Sabre, Henry Nakamura, Steve Reeves, Kathleen Freeman, Bess Flowers (uncredited)
The life of stuffy Massachusetts lawyer Adam Shaw (Purdom) is turned upside down when he meets Athena (Powell) and her family. Athena is a numerologist and lives with her grandparents and seven sisters. Her family believes in health, exercise and that life is directed by the stars. Athena finds that she and Adam are a love match through numbers and the stars and works to convince him.
• Esther Williams wrote in her autobiography that she was promised the lead in ATHENA when she returned from maternity leave. Williams worked with Leo Pogostin and Charles Waters on a script about a reincarnated goddess who returns to current day. When she came back from maternity leave, she found it was already filming with Jane Powell and the swimming numbers taken out.
• Steve Reeves’s character competes for Mr. Universe. Reeves was Mr. Universe of 1950.
• Three cast members co-starred in “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”: Jane Powell, Nancy Kilgas and Virginia Gibson.
• Jacqueline Allen, Betty Allen, Marie Vernon, Gloria Wood dubbed the sisters (not Jane Powell, Debbie Reynolds or Virginia Gibson. Victor Marchese dubbed for Edmund Purdom.
• Working title was “Adam and Athena”
• Technicolor cinematography
• Louis Calhern
• “Love Can Change the Stars” performed by Jane Powell
• “The Girl Next Door” performed by Vic Damone
• “I Never Felt Better” performed by Jane Powell and Debbie Reynolds
Vegan health food, exercise, astrology and positive thinking.
While those may be topics covered on your favorite Instagram account, it’s also the basis of this week’s Musical Monday, “Athena” (1954).
The film’s star Jane Powell said it was ahead of its time because of the “faddists, astrologers, numerologists and positive thinks.”
“It would have been done better 20 years later,” Powell wrote in her autobiography.
Powell plays Athena, one of seven sisters named for Greek Goddesses. The girls live with their grandparents (Evelyn Varden, Louis Calhern). The family lives in clean living: plant derived foods, homes that welcome lots of ventilation and sunlight, and exercise. Grandpa runs a gym of body builders and Grandma is an astrologist, and helps the girls find love matches through the stars.
Edmund Purdom plays Adam Shaw, an uptight lawyer heading towards a political career. He’s engaged (to Linda Christian in the movie and later in real life), but Athena informs him that they are a love match meant to be together. Adam resists but then begins accepting and enjoying this change in life.
Powell says that the film was supposed to be a satire on the California health cult.
It was also supposed to be a film that starred Esther Williams. Before her maternity leave, Williams was all set to be in the film and helped with the story treatment. When she returned, she learned that the film was already in production. The story Williams described isn’t quite what made it to screen, but similar. It also sounds like DOWN TO EARTH.
Losing out on the film was the greatest disappointment of her film career, Williams wrote in her autobiography.
While I’ve come to quite like ATHENA, it would have been interesting to see Williams in this too. Even better — they could have teamed Jane Powell and Esther Williams as sisters, which would have been great fun. Williams’s swimming would have fit in beautifully with a story that is about staying in good health.
When I first watched ATHENA as a teenager, I was so excited and remember didn’t like it. So when I revisited it for this review, I had low expectations. And found that I quite enjoyed it. In fact, I had a great time watching it.
It has several funny moments. Louis Calhern is a hoot (and I wish his role was larger). I also love that all the health food, astrology and exercise makes the characters weird in the movie, but now is en vogue.
The body builder and Mr. Universe aspect is also bizarre, but entertaining. When all the shirtless muscle men are walking around, I almost wondered if I was watching MUSCLE BEACH PARTY instead. I thought Steve Reeves, Mr. Universe of 1950, cast in the film as a man trying to win Mr. Universe was an interesting touch.
Another random highlight is Bess Flowers, who was in over 900 films in usually background roles where she wore her own clothes. In ATHENA, Flowers not only plays a role with a name, but also speaks! This is rare for Flowers.
The only down side is that Edmund Purdom is a bore of a leading man, but I guess that makes him well cast as a stuffy bore of a lawyer.
ATHENA is an unusual musical, setting it apart from others produced by the 1950s in MGM. It’s ridiculous but I found it to be great fun.
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