Diary of Anne Frank, The (1959): George Stevens’ Oscar-Nominated Drama, Starring Shelley Winters and Millie Perkins

The Diary of Anne Frank, which was nominated for the 1959 Best Picture Oscar, represents director George Stevens at its most earnest and middlebrow.
Stevens’ somber approach might have been a combined result of the horrors he had experienced in his military service during WWII, and perhaps too much respect for the source material.
The Diary was first published as a memoir, then became the source of Broadway play, by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.  Since 1959, several docus, TV movies, and mini series have been made on the subject, trying to tell the story from different perspectives.

Stevens’ epic-length saga offers an intimate account of human survival and heroism, centering on the harrowing ordeal and brave behavior of eight Jews hiding in an attic in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam.

While the exteriors were shot in Amsterdam, the rest of the film was made on studio sets. William Mellor’s fluid camera work communicates the muted horror of the prohibitive confinement in a restricted space.

The film’s major flaw is the casting of the inexperienced Millie Perking in the role of Anne Frank since she is the center of the narrative and we experience the ordeal through her eyes. Perkins looks physically right but she doesn’t sound or act right. The part calls for an actress who could make the audience understand and feel the power of her emotional truth, her growing pains, her feelings as a young woman.

Critics at the time pointed out that Millie Perkins lacked the natural glow and exquisite expressiveness that Susan Strasberg (daughter of acting guru Lee Strasberg) had in the stage production. (Ironically, as a screen actress, Strasberg herself lacked those qualities).

The Van Daan couple represents the reality and humanness of the older people in the attic. Shelley Winters gives a flashy, Oscar-winning performance as the crude yet sad and human Mrs. Van Daan, mother of Peter (Richard Beymer).  Winters excels as a simple woman, limited by meager resources who can barely cope with the situation.  Later on, she goes to pieces when her greedy husband wants to sell her fur coat.

To achieve the realistic heft of Mrs. Van Daan, Shelley Winters put on 15 pounds before shooting began, and then as the story progresses and her nutrition drops, she took off 25 pounds.

Her weakling of a husband (Lou Jacobi) is irksomely sluggish and pathetically lax. Mr. Van Daan misses his comforts and food and in the end turns into a thief to fill his stomach.

Just before being arrested, Otto Frank observes: “For the past two years we lived in fear, now can live in hope.”

For her part, Anne expresses wishes that her diary will be found and read one day.

The epilogue, unmistakably trying to send an optimistic message, goes back to 1945, when Otto tells Miep and Kraler that after being released from the concentration camp he learned how Edith, Margot, the Van Daans, and Dussell perished. Though he always hoped that Anne had somehow survived, he then sadly reveals that while in Rotterdam, he met a woman who had been in Bergen-Belsen with Anne and she confirmed his daughter’s death.

Otto then glances at Anne’s diary and reads, “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

Stevens’ direction is painstakingly meticulous in attention to detail but overall it is too explicit and uninspired. For a while, he captures the illusion of action, tension, and suspense, despite the constriction of space. Through some exterior shots of the German police searching, and sounds, he conveys the feeling of unbearable confinement.

 

Oscar Nominations: 9

Picture, produced by George Stevens

Director: George Stevens

Supporting Actress: Shelley Winters

Supporting Actor: Ed Wynn

Cinematography (b/w): William C. Mellor

Art Direction-Set Decoration (b/w): Lyle R. Wheeler and George W. Davis; Walter M. Scott and Stuart A. Reiss

Costume Design (b/w): Charles LeMaire and Mary Wills

Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture: Alfred Newman

Oscar Awards: 3

Supporting Actress

Cinematography

Art Direction

Oscar Context

In 1959, William Wyler’s historical epic “Ben-Hur” swept most of the Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.

Narrative Structure: How the Plot Unfolds

The action spans two years, from July 1942 to July 1944, during which Anne (Millie Perkins) chronicles the restrictions placed upon Jews that drove the Franks into hiding over a spice factory. Sharing the Franks’ hiding place are the Van Daans (Lou Jacobi and Shelley Winters) and their teenage son, Peter (Richard Beymer).

Kraler, who works in the office below, and Miep, his assistant, have arranged the hideaway and warn the families that they must maintain strict silence during daylight hours while the workers are there.

On the first day, the minutes drag by in silence. After work, Kraler delivers food and a box for Anne, which contains beloved photos of movie stars and a blank diary. In the diary’s first pages, she describes the oppressive strangeness of not being able to go outside, or breathe fresh air.

As the months pass, Anne’s renewed energy is manifest in her interactions with with Peter, whose only attachment is to his cat, Moushie. Isolated from the world outside, Otto schools Anne and her sister, Margot (Diane Baker), as the sounds of sirens and bombers frequently fill the air.

Mrs. Van Daan passes the time by recounting fond memories of her youth and stroking her one remaining possession, the fur coat given to her by her father. The strain of confinement causes the Van Daans to argue and pits the strong-willed Anne against her mother, Edith Frank (Gusti Huber).

One day, Kraler brings a radio to the attic, providing the families with ears onto the world. Soon after, he asks them to take in another person, a Jewish dentist named Albert Dussell (Ed Wynn). When Van Daan complains that the addition will diminish their food supply, Dussell recounts the dire conditions outside, in which Jews are shipped to concentration camps. When Dussell confirms the disappearance of friends, the families’ hopes are dimmed. Anne, dreaming of seeing a friends in a concentration camp, wakes up screaming.

In October 1942, news comes of the Allied landing in Africa but the bombing of Amsterdam intensifies, fraying the refugees’ already ragged nerves.

During Hanukkah, Margot longingly recalls past celebrations and Anne produces little presents for everyone. When Van Daan abruptly announces that Peter must get rid of Moushie because he consumes too much food, Anne protests. Their argument is cut short when they hear a prowler break in the front door. The startled thief grabs a typewriter and flees.

A watchman notices the break-in and summons two police officers, who search the premises, shining their flashlights onto the bookcase that conceals the attic entrance. The families wait in terror until Moushie knocks a plate from the table and mews, reassuring the officers that the noise was caused by a cat. After they leave, Otto, hoping to foster faith and courage, leads everyone in a Hanukkah song.

In January 1944, Anne begins to attract Peter’s attention. When Miep brings the group a cake, Dussell and Van Daan bicker over the size of their portions and Van Daan asks Miep to sell Petronella’s fur coat so that he can buy cigarettes. After Kraler warns that one of his employees asked for a raise and implied that something strange is going on in the attic, Dussell says that it is just a matter of time before they are discovered. Anne, distraught, blames the adults for the war which has destroyed hope and ideals. When she storms out of the room, Peter follows and comforts her. Later, Anne confides her dreams of becoming a writer and Peter voices frustration about his inability to join the war effort.

In April 1944, the Franks watch helplessly as more Jews are marched through the streets. Tensions mount, and when Van Daan tries to steal some bread from the others, Edith denounces him and orders him to leave. As Dussell and Van Daan quarrel over food, the radio announces the Normandy invasion and Van Daan breaks into tears of shame. Heartened by the news, everyone apologizes for their harsh words, and Anne dreams of being back in school.

By July 1944, the invasion has bogged down and Kraler is hospitalized with ulcers. Upon hearing that the police have found the stolen typewriter, Anne writes that her diary provides her with a way to go on living after her death. After the Van Daans begin to quarrel once more, Peter declares that he cannot tolerate the situation and Anne soothes him by reminding him of the goodness of those who have helped them. Their conversation is interrupted by the sirens of an approaching police truck. As Anne and Peter bravely stand arm in arm, certain of their impending arrest, they passionately kiss. After a brief moment of bliss, reality sinks and the German police break down the  entrance to the hideout.

Cast

Millie Perkins as Anne Frank
Joseph Schildkraut as Otto Frank (reprising stage role)
Shelley Winters as Petronella Van Daan
Richard Beymer as Peter Van Daan
Gusti Huber as Edith Frank (reprising stage role)
Lou Jacobi as Hans Van Daan (reprising stage role)
Diane Baker as Margot Frank
Douglas Spencer as Kraler
Dodie Heath as Miep Gies
Ed Wynn as Albert Dussell

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