Divorce, American Style (1967) is way out of my normal viewing range, but I watched it for several reasons. First, Raquelle over at Out of the Past did a series of posts a couple of weeks ago about films from the 60′s, encouraging her readers to give them a chance. She was terribly optimistic, so I decided that my close-mindedness about 60′s films needed to end. I had to swallow my preconceived notions and watch one with a new outlook. My other reasons for viewing Divorce, American Style were the stars: Debbie Reynolds, Dick Van Dyke, Van Johnson, Jean Simmons and Jason Robards, Jr. It’s a first class cast if there ever was one. So, long story short – I’m very glad Raquelle pushed me on my 60′s dislike, because I found Divorce, American Style to be funny, smart, entertaining and earnestly sweet.
Debbie & Dick are Barbara and Richard Harmon, a married couple that continually quarrel. With the help of a dubious marriage counselor and their friends, they decide that they would be so much better off divorced. (This aspect struck me as being similar to The Women (1939), btw.) The film deals with the logistics of their divorce and the treacheries of dating. A lot of the humor is derived from the divorce laws of the time, which strongly favored women and made it highly undesirable for men to get divorced, since they pretty much got shafted.
Richard meets up with Nelson Downes (Jason Robards, Jr.) while having visitation with his sons. Nelson is divorced from his wife, Nancy (Jean Simmons) and is living in poverty because of the settlement. Nelson wants to remarry his now-pregnant girlfriend, Eunice (Eileen Brennan) but can’t until Nancy gets remarried and disqualifies herself for alimony. Nelson plays matchmaker for his wife, bringing home possible beaus for her to choose from. (I found that aspect of the story to be rather disturbing and kind of bizarre.) Nancy and Nelson seem to have a mutual fondness for one another, but are bound and determined to be married to other people. Anyway – Richard becomes Nancy’s love interest, but there’s a problem . Richard can’t marry Nancy until Barbara remarries (that pesky alimony!). So, Nancy and Nelson set out to find a new hubby for Barbara. This is where Van Johnson comes in. Van adds a lighthearted touch to the whole mix as “Big” Al Yearling, a lovable, mama’s boy car salesman. If this sounds ridiculously complex, it is. I think it’s a purposeful complexity to make the 60′s divorce craze look silly and pointless.
I really liked Van in this film. He is a joy to watch. He’s not supposed to be likable, but he is sweet and honest. Jason Robards was rather creepy, I thought. He has an almost evil quality that shines through a couple times and it’s undesirable. Debbie and Dick are a very believable married couple. It always annoys me when the couple in a film don’t seem to truly be in love. You can always tell when actors and actresses don’t like each other and it makes the film less enjoyable. Jean Simmons is amazingly lovely. I would venture to say that she looks better in this film than in her earlier films (if that’s possible – maybe age was becoming to her?).
My most favorite scene of the whole film is the nightclub scene with Pat Collins, the hypnotist. Barbara & Al, Richard & Nancy, Nelson & Eunice all go on the town together to celebrate Barbara & Richard’s divorce being final. (Like I said, it’s got it’s bizarre aspects.) They end up in a nightclub where Pat Collins is performing and Barbara & Al get up on the stage to be hypnotized. I tried to find a clip of it, but it doesn’t seem like there is one (at least not on YouTube or TCM’s Media Room). Pat Collins totally steals the show in her lovely 60′s gown, big hair and enormous sunglasses. According to this article in the New York Times, Pat had a successful nightclub in Hollywood on the Sunset Strip. She used her hypnosis techniques to help people quit smoking and overcome fears.
There is an episode of The Lucy Show that Pat appeared on. I’ve got it linked below. It’s in several parts, and it’s not the best quality, but you can get to see Pat Collins at work. If you’d like to see the rest of the act, click on the video, they should be in the sidebar.