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Athena (DVD Review)

1 Aug, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$19.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Jane Powell, Debbie Reynolds, Vic Damone, Edmund Purdom.

Though the original ad art the DVD box replicates calls it the “MGM Musical with Young Ideas,” a young idea in 1954 was more like “Gee” by The Crows or maybe “The Drifters” likely hacking off Irving Berlin by recording “White Christmas.” But not traditional Tin Pan Alley photographed in cost-cutting Eastman Color.

And yet in one huge regard that makes it interesting viewing today, Athena was ahead of its time in its advocacy of a healthy lifestyle — which led to casting the studio’s professional cuties Jane Powell and Debbie Reynolds with a cast of musclemen who included male-boomer icon Steve Reeves (the former 1950 Mr. Universe later immortalized by two Joe Levine "Hercules" epics). There are so many bodybuilders in the cast that you just know, statistically and romantically speaking, that some of them probably weren’t into Jane and Debbie’s kind all that much.

This femme duo and their four sisters — all with names like Calliope and Medea — live with their physically fit gramps (Louis Calhern) in a kind of health commune whose promoted lifestyle makes the young women sources of ridicule (Powell doesn’t like red meat, just imagine). Of course, she also allows a rigid numerology doctrine to rule her every move like the worst astrology flake you’ve ever known — while Reynolds claims she can’t marry her boyfriend until sis is hitched (rules, you know). What’s more, grandma (played by Evelyn Varden, an actress who specialized in playing moralistic small-town prunes in movies like The Night of the Hunter and Hilda Crane) is always walking around in strange garb (not a toga but close). So, yeh, the gang is strange.

Tossed into all this is a crooner played by Vic Damone — a couple years before he left Mercury Records for Columbia and busted some charts with “On the Street Where You Live.” Damone’s male co-star is the harmlessly and even agreeably wooden Edmund Purdom, who was having his one big year in Hollywood through a series of flukes. First, he replaced Mario Lanza in The Student Prince (dubbing the singer’s pre-recorded vocals) after Lanza walked off the set. Then, Purdom landed the central role in Darryl F. Zanuck’s hands-on production of The Egyptian over at 20th Century Fox after Marlon Brando balked (the film is just out in a Twilight Time Blu-ray I can’t wait to see). Athena brought up the rear in terms of its ambitions, but loopiness always counts for something.

The sleeper score (in that it grows on you) is by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane of Meet Me in St. Louis immortality, and it was no stupid move here to have Damone reprise “The Girl Next Door” (in St. Louis, of course, it was “the boy”) to open the picture. There’s an amusing Powell-Reynolds-beefcake production number about moving furniture that showed up in one of the later That’s Entertainment! compilations, and Powell has a couple solos that I would still rather listen to than go see Bad Teacher.

Though Powell was just coming off the biggest hit of her career (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers), the sea change in popular music at the time was so dramatic that her big-screen career would be over in four years and her MGM career in one. When Athena played downtown at an almost 3,000-seater in my hometown, the management had to bolster the bill by pairing it with Roger Corman’s road-racing cheapie The Fast and the Furious (now that was a young idea). I’d still pay to see that double bill.

Eastman Color or not, this is a handsome release, and there are some raw musical outtakes included that are fun to watch (good to see bonus extras showing up on an on-demand release). Calhern, 59 here and playing 78, looks in very trim shape, and in one scene his character lifts a chair (balsa wood, no doubt) up and down with one arm. Thus, it’s kind of ironic to think that about a year-and-a-half later the actor died suddenly of a heart attack shooting The Teahouse of the August Moon on location in Japan — which is how the great Paul Ford (who replaced him) got into the movies, excepting a few bit parts in the previous decade.

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