Divorce American Style (1967) ***

Not so much a comedy about a failing marriage as a guide to the American divorce laws,  a cynical hard-boiled and frightening shape of things to come in a world where the everyman is represented not by the likes of James Stewart or at a stretch Glenn Ford but Dick Van Dyke. It’s possibly only the fact that Van Dyke lacks dramatic chops without the innate vitriol of a Rod Steiger or Lee Marvin that keeps the movie from drifting into devastating black comedy. That, or the filmmakers’ determination to find a happy ending.

When the ever-squabbling Harmons, Richard (Dick Van Dyke) and Barbara (Debbie Reynolds), break up after 17 years and two kids, the chips seem to fall heavily against the husband, the wife walking off with all assets, the husband landed with all the bills and little more than 80 bucks a week to get by on. Such is the supposed injustice of the American divorce laws at a time when most wives did not go out to work and so relied on their husband, married or otherwise, for support.

The only way out of this unhappy financial state for Richard is for his wife to get married again, so a second husband can pick up the tab for her upkeep.  Another divorced couple, the Downes, Nelson (Jason Robards) and Nancy (Jean Simmons), are in the same pickle so Nelson spends his time acting as some kind of pimp for his ex-wife, serving up potential suitors, such as Richard, on a platter. But since Richard is impoverished a helping hand is needed to even things up, so Nelson arranges for Barbara to fall into the arms of rich and single used car dealer Al Yearling (Van Johnson).

There is a big male-female divide, for the most part the guys concentrating on material things like money and what money can buy, the gals leaning more towards emotion, conversation, genuine intimacy.  Richard has given his wife everything she wants, so why can’t he have a few things his own way. Or as Barbara succinctly puts it, it’s a case of supply and demand, the women are in good supply while the men demand. Even after separation, while from the Richard and Nelson perspective the wives are living in the lap of luxury and the men understanding the meaning of penury, female thoughts turn to questions of loneliness, commitment and (not again!) emotion.

While there are moments of observational comedy – an excellent montage of Richard and Barbara opening and closing all sorts of doors while preparing for bed, cleaning out bank accounts before the other can get to them, the problems of accommodating the blended/hybrid family that divorce or multiple divorce can entail – there are not many laugh-out-loud moments.

And probably just as well because without the drama-lite presences of Van Dyke (who still can’t shake off those double takes and involuntary limb functions) and Reynolds, it would have been a much tougher watch. Reynolds is capable of expressing her feelings verbally because, as a female, she is used to expressing feelings verbally, so we know that Al Yearling does not quite hit the spot. But Van Dyke, without resort to the verbal, has his best scenes of emotional loss when he takes his kids to the ball game only to discover that his wife’s new suitor has more treats to offer.

Van Dyke (Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N.) and Reynolds (The Singing Nun, 1966) do a decent job without plumbing any dramatic depths, but Robards (Any Wednesday, 1966) and Simmons (Spartacus, 1960) have more to offer as the conspiring couple, while one-time MGM golden boy Van Johnson (Battleground, 1949) proves that his four-year absence from pictures was premature Hollywood retirement. More a cautionary tale than an outright laffer, this Norman Lear (Come Blow Your Horn, 1963) screenplay without missing many targets provides a more palatable dissection of modern marriage than something as full-blooded and expletive-ridden as the previous year’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.  Director Bud Yorkin (Come Blow Your Horn, also) shows a nice grasp of building up situations until they go out of  control.

While, certainly, many of the attitudes are out of date you can be sure that male self-pity is not one of them.