Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Tuesday Overlooked Films: ATHENA (1954) starring Jane Powell, Edmund Purdom and Debby Reynolds.

Tuesday is Overlooked (or Forgotten) Film Day a weekly meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his blog, SWEET FREEDOM. Don't forget to take a looksee to find out what other films and/or A/V material other bloggers are talking about today.


ATHENA is such a goofy little film. A musical with pleasant but forgettable music and the oddest storyline this side of your favorite health spa and body-building gym. I've always suspected that ATHENA was the unwitting harbinger of the healthy foods and exercise-will-do-you-good craze which later took over America.

Could it be?

In ATHENA, a film directed by Richard Thorpe, with Esther Williams listed as an uncredited writer, Jane Powell (Athena) and Debby Reynolds (Minerva) play sisters who live with their eccentric astrology loving, health enthusiast grandparents (along with a bunch of other siblings) up in the California hills.

The grandmother, Salome Mulvain (Evelyn Varden) is the star gazer and the grandfather and patriarch, Ulysses Mulvain (Louis Calhern) is the muscles proponent. In fact the whole (and very large) family lives in a sort of back-to-nature compound (that could only exist in movie-land) where they're all free to commune with nature and perfect their body-building skills. (Though the grandma has always looked a bit plump to me, she was probably excused from heavy duty stretching and bending because of her age. Though why the same didn't apply to her hubby - who knows?)

The compound seems to be shared by a whole host of muscle-bound young men (can't remember if they just came there to train or if they were family members) who waltz (a figure of speech) around the place in brief attire flexing their many muscles and sneering at outsiders such as, Edmund Purdom who plays Adam Shaw, an uptight lawyer who gets tangled up with the Mulvains.

Director Richard Thorpe on set. Louis Calhern in yellow pants. Edmund Purdom far right.

These manly young men are all being primed to enter a Mr. Universe-like contest - and this is seen as a desirable thing. (In fact one of the men hanging around the compound is Steve Reeves, Mr. Universe, 1950. He featured largely in some of the film's posters.)

The screenplay theorizes that all anyone needs to de-stress and de-uptight is a good dose of spinach juice and three or four hours doing deep knee bends. Gazing at the stars wouldn't  hurt either.

Then it sounded like esoteric nonsense, now - maybe not so much. Though there is such a thing as too much muscle - don't you think?

I haven't seen ATHENA for many, MANY years but for whatever reason, I remember the storyline and the stars (the movie must have made some kind of impression on me). I wonder if someone out there in the Blogosphere will have heard of this movie and maybe we can dish about the strangeness of it all.

Here's the plot:

Life at the carefree Mulvain compound is thrown into a tizzy when reality, in the form of some sort of legal problem (something to do with taxes, I think), rears its unhealthy head. Grandpa Ulysses isn't the sort to pay too much attention to the outside world's rules and regulations. So that brings Adam Shaw's law firm into the mix.

He is a very uptight, upright, slightly pompous but handsome, three piece suit-wearing lawyer whose first mistake is to try and make heads or tails of the Mulvain's quirky lifestyle. In the midst of attempting to make the Grandfather understand the problems the Mulvains are facing, Adam meets Athena.  She is the complete opposite of his fiance (the sophisticated, cocktail drinking Linda Christian who was, I think, married to Purdom or just about to be in real life). 

Adam finds himself intrigued with Athena, a perky little blond who goes about in short shorts spouting healthful lifestyle hints, serving fruits and veggies and breaking into song as the mood strikes.

In truth, Jane Powell is delightful. (Far as I'm concerned, she can do no wrong.) She and Louis Calhern (who had co-starred together in other films) are the best things in the movie. Jane even manages through all the silliness to spout a bit of wisdom.

Grandma Mulvain (Evelyn Varden) Adam Shaw (Edmund Purdom) and Athena (Jane Powell)

Edmund Purdom is strangely compelling in a totally miscast role. Oh, he's okay as the uptight lawyer, but once he leaves his offices and meanders into the Mulvain compound he looks like a fish out of water - a stranger in a strange land. Well, he's supposed to, but jeez, the guy just looks so uneasy. So NOT ready to star in a musical about, astrology, exercise, vegetarian food, muscle bound men and young women with perky notions.

But he perseveres and occasionally doesn't look fretful.

Debby Reynolds exercising.

In the meantime, Minerva (Debby Reynolds) is being courted by another wimpy outsider, the crooner, Vic Damone, who plays Johnny Nyle. There is absolutely no chemistry between Reynolds and Damone (well, there was never any chemistry between Vic Damone and any of his co-stars, possibly why his screen career was not of long duration), but they gave it the good old MGM try.

Trouble festers when the Mulvains try to convert Adam to their way of life. But one can't expect him to suddenly throw over his previous (and very lucrative) career as a successful attorney to join in the Mulvain family hi-jinks. 

Let's face it, the Mulvains and the rest of the world are incompatible.

So there's drama and turmoil, Athena and Adam face heartbreak. But just when love's true course seems about to be permanently derailed, Adam manages to save the compound with some legal mumbo jumbo, there's some sort of muscle-bound pageant and all is forgiven. Or so I remember it.

In 1954, when I saw this, I would have been an impressionable kid. I loved this movie and thought I wouldn't mind being a member of the Mulvain clan. They all seemed so happy and content and sure of themselves. I could easily get to like spinach juice.

Looking backwards, from a great and wise old age, I see the movie's obvious faults and yet I can't help but think that all the nonsense the Mulvains spouted has come home to roost. What seemed arcane and weird then - the vegetarianism, the devotion to exercise, the star gazing, is all main stream now. (I could name a President who had a resident astrologer in the White House.)

Go figure.


  1. I have never even heard of this one. Wow and what a thorough job you do here on bringing it to life.

  2. Patti, I was just over at your blog posting a comment and now here you are. :)

    Lots of people, I think, have never heard of this one. I was a musical movie freak when I was a kid. Saw every one I could manage.

    This was a silly bit of fluff, but I've always remembered it.

  3. Lots of people includes me! This one with Jane Powell and Debbie Reynolds cast together sounds like a lot of fun. Beeping TCM... I look forward to your Overlooked Movies every Tuesday. Thanks!

  4. Never heard of this one before, but I think I may want to watch it. Even if it's only for the muscle guys.

  5. Wow Yvette. this is a strange little movie indeed. It reads like someone was ingesting narcotics when they devised the 'plot'

    My first chuckle was the uncredited Esther Williams as a screenwriter. Funny enough when I read your first paragraph, I just as easily assumed that Esther Williams was involved in the project.

  6. Prashant: I wonder if TCM has this. They just might.

    This is an enjoyable movie. Fun to watch, if you can find it. :)

    I'll be doing weekly vintage monster films this month too.

  7. Ryan: You will love the beefy guys. Ha! Lots of them milling around. :)

  8. iluvcinema: Could be. :)

    It is odd, no question. Lots of fun and nonsense, but odd.

    Especially the bevy of near naked men hanging abour.

    There's always something so bizarre about men in skimpy bathing suits standing around with fully clothed men.

  9. The mixture of fully-clothed people and naked ones is usually pretty odd. Part of what never really jibed with me as a kid about certain PLAYBOY shoots...why would a man Want to be in a tux in the presence of a playful nude woman?

  10. And, turning to another magazine maverick, Bernarr MacFadden, he was a major newsstand advocate of bodybuilding and dietary advances in the early decades of the last century, as well as publishing the trailblazing (not all trails are noble) tabloid THE NEW YORK GRAPHIC (and the movie magazine PHOTOPLAY)...and I suspect it had an astrology column, much as so many newspapers have had for some time...too much muscle these days is usually drug-driven, and might've been then, too (wonder if Steve Reeves was "juicing")...the notion of Debbie Reynolds as part of a body-building family is odd enough...

  11. Currently, no US nor other North American nor European station that we handle has informed us of scheduling ATHENA...TCM might have access to it, but they aren't currently using it. But it does sound as if Logo or Here! might be missing a trick...

  12. Todd: When I was a kid my father was a weightlifter (even my mom did some though I never saw it). But I have a pix somehwere of her with dumbells. And not just me and my brother. :)

    So Strength and Health Magazine was always at our house. Even as a kid, I thought it was odd.

    I see your point about Playboy. I can say no more. Ha!

    We can't expect TCM to carry everything. I guess.

  13. Yvette, this has to be the oddest musicals ever made! All those muscle men running around in their underwear with Debbie and Jane -- kind of embarrassing actually! LOL! I've never seen this, and it doesn't actually sound like something the adult me would like -- but I can see why a young girl would think it was pretty cool!

  14. Nah, it wasn't embarassing, Beck. Just a bunch of fun. The scantily clad men weren't on screen all the time. And for me, Jane Powell can make anything work. :)


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