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Most people are familiar with The Diary of Anne Frank, a chronicle of the courageous Jewish teenager who was living in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation. Her story came to a tragic end in August 1944 when she and her family were found by Gestapo troops in their attic hiding spot. Anne herself would perish nine months later in a concentration camp, and her father Otto fought valiantly to ensure that her memory would be preserved through the publishing of her diary. He succeeded in 1947; the book would go on to be translated in 67 languages and achieve even greater fame when the stage version of the story opened on Broadway in 1955. Two years later, 20th Century Fox hired director George Stevens to bring the story to the film screen. One of the great American film directors, Stevens began his career with slapstick comedies, but soon graduated on to masterful works like Gunga Din (1939), I Remember Mama (1948), and Shane (1953).
Stevens began the project by asking Shelley Winters to accompany him to the stage version in New York. The pair had worked magic in A Place in the Sun (1951), earning a Best Director Oscar® for him and a Best Actress nomination for her. For The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), Stevens asked Winters to play the role of Mrs. Van Daan, a character twenty years older than the actress who was thirty at the time. In the autobiography Shelley Winters: The Middle of My Century, she recalls: "Smiling through tears, I again said to him what I'd said when he'd asked me to test for A Place in the Sun: `Mr Stevens, if you give me that role, you can photograph me any way you want to.' He said, `Shelley, will you gain twenty-five pounds to play it?' `Fifty, if necessary,' I answered." Winters would in fact gain thirty pounds in preparation for the role, and lose twenty-five during production, a testament to Steven's insistence upon the utmost realism in portraying the desperate circumstances of that time.
With Winters cast, Stevens turned his attention to the role of Anne. Susan Strasberg, daughter of famed acting coach Lee Strasberg, had been playing the role on Broadway for over two years. Stevens, however, did not have her in mind for the film version: his sights were set on Audrey Hepburn. The notion of a twenty-eight year old woman playing a thirteen-year old girl did not dissuade him, but Hepburn turned down the role due to a scheduling conflict. It was widely rumored, however, that she rejected the part as too traumatic because of her own wartime experiences in the Netherlands. So a nation-wide casting call began and ended with the hiring of Millie Perkins, a seventeen-year old model from Passaic, New Jersey. Character actor Joseph Schildkraut was cast as Anne's father, Otto, a role he created in the stage version. (Schildkraut and Stevens would successfully collaborate again in The Greatest Story Ever Told a few years later, 1965.) Richard Beymer, best known as Tony from West Side Story (1961), won the role of Peter Van Daan, Winters' screen son.
Stevens had an extraordinary resource to bring to the table for The Diary of Anne Frank: during the war, he had served in a Special Services unit that photographed and filmed Nazi concentration camps. In order to inspire the appropriate levels of emotion during shooting, Stevens had a viewing of the camp footage for his cast. Furthermore, he insisted upon realistic environmental conditions; Winters recalls in her memoir, "George Stevens made the set so real that it was almost unbearable. He would turn the heat up in August if we had to swelter. He would turn the air conditioning on if we were doing a winter scene and we would all sneeze and freeze." Despite the mental and physical prompts, Stevens still had trouble securing the desired reactions from his actors at times. To counter these moments, Winters explained, "He had recorded a tape for each actor of the sounds and music that affected him most powerfully in various emotions. He would play the tape sometimes right through an actor's dialogue, and then edit the music out in the cutting room." Stevens used music to not only create powerful emotions, but also to dissipate them: after particularly stressful scenes, he would break the tension by blasting the pop novelty song "The Purple People Eater" on the set (it was a top forty hit at the time).
The production was located on Fox's largest soundstage to accommodate the film crew and equipment. In addition, the studio had a mandate in effect that all shoots were to be filmed using the recently patented CinemaScope system. While the process worked wonderfully for majestic landscape and epic scenery, it was decidedly not the best way to film a cramped attic space. Stevens sniffed, "It's fine if you want a system that shows a boa constrictor to better advantage to a man." After much consideration and a few days of stalled production, Stevens solved the problem by having vertical beams installed on the set, ostensibly to represent roof supports. The visual created was that of a more confined space, more appropriate to the annex proportions. Ever the perfectionist, Stevens was having trouble securing a camera angle that would travel three stories from the bottom floor up to the attic level. After encountering delays by studio heads to accommodate his request, Stevens took matters into his own hands and simply dynamited a hole in the stage. He had, after all, been schooled in blasting techniques during his army service. According to Winters, she "resolved then and there never to cross him."
Explosions aside, the rest of the shoot was comparatively calm. The heavy content of the material, however, did have a lasting impact on the cast, and a mid-shoot visit to the set by Otto Frank himself was particularly emotional for Winters. During a conversation together, the actress pledged that if she should win an Oscar for her work in the film, she would donate it to the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam. The 1959 Best Supporting Actress Academy Award is housed there today.
Producer/Director: George Stevens
Screenplay: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett
Cinematography: William C. Mellor
Film Editing: David Bretherton, William Mace, Robert Swink
Art Direction: George W. Davis, Lyle R. Wheeler
Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: Millie Perkins (Anne Frank), Joseph Schildkraut (Otto Frank), Shelley Winters (Mrs. Petronella Van Daan), Richard Beymer (Peter Van Daan), Gusti Huber (Mrs. Edith Frank), Lou Jacobi (Mr. Hans Van Daan).
by Eleanor Quin