Directed by Richard Thorpe
Written by Leo Pogostin, Charles Walters, Esther Williams, William Ludwig, and Leonard Spigelgass
Athena, one of MGM's B-tier musicals for 1954 (or C-tier, depending on how you rank producers Jack Cummings and Joe Pasternak's respective efforts after Arthur Freed's, and Athena was Pasternak's baby), must be one of the most consistently weird musicals of its era. And none of that, really, has anything to do with it being a musical, so when I say it's "weird" I don't mean in the way that a Gang's All Here or a Singin' In the Rain or an Invitation to the Dance is weird, that is, always ready to explode into incoherent and/or arty audiovisual nonsense. Indeed, it's not very good as a musical, and makes no real effort to be, therefore earning the dubious distinction of being a musical that—at least arguably—might be better off if many or all of its songs were cut out, and it spent its full runtime just being a romantic comedy, since if it's not an above-average romantic comedy (and as it is both funny and romantic, I'd say it is), it's such an awfully strange romantic comedy that I wouldn't necessarily want to compare it directly to the standard benchmarks of its genre anyway. It's a thing that starts off as the gentlest possible satire (if "satire" is even the right word) of a nascent subculture that reveals itself, in extremis, as a social issues allegory about religion, with a side of Steeve Reeves in his underwear thrown in, plus flash-in-the-pan mediocrity Edmund Purdom being actively good in a movie for once, or at least put to good use.
It's absolutely nuts, then, as you can see. It suffers from very obvious weaknesses—and not making much out of the musical format may well be merely a special case of its fundamental problem, a director, Richard Thorpe, who held it in so much contempt that Debbie Reynolds held onto her frustrations with him years down the road—but it has such uncommon strengths that I'd prefer to champion it regardless. It lost a lot of money at the time, and now it's in the same undifferentiated heap as so many other mid-century musicals*, and it seems fairly obvious that no other outcome was ever possible. But I'm glad they made it, even if I'm surprised the industrial process let it slip through.
The weirdness is low-key, I reiterate, which actually helps make it weirder, because it isn't necessarily about calling attention to itself; rather, what we have is a constant stream of reminders that it's far to the left of the usual "showpeople and/or sailors feel feelings, dance" affair, possessing instead what may be the oddest female protagonist an MGM musical ever put onscreen. This is one Athena Mulvain (Jane Powell), and we meet Athena alongside the man she'll fall in love with, Adam Calhoun Shaw (Purdom), a straitlaced young lawyer from a distinguished family, currently campaigning to represent Pomona, CA, and its environs in Congress. Adam makes Athena's acquaintance whilst complaining to his horticulturalist, who sold him dead peach trees; Athena intercedes, and voices her suspicion that, as peach trees are "snobs," they might just need a good mulching to make their inner life known. She takes immediate note of the number value of his name—Athena is, amongst other things, a numerologist—and seizes upon her belief that this Sagittarian "4" is a very good match for her Aquarian "6" (she uses a pretty simplified numerological system, evidently). Unfortunately, his license plate number obviates any possibility that they could be together, and Adam breathes a sigh of relief that he hasn't acquired an insane stalker. Oh, how wrong he is! Athena recalculates her compatibility and just starts showing up at his house uninvited, mulching away, and also meeting one of his clients, crooner Johnny Nyle (Vic Damone), whom she decides is a good match for her younger sister, Minerva (that's Reynolds, a somewhat more convincing screen sibling than the one Powell received in Royal Wedding).
Adam's finacée, Beth Hallsom (Linda Christian), wonders aloud what this attractive young woman is doing at Adam's house at 8 o'clock in the morning, and Adam resolves to nip this situation in the bud. He tracks Athena down to her family's compound atop a hill, where he meets Minerva and her other five sisters (whereupon this film emits some worrisome Down To Earth vibes, and reportedly the original script did go in that direction). He also encounters her grandfather Ulysses (Louis Calhern), who, to Adam's chagrin, asks directly if he'd mind taking off his clothes—and in case you thought I used the term "compound" frivolously, it becomes very apparent very fast that Ulysses has built himself a straight-up cult out here in Southern California, really getting ahead of the curve, and while the sisters' similar ages soothes one's overactive imagination, the absence of any identified mother or father for Athena (not to mention any male siblings) unintentionally suggests some pretty troubling things about what might've been going on all these years out in Mulvainite country. Or, at least it might, until you see the dudes. For Ulysses's cult believes in a lot of stuff—numerology, astrology, and grandmother Salome (Evelyn Varden) explicitly worships a deity named "Nada"—but at the core of it is an extreme form of Charles Atlas self-help as expanded into a whole worldview: a pronounced emphasis on physical fitness, achieved by austere vegan diets and clearly a lot of hard, hard work, forcefully represented by the retinue of bronze slabs that Ulysses calls his students, the biggest of which, Ed (Reeves, natch), is preparing to compete in the Mr. Universe pageant, and has dibs on Athena. This will come up later; in the meantime, Adam realizes that he actually likes his stalker, and this pleases Minerva and Johnny, inasmuch as the stars dictate that they can't wed until Athena's married first. But this means that Adam must somehow integrate Athena into his much-squarer world, and their travails are not over yet.
That's a long synopsis for a 95 minute musical, but I wanted to be clear in how unlikely it is to see it in 1954, where it spends almost all of that runtime pushing one aggressively alternative lifestyle—not just veganism (and an ideological, absolutist form of veganism, at that), but also a rejection of alcohol and tobacco, and an embrace of human equality and nature (it's good when bees come into your house), and all of it married to what seems like some pretty far-out gender roles, between its perfectionist mode of physical fitness that holds male wimpiness in contempt and its wacky woo that attributes every last little damn thing to the stars, though the invocation of a pagan deity is the thing that genuinely shocks me about it. About the only stop not pulled out is that it's a fake pagan deity, inasmuch as I assume a real one would've brought the censors down on the script. It could not be more California, anyway, and it almost feels like something from ten years down the road—I suppose its closest cousin in Hollywood cinema would have been the house full of hobbyist yahoos from Capra's You Can't Take It With You, which (curiously enough) has just about the same basic plot, but that film's oddballs were far more apt to be Hooverite mouthpieces for Capra's own shitty politics than the caricature of a halfway-authentic-feeling Californian counterculture that you can locate in the Mulvains. I almost wonder if Athena's writers had some special insight into the world turning under their feet. The scenario itself, incidentally, was conceived by aquamusical sensation Esther Williams along with Leo Pogostin and Charles Walters, and the dispute over whether she should star in the movie she helped write was one of the factors leading her to ditch MGM.
Anyway, it was heavily rewritten, and the cast they used certainly worked out. The culture clash is the source of a lot of solid humor, expressing itself through Powell's loopy womanchild (not quite a manic pixie, though you could squeeze her into the category, if you felt like it). And so Athena badgers her crush with terrifying elán and semi-accidentally insults both him and most of the people he knows; still, it's Purdom's boxlike lawyer who gets all the biggest laughs, as the straightman attempting to navigate Athena's alien world ("telephones are not a matter of faith!"), constantly indignant and not really bothering to hide his English accent, which lends an air of extra stuffiness to an already extremely-unhip lead. But the screenplay also never feels like it's mocking its heroine: eventually (like, in the last five minutes), Athena finally realizes that she's been something of a bully—it finally complicates a story that, thematically, has spent the entire time being hippie propaganda—but it successfully manages a difficult balance between making fun of grandpa's cult while also criticizing the conformist exoteric culture that looks down its nose at it. Its most remarkable aspect might be that it never really requires Athena to compromise—not in any essential way, just tone down her more domineering aspects—and it winds up exploring the accommodations any two reasonable people who love each other would have to make in pursuit of an interfaith marriage, with the bonus that since Athena's faith is fictional, the screenwriters can be wholly irreverent with it, even if the final shot emphasizes how much they respect the idea of it anyway.
And that's all pretty great (Reynolds also manages a fun supporting character; she's not individuated too far beyond "the sister with the most lines," but Minerva's pointed crankiness at the stars' refusal to let her get laid distinguishes her sufficiently from Athena's more ethereal personality that she never comes off redundant—even if their characters' names are). What isn't great, unfortunately, is most everything else, starting with the way that Thorpe just perfunctorily puts it onto celluloid. I'm not sure that Thorpe is a director I have much use for (though this time he manages to remember that "close-ups" are a useful tool in a filmmaker's kit), and Athena is workmanlike enough to get by—he doesn't ruin the screenplay, and there's enough crackle here for it to properly come off, and, as Purdom appeared to be some muse of Thorpe's for some reason (he'd brought him to stardom earlier in 1954 with a movie I'd previously never heard of, The Student Prince, and directed him again in the following year's The Prodigal), I suppose I'm happy he stuck by Purdom to get the comedic performance he does out of him—but he doesn't do much more than that. That's not unexpected, however. What's more disappointing is Cedric Gibbons and Paul Groesse's art direction, which is rather bland and colorless (underlined by some already-muted Eastmancolor photography), almost exclusively just a succession of gray and/or beige cubes that would seem to fit Adam's constrained horizons, but fails to change much even as those horizons expand; there is, at best, some architectural distinction between Adam's traditionalism and the Mulvains' modernism that remains underdefined and almost entirely inconsequential.
But none of that's too bad. Where Thorpe and the production truly let the film down is where this romantic comedy becomes a musical romantic comedy, and that workmanlike direction is above all on display in Powell's big torch number, "Love Can Change The Stars," which is literally just Powell singing toward the rafters on the set. That's the best song in the film—well, original song, the best song in the film is Powell's recitation from a French opera, which doubles as a cute character beat that reminds us that just because Athena lacks worldliness, it doesn't mean she's dumb or uneducated—but nothing here is musically memorable, including songwriters Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane's repurposing of a song ("The Girl Next Door") from their most famous collaboration, Meet Me In St. Louis. This is presented diegetically onstage by Damone's crooner, who gets another number in the same vein, "Venezia," which is completely pointless and accomplishes absolutely nothing (not musically, not cinematically) besides indifferently plopping a splash of color into the proceedings by way of a bunch of splendidly-unified pink-and-purple costumes that Thorpe could not give less of a shit about. The best sequence, then, is one of the few that choreographer Val Bettis got to do anything with, and one of the very few moments where Thorpe (or somebody—I've never been impressed by Bettis in the past, but it could easily be her shadow-directing) realizes they're making a musical, and can therefore break from strict realism a bit. This is "Never Felt Better," a manic little number involving the sisters and two of their hulking pals busting into Adam's house while he's not there to redecorate everything—I hope I have established that Athena has, like, serious boundary issues—while Athena and Minerva do very little to help, what with spending most of the time leaping about on the furniture that other people are carrying. It's a little shock of energy into a film that needed it, with the camera jauntily dancing around Adam's mansion's living room alongside Powell and Reynolds, but it could easily be the third-best sequence in another MGM musical, one you appreciated without being wowed by. At the end, we arrive at that Mr. Universe competition, and it has its merits, as we get a non-trivial amount of well-appointed beefcake. Yet you keep waiting for Thorpe to remember that, honest, this is a musical, and he can elaborate upon this scene with a lot more than some nicely-if-airlessly composed shots of big guys flexing and lifting weights, and he simply never does. It's a missed opportunity—in terms of formal joy, sure, but also in terms of something genuinely unique in an era where you'd be lucky if they managed to show any appreciable amount of female skin—and if it was missed on purpose, that's a pity. (If only Charles Walters, in addition to helping with the first draft, had directed!)
The film, however, does have other goals and hits those pretty flawlessly—it's a funny-cute little social satire that never shies away from getting wacky, from a 78 year old man doing flips to its third act revelation of secret judo, and Powell and Purdom make such an unexpectedly excellent romantic comedy pairing that I'd never fail to credit it for what it does well. It can be disappointing, then, but it can also be exhilarating; it's a curio, but a worthwhile one.
*Not that the poster helps, and yeah, even for a mid-century musical, it's incredibly shitty.