"Lift Your Voice to the Highest Skies, You'll Rejoice in the Exercise" — Athena

Buckle up, today we're looking at one of my favourite MGM musicals! It's kooky, it's fun, it's lightyears ahead of its time... it's Athena! 

gif by me
This is my entry for the Classic Movie Blog Association's Spring Blogathon all about Hidden Classics. Be sure to click through to read all of the entries over the next few days, and let's dive in to Athena! 

Athena is a kooky musical that was way ahead of its time. It's all about health, fitness, living an alternative, plant-based lifestyle, and guiding yourself based on the stars. It was mildly received at the time, and all of its stars (Jane Powell and Debbie Reynolds to name two) agree that it would've worked better if it'd been released in the '60s or '70s: its message was out of place in the mid-'50s.

But I'll let you decide. Here's how the story goes: 

We open on The Johnny Nyle Show. He's a popular heartthrob... 

...with a dedicated fan base.

Johnny sings 'The Girl Next Door', which you can hear here

He signs autographs after the show, and when one beautiful blonde comes up to him, he's startled to find that she's serving him with a subpoena. He shows up at the law office of Adam Calhorn Shaw to become a client. 

Meet Adam, a stuffed-shirt lawyer who has political aspirations (because they all do) and is supremely conservative. He's meeting with campaign staff when his secretary interrupts to say that Johnny's outside (he can't see him) and that "the nursery called and said if those peach trees are dead, it's your fault."

Johnny works his way into a meeting with Adam. Turns out his first agent was a bust who couldn't get him any work, so he fired him, hired another agent who managed to get him work, and now the first agent is sniffing around for his 10%. 

Adam agrees to help him, tells him to gather up every bit of paperwork he has, then says he's going to the nursery to check out the peach trees. 

The nursery owner tells Adam that there've never been any complaints about the peach trees; if they're dead, it has to be something Adam or the gardener is doing. But before they can get into it, a young woman appears. 

How's this for a first line: "Pardon me, do you mind terribly if I tap your sassafras tree?"

But then, that's Athena for you. 

And Athena's overheard the conversation Adam's been having about his peach tree, and naturally, she has a suggestion: 

Athena: Perhaps you haven't lost them. Peaches are snobs, they just love to have their appetites piqued. You need a good mulching.
Adam: I? A mulching?
Athena: Uh-huh, oh, it's very simple. Just give them a nourishing mixture then soak, and those peach trees will sit up and sing all pink and white like a bride's maid.
Adam: I'd like to see mine do that but I'm afraid I'm not very good at mulching.
Athena: I'll be very happy to help you.

Adam asks if she's a gardener, but she's quick to correct him: she's a numerologist, and everyone has a number. Based on his full name and birth date, he's a four, which is perfect, because she's a six. 

"Fours and Sixes go together, like... well... Aucassin was Four and Nicolette was Six. Hero was a Six and Leander was a Four. See what I mean?"

Anyways, she's gathering sassafras mulch for a medicine her grandfather's selling, and Adam tells her that they can't sell medicine that's not licensed; and after he finds this out, he leaves her behind.  

"We can't ever mulch together," Athena says, after all. Adam wants to know why, and it's because of the car he drives. "It's obvious that a Four man and a Three month of a Nine car has no place with a Six girl."

Well, if they can't, they can't, says Adam. He doesn't seem too disappointed by this sudden turn of events. 

Back at his house, Adam meets with his fiancée Beth. "I couldn't get rid of her. Fortunately my license added up to something dismal and I escaped." 

But he's not free from Athena, she's done some more calculating. "Mr. Benevuchi told me you have five peach trees which siphons you off and makes your system fluid." How lucky for Adam that it all worked out and now she can mulch after all. 

Athena: Now if I may just have some watermelon rinds, wax paper and fish heads, I'll get to work.
Beth: Wouldn't you prefer a cocktail?
Athena: Oh, no, I need them for mulching.

More unsolicited advice from Athena: she can speak Japanese, she thinks that if Adam tears out the back wall and replaced it with a floor-to-ceiling window, it'll bring the outside in, that wool rugs have no place in a house because they're unhealthy, and that Beth shouldn't wear a girdle ("Your spine doesn't know the difference, it's all pinched in. Sooner or later you're going to have trouble with a loose disk."). She only departs after Beth tells her that she has trouble with a loose tongue. 

Outside, Athena gets to work mulching and sings 'Vocalize', which you can listen to here

After she's done, she goes inside to tell Adam she's finished mulching, asks to kiss him, plants one on him and then announces "Grandma was right." 

Outside, she runs into Johnny Nyle. He flirts with her but she tells him that he's too late: she's going to marry Adam Shaw. But then she asks him for his birthdate and she does some quick calculating and pronounces, "Minerva." 

Athena: I have six sisters and you'll like them all, but...it's Minerva, all right.
Johnny: Are they anything like you?
Athena: Oh, I'm the Ugly Ducking.
Johnny: That's good enough for me. When do I meet your sister?
Athena: Well, I'm going to see her right now. You're right smack in Minerva's orbit, I told her about you.
Johnny: You can do better than that. Pop these in the mailbox, hop in the car, and we can both tell her about me.

They arrive at the Mulvain's Health Foods store, which Athena and her sisters run for their grandparents. It's a health food store (which is a concept that seems radical for the '50s but wouldn't be out of place at all in modern society). 

The mysterious Minerva is helping a customer at the counter when Athena and Johnny walk in. After Johnny introduces himself, Minerva lays into him.  

Minerva: You ought to be ashamed of yourself selling beer. Grandpa says drinking alcohol is like swallowing a dead toad.
Johnny: Well... well, that was last month, I don't work for them anymore.
Minerva: Oh, well, I'm certainly glad to hear that.
Johnny: This week's show is for Webson's Meat Products.
Minerva: Cannibal!
Johnny: Well, I don't eat their stuff.
Minerva: Don't apologize, just remember money you get that way will do you no good.
Johnny (to Athena): Are you sure this is the one?

Athena tells her to be fair, that not everyone got the fantastic upbringing they did, and that with a few sessions with Grandpa, Johnny (and Adam), will be the perfect soulmate. She tells her sisters about Adam: "Of course he has a lot of strange ideas, but I think it'll work out."

Just then Bill walks in. He's a young man training with Grandpa, and seeing him lift a huge bag of walnuts prompts Johnny to ask, "Were those his own muscles?" Minerva says it's possible to look like that too, but it's not only muscles that women find appealing. 

Minerva: Well, muscles aren't everything, sometimes it's personality, and the way a fella smiles.

And now it's time for a duet between Johnny and Minerva. They sing 'Imagine', a song that Johnny uses to convince Minerva that they're perfect for each other. Listen to it here

By the end of the song, Minerva's smitten, Johnny's smitten, and it's time to introduce Johnny to Grandpa. 

The next morning, Adam's about to enjoy breakfast out on his back deck when he hears someone vocalizing. Roy says that Athena "arrived a little before seven with wax paper, watermelon rind, and fish heads." 

Adam calls her over, prepared to rid himself of Athena once and for all. 

Adam: I was prepared to humor you yesterday, but you're taking advantage of it. I will not have it.
Athena: Just as the charts say, it's a creature of moods... now fierce, now gentle. You're just as you should be, Adam darling.

But then Beth shows up again, having forgotten her glasses in his car, and sees the two of them apparently enjoying breakfast together. She assumes the worst but Adam says that he was about to tell Athena to take a hike, and Athena takes off before he can do it. 

At the office, Adam instructs his secretary to find Athena, but there's no record of her in the telephone book, so he tells them to check the Registry of Voters (although I have to assume Athena's above voting for politicians). His campaign manager comes in and wants him to give a speech for the Massachusetts Club ("but don't knock California," he warns). 

Then Johnny shows up with a question about work, and they get talking about the sisters. Johnny's under the assumption that Adam's engaged to Athena because she was going on and on about how she was going to marry him, but Adam assures him that nothing could be farther from the truth, and wants to know what her telephone number is. 

Johnny: Oh, they don't believe in telephones. Telephones are not a matter of faith. Don't argue with me, argue with Grandpa. He doesn't believe in telephones.
Adam: Well, what's the address?
Johnny: You mean you're gonna marry a girl and you don't even know where she lives?
Adam: I'm not going to marry her! When I find out where she lives, she'll wish she didn't.

Turns out the Mulvains live on Highcastle Road way, way, waaaay at the end. And it's a strange experience for Adam to arrive there. 

Fitness nuts (says the person who hasn't ridden a bicycle since she was a teenager). 

I mean, I'd have to assume that I've walked in on a cult if I go to someone's house and see this happening, but this is just another night at the Mulvains' house. Minerva, who's playing harp, points out the other sisters to Adam: Niobe, Medea, Ceres, Calliope, and Aphrodite. 

Minerva tells Adam that Athena's inside... 

...but the meat parade has to go by first... 

...and once inside, he meets Grandpa, the eccentric health nut behind their lifestyle. He wants to give Adam a full check-up but doesn't have the time, so he tells him instead to report to his gym on Monday and to not drink water (and put on water weight, I'm guessing?). Athena will tell him where the gym is. 

Adam: Mr. Mulvain, I came here to see Athena and your opinion of my pinnings is of no importance whatsoever.
Grandpa: Not important? Say, it's vital. Athena's old enough now to get married and have children. You've got a duty, you know. A duty to the next generation.
Adam: The next generation of my family does not involve Athena. I have made other plans.
Grandpa: Plan 'til you're blue in the face, the stars say different, Boy.

Oh, and all those hunky men? In training to win the Mr. Universe title. Grandpa trains them. He explains to Adam how the family took up their healthnut lifestyle (he was deathly sick and Grandma took him to a secluded cabin to cure what ailed him, and it worked). 

Then the whole family treats him to another rendition of 'Harmonize' while Athena comes out of the kitchen to prepare for dinner. 

She and Adam go outside to talk. 

Adam: I like to smoke, I do not believe in numerology, vegetables or the stars. I hate black strap molasses and yogurt and I'm not going to marry you. Is that at all clear?
Athena: Yes, Adam. I'm sorry you're so angry with me. I'm sure that everything that happened up here tonight seemed strange and upset you. 
Adam: I didn't like saying those things to you, Athena, but I've had enough.

They talk some more, and Athena tells him that she loved him at first sight. 

Athena: The first time I saw you, Adam, I wanted to kiss you. Before I even knew you were a Four. And then when all the numbers worked out, I wanted to marry you. If you're angry with me for falling in love with you, maybe I just can't help it.
Adam: But Athena, people don't fall in love because of the stars.
Athena: Then why do they fall in love? 
Adam: Well, it just happens.
Athena: Then it might be the stars, mighten it?

And then they kiss goodbye, only after Athena asks him for one. 

Elsewhere, Minerva and Johnny are talking, too. She tells him that he'll get used to the new diet (which includes peanut butter hamburgers in lieu of meat hamburgers) and he replies that he doesn't want to get used to it (he's numb from the waist down, presumably because the food didn't fill him up and he's still hungry?). 

Then they launch into another duet, because why waste Debbie Reynolds and Vic Damone if you've got them? Their second duet is a reprise of 'Imagine', which you can hear here

Adam arrives back at his house, where Beth's waiting for him. 

He has a bouquet of ginger blossoms, which she thinks are for her, but he tells her that he has to keep them on ice, not in a vase, and that they're for him to eat. And then... they break up, because Adam's totally charmed by Athena now, and wants to be with her instead. Beth handles it well, for what it's worth. 

Back at the Mulvain house, the sisters are all outside chatting in their nightgowns when Grandma comes up to them. 

Grandma: Athena, darling, I'm afraid it looks quite dismal.
Athena: But Grandma, you said everything was going to be all right.
Grandma: I know, Dear, it starts all right, but the stars don't like the way he lives, or what he does or anything. It won't work out.
Athena: But it must. I love Adam and he loves me.
Grandma: I know, Dear, but the stars say there's a very bad time coming.

"Adam has the Sun and Saturn, Athena has the moon in her arms. But beware, this ill-starred pattern. You'll forget him if you're wise." 

Athena replies, "A girl in love is never wise."

And then she launches into another song, 'Love Can Change the Stars.' Listen here

The next morning, Athena's back at the health store when Johnny shows up. He's there to see Minerva, but she's out delivering an order. While he waits, Athena puts him to work doing some heavy lifting, and he leaves an orchid behind as a present for Minerva. 

And then Ed, another hunk training with Grandpa, arrives at the store. "I just can't keep my mind on my workouts," he tells her. "Athena, you've been avoiding me lately and I'm all full of acid and electricity."

Charmers, the lot of them. She tells him not to worry about her or anything, and to keep his mind on training. "If you're not Mr. Universe, it'll just break Grandpa's heart. And I know you'll win, 'cause you're the greatest and the best." 

Ed: Why do you go around with Adam?
Athena: It's the stars, there's nothing I can do about it.
Ed: Your grandmother says the stars don't even like the way he lives.
Athena: I know, I'm going to have to do something about that.

Anyways, Minerva comes back and Athena's all ready to present it to her, but Ed's eaten it... "Orchid? I thought it tasted kinda funny," he says. 

Meanwhile, Adam's in a great mood. He walked to the office, left his coat and hat at home, and seems to be changing his lifestyle. It's a great way to get the blood flowing, he tells his startled secretary. 

Inside his office, his co-workers/campaign advisers are waiting to talk with him. They're worried about him, mainly because they've heard he called off his engagement to Beth (she's the niece of one of their wives, so naturally, they've heard all about it) and need to know who she is. 

Adam tells them that Athena is perfect, but Beth has told them that she's a little...out there. "If you mean, is she just like anyone else, no, not to me. To me, she's very special and very wonderful."

They're concerned that Athena will tank Adam's chances of winning the election, which will also torpedo the reputation of their law firm. 

"I'd like to know what this girl has that Beth hasn't," one of them asks. Adam replies: "Six sisters."

Speaking of Athena and her six sisters... 

...they've just shown up at Adam's house prepared to make it over and open it up. A stunned Roy lets them inside...

...and they launch into yet another song (perhaps my favourite in the whole movie) called 'Never Felt Better'. Listen here

They totally rearrange Adam's main room, but their song and dance is interrupted by a phone call from Adam's colleagues. Athena tells them that Adam's not there, which is the truth... 

...but they're not inclined to believe her. "After all, if he's not there what's she doing there? I'm going to find out. I'm not going to get involved in a congressional campaign with Adam and then have the lid blow off."

When they arrive at Adam's house, Athena and her sisters are gone, but the fruits of their labour are there. They ask Roy what happened to all the traditional décor and he replies that it was the sisters, but to them, it sounds like Adam's running a harem. 

And then Grandma shows up with a message for Adam and asks them to pass it on: "Tell him... tell him that Narda says the 'Black Place' is still there. But there's a touch of brightness on the horizon." She gives them some advice, tells them that she's been working on Adam's chart (she's only up to the 17th century in charting his lineage) and that she needs to leave. 

Which is a perfect time for Adam, decidedly dressed-down, to show up to a "welcoming committee," as he calls it. They urge him to break up with Athena because she's not the right sort of consort for a future Congressman. 

"Suppose you were invited to the White House for dinner? What are you going to order, wheat germ and yogurt?" one asks. 

And then Adam says the kicker of a line that, "I assure you that when Athena is away from her family and with people like us, she behaves just like anybody else." 

But because they're not convinced, they tell Adam he needs to prove that Athena is marriage material. So he tells him to bring her as his guest to a reception that evening so they can see her act in public.

Obligatory 'Jane Powell is stunning' comment. I love that dress!  

Anyways, you can tell right from the start that Athena's a fish out of water here, but what separates her from the other 'wrong side of the tracks' heroines thrown into high society is that she doesn't feel insecure in this knowledge: she's still her confident, kooky self. 

Over the course of the evening, she manages to toss in the fact that she's counting on the numbers to tell her everything she needs to know about a person and that Adam's new health kick is entirely her doing. Adam does interrupt her though, when she tries to give an opinion on alcohol consumption, and then Beth tries to goad her into doing something kooky, which works. 

They offer Athena food, but just about everything warrants an opinion. Tomatoes are fine, salt on chicken is bad luck, she doesn't care for seafood or roast beef, and doesn't think that it's good to eat meat (the animals are wounded, in her opinion). When they begin to poke at her 'superstitions' about food, she turns it back on them: maybe the foods that they don't like are delicacies in other cultures and they shouldn't judge her. She tells them another thing: if her family invites guests over, they don't play nasty tricks on them, and before Adam gets back, she takes off. 

And finds Minerva at a club watching Johnny perform. She tells her sister that she should probably go home before she starts to cry. 

Johnny had been singing a song called 'Venezia', for what it's worth. Listen here

Athena: Oh, I lost my temper, Minerva.
Minerva: Oh, Athena, you didn't.
Athena: It's all over now.
Minerva: Oh, Athena, I'm terribly sorry. I'll take you home.
Johnny: Where are you going, what gives?
Minerva: Oh, Athena and Adam are split up, Johnny.
Johnny: It's a shame.
Minerva: If Athena and Adam split up, we're done, too, Johnny.
Johnny: What do they got to do with us?
Minerva: But I can't get married until she gets married. That's what the stars say.
Johnny: Oh, of all the silly nonsense.
Minerva: Watch your language, Johnny Nyle.

So another relationship bites the dust. They go home...

...but before Athena can get to her bedroom, Adam shows up, and, for what it's worth, he's more supportive that we could have imagined. 

Athena: Please, Adam, I know what you're going to say, but don't say it. I lost my temper.
Adam: You certainly did.
Athena: I tried and tried, but I just couldn't help it.
Adam: Nobody expects you to do the impossible. They started picking on you from the moment you arrived. But running out the way you did...
Athena: I just didn't want to cause any more trouble than than I already had. It won't work, will it, Adam?
Adam: What won't?
Athena: You and me. I realized tonight that I could ruin everything for you. Your career, your future and... Oh, it just won't work. The stars are right. Good bye, Adam.
Adam: Athena. I love you. And you told me that love can change anything, even the stars. I believed it when you said it, I believe it now. Don't you?
Athena: Good night, Adam.

Athena retreats inside, but Grandma's been eavesdropping. Or doing her kooky Grandma thing, who's to say? 

Anyways, she gives him a warning: "Adam, I don't want to upset your cheerful mood, but be very, very careful tomorrow. No matter what happens, avoid crowds."

If you thought he'd listen, you were wrong. The next night he's at the Mr. Universe contest. He takes a seat next to Grandma, who says, "You shouldn't have come. The stars said to you to avoid crowds."

Adam replies, "Well, if I don't come, Grandpa's upset, and if I do come, the stars are. Frankly, Grandpa frightens me more than the stars." Grandma tells him not to take Grandpa's behaviour too personally, it's just that he's got his heart set on Athena and Ed getting married and having children. 

I'd never heard of Mr. Universe before, but I guess it makes sense? 

They're all fine specimens, of course, but Grandpa's got his hopes set on Ed to win. 

When the competition's over, the judges have a shocking announcement (as shocking as it can get in a Mr. Universe contest, I'm sure): there's a tie between Ed and another contestant and they both have to face off to see who'll prevail. 

We won't get into it, Ed clearly wins because that's what advances the plot. And for some reason, Adam's standing there on camera with Grandma as the hunk accepts his trophy. Or Grandpa does, anyway. 

While Grandpa's making an impassioned speech about how he knew Ed was a winner and Grandma is the one who had to be convinced, Ed and Adam have their own conversation. 

Adam: Congratulations, Ed.
Ed: You still chasing Athena?
Adam: According to the stars, the chase is over.
Ed: Not according to me.
Adam: Take your hands off me!
Ed: Not until you promise to stop seeing Athena.

And then, in an instant, Adam undoes all the hard work Grandpa's been doing in training Ed when he lifts the bodybuilder over his head and knocks him out. In front of the cameras, in front of the crowd, and in front of Athena, who's part of the ceremony along with her sisters. 

But if he thought any of that would impress Athena, he was wrong. She's furious. 

Adam: It wasn't my fault, Athena, you must understand.
Athena: Yes I do. You think we're strange, unreasonable, crazy. You never believed a word of our ideas. 
Adam: I? I've got flies going through my living room. I've been eating vegetables, flowers, weeds.
Athena: Well, if you really believed, you wouldn't have come here tonight. The stars said you shouldn't have.
Adam: Well, I did come. And was I supposed to let him break my neck just to prove the stars were right. What do you want me to do?
Athena: I want you to keep away from me, and from all of us, from now on.

Back at home, Adam's all set to forget Athena. He tells Roy to get his house back to normal as soon as possible, and when his co-workers/backers show up, he tells them that he's through with Athena. But it's not that easy, according to them. 

According to them, "Two million people believe in that Mulvain stuff, it's a cinch they wouldn't vote for you. Those who don't believe in it wouldn't vote for you because they'll figure you're mixed up in it, otherwise, what would you be doing there? No... you couldn't be elected Dog Catcher."

And that's the end of Adam's rising political career. Over before it ever really began. 

And then Johnny shows up with a progress report from the Mulvains: turns out Athena's going to marry Ed, at least, if Grandpa has anything to say about it. Adam wants a chance to prove himself to Athena, and when Johnny points out that it's unlikely he'll sway Grandpa's opinion, Adam says that he's not worried about Grandpa: he's worried about Athena's opinion. 

That's enough for Johnny: he agrees to go with Adam out to the Mulvains' house. 

Adam and Johnny run into Minerva and Bill, and Adam manages to get past them, but Johnny stays behind. And just like Adam, he lays Bill out, proving that he's stronger than any Mr. Universe prospect. It works for Minerva, too. She asks why she didn't know he could do that, and he replies, "You never asked me. You never asked me a lot of things, like when we're gonna get married or—"

Minerva interrupts him to say that she wants to marry him, but it's not that easy. Their sparring turns into a reprise of 'Love Can Change the Stars' (listen here) and then they reconcile. 

Too bad it's not working out so well for Adam and Athena. Grandpa won't let him in to talk because he's embarrassed that Adam turned him into a laughingstock on television. Adam claps back though: 

"Just because your pride is hurt, you're acting like a spoilt child. I'm tired of your theories. Maybe the berries and the nuts and the sunshine saved your life, maybe they didn't. Maybe it was just that you and Grandma were too much in love to give up. Maybe what kept you going was that you were both fighting to have a life together. Isn't Athena entitled to that much, too?" 

Grandpa replies, "Until you came along, we were very happy. All we want is to live our lives in our own way." Adam's prepared yet again: 

"Oh, no, you want everyone else to live in your way, too. You talk big, live and let live, I love you, let us be friends. But it's just talk, you're a fraud, Mr. Mulvain. You're narrow minded, pig-headed, and obstinate. I don't know what the stars say or what the numbers add up to, but in my book, love is better than letters and people are more important than vegetables."

Then he leaves, and Athena comes out from where she'd been eavesdropping. She tells Grandpa that Adam had no right to talk to him that way (I'd argue otherwise...), but Grandpa asks if she ever felt pressured to live the Mulvain lifestyle. 

Grandpa: Then there's no reason why you can't be just as happy from now on, how is that?
Athena: Please Grandpa, I'd rather not talk about it, if you don't mind.
Grandpa: You like Ed Perkins, don't you?
Athena: Yes, I like Ed Perkins, I like him very much, I like everybody, but I'd just rather not talk about it.

She runs off and Grandma comes in, wondering what the problem is. "Same thing's the matter with us, Ma...very same thing," he replies. 

The next morning, Adam's all ready to take a trip out of town, and he tells Roy to rip up all of the peach trees while he's gone because now he hates fruit again. But before he can get anywhere, Athena shows up to reconcile.

"I just had a long talk with Grandma and Grandpa, and we agreed that if two people love each other enough, that could solve everything. And they think people are much more important than vegetables."

And then we cut to the Mulvain family, Adam now included, for another round of 'Harmonize' (listen here).

And they all live happily, kookily, ever after! 



  1. Wow1 What a terrific post! I never heard of this one, but it sounds like so much fun. This truly does sound like a hidden gem way ahead of its time. Truly enjoyed reading and listening.

  2. This seems like another fun one! Maybe with a strong drink on a Friday night after a long week. I love the cast! Your summary is delightful. I will definitely check it out.

  3. Quirky, fun and the perfect choice for the blogathon. You put a smile on my face.


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