Richard Thorpe’s Athena offers an innocuous way to pass the time with a musical comedy-romance that’s easy to watch and just as easy to forget.
The Production: 2.5/5
There are dozens of pretty people dotting Richard Thorpe’s 1954 musical comedy Athena, but it’s a great shame that these beautiful people with their lilting singing voices and gorgeous physiques haven’t been given anything consequential to play nor anything of notable melody to sing. It’s very pleasant and picturesque in Eastman color and stereophonic sound, but it’s also instantly forgettable, both in story and song.
The Mulvain family definitely walks to the beat of a different drummer. A family of health addicts and believers in astrology and numerology, grandpa Ulysses Mulvain (Louis Calhern) is seventy-eight years old without an ounce of body fat who can do back flips and whirl on the parallel bars and boasts a shock of wavy silver hair. His oldest daughters Athena (Jane Powell) and Minerva (Debbie Reynolds) are of marriageable age and stake their claims on a lawyer with political ambitions Adam Shaw (Edmund Purdom) and a nightclub, radio, and television star Johnny Nyle (Vic Damone) respectively. Unfortunately, Adam is already engaged to the snooty, superior Beth Hallson (Linda Christian) who sees Athena and her eccentric family as weirdos while Minerva must win Johnny over half of the female population of America who swoon over his crooning and dapper looks.
Screenwriters Leonard Spigelgass and William Ludwig haven’t manufactured a plot with much conflict or in-depth characterizations. Minerva and Johnny hit it off right away, but she won’t marry until her sister does, so everyone’s happiness pivots on the off-and-on romance between Adam and Athena. There’s not much of a spark there on the surface though Athena does have a lovely voice and a pert and perky personality. But she breaks up with Adam not because of anything he does but because his spiteful ex-fiancé makes her feel uncomfortable at a dinner party because she won’t take any meat from the buffet table (the Mulvains are strict vegetarians). That’s the extent of the film’s fairly lame dramatic arc!
Song and dance-wise, the movie is let down by the mediocre score by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane (who rose to fame with Best Foot Forward and who provided the most memorable songs for Meet Me in St. Louis). Jane Powell is introduced with the film’s best new song “Vocalize” which is later taken up by the entire Mulvain family as “Harmonize.” Jane tries a love ballad “Love Can Change the Stars” which goes nowhere, but the film’s best number involves her, Debbie, and the Mulvain family rearranging Adam’s living room to make it more open and breezy in the Hermes Pan choreographed and directed “I Never Felt Better” (the credits make it clear Pan directed the musical numbers, not the otherwise named director Richard Thorpe). The film comes to a dead stop as Jane entertains the stuffy people at that dinner party with an operatic excerpt “Chacun Le Sait” from Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment. A later segment at the Mr. Universe bodybuilding contest likewise goes on for longer than one might expect, but certainly long enough to let Steve Reeves, Mr. Universe of 1950, show his considerable physical assets in his most notable American film (he’d soon be off to Italy to begin his long reign in Italian sword and sandal pictures). Debbie Reynolds gets a blasé duet with Vic Damone “Imagine” while Vic solo gets “The Girl Next Door” (interpolated by Martin and Blane from St. Louis with pronouns changed for a male singer) and the bland nightclub number “Venizia” which he delivers in a cranberry tux.
It’s odd seeing Jane Powell and Vic Damone in the same movie and not being coupled (they’d already appeared together in Rich, Young, and Pretty and in the “Will You Remember?” number in Deep in My Heart and would be reunited as sweethearts in Hit the Deck the following year) since when they do appear together in the same scene, their chemistry together is obvious. Jane is trim and lovely in this movie with her voice as silvery as always, but her character’s impulsiveness is nearly impossible to play convincingly. Vic Damone relies on that melodious croon to get him by, and in that he does well. Debbie Reynolds is rather wasted in the film (and once again playing Powell’s sister though not nearly as memorably as in Two Weeks with Love), and Louis Calhern likewise pops in on only a couple of occasions. MGM was trying mightily to make a star of Edmund Purdom after his big hit in The Student Prince (with Mario Lanza’s singing voice; here he’s dubbed by Victor Marchese), but he’s rather wooden and uninteresting and not a great match with Jane Powell. He pairs better with Linda Christian playing a clichéd superior blueblood who’s unlikeable and smug. Evelyn Varden plays the psychic grandmother with routine nonchalance. Ray Collins, Carl Benton Reid, and Howard Wendell are the naysaying political honchos who don’t want their potential candidate mixed-up with the strange Mulvain family.
3D Rating: NA
The film is presented in 1080p using the AVC codec in MGM’s standard house ratio on that era for widescreen, non-Cinemascope movies, 1.75:1. The picture is glorious with excellent sharpness and the pastel-leaning colors rich and true throughout. Flesh tones are likewise natural and appealing (the tanned bodybuilders contrasting with the more normal flesh tones of everyone else). The movie has been divided into 41 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo sound mix offers wonderful fidelity and expansive sound. George Stoll’s MGM orchestra sounds lush and full throughout the movie, and the singing voices and dialogue emanate strongly from the center channel. There are no instances of hiss, crackle, pops, or flutter.
Special Features: 2.5/5
Outtake musical numbers (HD): all of these are compilations of different cuts and camera angles while filming these numbers and have not been composited together into a single song or dance sequence:
“Competition Dance” (3:36) with the Mulvain sisters
“Imagine” – second reprise (4:38) with Debbie Reynolds and Vic Damone
“Love Can Change the Stars” (5:12) with Jane Powell and Edmund Purdom
Theatrical Trailer (3:31, HD)
Richard Thorpe’s Athena offers an innocuous way to pass the time with a musical comedy-romance that’s easy to watch and just as easy to forget. The Warner Archive Blu-ray brings both picture and sound to the viewer in wonderful sound and visuals which fans of the stars or the film will be sure to appreciate.
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