Tuesday, September 13, 2011

ATHENA (MGM 1954) Warner Archive Collection

Billed as 'the MGM musical with young ideas' Richard Thorpe's Athena (1954) is a bit of a mutt; not quite a musical, sort of a comedy, and occasionally something of a debacle. Through it all we get pert performances from Jane Powell (cast in the title role) and Debbie Reynolds (playing one of her seven sisters). Esther Williams has gone on record as saying she developed the project one year earlier with writer Leo Pogostin and director Chuck Walters. Then Williams became pregnant. She naturally assumed the project would be shelved until her return. Instead, production chief Dore Schary simply recast and rewrote the part to accommodate a singer rather than a swimmer. Williams never entirely forgave Schary his trespasses and eventually chose to leave MGM.
The plot scripted by William Ludwig and Leonard Spigelgass revolves around conservative lawyer Adam Calhorn Shaw (Edmund Purdon) who hopes to be elected to congress as his father and his father's father. Adam certainly has the right temperament for the job. He's officious to a fault. He's also engaged to stuffy socialite Beth Hallson (Linda Christian). It's all just too perfect. That is, until Athena Mulvain (Jane Powell) enters the picture - a plucky, no nonsense and very outspoken 'health nut.' Adam and Athena accidentally meet while he is complaining about his dying peach trees at a local nursery. Athena tells Adam to mulch his trees, then offers to do the deed herself to prove the point.
Athena believes in the stars and numerology. After figuring out Adam's number she is convinced that they will be married. Meanwhile, Adam's friend, nightclub and TV crooner Johnny Nyle (Vic Damone) meets Athena and erroneously assumes that she is Adam's girlfriend. Athena sets Johnny up with her sister, Minerva (Debbie Reynolds) who quickly puts him on a vegetable diet and introduces him to her grandfather, Ulysses (Louis Calhern). Grandpa runs a new age retreat for buff bodybuilders.
Knowing how stuck on Adam and Johnny his girls are grandpa encourages the boys to adopt a more athletic lifestyle. Johnny embraces the fitness craze - sore muscles and all - but Adam rebels and comes into direct conflict with Ed Perkins (Steve Reeves) who is sweet on Athena too. From this point on the film's narrative becomes rather hopelessly mired in virtually every cliché in the Hollywood musical mélange. During a catered affair staged to bolster Adam's public image for his political future Beth attempts to embarrass Athena by poking fun at her family's 'quaint' ideas on health and diet. Athena tolerates these insults at first but eventually they get the better of her and she admonishes Beth for her arrogance.
Adam swears he will never see Athena again, but realizes he cannot dismiss her memory from his mind. He attends the Mr. Universe competition with Athena. Ed wins the coveted trophy. But Adam lands the newly inaugurated champ on his muscled assets with a bit of purposely timed Judo. Grandpa is outraged and humiliated. The entire family retreats to their new age compound. Although Adam is told in no uncertain terms that his relationship with Athena will never work out, the next day Athena comes to his home to confess she has decided to meet him half way and be his wife. Thus ends the film Athena - a bizarre and very rare duck indeed.
It's musical program is a fascinating mish-mash of old and new material that attempts to resurrect the tried and true formula of a typical 40s Jane Powell musical. The results are only partly successful. For example, the title song is only sung by a chorus over the main titles. Vic Damone opens the musical repertoire with a deadly dull rendition of 'The Girl Next Door' (actually The Boy Next Door from Meet Me In St. Louis with just a few gender specific lyrics changed).
From this decidedly flat note the songs have nowhere to go but up and they do. Debbie Reynolds and Vic Damone warble 'Imagine' - a charming little ditty about the possibilities of their burgeoning romance. Later Damone is also given a rather flashy production number 'Venezia' flanked by a cavalcade of oddly attired MGM dancers cavorting through a Neapolitan fantasy. Reynolds and Powell engage other alumni in the spirited 'I Never Felt Better' as they extol the virtues of clean living while transforming Adam's front parlor into a new age meditation lounge.
Powell also gets the plum operatic aria 'Chacun le sait'. The one regret is that she and Edmund Purdon share no romantic pas deux in song. Originally they were supposed to sing 'Love Can Change The Stars', but in the final edit Powell sings this song alone, later very briefly reprised by Damone and Reynolds. There was also supposed to be an 'athletic ballet' featuring Powell and Reynolds. This was eventually dropped in favor of an extended faux Mr. Universe competition where some of the day's best sculpted male bodies are given their beefcake due.
In the final analysis, Athena is a curiosity rather than a cohesive film musical. Its parts do not add up to a total entertainment. Although some moments truly measure up to MGM's old time panache the film collapses under the weight of too many ideas simply thrown together. Reportedly director Thorpe would toss script pages already shot onto the floor in an act of bitter defiance, a move that Jane Powell recollects cast a disparaging pall over the entire production.
Athena is a Warner Archive release and despite being advertised as 'remastered' the resulting video image is fairly dull. This film was shot on Eastman color stock but processed by Technicolor (supposedly). Nevertheless, colors are dull, ruddy, muddy and generally unappealing. The entire image has a sort of soft gritty haze. Flesh tones are quite orange at times. Fine details are lost under a patina of film grain that is more exaggerated than it out to be. Not very appealing at all!
The audio is stereo surround, acceptable as a vintage recording with predictable limitations. Warner has decided to add extras to this title (unusual for an archive release). We get 3 musical outtakes that seem to have survived in a more pristine visual quality than the rest of the film. Although contrast levels are boosted, the image on these outtakes is noticeably sharper. Bottom line: Athena is a blip on the MGM radar. If you love Jane Powell or Debbie Reynolds (or both) or simply like to ogle taut musclemen in their tight shorts then you'll probably like this film. Otherwise, it's forgettable.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

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