perkins-bakerOne of the films I’m most looking forward to at next week’s TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood is George Stevens’ The Diary of Anne Frank starring Millie Perkins as Anne Frank and Diane Baker as her sister Margot. Both Perkins and Baker will be at the screening at the Chinese Multiplex 6 on Sunday, March 29, 2015 at 12:30 pm. True, the film is showing opposite Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho at Grauman’s Chinese introduced by director Edgar Wright; the great 1939 film Gunga Din at the Egyptian Theater, also directed by George Stevens and starring Cary Grant which will include a discussion with Oscar-winning special effects expert Craig Barron and sound effects editor Ben Burtt; and a screening of Walter Lang’s sparkling 1957 film The Desk Set starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Ugh, such is the dilemma of the TCM Festival attendee — the choices for each time slot can be maddening.


But I know I’ll be present for The Diary of Anne Frank, Stevens’ 1959 film that also featured Joseph Schildkraut, Gusti Huber, Richard Beymer, Lou Jacobi, and Shelley Winters in her Oscar-winning performance as Mrs. Van Daan. I have to be there. Anne’s story has resonated with me since I was a kid. In one of my first jobs, I got to write an educational video about her time in the attic in cooperation with the Anne Frank Center in Amsterdam. During my research for that, I got to wander around the actual attic after hours all by myself. That was an incredible experience. Being an old movie fanatic, the first thing that caught my attention was Anne’s collection of movie star images on her bedroom wall, still there but now covered in glass.

annefrankcaptionhollywoodDid you know that in addition to her famous diary, Anne Frank wrote short stories fantasizing that she was an actress in this town? She even chose a photograph to use as her head shot. The caption of this photo that she pasted into her diary translates to: “This is a photo as I would wish myself to look all the time. Then I would maybe have a chance to come to Hollywood.” How fitting that the story of her life will be playing as part of this celebration of classic movies.

I looked up Anne Frank in the archives of the Los Angeles Times to see when she was first mentioned. Though Anne’s diary was published in Europe in 1947, it took five years, and much work on Otto Frank’s part, to interest English-language publishers in the story. When the English version of the book was finally published on April 30, 1952, it was an immediate sensation. The first mention of Anne Frank in the Los Angeles paper occurred on July 30, 1952, in a listing of the city’s top nonfiction bestsellers. According to the sales records of Broadway, Bullock’s, Pickwick, and Robinson’s, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl was the fourth bestselling book following Whittaker Chambers’ controversial Witness, Rachel Carson’s landmark The Sea Around Us, and A Man Called Peter, a faith-based story about Peter Marshall, the U.S. Chaplain to the Senate and once one of the most revered men in America.

By September, Anne had moved up to the number two spot, just behind Whittaker Chambers. Her name still appeared every Sunday in the list of bestsellers but the first real mention of Anne Frank in the newspaper occurred on January 16, 1953, in, of all places, Hedda Hopper’s column: “Nick Ray is negotiating for the stage rights on ‘Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.’ He thinks the book can be turned into a wonderful play, and I agree. For those who have not read it, the story is about a young Jewish girl who was forced with her family into hiding when the Nazis conquered Holland. But even more than that, it’s also the poignant tale of a young girl growing into womanhood.”

annefrank-bedroomThroughout 1953, the only references to Anne Frank were made by Hedda Hopper. In a strange way, this seems fitting. Who knows if the clipped photographs of Norma Shearer, Deanna Durbin, and the others on the wall of Anne Frank’s attic bedroom weren’t taken from Hedda’s very column.

As we all know, despite more than two years in hiding, someone informed on the families living in the secret annex and they were sent to concentration camps towards the end of 1944. Only Anne’s father, Otto Frank, survived. Anne Frank died 70 years ago this month, probably of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, just a few days after her sister Margot succumbed.

If she had survived, Anne Frank would be 84 years old today. I often wonder if she would have realized her dream to come to Hollywood. If only she’d had the chance. Of course I cringe at the thought of young Anne Frank in Hollywood casting sessions. “Sorry, Mrs. Frank, the kid is just too ethnic. Have her nose fixed, straighten those teeth, dye her hair blond, and give her some ringlets — then we’ll talk.”

Anne Frank probably would have been thrilled to have appeared so often in Hedda Hopper’s column, just under photos of Ava Gardner and Elizabeth Taylor. Directly above a 1955 discussion of Anne in Hopper’s column was a denial by Grace Kelly that she had secretly married actor Jean-Pierre Aumont. Directly below was a blurb about Joseph Cotton joining Rita Hayworth and her daughters for a fun-filled day at the newly opened Disneyland. Anne would have eaten this gossip up!

Throughout the 1950s, the only articles about Anne Frank focused on the “box office” of the stage and movie versions of her story. A particularly insensitive take on the subject was published in the Times on September 19, 1955, shortly before the play based on Anne’s life opened on Broadway. The headline says it all: “Foreign Plays, Actors Will Invade Broadway.” Nice. Let’s evoke images of Hitler’s advancing armies as we discuss plays with “foreign” settings “taking over” the American theatre.

Once the play opened, it was usually mentioned in reference to which Hollywood stars stopped by to see it. “Dolores Del Rio was present at ‘The Diary of Anne Frank,’ having just arrived from Mexico, while Ann Miller appeared at ‘No Time for Sergeants,’ having just returned from the Caribbean, and still battling a bad cold.” The only other articles about the play were puff pieces about Susan Strasberg, who was playing the part of Anne, with such titles as ‘Not-So-Lazy Susan” and continually calling the 17-year-old “another Audrey Hepburn.”

Early articles about the film version of the play assumed that Strasberg would be chosen for the lead but on January 29, 1958, it was announced that 18-year-old Millie Perkins, a model from New Jersey, beat out 10,225 other girls for the role. Again, there were constant comparisons to Audrey Hepburn and the adjective most often used to describe Perkins was “elfin.”

millieperkinsI have recently re-evaluated my impression of Millie Perkins in this role. Having heard about Susan Strasberg’s electrifying performance and the fact that Audrey Hepburn herself had been considered for the role (Hepburn and Anne Frank were born within a month of each other — it would have been pushing it for 29-year-old Hepburn to play a 14-year-old!), I was wary of Perkins’ part in the film until I saw a restored print screened several years ago. There was a depth and an urgency to the character that I hadn’t seen before — I must have been distracted by Perkins’ “elfin” features.

To her credit, Millie Perkins was aware of her own limitations. “I’m frightened,” she admitted to a reporter in an April 1958 profile. “I still don’t know what Mr. Stevens saw in me. People tell me not to worry, that he wouldn’t gamble on me if he didn’t think I could do it. But I’m not an actress.”

A few months later, she was still nervous about her contributions to the picture. “I don’t know why they chose me for Anne Frank,” Perkins said. “But then I never know why things happen to me. They always come as a surprise, I never try to make them happen. But I know one thing. If I’m successful in ‘The Diary of Anne Frank,’ I’m going to do a lot of studying.


The star-studded premiere of the film on March 26, 1959, at the Egyptian Theatre was as Hollywood as it gets. “Hollywood came into its own again last night,” wrote the reporter in the Times, “a night to match any in the 30-odd years of premieres since showman Sid Grauman built the Egyptian Theatre…but what mattered most was that for once, in an era in which the phony is so often paraded as the real, the glorifying that went on outside the theater was surpassed by the grandeur of the story being unfolded, being unfurled like a testament to the dignity of man, on the screen inside. ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ is a great, great motion picture.”

Unfortunately, despite critical acclaim, the film did not achieve the box office numbers the movie honchos had hoped for and there were soon more insensitive headlines: “Anne Frank Fate Big Question Mark!” blared one, as the subtitle read, “Lethargy Blamed on Theme, Ads, Prices, Star, Length.” Well, that about covers it. I can see every studio executive in Hollywood reading that article that morning and making a mental note: “No More Jewish-Themed Pics: Holocaust a Downer!” This turn of events led to an ill-fated advertising campaign that tried to present the film as a raucous comedy involving two spunky kids, Anne Frank and Peter Van Daan. Thankfully, the studio could not get away with that for long. “There is nothing inherently funny about the theme,” the L.A. Times reported in response to the ads, “and while there is some incidental humor, it is the kind born of desperation. You can’t fool people about these things.”


And so, Anne Frank, you who had such a strong desire to come to Los Angeles and be part of the Hollywood scene, rest assured that you made it. Even when the people stopped coming to see your film because “they didn’t think they could take it,” in the end it wasn’t only about profits. “’Anne Frank’ is a motion picture that proves once again to all the world that our industry can also be an art,” declared the Times. “It is a work of which Hollywood, at a time when it is getting the finger from all sides, can be justly proud.”

I’ll be there next week at the screening in the heart of Hollywood, paying rapt attention to your story and crying once again at your poignantly hopeful words:

“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us, too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”