The Second World War changed men in different ways, and the war made director George Stevens more pretentious. There was always something of a heaviness in his work, but at least in his three best comedies, Swing Time (1936), The Talk of the Town (1942) and The More the Merrier (1943), this was held in check. On the other hand, Gunga Din (1939) is livelier than anything else in the Stevens canon—an impression probably indebted more than we know to the second-unit or assistant director(s) who handled the action sequences. Offsetting this, Penny Serenade (1941) is one pre-war Stevens that’s just about as (drearily) heavy as postwar Stevens.
After the war Stevens made big, lumbering movies: A Place in the Sun (1951), Shane (1953), Giant (1956), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). Film critic Andrew Sarris once remarked that, whereas Stevens had been a minor director with major virtues, he became a major director with minor virtues. A Place in the Sun, for which Stevens won the first of two Oscars, is a lovely Scott Fitzgerald-type romance, luminously played by young Elizabeth Taylor; but what on earth does it have to do with Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, from which it derives, whose Leftist sociopolitical critique accumulates from the novel’s massive detail?—a formal achievement to which the application of Stevens’s poignant dissolves makes no sense. Michael Wilson at least penned the screenplay with something of Dreiser in mind and was, soon after, blacklisted; it wasn’t possible for Dreiser’s novel to come to American screens in any authentic way in 1951.
A Place in the Sun gave Stevens his place in the sun. Thereafter, he knew what kind of movies he wanted to make. The big kind, with dashes of romance and considerable self-importance. In 1958 Stevens embarked on a film of The Diary of Anne Frank, adapted by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett from their hit play—this, the excellent team who had penned the movies The Thin Man (W. S. Van Dyke, 1934), After the Thin Man (Van Dyke, 1936) and Father of the Bride (Vincente Minnelli, 1950). Against all odds, I guess, I like the film. It remains one of the most genuinely suspenseful Hollywood films I’ve seen—this, despite the fact that we know from the start how badly (for the characters) it will turn out. The writers, Stevens and his crew use this, actually, so that the pulse of the film is kept by our imaginative desire to, one, postpone the eventual tragedy and, two, wish it away, as though history ever listens to our hearts. The film is also incredibly funny, thanks to a heartstoppingly funny performance by Ed Wynn that somehow manages not to break the grave, melancholy mood. One assumes that Stevens must also have had a hand in this, as certainly do his brilliant cutters: David Bretherton (who would win an Oscar for Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, 1972), William Mace and Robert Swink.
Many have criticized the film for having nothing to do with Anna Franck and her actual diary, despite snippets of the diary, as character voiceover, on the soundtrack. Indeed, the film’s Anne Frank is nothing like the diary’s Anna Franck. Anna was 13 years old in 1942, when she, her family and another family began their ordeal of hiding from the Nazis, in Amsterdam, in cramped two-floor quarters above a sympathetic Christian couple’s spice business. Twenty, the actress playing her here, Millie Perkins, can’t pass for a young teenager and, for that matter, doesn’t look Jewish—a puzzlement, since her father and mother do. (None of the young people look Jewish; all the older ones do.) Moreover, although there’s much in the script about how trying an adolescent Anne is, we really don’t see this; she is smooth as linen, if not silk, compared to the thorny, opinionated girl we grow to love in the book, where she is a recognizable teen, here, there, shrewd and compassionate, not a sentimentalized pet. Overall, the particularity of Anna Franck has been almost totally lost. This is typically Stevens, who, instead of pursuing a generalization through particulars, prefers to portray the generalization head-on. Anne Frank now is Innocence, and Stevens will take his time to show the shattering of this innocence and, through the survival of her diary, its indomitableness. Some may feel he is therefore reducing Anna Franck. However, I assure you that Stevens, the Steven Spielberg of his day, felt that he was magnifying her, and in the film’s numerous silences one can almost hear him self-congratulatorily chortling. (It is the same ploy that Spielberg uses with the girl in the red coat, Roma Ligocka, in Schindler’s List, 1993.)
You’ve heard of “Hamlet without the Prince”; well, Stevens gives us The Diary of Anne Frank without the diary or Anne Frank. If you start there, taking this as a given, the film is a whole lot better and more satisfying. Compared to most Hollywood super-productions of the time (or before, or since), the result that Stevens wrought is in fact outstanding. For instance, it’s unconscionable that Ben-Hur (William Wyler, 1959) beat out Anne Frank for best film and best direction Oscars. Ben-Hur is boring and unwatchable; The Diary of Anne Frank, engrossing, humane, visually engaging.
The suspense is the thing, correlative to the continual (verging on continuous) fear that the Franks, Van Daans and, after this bachelor dentist has joined them, Dr. Dussell feel, some of them more certain than others, despite all their precautions and those of their protectors, the Kralers, that the Nazis will uncover them in their hiding place, this fear of theirs fueled by the sound of the sirened cars outside as more and more area Jews are picked up and sent to their fates in German death camps. The Diary of Anne Frank is superb at evoking the climate of persistent, here and there erupting, terror in which these people must have lived. This includes the Kralers, whose fate, Otto Frank explains to his younger daughter, Anne, would be the same as theirs if they were caught. (Names have been changed, for whatever reason; the Van Pels have become the Van Daans, the Kuglers the Kralers, and so forth. Please note: The Jewish people in hiding were caught, but nothing dire was done to the Kralers, that is to say, Kuglers.)
There is one stunning sequence that especially brings the viewer’s heart to the border of cardiac arrest. Anne is asleep after learning that day that her best friend from school and this friend’s family have been arrested and sent to a death camp. She is dreaming, and her nightmare transports her to her eventual destination, a Nazi death camp. The dream, silent, is populated by forlorn individuals in striped prison outfits—ghosts of people rather than people. They move in a solemn mass, an image of insurmountable sadness and hopelessness. Anne wakes up from her dream screaming, as passers-by in the street below either do or do not hear anything, a woman’s own screams of pleasure—she is flanked by two men—forming a fabric of ambiguous sound with the girl’s cry upstairs. Otto Frank consoles his daughter. My goodness! What has Stevens done anywhere else to compare with this?
The prevalent mood, as I have said, is one of grave melancholy. The bombed-open attic roof, with its view of a heaven that sea gulls are continually crossing, presents an omnipresent symbol of these persons’ fate. (Only Otto Frank survives, to find again and read his daughter Anne’s diary—the narrative frame that the film gives us, beautifully directed by Stevens’s son, George Jr.) Those dissolves of the director’s, his trademark, are remarkably apt in this film. One image fades into nothingness as another image, before the previous one has evaporated, fades into view. Everything is dissolving before our eyes, except of course the substantial beings, nearly all of whom are headed to their doom. On this occasion the dissolves are more than mere visual flourish; they help distill the poignancy of the impending tragedy, and they also function as correlative to Otto Frank’s revived-again and lost-again memories that rereading his exterminated daughter’s diary conjures. Contributing throughout to the mood is the magnificent black-and-white cinematography; William Mellor won an Oscar for it, and Jack Cardiff, who cinematographed the 1945 narrative frame, also should have won. (The film won other Oscars for the sets and for Shelley Winters’s atypically restrained Mrs. Van Daan, whose fur coat, a gift from her father right before he died, klutzy Anne ruins with a draught of milk.)
Perfectly timed, the big sentimental moment, I must say, triggers a storm of tears. Anne and the Van Daans’ son, Peter, at last kiss just as the sirened cars pull up downstairs to cart them all away. It’s the kiss of life in the face of death, and, I confess, I buy it—unashamedly, irrevocably. If sentimental cinema there must be, let it all be as irresistible as The Diary of Anne Frank.
Perkins as Anne Frank wavers between being a handicap and a liability; Liza Minnelli, who eventually played the role on stage in Israel, was undiscovered as yet, but Stevens might have done worse than to discover her. (Well, he did do worse.) Say this for Stevens, however: Perkins has worked steadily ever since. Joseph Schildkraut, who had won an Oscar for his electrifying, deeply moving performance as Alfred Dreyfus in The Life of Emile Zola (William Dieterle, 1937), repeats his stage role as Otto Frank; he is wonderful, especially in the narrative frame that Stevens didn’t direct. Of course, Wynn, as the dentist Dussell, out-acts everyone else. Apart from giving by far the film’s most entertaining performance, Wynn contributes the most recognizably human, agonizingly and irritatingly real characterization. This is worth noting, since most often when comedians “go dramatic,” the result is oversized and sentimental. (Red Buttons, for instance.) Wynn should have won the Oscar (for which he was nominated), but it was the year of the knucklebrained Ben-Hur, whose sweep of eleven Oscars included one for Wynn’s competitor, Hugh Griffith.
It was a good year for Jesus, who went once again to his glory in Ben-Hur. Everything else had to suffer.
On the other hand, Stevens only appears deserving in this instance because of those that the Academy nominated; and, after all, he had already won two undeserved Academy trophies, the second one being for Giant.
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