“Kiss me like a man, not a chipmunk.”
“Kiss you like a man? .. You wouldn’t know a man if you fell under one.”
Oh, I wouldn’t huh? Well maybe not, but I’ll sure know a man if I’ve been living with one.”
Marriage is supposed to be a happy and joyous institution, but in many circumstances it can fuel verbal disputes, physical assault, separation, and sometimes divorce.
The facets of marriage is a popular theme in motion pictures. From the most meritorious to the most heinous, the film industry has explored the idealistic and the turbulent lives of fictional married couples on screen. The 1967 film, Divorce American Style depicts a drastically stale marriage where Debbie Reynolds and Dick Van Dyke can’t seem to vanquish the emotional and communication barriers that are preventing them from enjoying married life.
The instrumental force behind joining Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds in a tempestuous on-screen marriage is producer Norman Lear, who was profoundly interested in the comedy genre and made his foray into writing when he assisted Robert Kaufman with the script. The film was based on Kaufman’s story, and directed by Bud Yorkin, who had more success with his directorial efforts in the television industry.
Divorce American Style featured a cast who hailed from the finest pedigree. Ever since making her breakthrough role in Singin’ in the Rain ( 1952 ),Debbie Reynolds was continuously soaring to astronomical heights. She had received an Academy Award nomination two years earlier for her portrayal of Molly Brown in The Unsinkable Molly Brown ( 1964 ), and the films that followed had planted her in a reputable position in Hollywood. Although, Divorce American Style was not as popular as some of her other vehicles, Debbie was mostly lauded for her performance.
While Debbie Reynolds was enjoying her triumphant peak, Dick Van Dyke was struggling to reach critical acclaim. Despite his successful turn in the 1964 blockbuster, Mary Poppins, Van Dyke was mainly being cast in comedy films that were largely panned at the box office. Divorce American Style did nothing to enhance his reputation either. However, acclamation would soon be surrounding him one year later when he played Caractacus Pott in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ( 1968 ). Although the film was steeped in praise, Van Dyke was criticized for his accent.
Motion pictures may not have turned out the way he had initially anticipated, but away from the big screen, Dick Van Dyke was a phenomenon. On the small screen, Van Dyke had displayed considerable promise with The Dick Van Dyke Show, which aired in 1961. The series was an immediate hit with all television audiences. For his portrayal of Rob Petrie, Van Dyke received three Emmy Awards as well as taking home four Emmy statuettes for Outstanding Comedy Series.
Debbie Reynolds was the best possible actress to breath life into Barbara Harmon. On the home front, Reynolds was currently plagued with the same problems in her marriage with Harry Karl as what her character Barbara and on-screen husband, Richard were experiencing. Like the harmon’s, Debbie and Karl were less intimate and communication was their most challenging burden. To further exacerbate matters, Karl was a prolific gambler who was constantly churning out bad investments. This added strain to Reynolds family life and it would ultimately lead to severe financial difficulties.
The only aspect that did not closely mirror the marriage of Barbara and Richard was that divorce was not imminent. Although, Debbie and Harry Karl were constantly enduring some sort of crisis, the two would remain married for six more years until finally divorcing in 1973.
Coincidentally, Debbie’s marriage was at the rockiest peak when Norman Lear called her in early 1966 to tell her about the project. Debbie knew instantly that the role of Barbara Harmon was right for her. She persuaded Norman to consider her for the part, but it took several interviews with Norman before she found out that she had the job. Debbie later stated in her autobiography, Unsinkable, A Memoir, “Every time I went in to talk with Norman, who was also directing the film, he lowered his offer. Finally we agreed on a price that was much lower than my usual rate. Norman was very serious, which isn’t uncommon for some comics.”
At the time she acquired the role of Barbara Harmon, Debbie was deeply involved with Girl Scouts. As a child, Reynolds was a highly revered member of the Girl Scouts community and received more than forty-two badges. She often quipped that her most pivotal goal was to become the world’s oldest living Girl Scout. One can only imagine how elated Debbie must have been when her daughter Carrie Fisher possessed the same passion in becoming a Girl Scout. In fact, her enthusiasm is clearly witnessed. Debbie was the leader of the Girl Scout Troop where Carrie and her stepdaughter, Tina Karl attended. For a while in the 1960’s, she stopped working on Friday afternoons to attend Girl Scout meetings, and on October 25th, 1966, Reynolds was honored at the launching of the Girl Scout Piper Project, in which she prolifically participated.
By the time the filming of Divorce American Style commenced, Debbie Reynolds was still attending the Girl Scouts meetings, but now that she was busily involved with the picture, it was impossible for her to attend every meeting. Since starting work on Divorce American Style, Reynolds was struck down with a hectic schedule that gave her minimal time to engage herself in other activities that took place away from the camera. Her weekdays were spent working with high intensity and oftentimes under pressure. After seven days of pouring all her energy into the project, Debbie looked forward to the weekends, especially Friday afternoons when her security guard, Zinc drove Debbie, Dick Van Dyke and Jason Robards to her beach house in Malibu. She recalled these moments with great pleasure. In her autobiography, Unsinkable, A Memoir, Debbie wrote, “We’d drink and sing and laugh all night. Jason would sing along to the soundtrack from Mame . He was a happy drunk. I don’t know if his wife, Betty Bacall, appreciated his drinking songs, but I found him the most entertaining company. Lucky Betty, to be married to Bogie and then Jason. What wonderful men. When the party was over, Zinc was available to drive anyone home.”
Those Friday afternoons at Malibu were a lot different then the times spent making the movie. On-set, the atmosphere was often tense with a lingering dark cloud that threatened altercations. The person responsible was usually Norman Lear’s wife, Frances whose hostility towards her assistant Bob Mackie incensed most of the cast. Bob embodied amiability and his talents transcended beyond the expected limits, yet Frances treated him in an uncouth manner that can be described as unsettling.
Fortunately, those on-set quarrels didn’t tarnish the films reputation. Divorce American Style may appear somewhat dated today, but on its release, audiences and critics recognized the film for its uniqueness and satirical humor. Roger Ebert from Chicago Sun-Times described the film as “a member of that rare species, the Hollywood comedy with teeth in it. Bud Yorkin has directed with wit and style, and the cast, which seems unlikely on paper, comes across splendidly on the screen . . . The charm of this film is in its low-key approach. The plot isn’t milked for humor or pathos: Both emerge naturally from familiar situations.”, while Variety wrote, “Comedy and Satire, not feverish melodrama, are the best weapons with which to harpoon social mores. An outstanding example is Divorce American Style . . . which pokes incisive, sometimes chilling, fun at US marriage-divorce problems.”
Divorce American Style is a story about the perils of a loveless marriage and the loneliness of divorce, but first and foremost, it is the story of Richard and Barbara Harmon ( Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds ), a wealthy Los Angeles suburban couple who have been married for seventeen years, and seem to be in reach of everything they desire, except for happiness.
“What has been eating you lately? Nothing I do is right. Nothing I say. What is it with you?”
“I’d rather not talk about it.”
Barbara and Richard are enmeshed in a strained marriage and are at war with each other. When the advise of a marriage counselor don’t seem to help matters, they decide to explore the world outside of their marriage. For Barbara and Richard, this is a long road that would ultimately lead to divorce, but when that finally does happen, they embark on a journey into unknown territory, which they find rather daunting. Did they make a mistake or can divorce bring them the contented life that they have always been searching for?
I’m not knowledgeable when it comes to the divorce scene in the United States during the 1960’s, but according to most sources the film is historically accurate. However, other articles that I’ve read have left me confused and only make me assume that the films depiction of divorce is not entirely authentic. It wasn’t until 1970 that major changes would be made to the legal system. At the time of release, no fault divorces were granted. Couples could only file for divorce on the terms of cruelty or adultery and possibly for other reasons that would fall under that criteria. In Richard and Barbara’s case nobody was at fault, but yet they were still granted divorce.
Despite the films unrealistic approach to the divorce setting, Divorce American Style is a thoroughly entertaining motion picture that features performances from some of cinemas most beloved stars. While the central protagonists are Debbie Reynolds and Dick Van Dyke, the film is graced by the presence of its stellar supporting cast, which include, Jason Robards, Jean Simmons, Van Johnson and Lee Grant, who all add to the pictures prestige.
For those audiences who are expecting to see Van Johnson in a leading role, disappointment is bound to set in. Sadly, Johnson plays a somewhat minor character who only appears during the last half of the movie. When he does make his entrance however, fireworks start to erupt. The actor who was noted for his neighborly on-screen persona, plays Big Al Yearling, a millionaire auto-dealer whose romance with Barbara was plotted by Nelson and Nancy. Barbara has no cognizance of this arranged set up, and for a while Al Yearling becomes her object of affection. Coincidentally, Yearling also shares the same feelings and is passionately smitten with Barbara.
Actress, Lee Grant had an even smaller role than Van, and appears at the first half of the film. Here Grant plays Dede Murphy, a prostitute who a drunk Richard Harmon visits. Although, Richard never accepted her services he still offers her money for taking up her time. For someone of Grant’s stature, I would have liked to have seen her in a bigger role. This particular scene does not give Grant the opportunity to explore the depth of her talent. If her character was expanded on, Lee Grant would have been sensational.
“So, since when do men grow up? They just grow old. You know what I call this apartment sometimes? Boys’ Town.”
While all the cast shine in their respective roles, Debbie Reynolds and Dick Van Dyke are the films emotional core. Barbara and Richard Harmon are struggling to come to terms with their failing relationship. They do everything in their power to try and salvage what is left of their marriage before it turns to debris, but when all their avenues of help fail to resolve their problems, the only answer is divorce. This is a heartbreaking situation to be in, and “us” the audience can feel their anguish as the two try to save their broken marriage. This is important for their sake and for their children.
After Divorce American Style, Debbie Reynolds and Dick Van Dyke would continue to achieve greatness in films and other forms of entertainment. As of 2018, Van Dyke is still prolifically involved in the arts, and holds one of the last keys to Hollywood’s golden age, while Debbie Reynolds was struck with tragedy when her beloved daughter, Carrie Fisher suffered a cardiac arrest on-board a transatlantic flight from London to Los Angeles, and died on December 27th, 2016, leaving an emotionally distraught Debbie filled with grief and sorrow. Unable to continue on with life without Carrie, Debbie Reynolds suffered a stroke and passed away the following day. She was 84 years old. Debbie’s son Todd Fisher later stated that moments before death his mother said, “I want to be with Carrie.”
Divorce American Style is the film debut of actor, Tim Matheson.
The judge presiding over divorce proceedings in the film is played by John J. Anthony, a real-life marriage guidance counselor. This was his only acting role in a film.
Early in the movie they mention that they’re paying their maid $250/month and that their house cost $49,000. Inflation adjust equivalents in 2010 are $1614.14/month for the maid and $316,372.14 for the house.
Debbie Reynolds: Born, Mary Frances Reynolds on April 1st, 1932 in El Paso, Texas. Died: December 28th, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. Aged: 84.
Dick Van Dyke: Born, Richard Wayne Van Dyke on December 13th, 1925 in West Plains, Missouri.
Jason Robards: Born, Jason Nelson Robards Jr. on July 22nd, 1922 in Chicago, Illinois. Died: December 26th, 2000 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Aged: 78.
Jean Simmons: Born, Jean Merilyn Simmons on January 31st, 1929 in Lower Holloway, London. Died: January 22nd, 2010 in Santa Monica, California. Aged: 80.
Van Johnson: Born, Charles Van Dell Johnson on August 25th, 1916 in Newport, Rhode Island. Died: December 12th, 2008 in Nyack, New York. Aged: 92.