Divorce American Style (1967)
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No, we're not expected to guffaw as we watch Dick Van Dyke being first railroaded into divorce, then reduced to poverty by punitive alimony payments. We're expected to shake our heads and smile wryly at the folly of the times. And to walk out just a little more determined to push for true equality of the sexes, and a truly rational legal framework for their relations.
We're not there yet, but things have moved forward so unimaginably far that today's viewers may not understand the attitudes in this film. To put it in context, compare it to The Dick Van Dyke Show. Divorce was utterly unthinkable in the cozy world of Rob and Laura Petrie. Yet here, just a few years later, we see Van Dyke and Reynolds playing essentially the same Rob and Laura roles, and not only admitting the possibility of divorce, but tackling some of its uglier ramifications. It was a huge leap forward, for Van Dyke, for Hollywood, and for society as a whole.
Of course, on a dramatic level, Divorce American Style still has a lot of that old-time Dick Van Dyke Show sensibility. But it's sharper than many similar films of the time (courtesy of Norman Lear, no doubt), and benefits from some great performances (especially by Dick Van Dyke, Debbie Reynolds and Jason Robards). The conditions it dissects may no longer exist, but that doesn't have to spoil our enjoyment.
To begin with, there was no such thing as no-fault divorce. A divorce had to involve one "guilty" party, and one "innocent" party. Two "guilty" parties would just be blown off with "You two deserve each other." And it was regarded as standard good manners for the man to offer himself up as "guilty", unless the woman was a complete slut or psycho. (See "The Gay Divorcée" for an example of a man who /doesn't/ follow this social rule, because he's a pig.)
Now, also during this period, the usual rule was that the wife got the kids, and the wife and kids were entitled to be just as well off as they had been before the divorce. (Remember, as far as the Law was concerned, she and they were officially innocent victims of the Big Bad Man.) So alimony could be very high indeed.
As to her getting a job....
There was no such thing as professional daycare. If a divorced woman were poor, she could probably leave the kids with a neighbor, because poor folks have been doing that for thousands of years, but for a middle-class divorced woman to do that would have been regarded as shameless freeloading.
There were relatively few jobs for women, and even fewer that paid decently. A woman could be a secretary, but shorthand and typing take years of practice. (There were no personal computers then; few people could type except for writers and secretaries.) And secretaries didn't make much more than minimum wage, anyway. The same for stitchers in clothing factories (America had clothing factories back then). Beautician? Cleaning woman? Hotel maid? Nurse? None of them paid all that well. There were a handful of woman doctors, lawyers, and the like, but the closest pointer to the future was that there have always been quite a few women in computer programming. But you couldn't just walk in and ask for a programming job if you'd never done it before.
In short, this movie makes the usual exaggerations you expect in a comedy, but it is nowhere near "preposterous" or "ridiculously unrealistic". It's pretty solidly grounded in 1967 reality.
Now, on the other hand, I can't say I like the movie all that much. I guess I'm too romantic to take divorce as a joke. But the performances are sound, and I have to say that Van Dyke and Reynolds both had guts to tackle this script at all. Both of them have always been typecast as "lovable".
I never even knew this movie existed until it popped up on TCM. It seems to be a forgotten movie which is too bad because its lots of fun. The script is excellent--most of it is a comedy but they also bring up interesting and serious insights into love, sex and relationships. The entire cast is great throwing off one-liners left and right. Also this is a fascinating social documents of the late 1960s to see how couples lived, the things they talked about, the fashions they wore and the houses they had. Sure it's dated but I was never bored. Also it's fun to see 20 year old Tim Matheson in his first film (playing a teenager!). Worth catching.
I shouldn't have gotten my hopes up. What a disappointment! The first twenty minutes consists largely of people all yelling at each other at once in different venues: a conference room, a living room, a courtroom...
Debbie Reynolds has never looked less attractive. In fact, I have never seen her look unattractive until I saw this film. With her hair piled up on top of her head, and her pallid makeup, she reminded me of a blond version of the Katzenjammer Mamma.
I nearly recognized Jean Simmons with her short blond hair, reprising her faded look from "Mister Buddwing" the previous year.
Almost any movie that keeps my interest till the end rates at least 4 stars. I turned this turkey off after a grueling forty minutes. I didn't even laugh once. The only reason I gave it 3 stars instead of 2 is that it has a lot of well-known and talented people in it.
The plot is preposterous—an abrupt divorce, contrived for no real reason, railroaded by opportunistic acquaintances and lawyers. What's even more contrived is the legal system, as pointed out in the IMDb review by "trudyr". This movie is one of those where the theme (divorce) suddenly redefines the entire world. Everybody's divorced- - oh, and by the way, the kids are just fine with it. In one scene, a mishmash of men and women—1st husbands, 2nd husbands, ex wives, current wives, and all the combined children— leave a group picnic. It attempts Keystone Cops-style mayhem, and if that isn't funny enough (it isn't), wait for the punch line: they leave one kid behind because nobody is sure who's responsible for it.
The sad thing is that the four principals—Van Dyke, Reynolds, Robards, and Simmons—all do fine work. It's the only thing that raises this movie about the level of total disaster
The settings and music are quite typical and induce nostalgia even in those who did not live in that time and place. There are some really amusing gags that come and go, such as the son who keeps a scorecard of his parents' argument, and the beginning conceit with the conductor on the hilltop who seems, like a god, to be orchestrating all the arguments in the suburban valley below.
These smart bits of humor don't really make the film flow any better or make it any more of a complete experience. By the time Van Johnson shows up, we're thinking there are so many interesting side characters that we don't really care anymore what happens to the original couple played by Van Dyke and Reynolds.
This is such a painful try-hard movie with zero realistic scenes. The bowling alley where Jason Robards sidles up to Dick Van Dyke? I would have called the lawyer and got a restraining order. By the time we're let in on why he's so persistent we've cringed out way to premature wrinkles. Credit where it's due, however -- Jean Simmons was a fine lady. She is so far above this dreck it's alarming.
I felt embarrassed for all involved.
With a script by among others Norman Lear Divorce American Style is a look at the institution of marriage and the troubles of going through a divorce. They certainly can leave a man and even now, let alone 1967 broken right down to the burlap. A wiser head Jason Robards, Jr. has his own agenda as far as the Van Dyke/Reynolds divorce is concerned.
Robards divorce from Jean Simmons is costing him plenty to. Simmons if she got married again would be someone else's financial burden. So get her to go out with Van Dyke. As for Reynolds, Robards and Simmons have an old friend in mind in used car king Van Johnson.
What was fascinating here is that in 1967 the idea of the working woman had not taken hold yet. Neither Reynolds or Simmons or various others of the female gender is working. In fact the only working woman I see is a hypnotist who has a lounge act where the climax of the film occurs.
There's a wonderful scene where divorce lawyers Dick Gauthier and Shelley Berman are making plans for golf outing in between Van Dyke and Reynolds. Lawyers too have lives away from their profession. There's also a nice scene with Lee Grant as an upscale prostitute.
We were just free of the code, but having leads like Van Dyke and Reynolds guarantees this film will be slightly naughty, but no more lest they offend the family audiences these cultivated in their careers.
What impressed me as one who handled many divorces is the partly believable scenes in the lawyers' office and the courtroom. Non lawyers will think this is satire of what goes on. In fact it grossly understates what goes on in the court system in a divorce. It is a very messy process that often takes years to unravel. It causes unbelievable harm to the children and both spouses. Both parties are made to feel like criminals. It also largely impoverishes both spouses and prevents them from going on with their lives. The no fault system that now exists does little to heal the pain. There are two scenes which take place in a lawyers office which is called mediation and in the courtroom. What actually goes on is a lot of screaming by the clients about the unfairness and lying that occurs. What is not understood by the lay public is that their anger is extremely painful to the lawyers and judges as well. Lawyers are also traumatized by the bloody duel and deal with it by acting civilly to each other (hopefully). The lawyers' social chit chat is their way to break the tension. It prevents the lawyers from going over the deep end.
Dick Van Dyke has some actual dramatic moments as Richard, a non-college graduate whose promotion has put a strain on a 17 year marriage to Debbie Reynolds. Ditto for the Reynolds character as well.
Their marriage actually falters because of their friends, attorneys and marriage counselor, all of whom literally drive them to divorce.
The film does take on some comical tones when it is shown that alimony is so high that an ex-husband, nicely played by Jason Robards, tries to marry off his wife so that he can be rid of that money responsibility.
The film is all-too predictable. You know that some sort of reconciliation will be reached by Van Dyke and Reynolds just before their one year divorce decree becomes final.
Van Johnson appears as a bachelor caught up in Robards'scheme to marry off his ex-wife Jean Simmons.
The landscape of this Yorkin/Lear satire is excellent. However, it's always evident the characters played by Van Dyke and Reynolds really love each other. Sure, "marriages don't break up, they unravel," but the marriage in question is never shown unraveling. And, it really isn't ever threatened by infidelity, either. The "Pat Collins, Hypnotist" ending is mind-bogglingly stupid, and predictable. Otherwise, the cast performs exceptionally well. Although flawed, the production, with its wonderful cast and crew, is too good to thumb down.
****** Divorce American Style (6/21/67) Bud Yorkin, Norman Lear ~ Dick Van Dyke, Debbie Reynolds, Jean Simmons, Jason Robards
I enjoyed watching the various characters, especially the men, walk a moral tightrope of sorts; curiously, van dyke's character seems to maintain an air of decency despite it all. i wondered briefly if it were purposeful that the problems the characters identified in their marriage weren't the true ones after all; debbie on one hand seemed to have entirely unrealistic expectations about human behavior, while her husband seemed somewhat unimaginative and even intellectually stunted. "women need to stop crossing the lines between the sexes," what??
seems to work best when it lets the story tell itself; otherwise unbearably clever, with a touch of hubris even.
The opening sequence of the divorce meetings with the Lawyers more worried about Golf and other cases is spot on. This couple is divorcing more because of a miss understanding than about a relationship problem. Then the Lawyers and the court run away with it. As for the story that the husbands got the shaft in these things in the 1960's- that it totally accurate. The only thing the film does not put enough of a point on is the fact that the mothers almost automatically got the kids custody during this era and courts never cared about their thoughts often.
Still it is here, though the reason for that is it is made as a comedy. The sequence where all the children are together from previous marriage inside of as with Tom Bosley (Happy Days) doing the score card is funny. Bosley goes through how each kid arrived there and which marriage each kid is from, who the kids parents are, and who was married to who is amazingly complex. Makes things sound like a Peyton Place with staggering effectiveness.
The old "ball and chain" references are still here. I did not recognize a younger Eileen Brennan in the cast until the credits roll. She has the least script here which is a waste of talent. This is a good movie that really does a good job of stereo typing people from the 1960's.
The message of trying to stop this madness is a good one but was ignored in the 1960's and beyond until today, Not only are a lot of relationships rocky but we are now adding gay relationships into the mix.