When Marriage Dared to Die: Divorce American Style (Bud Yorkin, 1967)

I have to admit; I still haven’t seen enough films with Van Johnson despite really liking him in the not-so-well-known Three Guys Named Mike (Charles Walter, 1951). When Michaela from Love Letters to Old Hollywood announced the 4th edition of her Van Johnson Blogathon that she is hosting in honour of his birthday (August 25), I thought it would be a good occasion to re-explore Divorce American Style (Bud Yorkin, 1967), which I had probably watched for the first time last January on Jean Simmons’s birthday. Van Johnson is among the many great stars who play in this satirical comedy. The others are Debbie Reynolds, Dick Van Dyke, Jean Simmons, Jason Robards, Joe Flynn, Emmaline Henry and Lee Grant. Although Johnson’s role is rather small comparing to Reynolds’s and Van Dyke’s, his presence is appreciated, and he embodies the perfect Al Yearling. But, we’ll come back to him later.

With this title, Divorce American Style makes an echo to Divorce Italian Style (Divorzio all’italiana, Pietro Germi, 1961), the Italian film starring Marcello Mastroianni without being a remake. Yorkin’s film, having been released in 1967, is not one to be watched without a critical eye. Indeed, 1967 was a turning point in the history of American cinema with the beginning of the New Hollywood era the imminent arrival of the rating system which replaced the Production Code. It, therefore, doesn’t hesitate to make a critic of the marital institution and society in general.

The story is simple: Richard (Dick Van Dyke) and Barbara (Debbie Reynolds) Harmon, an upper-middle-class couple, have been married for 17 years. They live in one of Los Angeles’s suburbs and have two children, two boys. However, the magical light that united the couple seems to have vanished over the recent years, and the two are constantly arguing for, let’s admit it, rather unfounded reasons. That eventually leads them to divorce, and Richard having to live with $87.30 a week due to the alimony he now owes to his ex-wife. Not long before the divorce is settled in court, Richard meets Nelson Downes (Jason Robards), another divorced father, while being at the bowling with his sons. This one later introduces him to his ex-wife, Nancy (Jean Simmons). Nancy eventually falls in love with Richard, so, she and her ex-husband concoct a plan to find a new husband for Barbara. This way, Richard won’t have any more financial obligations towards Barbara and will be able to marry Nancy. If Nancy is married to Richard, Nelson won’t have any financial obligations towards her and will be able to marry his current frequentation, Eunice (Eileen Brennan). Al Yearling (Van Johnson), a wealthy auto dealer, might be the right party for Barbara, according to Nancy and Nelson.

From the beginning, Divorce American Style laughs cunningly at the suburban married couple and the marriage institution itself, which often seems to lead to failure in the end. Indeed, the film begins when various men arrive at home from work (including Richard Harmon). As soon as they set foot in their respective house, welcomed by their wives who have been waiting for them all day, a man goes up a hill with a view is on the houses, opens a box containing music sheets, a black robe and a conductor’s baton. Dave Grusin’s music then begins as the fights in the houses do as well, and the orchestra chief uses his baton to “conduct” the couple bickerings. The camera focuses on one house at the time and, as time passes by, the music becomes faster and more intense just like the music. The focus is eventually put on the house where the Harmon, the central characters of the story, live. During this scene, we don’t see the couples arguing, only hear them. The sound dimension indeed plays a crucial role in Divorce American Style and in how the relationship evolves between the two characters.

Another good use of the sound dimension is when Richard and Barbara do their evening routine before going to bed. It can easily be associated with the now monotonous life of this couple. They are not talking to each other, because one of their numerous arguments, and are preparing for the night. They frequently open doors and drawers in their bedroom without closing them meticulously to avoid making noise. But it seems that they are used to these “bangs” provoked by the shocks of the drawers and doors. What is fascinating about this scene is that each time one of them opens or close a door, the spectator has the impression that the other person will eventually receive it on his/her nose or a finger. However, it doesn’t happen as if this ‘choreography’ was also part of their sad routine, and they knew precisely when to be not in the way of the other person. The whole scene has no dialogue and no music, only the sound of the drawers and doors being opened and closed until Richard decides to clip his toenails. He then continues to disturb the peace by doing exercises and jumping all over the place. I’m not sure how their house is made or on which type of soil it was built because Richard’s jumps pretty much cause a mini earthquake. The music then starts again, which symbolize the arising of the tension.

In other words, Richard and Barbara Harmon pretty much don’t have to say anything, and they’ll still get on each other nerves.

The monotony of this couple (and other) is also described by the use of colour or, more precisely, the lack of it. At the beginning of the film, the camera makes a bird eyes view on Los Angeles traffic. The cars are of normally vivid colours (red, blue, yellow, white) but something about them makes them look faded just like the life of the couples who own them seems to be. Of course, this is my interpretation, but it does remind us of a dull routine. Then, when we enter in the Harmon’s house, its decoration is beige, which is not exactly the most lively and exciting colour. Barbara herself often wears beige and drab clothes as if she was trapped for a long time in this dull and boring way of life. On her side, Nancy wears more exciting and warmer colours, often orange (can we all agree that orange is a colour that suited Jean Simmons perfectly?), yellow or red. That gives a clue that her marriage is over for good; she has been in good term with her ex-husband, and she has moved on to something else. She’s ready to enjoy life again. The Harmon, on his side, don’t change their physical appearance during the film because, despite their divorce, they are not ready to change immediately.

That is one of the critics brought into this film; the refusal to change for the good of someone else. If older classics were maybe more critical towards the woman’s role in society, Divorce American Style doesn’t exactly favourably portrait Richard Harmon. He is, as a matter of fact, rather detestable at time. For example, after a house party hosted by him and his wife, Barbara starts making order in the house as she has given the night off to their maid, Jackie (Shelley Morrison). Richard looks at her instead of helping her and, when he finally decides to do so, it’s after a few complains. Oh yeah, men were not dedicated to clean houses in these years, but it was about to change. That is one of the many stupid reasons why they don’t get along. Instead of arguing on the fact that his role is not to clean the house, he could help without complaining. Lifting a chair and putting a carpet back in place won’t hurt him! Later on, as their argument continues, Richard deliberately brokes a bowl and Barbara’s favourite platers, which doesn’t exactly arrange the situation. What is ironic here is that, although the broken platter leads Barbara to tears, as it was her favourite, she often turns her back to Richard’s materialist values and constantly tells him that things are not what she wants for him. But we don’t know the history behind this platter either, so we guess it must have had some sentimental value.

Richard Harmon also shows his lack of cooperation when he refuses to take couple-therapy with his wife and Dr Zenwinn (Martin Gabel). Her is later encouraged by his friend Lionel (Joe Flynn) to, instead, meet a prostitute as it would be a better type of therapy (according to Lionel). That leads him to meet Dede Murphy (Lee Grant in a small but noticeable performance) but, luckily, Richard turns out to be responsible enough, and nothing happens. Dede is another victim of the men’s world as she seems to be only there to serve them and ease their pain, and they don’t hesitate to come and go as they please. During this scene, Dede says something that makes one thinks: “Since when do men grow up? They just grow old!” Well, the attitude of the drunk Richard indeed seems to encourage explains these sayings.

Aside, from the Harmon’s lack of motivation, the saddest thing about this whole business is probably the fact that they continue to play the game of the happily married couple when, in fact, they should have stopped this masquerade for a long time. At the beginning of the film, they are arguing just before receiving their guesses and, as soon as these enter the house, they put a fake smile on their faces to greet them and make them feel welcomed. Of course, it is a form of courtesy because who would feel welcomed in a house where the guesses are always arguing? Something noteworthy about this party is that we don’t see it. We only witness the moment when the guests arrive and when they leave. You would have thought that the party and a few drinks would have eased the tension between the doomed couple, but it’s not the case: Barbara and Richard end up their day one a negative note, once again. The fact that the film doesn’t emphasize on the party is a clue that this one is not important. Moreover, because Richard and Barbara find themselves at the same point afterwards, we guess that it is an event that doesn’t make them evolve and doesn’t contribute to the development of the story. It’s only a way to indicate that the Harmon are people who entertain friends from time to time like it is done by people of their type.

This sad fakeness also occurs after Richard has met Dede and comes back home with a bottle of champagne not to feel guilty about what he has done (or rather where he was – because, in the end, nothing happened between him and Dede and the spectator is the sole witness of that). As they drink the champagne, they seem to appreciate each other’s company and laugh a lot. However, we know that this is only the effect of alcohol and that this is not a valid way to make a couple stick together. The fun, however, doesn’t last long when Richard accidentally mentions Dede’s name.

Then, there’s also the fact that their entourage doesn’t seem to care so much about their divorce. For the children, at the despair of Barbara, the divorce of their parents is not a tragedy, especially since many kids they know have divorced parents as well. It’s just part of life in a way. Moreover, when they have a meeting with their respective lawyers, the four together, before going to court, one of the lawyers spends his time doodling on a sheet. Eventually, the lawyers have discussions about things that have nothing to do with the divorce as if they didn’t care about their clients. However, they use this technique to have the Harmon’s attention when these are, once again, arguing for a stupidity.

Finally, when things are settled in court and Barbara obtains the requested divorce, Richard’s friends are willing to take him for a drink, and Barbara’s friends want to celebrate as well. Richard’s is not opposed to the idea, although this divorce is his failure. On her side, Barbara order her friends to “shut up” with tears in her eyes indicating that she has gone through a lot and Richard’s nonchalant attitude probably hurts her more than she would have expected. The thing is, Barbara and Richard never said that they didn’t love each other anymore, but it’s the kind of love that hurts.

Then the other characters enter the game, and their presence is most important if we want this film to have consistency and not being a bunch of scenes showing couple quarrels. When Nelson, Nancy’s ex, meets Richard for the first time at the bowling, he has the flair to tell that he is a divorced father. Richard isn’t yet, but he is about to be (things are in process). Nelson easily represents what might happen to Richard after being forced to live under $87.30 a week. If we consider the inflation, that would be $677.23 today (which is enough). Nelson doesn’t live in luxury anymore because of the money he owns to Nancy. His car is old and doesn’t work well, wears old grey clothes, drinks, and pretty much embody the failure that a capitalist Americans would like to avoid. However, we feel that Richard might be a bit luckier in his bad luck. First of all, he still has friends (Nelson becoming a new one), time with his children, and Nancy becomes an agreeable companion quite soon into his new life. One of my favourite scenes is when he visits his new apartment, which is much more modest than the previous one (where Barbara now lives alone). His friend, Lionel, is with him and tries to find the positive points of this modest place to encourage his poor friend. We appreciate the efforts he makes to do that. The friends of the Harmon are here to make things a bit lighter and easier for them. Nelson’s wife, Fern (Emmanile Henry), is Barbara’s expressive friend who is willing to take her places, such as at the shopping mall, to occupy her mind and think of more enthusiastic subjects than her failed marriage.

Nancy and Nelson didn’t really seem made for each other because, somehow, they are complete opposites. However, the complicity and friendship they have kept could make more than one couple jealous. It definitely breaks the myth that male-female friendship doesn’t exist. Nancy’s role in this situation is to, somehow, help Richard to become a better person and make him realise that he has made a few mistakes. Indeed, she falls in love with him, and he understands that he must not be a jerk anymore and spoil what others might feel from him. Indeed, after having divorced Barbara and meeting Nancy, he seems to become a more appreciable person and doesn’t seem so upset anymore by the fact that he has joined the club of the poor divorced fathers.

Sadly for Van Johnson’s fans, he makes his entrance in the film quite late as Al Yearling. It is about 30 minutes before the end. He doesn’t play a central character, but his presence is among the aspects putting a bit of freshness on the situation and make this film a comedy rather than a drama. He plays the jolly Al Yearling who sells cars, and he becomes an appreciated companion for Barbara and the kids (and, consequently, an obstacle to Richard). He is this tall and comforting strong man who is quite amusing and doesn’t hesitate to help Barbara with her neck pain by daring to crack some of her backbones (although he has never met her before). He is also a mama’s boy (his mother died recently and was the reason why things never could have worked out between him and Nancy- or with any other women for that matter). That gives place to another delicious line:

[Refering to a commercial he used to do with his late mother]: “That’s when I had that motto: I won’t sell a car that I would put my mother in.” Poor Al, he says that with a tragic tone but us, spectators, can’t help laughing at it. Should we feel bad about it?

Divorce American Style is an intelligent film, and many lessons can be retrieved from it. It doesn’t say that it is always wrong to get married because that’s what most people did at the time, but it says that imperfect marriages do exist and, even if people have exchange vows on their wedding day and decided to say together until death do their part, life sometimes takes unexpected turns. Without revealing a spoiler, in the end, Richard and Barbara have learned their lessons on what marriage is and how it should be, but it is easier said than done. After all, today fewer people get married (well, I guess it depends on where) and it’s more seen as a symbol rather than conformity.

On its release, the film received mixed critics but did rather well at the box office. It was nominated for Best Original Screenplay (Norman Lear and Robert Kaufman) at the 1968 Oscar. It rightly deserved this nomination as the script (along with the top-notch distribution and the editing) is definitely among the strongest points of Divorce American Style. Yes, it’s a film that has its flaws, and if you are expecting a very funny comedy, I wouldn’t tell you to watch that necessarily (well, that depends on your type of humour). It is definitely a product that belongs to the category of the significant 1967 films (although it is not necessarily considered a cult movie like Bonnie & Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) or The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967).

Nevertheless, it was a pleasure to revisit it again and I loved discovering that it is a film that gives place to many reflections.

Before leaving you, I want to thank Michaela for hosting this blogathon again!

Please click here to read the other entries!

See you!


5 thoughts on “When Marriage Dared to Die: Divorce American Style (Bud Yorkin, 1967)

  1. Lots of great analysis, Virginie! It’s been such a long time since I’ve seen this film, I completely forgot that Jason Robards and Jean Simmons were also in it. I do remember loving that choreographed scene in the bedroom, though, as they get ready for bed.

    Thanks for contributing to my event!

    Liked by 1 person

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