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The following written acknowledgment occurs midway through the opening credits: "The filming of scenes at the house where Anne Frank wrote her diary was made possible through the cooperation of the City of Amsterdam." As depicted in the film, Anne Frank was living in Amsterdam when, on her thirteenth birthday, June 12, 1942, she was given a diary. When the Franks learned that due to anti-Jewish decrees put into effect by the occupying Nazi army, their daughter Margot was to be sent away, they went into hiding on July 6, 1942, taking refuge at a spice factory located at 263 Prinsengracht St. Until they were captured by the Nazis on August 4, 1944, Anne, an aspiring journalist, wrote about her life in her "secret annex." As she completed each book, the Franks's friends would replenish it with fresh diaries. In March 1944, Anne heard over the radio that the Dutch government wanted people to save their wartime diaries for publication after the war and decided to rewrite her diary entries as a novel, giving pseudonyms to the seven other residents of the annex and to the people who helped them. When the Nazis raided the annex on August 4, 1944, the family left the diaries behind. After the Franks and their friends were captured, Miep Gies and the other secretaries in the factory collected the diaries and hid them. Anne's father Otto was the only member of his family to survive the camps. One month before liberation, Anne died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen.
After the war, Miep gave Anne's diaries to Otto, who decided to publish them to honor his daughter's wish of becoming a writer. In June 1947, a Dutch firm published an expurgated version of her work, titled Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, in which nearly thirty percent of the original work was omitted, either by Otto himself or the publishing house. After his death in 1980, Otto bequeathed the diaries to The Netherlands Institute for War Documentation (RIOD), which performed document dating and tested Anne's handwriting to assure their authenticity. In 1986, RIOD published a complete edition of the diaries under the title of The Diary of Anne Frank: the Critical Edition. This book included the parts omitted from the 1947 version as well as historical background and facts surrounding Anne's life. According to a 1963 New York Times news item, Karl Silberbauer, the Nazi officer who arrested Anne Frank, was himself arrested and sentenced to prison for the mass murder of Dutch Jews during World War II.
A play based on Anne's diary written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett opened in New York and ran for 717 performances. According to an October 1955 Daily Variety news item, Garson Kanin, who directed the Broadway production of the play, and Milton Sperling of Warner Bros. also bid on the film rights to the diary, but were outbid by Buddy Adler from Twentieth-Century Fox. An October 1956 Hollywood Reporter news item states that Fox was negotiating with William Wyler to direct. Stevens was signed to produce and direct in February 1957, according to a Hollywood Reporter news item. Materials contained in the George Stevens Collection at the AMPAS Library reported that Stevens did not want to film The Diary of Anne Frank in CinemaScope, because he feared that the wide-screen process would undermine the feeling of claustrophobia he needed to create. When Spyros Skouras, the head of the studio, insisted that he use the wide-screen process, Stevens and cinematographer William Mellor decided to restrict space by confining action to the center of the screen. Mellor also devised a lighting system that utilized fluorescent tubes, filters and gauze to create a more natural room-like light rather than using high-intensity studio lighting, according to an American Cinematographer article.
An exact replica of the spice factory was built on the lot at Twentieth-Century Fox, with three of the four rooms constructed one on top of the other, precisely as they were at the factory, according to American Cinematographer. Exteriors were filmed at Prinsengracht St. in Amsterdam and the surrounding neighborhood, according to studio publicity materials contained at the AMPAS Library. According to the Stevens Papers, a campaign was launched to find a "new face" for the part of "Anne." Talent scouts traveled to Amsterdam and drama schools in Israel, and stories of the search were printed throughout Europe. A December 1957 Hollywood Reporter news item noted that 2,000 teenage girls were interviewed. Among those were Karin Wolfe, Oshra El Kayam, Janet Margolin and Tuesday Weld, according to the Stevens Papers.
Although a 1959 New York Times news item states that Audrey Hepburn was offered the part, her name does not appear in the Stevens Papers, and in fact, the only actress besides Millie Perkins that Stevens seriously considered was Marianne Sarstadt. In a cast and crew list contained in the papers, Nina Foch is listed as "Miep." Maureen Stapleton was considered for the role of "Mrs. Van Daan," and Richard Trask, Eric Berne and Joseph Yardin were discussed for the role of "Peter," according the Stevens papers. Joseph Schildkraut, Gusti Huber and Lou Jacobi reprised their stage roles for the film. The Diary of Anne Frank marked the screen debut of Millie Perkins.
In December 1957, prior to the film's release, writer Meyer Levin sued playwrights Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett for $1,500,000, claiming that they had stolen his idea of turning the diary into a play and adapting it to the stage. The suit was thrown out of court. The film's premiere on March 18, 1959 was a benefit for the American Association for the United Nations, Inc.
During the film's initial release, showings included opening and exit music, and an intermission, resulting in a nearly three-hour running time. According to modern sources, poor box office returns prompted Twentieth Century-Fox to trim about twenty minutes for the film. When the picture was broadcast later on television, it was shown in an abridged format that included a truncated ending that dissolved from the sounds of the German soldiers breaking into the hideout to seagulls flying in the sky. Over this footage, Perkins, as Anne is heard in voice-over reciting the famous line, "In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart." In the late 1990s, the film's widescreen format and full length were restored so that on its DVD release, the original ending, in which Otto states his awe over Anne's unflagging optimism, closes the film.
The Diary of Anne Frank won an Academy Award for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration and Best Cinematography, and Shelley Winters won for Best Supporting Actress. The film also was nominated for the following Academy Awards: Best Costume Design,Best Director, Best Picture, Best Music and Scoring and Ed Wynn was nominated as Best Supporting Actor.
On May 23, 1962, NTS, a Dutch television network, broadcast a Dutch version of the play, directed by Willy Van Herner and starring Rob de Vries and Martine Crefcouer. Among the several American television versions was the November 29, 1967 ABC broadcast, directed by Alex Segal and starring Max Von Sydow, Lilli Palmer and Theodore Bikel, and a 1980 NBC movie, directed by Boris Sagal and starring Maxmillian Schell, Joan Plowright and Melissa Gilbert. On December 4, 1997, a new theatrical version of The Diary of Anne Frank, adapted by Wendy Kesselman, opened on Broadway. It was directed
by James Lapine and starred Natalie Portman.