And here’s Ms. Winters…
I don’t know about everyone else, but when I think of Shelley Winters, I think of a funny lady who also looks like she could pop someone, like a cross between Lucille Ball and Betty Hutton. When Winters played Petronella van Daan in 1959’s The Diary of Anne Frank, it combined everything the public already knew about Winters, but she got to up her game considerably. Based on the Tony Award-Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Francis Goodrich and Albert Hackett, Diary is at once Hollywood-ized and heartwrenching.
The film opens on the Prinsengracht after the war. An Army truck lumbers down the street carrying returning prisoners of the Nazis. One man, Otto Frank (Joseph Schildkraut) gets off at 263 and goes inside, heading up the staircase to his former hiding place. He looks around forlornly at a mostly empty room, picking up a scarf and putting it around his neck. When he finds a glove on the floor he sobs.
Two of Otto’s coworkers, Kraler (Douglas Spencer) and Miep (Dodi Heath) find him in the attic. They listen as Otto tells them he’s alone and he can’t stay in Amsterdam, and Miep pleads with him to stay with his friends. All that can wait, though, because Otto is looking for something. Miep guesses what he’s after and takes him to a cubby in the attic where his daughter, Anne (Millie Perkins) left her diary. Otto flips through it and, after briefly seeing pictures of the real Anne Frank, begins to read.
The rest of the film is told in flashback, but Otto’s narration fades to Anne’s, beginning with the day the family goes into hiding. Anne heads inquisitively upstairs and waits with her sister, Margot (Diane Baker) and her mother, Edith (Gusti Huber) for Otto to open a door that looks like a bookcase. Then it’s up a short flight of stairs into their hiding place, where the Van Daan family waits: Petronella (Shelley Winters), her husband, Hans (Lou Jacobi), and their teenaged son, Peter (Richard Beymer).
These two families are to stay behind the bookcase at all times. They have to be still for most of the day, moving around only when absolutely necessary in stocking feet. The tension is palpable, especially on the first day, when everyone curls up among the stacked boxes, with or without a book. Each day after office hours, Miep and Kraler, who both work downstairs, bring them food and news.
It’s a difficult situation for everyone, particularly Anne, who’s a ball of energy. She longs to dance, yearns for fun, and casts around for anything to break the monotony, such as stealing Peter’s shoes. A few months into their stay in the hiding place, the group gains a new member, Albert Dussell (Ed Gwynn), a dentist and fussbudget. He and Anne have to share a room, which is an odd arrangement, but the family thinks because Anne’s young she won’t mind.
Actually, she minds very much, but there’s really nothing she can say. At least not out loud, anyway–on the first day in hiding, Otto presents Anne with a diary, which she writes in as if penning letters to a friend.
The rapport between the two families isn’t always harmonious, but they have to make the best of it. Hans and Petronella argue back and forth constantly. They’re finicky people, not unkind, although Petronella flirts with Otto now and then. There’s also a kerfuffle when a member of the household is caught stealing food.
Always, always the threat of being caught isn’t far away. Burglars break into the office building, and one of them brings the Gestapo right up to the bookcase. Fortunately for everyone’s nerves, the only sound that’s heard is Peter’s cat. No matter what’s happening, whenever sirens are heard, everyone freezes and holds their collective breath.
The action is from Anne’s point of view, as she narrates everything from her diary entries. She may have been a kid when she went into hiding, but she grows up very fast, and Peter notices. The two of them hang out in Peter’s room and the attic, with the inevitable romance developing.
There were liberties taken with the historical record for pacing purposes. Anne’s diary wasn’t found stashed undisturbed in an attic hidey-hole; Miep kept her writings in a desk drawer, returning them to Otto when Anne didn’t come back. Anne also didn’t receive the diary on the first day in the hiding place–it was a gift for her thirteenth birthday. Anne was even with Otto in the bookstore and picked it out herself.
The play and film both use the pseudonyms Anne and Otto made up for the people in the diary. These names were all the public knew for many years until after most of the helpers and others who were involved had died. When the Critical Edition was published in 1986, the real names of the principal figures were revealed. Petronella Van Daan’s real name, for instance, was Auguste van Pels.
The movie shows the Van Daans waiting for the Frank family to arrive at the hiding place when the story opens; in reality, the Van Daans didn’t go into hiding until a week after the Franks. The two families knew each other prior to that, as Mr. Frank and Mr. Van Daan worked together at Mr. Frank’s spice and pectin company, Opekta. Mr. Van Daan was hired because he had a famously sensitive nose and could identify any spice with a sniff or two. Anne had a passing acquaintance with Peter, as he was in the same neighborhood, but most in her circle thought he was a bit of a dope. Their romance cooled into a friendship by the time the family was discovered on August 4th, 1944. None of the Van Daans survived the war.
Speaking of the familys’ arrest, that was tweaked as well. Spoiler alert: In the film we hear the Nazis breaking through the false bookcase. This didn’t happen either; the SS officer who oversaw the arrest, Karl Josef Silberbauer ordered Opekta deputy Victor Kugler (Kraler in the film) to open the bookcase door. This quiet discovery was of course jettisoned for the immediate drama seen in the movie, with repeated yells of “Schnell!” adding to the tension.
Although it was touted as a replica of the original hiding place, the order of the rooms and who slept where was flip-flopped, with the Van Daans upstairs in a loft of sorts and everyone else downstairs. In the actual hiding place, the bathroom was downstairs, as was Anne’s room and the Frank family’s room. Peter’s room was off the common room upstairs, where his parents slept, and the staircase separating the two levels allowed each family a small measure of privacy. The Annex was also at the rear of the building instead of facing the street as in the movie, the latter of which would have been a major security risk.
Another difference between the actual Annex and the film is that the real inhabitants were able to go downstairs and move around a bit after office hours, particularly on the weekends. Anne and Margot even did bits of work for Miep, who later compared them to night fairies.
Stevens’ decision might seem odd when considering the layout of the hiding place in Amsterdam, but the set design served a purpose. Everything was cramped and squished together instead of being vertical as in the real building, communicating the isolation and constant tension felt by the Secret Annex inhabitants. Having the Annex face the street was a shorthand way of communicating how close the outside world was to the hiding place, as well as the constant danger the residents were in, and so added to the theatrics. It was also practical. The set was built in four levels, allowing long tracking shots from one floor to another, and having everything mashed together enabled Stevens to fill the expansive Cinemascope format he had to work in.
The film was a sought-after property in Hollywood and around the world, and Shelley Winters was keen to play a role, any role in the film. According to George Stevens, Jr., Winters wrote Stevens asking to be cast, and Stevens agreed, offering her the part of Mrs. Van Daan. After that, Winters threw herself into the role, gaining weight and then losing weight as the story progressed to show how her character was just above starving due to food shortages.
Winters already had forty films to her credit by the late fifties. However, she was known more for comedy and sass than pathos, so Anne Frank was one of the first roles to shift her screen persona. She had already had a taste of serious acting in A Place In the Sun and was itching to do more. In Anne Frank, she really brings it.
Winters’ Mrs. Van Daan is a wee bit fussy, nitpicky, outspoken and hardboiled, but she has a good heart, and she still works in some of her trademark humor, especially when Petronella reminisces about her girlhood. Her serious side is very intense as well. During the scenes when the Annex members are waiting with bated breath, terrified of discovery, Winters looks as if she’s trying not to cry, but her character’s steely personality doesn’t quite let her get there. Not to mention, if she does cry, her character probably won’t just sob but scream.
To Winters’ great pride, Otto Frank said that her speech and mannerisms were just like the real Mrs. Van Daan, and he predicted that she would win an Oscar. Winters promised to donate her award to the Anne Frank House if she won, and in 1975, she kept that promise.
Playing Mrs. Van Daan was an eye-opener for Winters. She got political and began working in the civil rights movement with Martin Luther King and Adelai Stevenson. According to the Jewish Women’s Archive, she became an advocate for Israel and Jewish causes as well.
When she was cast, though, Winters may not have foreseen how much the film would change her. She later said, “I felt that I was making a comment in the picture about the whole terrible experience of the Holocaust, and I think it’s the most important picture I’ve ever done.”
The Diary of Anne Frank isn’t the most accurate of the Anne Frank retellings out there, but it has the distinction of being made at a time when the Holocaust was already too easily forgotten, even though it was a very recent happening. It’s a good thing for history that people like George Stevens and Shelley Winters were aware of keeping such a catastrophic event in the public’s consciousness.
For more of the great Shelley Winters, please see Erica at Poppity Talks Classic Film and Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews. Thanks for hosting, ladies–it was a pleasure, as always! Thanks for reading, all, and see you tomorrow with a new Page To Screen…
Diary of Anne Frank: Echoes of the Past. Directed by Frankie Glass. Narrated by Burt Reynolds. Promethus Entertainment, 2001.
Netherlands Institute For War Documentation, The Diary of Anne Frank: The Critical Edition. New York: Doubleday, 1986.