Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
For its next pre-1960 Blu-ray offering -- there have only been three or four -- Fox Home Entertainment turns to George Stevens' prestige picture The Diary of Anne Frank. The epic-length B&W picture 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 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 the long road show cut of The Diary of Anne Frank in a new HD transfer.
The Jewish Frank and Van Daan families evade the Nazis by hiding in a hidden loft over a small factory. Harry Kraler (Douglas Spencer) and his wife Miep (Dodie Heath) endeavor to keep them there for the duration of the German occupation. The confinement is an ordeal of clashing personalities, with youngsters Peter Van Daan (Richard Beymer) and the Frank girls Margot (Diane Baker) and Anne (Millie Perkins) forced to grow up in intimate surroundings. All live deprived of privacy and under the constant threat of arrest. Inspired by her strong and courageous father Otto (Joseph Schildkraut), Anne writes a diary to record her feelings.
So-called inspirational movies were easy to come by after WW2. Some are truly inspiring and others were hobbled by various kinds of messages. 1 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 personal level -- 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 confined mostly to a dull set yet never seems stagy or visually hampered. With shadows and vertical posts, cinematographer William Mellor breaks the 'scope screen up into 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 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 that a hopeful world still exists; 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 a fundamentally ethical man who chooses to hide the Franks at the risk of his own life. He makes it seem a natural choice.
A painful little triangle develops between the two Frank girls and the Van Daans' boy Peter. Richard Beymer is consistently interesting as the boy who makes a private life for himself in a situation with zero privacy. Our heroine Anne is at first rather petulant 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 her emotional entrapment even more acutely.
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. Little in their loft hiding place offers a visual distraction from the grim, static situation, yet Stevens keeps us interested in what's happening at all times. It's no small feat. Almost all of the views of the outside streets are POV's from the Franks' windows; Jack Cardiff filmed these in Holland and they blend smoothly with the Hollywood footage.
Some voices in 1959 asked if George Stevens' movie over-glamorized the story. Using movie stars and backing the drama with Alfred Newman's sensitive score was, to some, in questionable taste. This reviewer's opinion is that Stevens' film is remarkably sensitive, especially given when it was made.
Fox has done a good job bringing The Diary of Anne Frank to Blu-ray in their Studio Classics series. The B&W image is crisp and even throughout. George Stevens' characteristic long dissolves (some of them very emotionally affecting) are well-rendered; only in the higher resolution of Blu-ray can we detect the slight degradation of an optical generation. Along the way, a few shots are also of lesser quality -- these may have been damaged, or may be from recovered road show version elements.
This longer road show cut 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. 2
Counter to the trend of Blu-rays recycling older added value material (or excluding it altogether), Anne Frank on Blu-ray contains a stack of new extras. All have been produced with heavy input, if not outright direction, from George Stevens Jr., the film's associate producer, second unit director and a firm supporter of his father's legacy. This is good in that a deserving film and an underappreciated director are given an attractive showcase. But most everything is filtered through Jr.'s point of view. He's everywhere, providing the commentary and hosting all but a couple of the new extras. Most begin with similar introductions: "I am George Stevens Jr. ..." One extra is called A Son's Memories, which might as well be the subtitle for all. Already overexposed, Stevens Jr. takes center stage to read production correspondence, some of it from Otto Frank, in a reverent tone. He also narrates an impressive selection of vintage 16mm Kodchrome movies taken by George Sr. as he crossed France and Germany with the allied invasion forces. With the elder Stevens regarded solely in this worshipful light, there's little opportunity to approach him or his film from a balanced view.
Millie Perkins and Diane Baker appear in new interviews to discuss their experience (and sometimes "lack of") on the film. Perkins was a successful fashion model, and Baker an aspiring actress who attracted the interest of several studios. Shelley Winters appears in interview outtakes from George Stevens Jr.'s documentary on his father, mostly relating lessons learned from Stevens Senior that she's applied to her own theatrical teachings. Also new is a Fox Movie Channel piece with Tom Rothman on the film, that begins by assuring us that Anne Frank is one very important picture. It is, but after a while the overly reverent attitudes begin to accumulate. For the best objective docu on the Anne Frank story, I still recommend Jon Blair's thoughtful Remembering Anne Frank, a Sony disc from 2004.
The older extras are present as well. Echoes from the Past is an episode of History Through a Lens that compares the film to historical fact and is a good 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. The docu is honest enough to suggest that it's altogether possible that some details in Frank's diary might not all be true, that Anne may have misrepresented the older dentist she was forced to share her room with.
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, trailers and newsreels.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Diary of Anne Frank Blu-ray rates:
Supplements: see above
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 19, 2009
1. 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 Szabo's capture into a rousing action scene.
2. (Spoiler) In the shorter version, the Germans are heard smashing in the door to the hiding place. We drift past Peter and Anne through the skylight into the sky, with Anne's voiceover line declaring that people are good. The End. This longer road show version returns full circle to the wraparound flashback that started the movie, with Otto Frank returning to the attic after the war, to talk with Harry and Miep Kraler. 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." The shorter version never broaches the fact that Anne Frank did not survive the concentration camp.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson
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