Amsterdam, Tolerance, and George Stevens’ ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’

In September, I spent a month traveling Europe with my best friend. I’d never been to Europe. Heck, I’d never even been on a plane. Thus, this trip was a little frightening but also terribly, terribly exciting.

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My bestie and I in Dublin, Ireland

I thought that since it’s been a while since I’ve posted, it’d be fun to cover one movie for each of the places I visited. So, of course, I’m starting with the most depressing.

The first is Amsterdam. I was lucky enough a few years back to attend a screening of this film at the TCM Film Fest. Its stars Diane Baker and Millie Perkins were even in attendance to discuss the film afterwards. It’s a film which is not easy to forget. It was only made twenty years after and so, the events were still fresh. The film’s director, Mr. George Stevens, had seen the consequences of the holocaust firsthand.

I, myself, read the book when I was in middle school. I remember the overwhelming nature of the story – I was still in my phase of always wanting a happy ending. I knew before I read it that it did not end happily, but reading it was still a more emotional experience than I expected it to be. I was 13, just as Anne was at the beginning of her diary and it was hard for me to grasp that this wasn’t just a story, that this had really happened, that a girl not dissimilar from me had been murdered.

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Anne in the first class of Jewish Secondary school, 1941

I saw the movie afterwards and remember liking it, though when I saw it on the big screen at the TCM Fest, I was absorbed in a completely different way. The claustrophobia and anxiety was palpable and I was a mess (even through my mother constantly leaning over to ask me how much was left – she’s not good in long movies).

When I sat down to write, this was the first movie which popped into my head, mostly because with recent events like what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, I have been thinking about Anne’s diary and George Steven’s adaptation a lot. I think, more than ever before, this film and Anne’s outlook on the world is of the utmost importance.

Believe it or not, the actress that director George Stevens first had in mind to play Anne was not an unknown. Instead, it was a little actress by the name of Audrey Hepburn. At the time, Hepburn was twenty-eight, not to mention the fact that she was not Jewish. Hepburn had, however lived through that period in Amsterdam and witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust.

Still, either because of scheduling conflicts or mixed feelings, Hepburn turned down the part and Stevens was forced to do a large casting call where he finally found Millie Perkins, a model from Passaic, New Jersey. Perkins was twenty at the time and completely green, which I think ultimately, made her the perfect actress to play Anne. She was unassuming and tenacious, just like Anne, and she hit every dramatic beat perfectly.

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Love the B&W cinematography

Diane Baker was also a newcomer, playing Anne’s older sister, Margot. She brought a vulnerability and sweetness to the part and obviously, went on to do great things in movies like The Silence of the Lambs and many others.

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The main cast crowded into one photo

Shelley Winters was totally committed to her role of Mrs. Van Daan. She was asked by George Stevens to gain twenty-five pounds for the role. She said she’d gain fifty if necessary. She and Stevens had collaborated once before on A Place in the Sun and she had the utmost respect and confidence for him.

Someone who doesn’t get his due is Richard Beymer, who plays Anne’s love interest, Peter. Though Beymer maybe shouldn’t have been cast as Tony in West Side Story, his charm can’t be discarded. You can totally see why Anne falls for him.

My Amsterdam Experience (Visiting the Anne Frank House)

Amsterdam was my favorite place. I’m not sure if it was the great food, or the friendly people, or the gorgeous canals. Regardless, it was beautiful and fascinating city, even if they do make you press a button to get off the train at your stop (TBH the transportation was so confusing).

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The canals were gorgeous!

Having grown up hearing stories about the Holocaust in Hebrew school as well as reading the diary itself, I thought I was fairly knowledgable about the subject. Still, when the tour guide started taking us through the history, the gravity of the situation hit me. At many points leading up to the Holocaust, many people, including the Franks thought it impossible. No one could imagine such horror would actually take place, that people would give in to hatred and bigotry.

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Anne and Otto Frank

Walking through the Anne Frank house itself was different than what I expected. It was a lot smaller than I imagined it to be, especially Anne and Margot’s room. There was newspaper clippings, all over the walls, movie stars they liked. Funnily enough, there were quite a few photos of Deanna Durbin.

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This, for some reason, got me the most. 

It was an emotional experience, but an important one. Whether or not Anne’s diary was given some help by her father after his death or not, the feelings behind it, what her diary represented is what matters. In such a cynical time, Anne’s optimistic view of humanity is vital.

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The first page of Anne’s diary

Living in a country where we, the people elected Donald Trump doesn’t feel a step in the direction of tolerance. Still, I can either be cynical and rant about how it feels like the world is ending or I can do my part: pay attention, speak out against injustices, promote tolerance, and try my hardest to see the good in people.

This film may not be cheerful, but it’s poignancy can’t be denied. George Stevens was known for his comedic sensibility. He directed Swing Time, the best Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film IMHO, and a string of great screwball comedies like Woman of the Year and The More the Merrier. However, when after he came back from being part of a film unit which documented the war, he didn’t make comedies anymore. Instead, he chose to direct important dramas like A Place in the Sun and Giant.

While there have been other adaptations of Anne’s diary, Stevens’ is IMHO the best. I’ve spoken before on this blog about our inability to grasp events that happened before we were born. It’s one of the reasons film is such a powerful medium. We can watch The Diary of Anne Frank and gain a new perspective; understand that these events did take place and that we all need to do our part to make sure they never happen again.

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I love this quote. Words matter. 

Photos property of Twentieth Century Fox.

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The Weight of ‘A Place in the Sun’

I didn’t always like A Place in the Sun. In fact, I pretty adamantly hated it. I still remember the first time I saw it. I turned to my dad after the film ended and said, “That’s it?” He nodded, “Yep, that’s it.” I was LIVID. What was the point?

I felt like the time I had put in to watching the film was a waste. I was young, maybe twelve or so. I think, at that point, I still believed that every story needed to have a happy ending. Since A Place in the Sun did not, I dismissed it. It wasn’t until a few years after that when I decided to watch the film again, that I realized everything I had been missing.

A Place in the Sun, made in 1951, follows George Eastman (Montgomery Clift), a poor young man who moves to the big city just looking for a job. His uncle gives him a job at his factory. There, George meets and starts a relationship with Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters), a quiet young woman who works at the factory. Feeling obligated, George’s uncle invites George to a party at his house. There, everything changes because he meets Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor), a gorgeous, young socialite. They quickly fall in love. Only problem is Alice becomes pregnant. Let’s just say DRAMA ENSUES.

Since TCM is honoring Montgomery Clift this month, I decided this would be a perfect time to discuss this film and my introduction to him as an actor. I’ve spoken about him on this blog before, when I discussed The Heiress. He made that film a few years earlier, in 1949.

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Just look at that boyish smile…

If you’ve never seen the film, here are just a few reasons A Place in the Sun still affects me:

The Cast

I don’t think there have ever been two parts more perfectly cast than George Eastman and Angela Vickers. Elizabeth Taylor was a child star, known for the Lassie films and National Velvet. She credited Clift with teaching her what acting was, for he, of course, was one of the first method actors. Their chemistry is palpable and really is the major reason the film works. Both of them seem so genuinely in love with each other. Taylor was in love with Clift, even though he was gay. Their friendship is legendary and Taylor was fierce about protecting Clift.

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That dress though…#FashionGoals

Shelley Winters had the unfortunate circumstance of being cast as Alice Tripp, aka the only thing that stands in the way of George and Angela’s great love. The audience feels contentious towards her which she doesn’t deserve. Funnily enough, I found in my research that she campaigned for the part and only got it when she agreed to play the part sans makeup with an unflattering hairstyle.

Looking back at it, Winters playing her part so well is a huge reason the film works. She’s not evil, but she certainly can manipulate and is fierce about staking her claim on George. She has a way of making her human, complex, more than one thing – the mark of a great performance!

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Isn’t this just heartbreaking? 

The Direction

I’ve already discussed a George Stevens movie already on this blog, although it was very different tonally. The More the Merrier was a light screwball comedy. As I discussed in that post, Stevens was changed after witnessing the horrors of World War 2. He didn’t see the point in making comedies anymore – he wanted to make films that meant something.

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George Stevens on set with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift

Stevens was meticulous and precise. He spent two years making A Place in the Sun. Years later, Shelley Winters recalled working with Stevens in her autobiography, saying, “He was the greatest director I’ve ever worked for. He made me understand that acting, especially film acting, is not emotion, but thinking. He had been a famous cameraman since the Keystone Kops days, and he showed me how the camera photographs your thoughts and sometimes your soul.” (Shelley Winters).

Stevens won an Academy Award for his direction of the film, but lost out on Best Picture to An American in Paris.

The Score

Franz Waxman won an Academy Award for composing the score of A Place in the Sun and it was well deserved. It’s melancholy and full of jazzy emotion. Don’t believe me: just take a listen!

The Screenplay

The screenplay was written by Michael Wilson and Harry Brown, but was adapted from a novel called An American Tragedy which was written by Theodore Dreiser. Dreiser based his novel on a real trial from 1906. A young woman’s body was found in a lake, having been overturned by a boat. The man she was with stood trial for killing her, even though he insisted she committed suicide. He was executed by electric chair in 1908.

The novel had already been adapted for the screen once in 1931 when it was directed Josef von Sternberg. Apparently, Dreiser did not like how it was adapted. Wilson and Brown treated the story with delicacy. The film was revolutionary in that it dealt with complex human beings. The characters weren’t simply the good guy or the bad guy. They were shades of grey. This is especially true with Clift’s character. We go through everything with him and so, at the end, when he’s pleading for his life, we don’t know how to feel.

Michael Wilson and Harry Brown won the Academy Award that year for Best Screenplay.

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Awwww. 

The Legendary Friendship

Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift met on this film and became lifelong friends. They both give wonderful performances and obviously brought out the best in one another. A few years back, before Elizabeth Taylor passed away, TCM made a tribute video for Clift narrated by Taylor. It’s a great view into their relationship.

Critical Reception

Charlie Chaplin went to an advanced screening of the film in Hollywood and told director George Stevens that “This is the greatest movie ever made about America.” Only, now, looking back on it, do I understand what he meant. It certainly made an impression on me. I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen at The TCM Film Festival a few years back, just after Elizabeth Taylor passed away.

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I’m not crying. YOU’RE CRYING.

It’s a powerful film and one that takes maturity to appreciate. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll wish you could go back in time and steal all of Elizabeth Taylor’s outfits. I sure did.

Vintage trailer is below: