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Star of the Month: Jane Powell
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 Athena

Athena

There was beautiful music being made during the filming of Athena (1954), a musical about the collision between politicians and a family of physical culturists. Some of it even made it to the screen, thanks to Jane Powell's rendition of an aria of from The Daughter of the Regiment and Vic Damone's version of "The Girl Next Door," originally written for Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). Even two of the film's non-singing stars -- Edmund Purdom and Linda Christian -- got into the act, though their off-screen music was more amorous in nature.

At the start, however, there were a few sour notes. Athena had originally been developed by swimming star Esther Williams, director Charles Walters and writer Leo Pogostin during lunch breaks while shooting Easy to Love (1953). Their original idea was to cast Williams as a reincarnated Greek goddess swimming her way to happiness. But while Williams was out on maternity leave, studio head Dore Schary decided to put the film into production without her, turning all the swimming scenes into songs for Powell. By the time Williams found out, the film was already in production. Her complaints only served to drive a wedge between herself and Schary (she would make one more film before leaving the studio) and gave gossip columnists the headline "The Mermaid on the Lot has been beached."

Richard Thorpe, who had taken over the direction from Walters, was hardly enthusiastic about the film. After swashbuckling hits like Ivanhoe and The Prisoner of Zenda (both 1952), he might have felt he deserved better. According to Powell, after each scene, he would simply toss the script pages over his shoulder and walk away.

For her part, Powell thought Athena was a charming piece of fluff. Made just after her biggest success, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), it gave her another chance to work with producer Joseph Pasternak, who had helped make her a star at MGM, and reunited her with frequent co-stars Debbie Reynolds and Damone. In her memoirs, she would suggest the film was 20 years ahead of its time, dealing with what would become "new age" issues like vegetarianism, mysticism and health consciousness.

For Reynolds, the picture was less exciting. It was her fifth picture in just over a year and the first of her MGM films she really didn't care for. It didn't help that she made the film just as a long relationship with Robert Wagner was coming to an end.

Ironically, the film would put Reynolds in the middle of one of Hollywood's most torrid affairs. Co-stars Edmund Purdom and Linda Christian had gotten close when Christian and her husband, Tyrone Power, had tried to help the British actor with his failing marriage. Instead, she and Purdom had found a common bond in their marital problems and embarked on an affair. Christian was open about the relationship with her husband, particularly in light of his own infidelities. But he had ordered her to call off the affair. Instead, she and Purdom spent most of their lunch hours together. On a day the company was shooting exteriors, the two went off to explore the studio foliage. Reynolds was giving an interview during lunch when she saw Power's car driving by. She took off in search of the twosome, combing the back lot until she spotted a bush shaking and called out to Christian to warn her. The actress emerged, straightening out her dress, and rushed off to meet her husband with a cry of "Oh, darling, it's so unexpected" (quoted in Reynolds' autobiography, Debbie: My Life). For her part, Reynolds wouldn't remain lovelorn for long. During filming the set was visited by a young singing star who was already one of her biggest fans -- Eddie Fisher.

Christian -- an exotic beauty of Spanish, French, German and Dutch descent -- was cast in a role almost essential to any Powell film, the sophisticated woman whose manicured beauty serves to offset the leading lady's more natural look. She had gotten her start with the help of Errol Flynn, who even gave her her screen name in memory of the first character he had played on film, Fletcher Christian in an Australian version of Mutiny on the Bounty entitled In the Wake of the Bounty in 1933. She became the first Bond girl when she starred in a 1954 television version of Casino Royale, with American actor Barry Nelson as Bond, just before making Athena. After divorcing Power, she would marry Purdom briefly, though her career never recovered from the scandal, and she did most of her later work in Europe.

Supporting player Steve Reeves would also relocate to Europe for film work. After generating headlines for winning the Mr. Universe title (a bodybuilding award his character would also win in Athena), he had taken a shot at acting with this film and Ed Wood, Jr.'s hilariously bad Jail Bait (1954), in which the muscle-bound star changes his shirt in a busy police station for no apparent reason other than to display his torso. Although Athena was hardly a box-office champion and was not exactly welcomed by critics, it caught the eye of Italian director Pietro Francisci's daughter, who recommended Reeves for the title role in her father's planned film version of the adventures of Hercules (1958), an international hit that made Reeves a star.

Producer: Joe Pasternak
Director: Richard Thorpe
Screenplay: William Ludwig, Leonard Spigelgass
Cinematography: Robert Planck
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Paul Groesse
Musical Direction: George Stoll
Cast: Jane Powell (Athena), Debbie Reynolds (Minerva), Virginia Gibson (Niobe), Edmund Purdom (Adam Calhorn Shaw), Vic Damone (Johnny Nyle), Louis Calhern (Grandpa Mulvain), Evelyn Varden (Grandma Salome Mulvain), Linda Christian (Beth Hallson), Ray Collins (Mr. Tremaine), Carl Benton Reid (Mr. Griswolde), Kathleen Freeman (Miss Seely).
C-96m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

by Frank Miller

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