Not Your Father’s Divorce

All movies are products of their zeitgeist.  Sometimes they transcend the zeitgeist and become classics; other times they are as ephemeral as the times when they were made.  And some films fall somewhere in-between.  A case in point is Divorce American Style, a 1967 comedy.  It is both modern and dated.  It portrays postwar affluence at its peak while warning that there is trouble in paradise.

The title is a nod to Divorce Italian Style (1961) and Marriage Italian Style (1964), foreign movies that had done fairly well at the American box office at a time when foreign films were a niche market.  Moviegoers would likely get the connection, even if they hadn’t seen the Italian films.

Divorce American Style is a showcase of classic 60’s hairdos, fashions, gas-guzzling cars, and miscellaneous consumer products.  Special shout-out to cigarettes and the days when ashtrays were an essential component of living room décor.

The film is also eye-opening vis-à-vis inflation.  Imagine a time when $25,000 was a good salary and if you earned $30-35,000 you were affluent.  You could buy your dream house in suburbia for $49,000.  A knee operation would set you back $500.  Any retiree can vouch for those figures.

As you might suspect from the title, Divorce American Style had implications for the manosphere long before that term was coined.  It is a snapshot of the status of married men in 1967 and something of a cautionary tale.  At the time the movie was released, second wave feminism had not hatched but it was in the incubator and the shell was just starting to crack.

The film opens with an inspired sequence in which an orchestra conductor sets up his podium on a hill looking down on a SoCal suburb.  As he starts conducting, the soundtrack fills up with the sound of squabbling couples and the film cuts from house to house in the neighborhood as the cacophony builds to a crescendo.

After introducing us aurally to the people in the neighborhood, the film focuses on Richard and Barbara Harmon, a thirtysomething couple portrayed by Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds.   The Harmons grew up during the Depression and World War II.  They are not Boomers , though their two sons are.  (FUN FACT: the older son is played by Tim Matheson 11 years before he played Otter in Animal House.)  They come from working class backgrounds and they have far surpassed their parents’ standard of living.  Upward mobility, thy name is the Harmons.  But they have plenty of company.  The postwar economic boom is still on a roll.

Richard is the manager at a factory and Debbie is a stay-at-home mom at a time when that term would have been a redundancy.  Their home has all the modern amenities and gadgets.  There are no clouds on the horizon for the Harmons, but the relationship is waxing stormy.  Why?  Appropriating a line from Cool Hand Luke, another 1967 movie, “What we have here is failure to communicate.”  Of course, this is a catch-all excuse for all the ills appertaining to affluent married couples.  Men and women from earlier generations were too busy trying to keep their heads above water to worry about communications.   A husband and wife not communicating?  Who’s got time to communicate?

Predictably, the Harmons begin the arduous journey to splitsville.  And here is where the movie begins to sound more contemporary.  There was no more patriarchy in the divorce courts then than there is now.

Stand-up comic Shelley Berman is particularly effective as an oily shyster (with the appropriate surname Grieff) who represents Barbara.  At a conference with Richard’s lawyer, the two display an appalling amount of collegiality.  It is obvious they are a little too cozy to dutifully represent opposing litigants.  So it’s no surprise that Richard gets taken to the cleaners.  As the tag line on the movie poster says, “In America the ring costs two dollars [the marriage license] to put on…and a fortune to take off!”

Divorce rape was certainly not a term in those days, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a reality.  At the conclusion of the divorce negotiations, it turns out that Richard will have $87.50 a week to live on after alimony, child support, etc.  Even in 1967 this was not enough for anything more than a bare bones existence.  So Richard is reduced to living in an efficiency apartment and driving a clunker.  Contact with his sons has now been limited to weekends.

While taking his two sons bowling on a Sunday afternoon, his status as a divorced dad is obvious to another bowler, Nelson Downes (Jason Robards), whose status is the same, albeit with daughters instead of sons.  Nelson introduces himself to Richard and takes him under his wing.  He’s been doing the weekend dad thing much longer than Richard so it appears he appears to be a credible mentor.

Nelson, like Richard, is living in straitened circumstances.  As was the case with Richard’s divorce, Nelson’s wife has been awarded the house and the station wagon, so his standard of living has plummeted.  But he is on good terms with his ex-wife (Jean Simmons).  In fact, he takes Richard to his former home and introduces him to her.  It turns out that Nelson is playing matchmaker.  He is trying to get Nancy married off so he can get out from under alimony payments.  What initially appeared to be a case of solidarity among divorced fathers turns out to be exactly the opposite: one man exploiting another for his own purposes.  As it turns out, however, Nelson’s economic plight is even worse than it appears.  His girlfriend Eunice (Eileen Brennan) is pregnant.  At one point, Nelson even makes a pathetic, half-hearted attempt at suicide.  It is more of a cry for help.

One of the best scenes in the movie involves the confusion inherent in blended families (though I don’t believe that term existed in 1967).  A children’s party ends in total chaos as weekend dads arrive to pick up their children from their first and/or second and/or third marriages, and sorting out the wee folk turns out to be a logistical nightmare.  Ironically, one of the thrice-married fathers is portrayed by Tom Bosley, the 1950’s trad dad in the long-running (1974-1984) Happy Days sitcom.

While all of the above may sound strangely familiar to contemporary viewers, there are important differences.  For example, the divorce lawyers and the judge who presides over the Harmons’ divorce are all men.  Today that would be unlikely.  Female divorce lawyers and family court judges have a much greater presence if not a dominance.

Needless to say, in 1967 there was no such thing as MGTOW.  Marriage was the norm for adults so it was assumed that divorced men were recycled eligible bachelors.  Cohabitation was rare.  Respectable folks did not set up housekeeping with a member of the opposite sex without a marriage ceremony.  Common law relationships were the province of the underclass and bohemians, whose numbers increased apace in 1967 as the ranks of hippies grew.

Perhaps the most telling absence in Divorce American Style is feminism.  By 1967 the tradcon era wasn’t knocked out but it was on the ropes.  The birth control pill had been around since 1960 and The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan’s polemic against woman-as-housewife, was published in 1963.  Second-wave feminism (that term was not coined till 1968) was in the pipeline but it hadn’t quite reached the spout.  Germaine Greer, Gloria Steinem, Kate Millett, Susan Brownmiller, Andrea Dworkin, et al, as well as Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman,” women’s studies programs, Ms. magazine, etc. were in full bloom by the early 70’s.   Consequently, Divorce American Style deals with a world where married women were not yet big players in the workforce and a divorced woman was not expected to enter it.  Even after divorce, her husband was expected to fully support her.  So American society in 1967 was undeniably gynocentric, but that was not a word in common parlance then.  Neither was misandry, come to think of it.

The screenplay of Divorce American Style was written by Norman Lear, who would become well known a few years later for the TV show All in the Family.  The film’s director, Bud Yorkin, was an associate of Lear.  Curiously, Yorkin and Lear were co-winners of the 1999 Lucy (named for Lucille Ball) Award to honor those whose who “have enhanced the perception of women through the medium of television.”

The casting of Dick Van Dyke as Richard Harmon was ideal in 1967, as his main claim to fame in those days was his portrayal of Rob Petrie in The Dick Van Dyke Show, a suburbanite sitcom that ran from 1961 through 1966.  Having seen him engage with his wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) every week on TV, movie audiences had been groomed to accept him in a domestic situation in a movie.  (FUN FACT: against all odds – he was a heavy smoker and an alcoholic – Dick Van Dyke will turn 97 on December 13, 2022) (BONUS FUN FACT: Van Dyke shacked up for 30 years with Michelle Triola Marvin, whose lawsuit against former live-in lover Lee Marvin resulted in the term “palimony.”)

The casting of Debbie Reynolds as Van Dyke’s wife was also inspired.  Though she was 35 years old in 1967, her image as America’s sweetheart had been established in movies throughout the 50’s and 60’s.  Who better to represent a mature but still attractive American woman?  Also, her own divorce from singer Eddie Fisher (who was porking Elizabeth Taylor) had made headlines in 1959.

Sad to report, but the end of Divorce American Style is a cop-out.  True love wins out – even though it goes against everything that you’ve seen through the first 90% of the film’s 1:49 running time.  What could have been a black humor triumph is as neatly resolved as a situation comedy, which should not be a surprise.  Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin, as well as Robert Kaufman, who wrote the original story, were heavily involved in TV series and only dabbled in film.  Nevertheless, Divorce American Style is worth a look – and you can see it for free on YouTube.

If you were looking for a cultural artifact to demonstrate the adage “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” you could certainly do worse.

Leave a comment

%d bloggers like this: