Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) with Millie Perkins & Diane Baker at #TCMFF

Scene from The Diary of Anne Frank (1959)
Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day and I thought it fitting to share with you the details of a special screening of The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) at the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival (TCMFF). When I initially saw this screening listed on the TCMFF schedule, I had a strong emotional reaction, one that I wasn't expecting.

 Growing up, I entertained myself with TV shows, toys and books but I didn't watch very many movies. However, The Diary of Anne Frank was a movie I remember seeing several times as a child and it had a great impact on me. I credit the movie, the book and Anne Frank's legacy as an early influence and what set me on the path to become an empathetic adult. This incredible story taught me so much about good and evil and what it means to have hope even when reality is grim. The emotional education I received from Anne Frank's story as well as many other stories of the Holocaust was invaluable to me as a child and as an adult.

"Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it."

It's impossible to watch The Diary of Anne Frank and not have any sympathy for the people involved. We know this happened. We can't say "it's just a movie". This was real life. During the film there were numerous moments when the characters had to be very quiet so they wouldn't be discovered by a nosy neighbor or intruder and reported to the Gestapo. In that theatre you could hear a pin drop. None of us wanted to make a sound. Why? It's not as though we were in the situation itself. Making noise wouldn't have affected the outcome of the story. We know young Anne Frank dies. We know this from the very first scene in the film which takes place after the liberation of the camps. However, as an audience we still hold onto the hope that the families won't be discovered. This was sympathy in action.


Illeana Douglas interviews Millie Perkins and Diane Baker

Illeana Douglas, Millie Perkins and Diane Baker
On the last day of TCMFF, Illeana Douglas interviewed stars Millie Perkins and Diane Baker before the start of the film. Baker brought 13 members of her family to the screening and they were sitting right behind me.

Douglas starts off the discussion by noting that director George Stevens was greatly affected by WWII and afterwards his films became deeper and more somber. He was compelled to tell the story of Anne Frank and the film gave young actresses Millie Perkins and Diane Baker their film debut.

What made Perkins and Baker perfect for these coveted roles? Perkins responded, "inexperience. Not knowing who we were." She was a model at a young age and although she had been approached several times about movie roles she always turned them down with the reply "I don't want to be an actress." When she found out about George Stevens' interest in her for The Diary of Anne Frank she quickly changed her mind. She loved Stevens work, especially A Place in the Sun, and she tested for the film. Perkins remembered, “I was so independent in my mind and in my feeling. No one could tell me what to do. Or how to do it. And that was Anne Frank.”

Diane Baker, who plays Anne's older sister Margo Frank, said, “I think George [Stevens] wanted naturalness. He didn’t want us to be affected by films. He wanted some people that were more real that we didn’t have any affectations for having been in movies.” Simplicity, innocence and naturalness; those were the key elements to these pivotal roles.

The conversation lingered on George Stevens for most of the interview. This wasn't just another picture he directed; this was an extension of himself. Perkins and Baker referred to Stevens as brilliant, kind and wonderful. Baker reflected, "[Stevens] wouldn't let his actors feel pressure. He coddled us and made us feel comfortable." Perkins was effusive in her praise calling Stevens "one of the best directors Hollywood ever had." Stevens thought highly of both Perkins and Baker as well. According to both actresses, he was delighted with their performances

Stevens wanted to make small, intimate movies about real people. He was the head photographer during the liberation of the concentration camps in WWII and this was an experience that would change him forever. Did Perkins and Baker know how much this had affected him? Perkins said she didn't know until after the film but Baker knew right from the start.

It was important for the actors to connect with the time period. Baker remembers abandoning make-up and wearing the clothes from the film for the whole nine months of shooting. During climatic scenes Stevens would play records in the background of German songs and Hitler's street marches. He had the set rigged so it would shake during the bombing scene. The actors weren't expecting this which resulted in a more genuine reaction.

Both actresses had fond memories of the other stars of the film including Gusti Huber, Joseph Schildkraut, Lou Jacobi, Ed Wynn and Richard Beymer. Shelley Winters was another story. Perkins said, “Shelley Winters was a wonderful actress and a pain in the neck." Winters carried around ammonia tablets on set because she used these to induce crying. The playful prankster she was, Winters would crack these under the nose of the unsuspecting target, Diane Baker.

Winters would watch Perkins work, "she’d stand behind the camera... and she would ask 'how’d you do that? What kind of upbringing did you have?'" The day they filmed the Hanukkah scene Perkins remembers, "she invited me to her dressing room to talk about it. And she got me drunk... I didn’t know any better. “

Although The Diary of Anne Frank is set in a very specific time period the story is indeed timeless. Illeana Douglas posed the question: why do you think the film holds up today?
Baker's response was “it keeps happening in the world. That smart brilliant little Anne Frank said she truly believed in spite of everything that people are good at heart. I would like to believe that all people are good at heart. I’m not so sure. But I do know one thing. We here, all of us in this room, all of us can try to be good at heart. We can’t control everything."

Perkins recounted the story of her 17 year old grandson who asked her, “when you were young were people as mean and corrupt as they are now?" She had done a lot of acting work over the years but claims that nothing has affected her life as The Diary of Anne Frank. Both Perkins and Baker go to numerous events at schools, festivals, etc. to talk about the film. Perkins has even gone to Israel on numerous occasion to speak.


We just try to be as good as we can. That’s all we can do... All we can control is us.” - Diane Baker

“And that’s why George [Stevens] made the movie. He wanted to show real people with real heart going through real things. He didn’t want this... to happen again." - Millie Perkins

Thank you to Millie Perkins, Diane Baker, Illeana Douglas and the folks at TCM for a wonderful event.

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