By Barb Arland-Fye
Sometimes before bed, I indulge in a guilty pleasure by tuning in to Turner Classic Movies. It happened again Sunday night with the showing of the 1967 comedy “Divorce American Style” starring two of my favorite actors from childhood, Debbie Reynolds and Dick Van Dyke.
The impact of divorce on couples and families is devastating and I wondered how a comedy would treat this difficult subject. Full disclosure: the movie was already in progress when I turned it on, but it didn’t take long to figure out the plot and the story’s trajectory.
One scene depicted utter chaos when divorced parents with children from multiple marriages gathered at a park. As kids darted around the park chasing each other, the befuddled parents tried to remember whose kids belonged to whom. The scene was hilarious, but ended with a little girl alone in the park and dragging her blanket behind her after all the parents had left. She had been forgotten. After a few minutes a car screeched up to the curb and a parent scooped up the child and put her in the back seat.
The parents blithely accepted the confusion borne of alternating spouses, separate households and custody rights. They didn’t express the anguish that families experience in real life when marriages break up. Well, maybe Debbie and Dick did, but they were awfully preoccupied nursing the wounds to their pride that occurred with their break-up.
Their two sons, one appeared to be about 17 and the other around 11, remained cheerful. They probably figured their parents would get back together but the boys didn’t seem overly concerned about possible outcomes.
Debbie and Dick do reconcile, but not because they’ve worked out the communication problems in their marriage. They are still romantically attached to one another, but that’s not enough to sustain a lifelong commitment to marriage. The minute they enter the threshold of their home after making up, they start arguing over a petty issue involving a lost-but-found key. Dick slams the door and the boys in an upstairs bedroom smile knowingly.
The ending left me disappointed.
If I had been the screenwriter, I’d fast-forward 48 years and interject a scene with Pope Francis counseling Debbie and Dick in a private papal audience. Yes, it sounds far-fetched, but it’s my vision of the movie. I’d borrow an excerpt from the Holy Father’s encyclical “Laudato Si” which speaks so eloquently of relationships. The one I’d choose doesn’t specifically relate to marriage, but it certainly seems to apply:
“We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others in the world, and that being good and decent are worth it. We have enough of immorality and the mockery of ethics, goodness, faith and honesty. It is time to acknowledge that light-hearted superficiality has done us no good … Saint Theresa of Lisieux invites us to practice the little way of love, not miss out on a kind word, a smile or any small gesture which sows peace and friendship (nos. 229, 230).”
Doesn’t that sound like the perfect ending? Wouldn’t it be great to see Debbie and Dick contemplating these words and living them out? One small thing, though. I need to change the movie’s title.
(Barb Arland-Fye can be reached at arland-fye@davenportdiocese.