Blu-ray Review: The Diary of Anne Frank – 50th Anniversary Edition

20th Century Fox | 1959 | 180 mins | Not rated

I want to go on living even after I’m dead.
— Millie Perkins as Anne Frank

On June 12, 2009, Anne Frank would have celebrated her eightieth birthday. But, as much of the world knows, Anne Frank died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen. She was fifteen years old. Her diary, saved during the war by one of the family’s helpers, Miep Gies, was first published in 1947. Today, her diary has been translated into 67 languages and is one of the most widely read books in the world.

The Diary of Anne FrankGeorge Stevens Jr. makes it clear in one of the special features, that his father’s life-altering experience of witnessing the death camps after World War II was largely responsible for George Stevens’ (Giant, A Place in the Sun) desire to adapt Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett’s stage adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank. It was hoped that the cast of the original stage play would reprise their roles for the film; Joseph Schildkraut and Gusti Huber did reprise their roles as Anne parents Otto and Edith Frank but Susan Strasberg declined an offer to reprise her role as Anne. The role was the role was then offered to Natalie Wood, who declined. Otto Frank’s first choice was Audrey Hepburn who was born the same year as Anne and had also lived through the war in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands. She had read Anne’s diary in Dutch shortly before it was published in 1947 and felt devastated by it. In the end, she felt too old to play a teenager and felt the experience of reliving the war would be too traumatic for her. After an exhaustive search, the role went to teen model and first time actress, Millie Perkins.

The story is well known: The Jewish Frank and Van Daan families hide from the Nazis by cramming themselves into an annex over a spice factory. Harry Kraler (Douglas Spencer) and his wife Miep (Dodie Heath) endeavor to hide them there for the duration of the German occupation. The confinement is an ordeal of clashing personalities, with youngsters Peter Van Daan (Richard Beymer) and the Frank girls Margot (Diane Baker) and Anne (Millie Perkins) having to grow up in intimate surroundings, where everyone is deprived of their privacy and under the constant threat of arrest. Inspired by her strong and courageous father Otto (Joseph Schildkraut), Anne writes a diary to record her feelings under the strange circumstances.

With The Diary of Anne Frank, George Stevens did what he set out to do: Find value and hope in a tragic tale of an attempt to survive, the unhappy outcome of which we already know going in. Stevens’ previous film, Giant was an epic that spanned across spaces and generations but this intimate, dialogue-driven takes place in three or four rooms of a small annex in Amsterdam. A bit pretentious maybe, but The Diary of Anne Frank is Stevens’ last great picture and it’s wonderful that Fox has put together a beautiful 50th Anniversary Edition, both on Blu-ray and standard definition DVD.

Confined almost exclusively to a drab, dull set (expect for the occasional peak out the window at the street below or a glance upward at the sky), the film manages never to feel like a play. With a wonderful use of shadows and vertical posts, frequent Stevens collaborator, cinematographer William C. Mellor (A Place in the Sun), was able to break the Cinemascope Fox required they shoot the film in, into manageable spaces. Stevens also had the luxury of working with a group of actors that seemed to mesh perfectly. Shelley Winters, well-known for her loud personality and tendency to overact, comes through here, with a surprisingly thoughtful, restrained performance as Petronella van Daan. Comedian Ed Wynn had done a few dramatic roles throughout his long career but his wonderfully nuanced performance as Albert Dussell, a rather suspicious, cranky old man makes you wish he had taken on a few more dramatic parts. Joseph Schildkraut and Gusti Huber are the understanding parents who have to cope with family matters while suffering under the constant threat of discovery. Lou Jacobi as Hans van Daan is a good but cynical man.

A strange triangle develops between between the two Frank girls and the Van Daan’s boy Peter. Richard Beymer is interesting as the boy who tries to create some sort private life for himself in a situation with zero privacy. Anne is actually rather petulant at first when her sister Margot and Peter make eyes at each other. Quiet and reserved, Margot graciously accepts what happens with grace and humility. Diane Baker has what might be an even harder part than that of star Millie Perkins. Her Margot is passive and silent and always ‘behaving,’ yet we sense a well of pent up emotion in her as well.

Yes, at nearly three hours, those that argue The Diary of Anne Frank is too long have a point. Even some people interviewed in the included extras complain that the film was seriously sugared over for the sake of Hollywood; this is undoubtedly true. Even detractors concede though, that George Stevens produced a film that the whole world was ready to watch in 1959 and that’s important to remember as we evaluate it in 2009, after we’ve seen movies such as Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful and The Piano. Whatever you might think of think of the Hollywoodization of Anne Frank’s story, it’s hard to deny the poignancy of the opening scene: Only Otto Frank survives, returning to the attic to find Anne’s diary. He is moved to tears and shamed when he reads Anne’s famous line: “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

The film is presented in its Cinemascope aspect ratio of 2.35:1 in a 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Though black levels are deep and shadow detail can be quite good, there are white speckles to be seen off and on during the movie and some minor flashing is also sometimes in evidence. Sharpness is excellent in most scenes, but the inability of Cinemascope lenses to do much with deep focus means you’ll occasionally see all of the characters spread across the wide frame but some of them distractingly out of focus. Fox has not applied any DNR to the image; the moderate grain structure of the film is intact.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is a bit of a disappointment as there is light hiss in some of the quietest scenes, and the surround spread is minimal through much of the movie. In fact, often, the voices, sound effects, and music are completely mono in quality emanating from the center channel while the surrounds are completely silent. Sometimes echoes from overhead bombing will resonate in the rears but sometimes they don’t. The clearest use of the full soundfield is with Alfred Newman’s magnificent score which gets beautifully channeled during the film’s Overture and Exit Music which are included on the disc.

The Diary of Anne Frank: 50th Anniversary Edition is loaded with special features:

All of the bonus featurettes are presented in 480p.

Audio Commentary by associate producer/second unit director George Stevens, Jr. and star Millie Perkins is a lovely reminiscence about their experiences making the movie. It’s only occasionally scene specific. Most of the time, the two recall events and persons from their film experience in a free-flowing conversation. The film clearly means a lot to both participants.

George Stevens in World War II (7:34) a sampling of some surprising full color 16mm movies shot by George Stevens during World War II including the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. Shooting this footage made Stevens long to direct a World War II film, and he considered The Diary of Anne Frank that movie.

The Making of The Diary of Anne Frank: A Son’s Memories (25:02) George Stevens, Jr.’s memories of the pre-production, actual location visits, casting and filming of the movie.

Memories from Millie Perkins and Diane Baker (26:00) is a wonderful compilation interview with each of the actresses looking back on their casting and their experiences during production.

Shelley Winters and The Diary of Anne Frank (7:03) culled from the 1984 documentary, George Stevens: A Filmmakers Journey, Winters discusses the director and her experience making The Diary of Anne Frank.

The Sound and Music of The Diary of Anne Frank (8:00) pays tribute to composer Alfred Newman; briefly detailing his career as head of the Fox music department and his contributions to The Diary of Anne Frank.

The Diary of Anne Frank: Correspondence (13:25) finds George Stevens, Jr. reading a selection of letters written by Otto Frank to his father and vice versa as well as letters written by the director to his son who was shooting second unit work in Amsterdam.

Fox Legacy with Tom Rothman (14:08) featurette from the Fox Movie Channel celebrating the making of the movie.

The Diary of Anne Frank: Echoes from the Past (BD Exclusive) (90:00) he most comprehensive bonus on the disc, a history of the Franks and their friends mixing the real story with the way it was portrayed in the movie. This fine History Channel documentary is narrated by Burt Reynolds.

The Diary of Anne Frank excerpts from A Filmmaker’s Diary (BD Exclusive) (8:02) a clip from George Stevens: A Filmmakers Journey that deals specifically with The Diary of Anne Frank.

Press Conference Questions (BD Exclusive) asked of George Stevens before the movie began production.

Millie Perkins’ initial screen test interview (BD Exclusive) (2:25)
Six Movietone News Blurbs (BD Exclusive) (6:45) all dealing with the production or cast members of the film can be viewed separately or in one grouping.

Two trailers are available for viewing. The theatrical trailer runs 3:25 while the international trailer runs 4:30.

Two step-through art galleries are available for viewing: the press book and a series of behind-the-scenes publicity stills and production test shots.

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