Sunday, February 24, 2013

Divorce American Style

About a month ago, TCM ran Divorce American Style as part of a salute to actor Dick Van Dyke on getting the Screen Actors' Guild (I think) lifetime achievement award. The movie has received a DVD release, but it seems to be out of print based on the ridiculous price Amazon is asking, as well as TCM's on-line schedule not listing it as available for purchase from their online shop. It's receiving another airing on TCM tomorrow morning at 6:30 AM.

The movie starts off with a montage of couples bickering in their suburban tract housing, because, well, that's what American middle-class married couples do. Cut to one particular couple, Richard and Barbara Harmon, played by Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds. They hold a dinner party for their friends one night, but things don't go well, because afterwards, the two wind up at each other's throats as they clean up and then get ready to go to bed. Their adolescent son Mark (Tim Matheson in his movie debut) has obviously heard this all before, as when he hears the argument through the ventilation ducts, he's got a checklist of the things Mom and Dad use against each other.

What's a bored housewife to do? Barbara goes to her therapist, who has gotten Richard to agree to come in to one of the appointments in an effort to patch up the relationship, but that doesn't work, at which point Barbara calls her lawyer cousin who suggests a separation. Separation turns into divorce, with Barbara getting the house and everything in alimony, leaving Richard with the princely sum of $87.50 a week. Trying to put together the pieces of his life, Richard meets divorcée Nancy Downes (Jean Simmons). She's on relatively good terms with her ex-husband Nelson (Jason Robards), and likes Richard. This is wonderful for Nelson, since he'd love to see Nancy get remarried: there go his alimony payments. Of course, there's a problem wih the fact that even if Richard gets remarried, he still has to pay alimony. The only way he can get out of alimony is if Barbara remarries.

So, Nelson and Nancy immediately proceed to try to find a suitable husband for Barbara. Eventually the see an advertisement from used-car dealer Al Yearling (Van Johnson), whom Nelson had tried to hook up with Nancy, except that Al had a mother he was looking after. Mom has since died, so that means Al would quite possibly be good for Barbara, if the two can hit it of together. So, it looks as though everybody is going to live happily ever after: Richard with Nancy; Barbara with Al; and Nelson with his fiancée. Or will something come about to prevent the various couples from hooking up this way?

Divorce American Style has some potential. Parts of it come across as reminiscent of The Awful Truth, as you -- and Barbara and Richard -- wonder whether it was such a good idea for the two of them to get divorced in the first place. But this is not meant to be a screwball comedy; instead, it's trying to be more like a Paddy Chayefsky dark comedy. And there are times where that works too, as in the opening montage. There's also a very well choreographed sequence in the bank, when both Richard and Barbara have been advised by friends to clean out the joint bank account and remove the contents of their safety deposit box. Both go to the bank at the same time, with one going to empty the safety deposit box and the other going for the bank account, neither ever noticing the other.

Ultimately, though, Divorce American Style comes across as a bit of a mess; not quite sure of what it really wants to be. There's also something about the movie that seems firmly dated in the 1960s as opposed to The Awful Truth or Chayefsky's The Hospital or Network, all of which come closer to timeless. Debbie Reynolds comes across as a bit unappealing; the relationship between Nelson and Nancy seems a bit hard to believe; and the movie resolves its problems in a way that seems decidedly like a deus ex machina. It's a bit odd that the movie winds up as a mess, considering how much talent there is in it. In addition to all the actors, the screenplay was written by Norman Lear, while the director is Bud Yorkin: two men who went on to achieve great success together with the TV show All in the Family.

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