When you start to watch a musical made in 1954, starring Jane Powell and Debbie Reynolds, with the same songwriters as Meet Me in St. Louis, you might think you have a pretty solid concept of what’s to come before you’ve even hit play. But that’s not quite the case with Athena, a film that seems to actively avoid many of this era’s favorite musical comedy tropes—the Broadway ingenue, the sailor, love-at-first-sight, and so on—while also playing within the confines of the genre. These two factors combine to make for an engagingly offbeat and joyfully eccentric original work from MGM, available on DVD and streaming from Warner Archive.
Jane Powell stars as Athena, oldest of seven (!) sisters with similarly Greek-sourced names (albeit not the names of the actual Seven Sisters); the others are Minerva, Niobe, Aphrodite, Calliope, Medea, and Ceres. They all work in their grandpa Ulysses’ health food store, which attracts a steady stream of body builders who swear by his potions. Athena first meets Adam (Edmund Purdom), a straight-laced lawyer on the road to public office, at a nursery as she’s gathering tree sap for one of grandpa’s home remedies. Athena describes herself as a numerologist, and initially identifies Adam (a “4” man) as a good match for herself (a “6” woman), until she notices his “9” car, which of course throws the whole calculation off. Adam, annoyed but slightly amused, acquiesces the unlikelihood of their pairing, and returns home to his more societally acceptable fiancee, Beth (Linda Christian).
Eventually, Athena realizes she’s missed an element of her calculation, and appears at Adam’s house to inform him that the Stars say they must be married. (Interesting cultural note: despite the emphasis on Greek mythology, the film is always very careful to attribute all matters of faith and fate to a generic concept of “the Stars,” rather than a specific god or gods.) Although he is resistant to the idea at first, Adam soon falls for Athena as well, but with his looming political career, Adam worries that Athena’s eccentricities could prove too off-putting for voters. At a fancy party full of influential guests, she initially assuages his fears by charming the swanky guests through her talents—breaking into a full operatic solo. However, she also calls out their snooty criticism of her eating habits as hypocritical, pointing out that they also engage in superstitions like knocking on wood and throwing salt over their shoulder.
Meanwhile, Athena sets up her younger sister Minerva (Debbie Reynolds) with Adam’s friend, crooner Johnny Nyle (Vic Damone)—numerogically, they’re a match, you see. Johnny’s a bit intimidated by the muscle men she regularly spends her days with though, so he becomes grandpa’s newest disciple, eagerly trading his steaks for artichokes and asparagus and wrapping himself up corpse-style to sweat out the toxins. However, the Stars say that Minerva can’t get married before Athena, so they have to convince Johnny that that’s what he really wants to do—perhaps in spite of his political career.
Beyond just their names, the sisters are characterized by many more elements of mythology, to the point that I was half-expecting them all to shimmer away at the end of the movie, like Xanadu. To wit: the sisters live on top of a mountain inaccessible to most mortals; they spend their evenings playing harps and doing interpretive dances in flowing silks; and they’re often surrounded by mostly nude men in Herculean physical form. (Grandpa oversees the training of a select group of body builders from the home.) They also embody some just generally eccentric characteristics, such as learning to say the phrase, “I love you, let’s be friends”—and only that phrase—in a multitude of languages; not believing in telephones (“Telephones are not a matter of faith!” shrieks Adam at one point); and not smoking, drinking, or eating meat. Someone clearly had a lot of fun coming up with the little traits for these characters, and this attention to detail is one of the things that makes the film so charming.
It was rare then, as it is now, to get a completely original musical—that is, one that didn’t start out as a Broadway show, non-singing picture, book, or collection of pop songs. Athena is a wholly original endeavor in that regard, which is somewhat apparent from the weirdness of the plot and the songs. (I would kill to see them try to market this to the mainstream audience on Broadway today.) The unique body building motif carries through to the choreography as well, for an added touch of eccentricity: Minerva and Johnny have a cute number in the health food store as he frets about how he compares to the future Mr. Universes traipsing in and out every day; later, the sisters go on a redecorating spree at Adam’s house, where Reynolds and Powell use the body builders as a moving dance surface, as though they’re in Astaire’s revolving room.
And lest you think the body builders’ significance ends there, please know that instead of a big showstopper musical finale, we get—and I’m completely serious about this—a full-on Mr. Universe pageant. Steve Reeves, who won the actual title in 1950, is a minor character in the film, and one of the contestants in the on-screen showdown. If I had to guess, I’d assume that many of the unidentified extras in these scenes were actual competitors as well. I mean…
…have you ever? MGM musicals are not generally renowned for the presence of musclebound hunks, let alone getting them oiled up and in their skivvies. This is no split-second segment either—it goes on for a solid few minutes, with three or four of the competitors doing a few poses and, ultimately, participating in feats of strength. Although there are many musical numbers throughout the movie, I love that this sequence is perhaps the most pointed throwback to the kick lines of Busby Berkeley—symmetrical, near identical bodies, repeated into infinity to the edge of the screen. And it’s a delightfully offbeat cap on a bizarre, unique, and very original movie.