Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

Divorce American Style (1967)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Divorce American Style (1967)

In director Bud Yorkin's marital romantic comedy - it was a cautionary tale about the foibles of marriage, with an Oscar-nominated story and witty, satirical but sanitized screenplay by Robert Kaufman and Norman Lear; it starred Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds as an unhappily-married suburban couple; the serious dark comedy provided a non-stereotypical role for both of its "squeaky clean" lead performers: TV comedian and Disney star Van Dyke and All-American "nice girl" Debbie Reynolds; its taglines were: "In America, the ring costs two dollars to put on...and a fortune to take off!" and "A timely probing look at today's marital drop-outs!"; the film also asked the central question: "Is Marriage Dead?"; its title was a take-off on the previous Italian films, Divorce Italian Style (1961, It.) and Marriage Italian-Style (1964, It.)

  • during the clever opening title credits sequence (beginning with a surreal montage of LA traffic on freeways and cars driven by husbands pulling into suburban driveways after a day of work), a god-like lawyer with an attache case walked to a Hollywood Hills hillside in the Los Angeles area, placed his briefcase on a pedestal, clothed himself in his black judicial robe, set up a music stand, and raised his baton to start conducting the cacophony of vituperative arguments and nagging that were heard among bitterly-married, unhappy couples in the upper-middle-class suburbanite houses below: (i.e., "You comin' out of there soon, Philip, I gotta get something. You been in there 20 minutes already, what are you reading? The more you talk, the longer it's gonna take. What's that supposed to be, a threat?...Will you stop that please!? Stop what? That thing you do with your nose. It's disgusting. If it bothers you, don't listen...Richard, please, my hair isn't - I have to put my face on. Oh come on. There isn't time. Richard, stop! I was in bed by 10 every night this week. You never came to bed till one. Now with company coming in less than an hour while I'm rushing to get ready, now you want to - the problem isn't me, Mildred, the problem is you. You're split up the middle by your own inner conflicts so you take your frustrations out on me. You'll make me your whipping boy psychologically speaking... ")

Richard Harmon (Dick Van Dyke)

Barbara Harmon (Debbie Reynolds)

Pretending to be Amicable When Dinner Guests Arrived
  • the focus of the scene honed in on the LA suburban household of the central characters - an angry, upper middle-class, mid-30s married couple: Richard (Dick Van Dyke) and Barbara Harmon (Debbie Reynolds) - the discontented, unhappy bickering couple, married for 17 years, were experiencing serious marital problems, mostly involving a lack of communication and constant criticisms of each other; their nagging quibblings had to be postponed when they quickly put aside their differences to answer the door and happily entertain house guests at a dinner party
  • the evening's dinner party was prefaced and followed by a flurry of kisses between all the guests at the front door; once the guests left as they cleaned up, Richard and Barbara pursued further arguments about not understanding each other; the pretense of their contented and amicable marriage ended and they resumed their fight, including Richard's deliberate breaking of some kitchenware; they revealed they lived in a $49,000 house with two teenaged boys, two cars, and slovenly maid-housekeeper Celia (Bella Bruck) who was paid $250 per month, sustained by breadwinner "big-shot" Richard's successful managerial job at Delaney Manufacturing
  • upstairs trying to sleep were their two sons Mark (Tim Matthieson or Matheson) and Jonathan (Gary Goetzman); the elder son Mark was listening in through a vent and keeping a scoring-tally sheet, and adding up the various components of their parents' latest feud; categories to be checked off included Weak, Strong, Logical, Poor Grammar, Over-Emotional; once the arguing couple decided to "shut up" and go to bed, Mark wrote "TO BE CONTINUED" diagonally across his scoresheet
  • their conversation revealed that Barbara had suggested that they pursue family therapy counseling with Viennese-accented psychologist Dr. Zenwinn (Martin Gabel), but Richard was reluctant and Barbara attended alone over the past two years; she summarized their major problem: "There's just no communication. We're strangers, Richard. Total strangers"
  • after their shouting match, in the film's most impressive scene without music or dialogue, the two annoyed and bickering individuals went into their bedroom and proceeded through their synchronized, monotonous nightly routine of undressing, hanging up clothes, opening and closing adjoining drawers and closet doors, and conducting toiletry routines (Richard used an electric toothbrush and flosser, groomed his hair, read Life Magazine on the toilet, clipped his toenails and then wildly exercised by running in place - causing a mini-earthquake, while Barbara smeared cold creams and lotions over her face, and put curlers in her hair) - without ever saying a word
  • to claim he was trying to seek help to "save" their marriage, Richard first met privately with their lay marriage counselor, but became embarrassed when Dr. Zenwinn mentioned discussing their sexual relations, and hinted that their sex life didn't "work so well"; the therapist's concluding advice was to keep his wife's 'ego balloon' inflated with "respect, appreciation"; at the end of the session when Barbara was called into the room, she urged Richard to continue seeing the doctor together, claiming "We're choking to death, suffocating" - but he stormed off
  • Richard visited with his friend and co-worker Lionel Blandsforth (Joe Flynn) at the Pale Pussycat bar, where sheer nightgowns were being modeled and sold by cocktail waitresses; Lionel suggested that Richard have a life both inside and outside of his marriage: ("A little hanky-panky now and then, that's a must for guys like us"); Richard shamefully admitted he had never been romantically unfaithful to Barbara; Lionel argued that visiting and paying for sex from a prostitute wasn't for love and therefore wasn't cheating ("It's for relaxation or therapy")
  • the drunken Richard was delivered by Lionel to the apartment of his own hooker - Dede Murphy (Lee Grant), but she refused to have sex with Lionel's inebriated friend: ("That man is so stoned, Miss America couldn't interest him... I'm not the American Red Cross"); Lionel begged and asserted that Richard needed sex after 17 years solely with his wife; she still refused and astutely noted that most of her male clients had never grown up or matured: "Since when do men grow up? They just grow old! You know what I call this apartment sometimes, Boys Town"; Lionel deserted Richard, who then pretended to pass out when offered a trip to "paradise" with Dede in her bedroom; after she accused him of being a "goody-two-shoes" ("You're too good for me"), he admitted that he was a married "square" before she ushered him out

Richard's Attempt at Reconciliation with Barbara After Visiting Hooker

Barbara to Richard: "You are married to a sex maniac"
  • upon his return to Barbara, Richard brought champagne to romantically reconcile with her with the boys temporarily sent away, with jelly donuts and candlelight after their unattended steak caught fire; however, their rapprochement was brief when their discussion of sexual desires led Barbara to share her frank feelings: "You are married to a sex maniac"; she told him about sexual dreams she had about actors Marlon Brando or Anthony Quinn, but things turned instantly cold when Richard mentioned visiting Dede Murphy - Barbara turned serious: "Who's Dede Murphy?"; his confession that "nothing happened" was inconsequential to Barbara, who froze up and worried what would have happened to their reputation if he had died in the strange lady's apartment
  • when Richard tried to kiss her resistant lips, she insultingly told him: "Kiss me like a man, not a chipmunk!"; an argument recommenced - he argued that he had materially provided for her as a man and dutiful husband for all their married years, but she counter-argued that she was missing his feelings of tenderness, softness and gentleness: "I don't need things, I need you"
  • afterwards, when Richard moved out, their marriage really disintegrated, shredded and unraveled; Barbara was encouraged to talk to a lawyer and consider divorce by well-meaning friend Fern Blandsforth (Emmaline Henry), Lionel's wife! Barbara phoned lawyer David Grieff (Shelley Berman), who suggested 'divorce' and set up an office appointment the next morning; David urged Barbara, before meeting together, to visit her bank and empty out their joint bank account and safe deposit box
  • in a semi-humorous scene, while Richard (with Lionel) was emptying the safe deposit box in the bank's vault, Barbara (with Fern) was at the same bank's teller window clearing out their joint bank account; they caught each other in the act when they were told everything had already been cleaned out; split-second images alternated of the two pointing at and accusing each other; the estranged couple took decisive steps to seek lawyers and to file for divorce; the two boys noticed 'competition' between the two spouses for their allegiance, and the younger boy casually remarked: "A lot of kids at school come from broken's no big deal"
  • during a Sunday visit to a bowling alley with his two sons, Richard was coerced to make friends with newly-divorced Nelson Downes (Jason Robards), who instantly recognized that Richard was a divorcing father; Nelson introduced his two daughters Cynthia (Angel Pine) and Maggie (Carol Anne Seflinger) to Richard's two sons; he excused his prying questioning about Richard's finances to comparing scars before an operation, and explained how he could help with proven advice, since he had already gone through the messy divorce process (and was "cut up pretty badly" with alimony payments on his $32,000 a year salary)
  • the pushy Nelson - in a pimp-like role - took Richard to his home and urged the soon-to-be-divorced Richard to meet and get to know his former wife pretty brunette Nancy (Jean Simmons) after a divorce eight years earlier; knowing that she was being marketed to Richard, Nancy boasted: "I am a remarkable woman" - and she explained why she hadn't remarried due to economics: "I haven't found a man who could afford to care for us as well as Nelson's alimony"; it was clear that Nelson hoped Richard might marry Nancy post-divorce, so that his alimony payments would end and he could again have a degree of freedom and affluence; he was anxious to set up Nancy as soon as possible with a new ideal mate who could actually afford her financial obligations and lifestyle; Nancy agreed with Nelson's objectives: "I'd love to get him off the hook. I'd like to get off the hook myself. That's why I'm willing to meet the men he brings over. I'm lonely, Mr. Harmon"; Nelson, who limped with a torn cartilege in his left leg, explained how he couldn't afford $500 for a leg operation
  • during a hostile tug-of-war over possessions and money, Richard complained to Barbara's sleazy, easily-distracted lawyer David Grieff (with Barbara in attendance) about a proposed property settlement - a "right down the middle split" of property and how he was being given the "shaft" by receiving all the debts, including monthly payments for furnishings, insurance premiums, and the mortgage bills, while Barbara kept the house and furnishings (including color TV and piano) plus she received insurance benefits, child support, medical expenses, taxes -- and alimony!
  • it was calculated, in a devastating turn of events for Richard, that Barbara would receive alimony that consisted of much of Richard's yearly earnings of $25,000; the divorced Richard was financially stricken and left with only $87.30 a week to survive after alimony; a judge ruled that the calculations were just and final
  • meanwhile, Richard's accustomed lifestyle drastically changed; he moved into a motel room kitchenette - a small one-bedroom apartment, and was reduced to driving a broken-down VW; he lived off fast food (a McDonald's take-out order of a double cheeseburger, french fries and a Coke cost $.67 cents) - with over 2 Billion Served; Nancy noticed him eating in his car and asked about his dire circumstances; he summarized: "I got scalped, shot, electrocuted, and then I got killed"; it appeared to her that he might not be a very good match
  • now regarded as an "easy" divorcee, Barbara complained to her therapist about the trials of her post-divorce dating life; he encouraged her: "Somewhere out there is a another Mr. Right"
  • she went on a slightly awkward date with Farley (Tom Bosley), a three-time husband with multiple children from various marriages, who confusingly explained the connections between all his children and ex-wives; Farley drove with Barbara to pick up two kids at the home of his second ex-wife, while two other kids in his back seat were from his first marriage; there, the extended families and parents of divorce in three carloads tried to sort out the various two dozen multi-parented children - with confusing commentary provided by Farley as they prepared to leave for a picnic: ("I bought this house with my second wife when I was married; when she got married again, she decided to stay in it. My first wife is still in the house I bought her too.... The little girl with the security blanket, and the boy playing tetherball, they're mine, Melissa and Benji. The other boy, the one on the bike, he's from Ruth's first marriage. Ruth, that's my second wife. She was married once before me....Anyway, the other boy is from that marriage. And the little girl, the one who was on the swing, well, she's from her present marriage....") - Melissa, the little girl with the blanket, was overlooked and left behind by the scene's end, although one car returned to pick her up
  • meanwhile, Richard was dating Nancy, and during a house visit with her, Nelson barged in drunk and showed his displeasure and jealousy over their relationship; he ordered them to stop seeing each other, because he knew that it was unrealistic for her to fall in love with the $87.30 a week "pauper"; Richard decided to call off their relationship; after Richard left, the over-anxious Nelson explained how his pregnant fiancee Eunice Tase (Eileen Brennan in her film debut) from Bakersfield was pressing him for a wedding date
  • in a brilliant moment of inspiration, Nelson and Nancy conspired and plotted to change their strategy from setting Nancy up, to matching Barbara with an unmarried bachelor - it would be the most efficient way to get Richard and Nelson "off the hook"; while proposing various alternative guys for Barbara to date, they happened to be listening to a TV business advertisement for Car City - a used-car dealership; they decided to select "swinger" millionaire used car dealer Al Yearling (Van Johnson) for Barbara; the two described him as "simple, uncomplicated, gentle, kind and loaded" - someone Nancy had dated years earlier; they feared that he had been a Momma's boy, but now that his mother had died, he was "ready to live"
  • Al showed up at Barbara's door, offering her an executive car-convertible that she had purchased (actually, it had been purchased by Nancy to get them to meet); he mentioned his motto of trustworthiness to her: "I won't sell a car that I wouldn't put my mother in"; they dated for over a month, impressing her boys with his connections and wealth (free LA baseball and Hollywood Bowl tickets, for example)
  • with second thoughts about having called it quits with Nancy, Richard visited her late one night, and asked if they could take a "rain check" and give their relationship a second chance; they became engaged
  • in the climactic, turning point scene in Monty's restaurant the evening before the year-long Harmon divorce decree at midnight was to be finalized, the trio of fiancees (Nancy and Richard, Barbara and Al, and Nelson and Eunice) met together for drinks to celebrate the successful resolution of all their match-making plans
  • on stage as part of her entertainment show, "The Hip" hypnotist Pat Collins (as Herself) selected Barbara, Al and others from the audience and placed them in a trance; while being persuaded to do a freewheeling, exotic 'bumps and grinds' striptease, it was suggested to Barbara that she passionately kiss the one man that she truly loved in the audience; she bypassed an expectant Al and chose to kiss Richard, thereby rekindling their romance; the persistently desperate Nelson suggested that Big Al become interested in Nancy now that she was free
  • in the film's improbable and pseudo-happy ending, at their front door, Barbara and Richard decided to forgo the divorce and reconciled, realizing that marriage took hard work and that they might still resume some of their petty squabbles

Hypnotist Pat Collins (Herself)

Barbara After Performing Striptease Dance In a Trance

Barbara Kissing The Man She Truly Loved in Audience
  • in the epilogue, the Judge-conductor appeared again to conduct the musical score for the ending credits

Opening Credits: God-like Lawyer Conducting Arguments Between LA Married Couples

The Harmons - a Bickering Couple

Wordless Nightly Routine of the Harmons

Therapy Counselor Dr. Zenwinn (Martin Gabel)

Hooker Dede Murphy (Lee Grant)

Barbara's Sleazy Divorce Lawyer David Grieff (Shelley Berman)

Catching Each Other in the Act of Emptying Safe Deposit Box and Joint Bank Account

Richard Meeting Nelson in Bowling Alley

Nelson's Ex-Wife Nancy (Jean Simmons)

Nelson Trying to Set up Nancy with Richard

Richard Complaining About the Proposed Property Settlement - Leaving All Debts and Payments to Him, In Addition to Alimony

Hostile Divorce Negotiations

Barbara Dating Three-Time Husband Farley (Tom Bosley)

Richard Dating Nancy

TV Advertisement With Used Car Dealer Big Al Yearling (Van Johnson)

Barbara Meeting Big Al Yearling

Nancy with Richard

Barbara with Al

Nelson with Eunice

Reconciled - Barbara and Richard


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