Perhaps the greatest thing about Hollywood is its ability to inspire. Though its name connotes a city and an industry, to me, it’s also always represented an ideal. Beyond the biz and the box office, Hollywood is about a world where dreams and glamour and creativity are paramount; it is a conceptual canvas for our deepest desires, a benign narcotic for the imagination.
A young Anne Frank certainly saw it that way. In a beautiful little piece for The New Yorker, Richard Brody writes of his visit to the Anne Frank house, where he discovered a little known fact: Anne Frank idolized Hollywood.
“the most extraordinary and agonizing elements of historical testimony that the house contains are literally documentary: the wallpaper in the room shared by Otto, Edith, and Margot Frank retains the father’s dated horizontal pencil marks tracing his daughters’ growth. And the room that Anne shared with Pfeffer is decorated with carefully-cut newspaper clippings—ones she had cut out before going into hiding—that she pasted to the wallpaper. Most of them had to do with movies—and primarily with Hollywood movies…”
You can view a wonderful photograph of the wall here.
Among what remains of the clippings on the wall, Brody observed myriad pictures of movie actors: “Greta Garbo as Ninotchka…Simone Simon, wearing Chanel…Ginger Rogers.”
This little detail, though seemingly trivial, is enough to imagine what role these images played. They were aspirational. Any teenage girl who plasters her wall with pop culture paraphernalia is making a declaration about her identity: This is what I find interesting, beautiful, special… This is what I’d like to do, who I hope to love, what I’d like to look like.
The significance Hollywood held for Anne, a bright, exceptionally literate Dutch girl, had much to do, I suspect, with its mythology. Since it was a condition of Anne’s father, Otto Frank, to leave the house exactly as the Germans had left it—ransacked, emptied, abandoned—in order for it to be opened to the public, what survived are real vestiges of the Franks’ wartime sustenance. It is easy to imagine Anne during those many dark nights in hiding, staring up at her self-selected Hollywood icons. It was an easy escape, the only one allowed or even possible.
“[Hollywood] was a pop culture that wasn’t trivialized as “folk” but that was world-historically worthy to stand alongside the classics with which Anne Frank’s education was so richly imbued. It was an artistic realm that took the dreams of teen-aged girls very seriously, and the Cinderella story—the plot of “First Love” and, in effect, of Lubitsch’s “Ninotchka”—has much in common with Anne Frank’s dreams: those of romantic awakening, of the flourishing and transformation of a common girl with uncommon merits, of her entrance onto the grand world stage where, in her heart, she feels herself able to compete. And it was a culture created largely by American Jews (in Neal Gabler’s enduring phrase, an empire of their own), which largely reflected their liberal ideals. The very internationalism of Frank’s Hollywood heroes (Garbo was Swedish, Henie Norwegian, Milland English) suggests her sense of the relative paradise of tolerance that Hollywood represented and perhaps even helped to foster.”
But of all the things Hollywood represents, it centralizes a mythology about the power of stories to move and transform us, and change our lives. In that way, Frank not only idealized Hollywood but succeeded in it.