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The Diary of Anne Frank does what it sets out to do: Find values and hope in a tragic true tale of survival, the unhappy outcome of which we already know going in. George Stevens' previous film Giant was an epic that sprawled across three generations but this intimate story takes place mostly in the same three or four rooms. It is Stevens' last great picture, the one where his personal commitment to ethics and higher human values found their best expression.
Fox's DVD presents Anne Frank in its long roadshow cut, in a new transfer.
So-called inspirational movies were easy to come by after WW2. Some were truly inspiring and others were hobbled by various kinds of messages. 2 The Diary of Anne Frank sticks to the basic facts of the Dutch Jews in hiding and doesn't overload them with political speeches about freedom or the evils of Nazi totalitarianism. The effect of 'politics' on these WW2 refugees is much more powerful when kept at the level of the personal feelings of those who experienced it - the characters here aren't forced to represent anything larger than their own selves. Anne Frank's heartbreaking diary communicates the feelings of an individual child's hopes and fears, all crushed under powerful forces that can't be opposed. The courage of these people is inspiring, especially now when heroism in entertainment is presented almost exclusively through action and conflict.
The film is a remarkable achievement. It's confined almost exclusively to a dull set yet never seems stagey or visually hampered. With shadows and vertical posts, cinematographer William Mellor breaks the 'scope screen up into more manageable spaces. Stevens' ensemble of actors meshes perfectly. 'Big' personality Shelley Winters, known for sometimes overacting, delivers with thoughtful restraint. Comedian Ed Wynn had done dramatic roles previously but his wonderfully nuanced suspicious old man makes us wish he'd gone legit years before. Joseph Schildkraut and Gusti Huber (from the original play) are the understanding parents who must deal with little family matters while suffering under the constant threat of doom. Lou Jacobi is a good but temptable man too cynical for his own comfort.
I've often heard the film described as exemplifying charity. I think it does a fine job showing what basic human decency is. Anne Frank persists in believing that people are good, an amazing conclusion given her experience; most stories with this kind of subject material must by necessity concentrate on evil deeds, with the usual result that we distrust people more than ever.
The strongest scenes deal with the poignant and tragic situation of a girl afraid to hope for a future, living under circumstances where her love can't develop. A patch of sky glimpsed from a shattered skylight is the only proof of a hopeful world still out there; everything else is blind faith supplied by Anne herself. Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (It's a Wonderful Life) created vivid characters for the play, interesting in their very ordinariness. They're observed and developed but not judged. Characters that would be secondary in other dramatizations are richly drawn here. Douglas Spencer (The Thing from Another World) plays an incredibly noble and ethical man who chooses to hide the Franks at the risk of his own life, and makes it seem a natural choice.
There's a painful little triangle that develops between the two Frank girls and the Van Daan's boy Peter. Richard Beymer is consistently interesting as the boy who has to make some kind of private life for himself in a situation with zero privacy. Our heroine Anne is actually rather petulant at first when her sister Margot and Peter make eyes at one another. The reserved Margot graciously accepts what happens with grace and humility. Diane Baker has what might be an even harder part than that of star Millie Perkins. Her Margot passively 'behaves,' yet we sense the entrapment of emotion in her as well.
The Diary of Anne Frank is a tough directorial challenge that George Stevens handles beautifully. How does one shoot a three-hour movie when 'attractive cinematography' is the last thing that's wanted? The film has few opportunities for action or even cutaways to other locations. Scenes must be played with most of the characters on screen or the feeling of confinement would be lost. There's little that's decorative or of interest in their loft hiding place to distract from the grim, static situation, yet Stevens keeps us interested in what's happening on screen at all times. It's no small feat. Almost all of the views of the outside streets are POV's from the Franks' windows; these were shot in Holland by Jack Cardiff and blend smoothly with the Hollywood footage.
This is a longer roadshow cut and includes lengthy Alfred Newman overture and exit music over black. I'm told that the original roadshow had an intermission right after the chanukah song, with entr'acte music that played over a shot of a curtain, but none is represented on this disc. This longer cut has a different ending, which I'll detail in a (spoiler) footnote. 1
Fox has done a good job bringing The Diary of Anne Frank to DVD in their Studio Classics series. The B&W image is crisp and even throughout, and George Stevens' characteristic long dissolves (some of them very emotionally affecting) are well-rendered. On the box, the audio is said to come in English, French and Spanish mono, but the only track on the disc is the English. There are subs in English and Spanish.
It's a flipper disc with extras on the unmarked B side. The docu Echoes from the Past is an episode of History Through a Lens that compares the film to historical fact and will be an excellent follow-up piece for curious viewers. Burt Reynolds narrates, Anne Frank's real cousin is interviewed, and we see the real Otto Frank in stills on the set of the movie, assuring himself that his daughter's story is in good hands. We learn how the diary became a popular book (1952) and a Pulitzer Prize winning theater play (1955) starring Susan Strasberg. Millie Perkins and Shelley Winters are interviewed as well. The docu is honest enough to suggest that it's altogether possible that the details in Frank's diary might not all be true, especially the part about the older dentist she has to share her room with. The docu was produced, written and directed by Frankie Glass.
Also included is an excerpt from the 1983 film George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey relating to the picture, Millie Perkins' screen test, a still gallery, two trailers, a restoration demo and six different newsreels publicizing various events in production, premieres, etc.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Diary of Anne Frank rates:
1. (Spoiler) In the shorter version, the
Germans smash in the door to the hiding place and we look past Peter and Anne through the skylight into the sky, with
Anne's voiceover line declaring that people are good. The End. In this longer roadshow, we return full
circle to the
wraparound flashback that started the movie, with
Otto Frank in the attic after the war. He talks with Harry and Miep Kraler and we learn how Otto was the only survivor.
The scene may seem unnecessary, but it does have a choker finale. We hear Anne's voiceover line again. Otto, whose
courage and example was the source of Anne's inspiration, says "She puts me to shame."
2. The 1958 Carve Her Name With Pride is by comparison a thrilling and inspirational
telling of the story of Violette Szabo, an Englishwoman who became a spy and was caught by the Nazis in France. Not
content with the facts, the movie stretches the truth to make her capture into a rousing action scene.