Athena (1954)

RICHARD THORPE

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB

USA, 1954. . Screenplay by , . Cinematography by . Produced by . Music by . Production Design by , . Costume Design by , Helen Rose. Film Editing by .

A conventional love story about opposites attracting is set within the increasingly popular world of health food fanatics.  is sturdy if not particularly inspiring as Adam Shaw, a high-ranking defense attorney who is being pursued to follow his father and grandfather into politics, his wealthy life, beautiful mansion and upper-crust fiancée () confirming his fitness for the position.    Upset at the sight of the dying peach trees on his perfectly manicured lawn, Adam goes to the nursery from where they were purchased and meets Athena (), a beautiful but chatty young woman who dispenses generous advice about plants and people without ever being asked.  She visits his home to check on the trees and casually announces that she also plans to marry him, she has checked her numerology charts and has determined that they are meant to be despite the fact that they occupy completely different worlds.  Conveniently, her sister Minerva (Debbie Reynolds) is set up by the same methodology with one of Shaw’s clients (played by a charming ), and their romance progresses quite smoothly while our main couple encounter nothing but trouble.  Shaw is put off by Athena’s candor but also intrigued, so he visits her home in the hills above Los Angeles and discovers a compound run by her eccentric grandfather (Louis Calhern) and spiritually meditative grandmother ().  These two guide their followers in a lifestyle that shuns meat, alcohol and cigarettes, encourages exercise and following astrology in place of conventional religion.  Athena and her many classically-named sisters do their calisthenics on the lawn while a group of hunky bodybuilders train under grandfather for competitions, one of them Athena’s fiancé Ed (played by 1950’s real-life Mr. Universe Steve Reeves).  The group encourages Adam to follow their practices and he, falling in love with Athena, drinks the Kool-Aid, estranging everyone in his own life and ending any hope of ever making it in politics.  Athena tries to fit into his high society parties but can’t help but respond passionately to the snobbery she encounters, and it remains to be seen if they can find the middle of the road by the time they get to the climactic bodybuilding competition.  Watching this film many decades after health and fitness fads have become synonymous with Los Angeles living (and synonymous with the experience of fitness gurus dispensing generous advice without ever being asked), it’s adorable to see the 1950s idea of diet trends (being a vegetarian means actually eating bags of whole vegetables) easily conflated with new-age woo beliefs, with activities not set at a regular gym but in a space-age artificial habitat that looks like Bedrock crossed with Epcot Centre.  Screenwriters William Ludwig and Leonard Spigelgass aren’t cruel to the characters whose oddities they joyfully describe, however, there’s always an emphasis on a sense of goofy warmth and community even when presenting them at their most odd.  It’s also a musical, mostly to accommodate Damone’s beautiful singing voice and Powell’s exceptional dancing, and while none of the songs will remain long in your mind, and the romance is dampened by the poor chemistry between the leads, the glamorous, colourful cinematography and the breezily fun supporting characters make it a pleasure to sit through.  Upon its release, Reeves and his magnificent physique made such an impression on one audience member at a screening in Italy that she suggested to her father, director Pietro Francisci, that he hire the actor for his upcoming Hercules film (the rest is history).

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