One of the enduring impressions of Anne Frank’s diary, published and read by millions as The Diary Of A Young Girl, is that beyond the desperation and suffering of her 25 months in hiding, she was still just a girl—vivacious, emotional, and more than a little self-involved, even while revealing great depths of compassion. So it makes sense that director George Stevens, when winnowing through thousands of unknowns in casting the title role of 1959’s The Diary Of Anne Frank, would look for an actress with a measure of pluck. How else to explain the shocking miscasting of Millie Perkins, a 20-year-old Audrey Hepburn lookalike with no acting experience and the perpetual verve of a Broadway ingénue looking for her big break? Never does she project the courage, frailty, or plainspoken depth suggested by Frank’s writing, and the leaden earnestness of George’s direction does Perkins and the film no favors.
Opening, as many bloated three-hour prestige pictures of the period did, with a dreary pre-title overture, The Diary Of Anne Frank tries with limited success to open up Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett’s stage play for the big screen. With access to the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam for exteriors and scrupulously recreated interiors shot on a Hollywood soundstage, Stevens gets the look right, but the sense of confinement and claustrophobia never quite settles in. For over two years, eight Jews—Anne and her family (Joseph Schildkraut, it should be noted, is superb as the father), the Van Daans, and a middle-aged bachelor named Mr. Dussell—occupied the attic space above a spice factory, before finally being discovered by the Germans. All were sent to concentration camps; only Anne’s father survived.
It says a lot about The Diary Of Anne Frank that the original ending, which found Anne at Bergen-Belsen, tested poorly with audiences, so Stevens cuts instead to a shot of seagulls in the sky and a hunk of narration not taken from the book. At the time—and now, too—the Holocaust was never an easy subject to tackle tastefully on film, and Stevens’ timidity shows during the long stretches when stagy melodrama overwhelms the grim reality of the situation. (Just being stuck with Shelley Winters’ wild-eyed, screeching Mrs. Van Daan for that long would cause anyone to fall into crushing despair.) With the exception of one suspenseful sequence where they’re nearly caught—credit due to Jack Cardiff’s chiaroscuro lighting—there’s very little tension and no tactile feeling for the physical and psychological toll of spending that much time in fearful confinement. It’s Oscar bait at its most labored and bellicose.
Key features: A bevy of extras, most courtesy of George Stevens, Jr., the director’s son, who served as Associate Producer and Second Unit Director. He and Perkins contribute a fact-filled commentary track, and he’s at the center of 90-minute slew of dull featurettes about the making of the movie, his father’s involvement in WWII, Shelley Winters, and other angles. There’s also Perkins’ original screen test, which is less an audition than a semi-colorful anecdote.