Ladies of Leisure (1930)

“What am I — a statue or a hunk of furniture?”

Ladies of Leisure Poster

Synopsis:
A self-professed “party girl” is hired to pose for a wealthy aspiring painter (Ralph Graves), and slowly finds herself falling in love — but are the feelings mutual, and if so, will his socially-conscious parents approve of their romance?

Genres:

Review:
Ladies of Leisure was the first film Barbara Stanwyck made with Frank Capra, and she nearly didn’t get the part — until he was bowled over while watching her studio screen test; the rest is synchronistic history. Stanwyck’s performance (as always) is stellar, and she and her co-stars — most notably sassy sidekick Marie Prevost as “Dot” — are given plenty of spunky Pre-Code dialogue (“Sweet spirits a’ saccharine!”); meanwhile, Capra is more-than-ably assisted by DP Joseph Walker, whose cinematography is often stunning (see stills below).

Unfortunately, however, the film’s pacing is glacially slow, and the would-be romance between Stanwyck and dense-as-concrete Graves is pretty much painful. It gets to the point where we wonder if Graves might be gay — that’s how utterly uninterested he seems to be in her, for far too long. Watching her immense gratitude upon NOT being taken advantage of when he invites her to spend the night (he cozily tucks in her blankets, then leaves) simply makes one cringe at her delusions. Naturally,

[SPOILERS HERE]

romance of a (cinematically contrived) kind does eventually emerge, leading to a conveniently melodramatic showdown between Stanwyck and Graves’ prissy parents. This is nothing we haven’t seen before, and it’s a disappointing use of Stanwyck and Capra’s talents. But the film remains worth a cursory look simply for its historical relevance as Stanwyck’s breakthrough role — and for Walker’s lovely imagery.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Barbara Stanwyck as Kay Arnold
    Ladies of Leisure Stanwyck
  • Fine cinematography by Joseph Walker
    Ladies of Leisure Cinematography
    Ladies of Leisure Direction
    Ladies of Leisure Cinematography2
  • Fun, sassy dialogue

    “If I didn’t know you real well, I’d say you’re going sour!”
    “Most men never get to be 18 — and most women are over 18 the minute they’re born!”

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look for Stanwyck’s performance. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Baby Face (1933)

[Note: The following review is of a non-Peary title; click here to read more.]

“What’s going to become of you? It’s up to you to decide.”

Baby Face Poster

Synopsis:
Inspired by a philosophy-spouting mentor (Alphonse Ethier) and accompanied by her servant (Theresa Harris), an ambitious young woman (Barbara Stanwyck) climbs her way out of poverty and into the arms of increasingly influential men — eventually becoming embroiled in a fatal love triangle that sends her to Paris, where she romances a wealthy playboy (George Brent).

Genres:

  • Barbara Stanwyck Films
  • Femmes Fatales
  • Social Climbers
  • Strong Females

Review:
It’s truly puzzling that Peary neglects to include this acknowledged Pre-Code classic — one of the primary movies cited as motivation for enforcement of the Production Code — in either his GFTFF or Alternate Oscars. The smartly scripted, swiftly moving storyline shows us in no uncertain terms how easily men-in-power can be manipulated through sex, flattery, and outright deception. (“She climbed the ladder of success – wrong by wrong!” barks the original tagline.) Stanwyck’s powerhouse performance grounds and propels the film: she portrays a woman so embittered by mistreatment as a young girl — when she was prostituted by her abusive father (Robert Barrat) — that her sole purpose in life has become the attainment of material security at any cost. We do see a single glint of humanity poking through her serpentine veneer, as demonstrated by her loyalty to Harris — an indication that all hope for redemption is not completely lost; yet this is essentially a tale of an unrepentant vamp, the type of woman “ordinary” females have every right to fear, given that she’s playing by an entirely different set of rules.

Note: A fully restored version of Baby Face was uncovered in a Library of Congress film vault in Dayton, Ohio in 2004; click here to read more about the differences between the two releases.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Barbara Stanwyck as Lily
    Baby Face Stanwyck
  • Orry-Kelly’s costumes
    Baby Face Costumes
    Baby Face Orry Kelly2
  • Theresa Harris as Chico
    Baby Face Harris
  • Fine direction by Alfred E. Green and cinematography by James Van Trees
    Baby Face Direction3
    Baby Face Direction
    Baby Face Direction2
  • Plenty of zingy Pre-Code sass:

    Brent: “I’m sure your apartment is attractive.”
    Stanwyck: “I wouldn’t want you to be disappointed.”

    Baby Face Legs

Must See?
Yes, as an enjoyable classic of the Pre-Code era — and for Stanwyck’s Oscar-worthy performance.

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Miracle Woman, The (1931)

“When you can’t see the world, you invent one of your own.”

Miracle Woman Poster

Synopsis:
Grieving the death of her minister-father, a charismatic young woman (Barbara Stanwyck) joins forces with a charlatan (Sam Hardy) to pretend to be a miracle worker — but when she falls in love with a trusting blind man (David Manners), her values suddenly shift.

Genres:

Review:
Frank Capra and Barbara Stanwyck collaborated on five features together, four of which are listed in Peary’s GFTFF: Ladies of Leisure (1930), The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), Meet John Doe (1941), and this adaptation of John Meehan and Robert Riskin’s play Bless You Sister (loosely based on the storied life of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson). Unfortunately, The Miracle Woman fails to live up to its potential as a hard-hitting glimpse at the seedy underworld of fraudulent evangelism; instead, the majority of the screentime is taken up by an insipid romance barely worthy of discussion. Seemingly from a desire to establish and maintain the title character’s integrity, the film posits Stanwyck’s “Sister Florence” as a righteously scornful woman (we’re meant to sympathize with her position from the beginning) who quickly comes to see the error of her ways, and must then struggle against the evil machinations of sociopathic Hardy. While Stanwyck crafted countless memorable characterizations over the years, she’s not at her juiciest here; however, her nuanced performance remains as compelling as always, and is certainly worthy of the “Alternate Oscar” nomination Peary gives her. Meanwhile, Capra’s direction and Joseph Walker’s cinematography are superb throughout, presenting a highly atmospheric glimpse of a harsh historical era. (See the 1972 documentary Marjoe for a much more cynical take on the same topic.)

Note: I was surprised to learn that the disappointing Pre-Code screenplay for The Miracle Woman was written by Jo Swerling, responsible for several Hollywood gems — including Lifeboat (1944) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Barbara Stanwyck as Florence
    Miracle Woman Stanwyck
  • Effective direction by Capra
    Miracle Woman Direction
    Miracle Woman Direction2
  • Joseph Walker’s cinematography
    Miracle Woman Cinematography2
    Miracle Woman Cinematography

Must See?
Yes, for Stanwyck’s performance. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

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Night of the Iguana, The (1964)

“This is a test of strength between two men and a crate of wetheads.”

Night of the Iguana Poster

Synopsis:
An alcoholic ex-minister (Richard Burton) working as a tour guide in Mexico brings his customers to a hotel run by his widowed friend Maxine (Ava Gardner). While flirting with a beautiful blonde teenager (Sue Lyon) in the tour group, he’s caught and chastised by her furious guardian (Grayson Hall); meanwhile, an artist (Deborah Kerr) travelling with her elderly father (Cyril Delevanti) arrives at the hotel and new sexual tensions soon emerge.

Genres:

Review:
As noted by AllMovieGuide.com, writer/director/actor John Huston is known for telling “stories about independent and adventurous men struggling for their individuality” — and Night of the Iguana (adapted from Tennessee Williams’ 1961 Broadway play, based on his 1948 short story) fits this description aptly (though Burton’s ex-reverend is perhaps less adventurous than desperate and spiritually un-moored). The powerful opening scene sets the stage for Burton’s incipient downfall, as he attempts to deliver a short, impassioned sermon to a flock that’s entirely unwilling to hear him expose his vulnerability. (He boldly poses questions such as, “How weak is man… How often do we stray from the straight and narrow?”) Despite enjoining them not to “turn [their] backs on the God of love and compassion”, they do so anyway, and he is ousted from his position, thus embarking upon the surreally soul-searching adventure that comprises the remainder of the film — all taking place in the then-isolated Mexican beach town of Puerto Vallarta (now a popular modern resort; click here to read more about the film’s on-location shooting).

Night of the Iguana is essentially a character study, following the existential crisis of a man whose family legacy of both spiritual leadership and irresistible “appetites” continues to haunt him. While fending off lust for a nubile young blonde (Lyons) — whose reciprocal interest verges on either harassment or devilish “intervention” — he finds himself dogged by Hall, who functions as a potent reminder of the sanctimonious judgment he’s tried unsuccessfully to run away from. He relies on the steady friendship of earthy Maxine (Gardner) to ground him, literally alighting on her property as a source of refuge, then embarks on a continued quest-for-solace once ethereal yet pragmatic Hannah Jelkes (Kerr) arrives with her elderly father. Gardner and Kerr represent more than merely a traditional “love triangle” in this film: they offer alternative approaches to life, allowing Burton to envision a way out of the quagmire of lustful escapism he’s been plagued by his entire existence.

While the storyline itself merits nearly endless discussion and debate (that Williams sure could spin a meaty yarn!), Night of the Iguana works remarkably well as a cinematic venture as well. As usual, Huston’s directorial hand is not only steady but incisive, framing characters and situations with a precision aimed at not-so-subtly influencing our perspective. Gabriel Figueroa’s black-and-white cinematography is crisp and gorgeous, and the location sets are inspired. Meanwhile, performances across the board are top-notch — from Burton’s tour-de-force lead to the various female roles (not just Hall, but Kerr and Gardner as well). This classic “morality tale” is one all film fanatics should see at least once, and will likely enjoy returning to.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Richard Burton as Lawrence Shannon
    Night of the Iguana Burton
  • Ava Gardner as Maxine Faulk
    Night of the Iguana Gardner
  • Deborah Kerr as Hannah Jelkes
    Night of the Iguana Kerr
  • Grayson Hall as Judith Fellowes
    Night of the Iguana Hall
  • Masterful direction by Huston
    Night of the Iguana Direction
    Night of the Iguana Direction2
    Night of the Iguana Direction3
  • Gabriel Figueroa’s b&w cinematography
    Night of the Iguana Cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a fine film and one of the best adaptations of Williams’ work.

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Berlin Express (1948)

“No one was here without a purpose.”

Berlin Express Poster

Synopsis:
In post-WWII Germany, a group of international train passengers — including an American agronomist (Robert Ryan), a British schoolteacher (Robert Coote), a French businessman (Charles Korvin), a Russian soldier (Roman Toporow), and a French secretary (Merle Oberon) — band together to locate a kidnapped doctor (Paul Lukas) who has been working for peace and political unification.

Genres:

Review:
Jacques Tourneur directed this taut ensemble thriller set on-board a moving train and throughout the ruins of post-WWII Germany. What seems at first like a “simple” murder mystery (a la Murder on the Orient Express) quickly reveals itself to be a tale of mistaken identities and deceptively shifting national loyalties; by the climactic pseudo-finale taking place inside an abandoned brewery in Berlin, we’re solidly hooked and pleasantly on edge. Berlin Express is notable as the first American feature film actually shot in post-war Europe — and to that end, it has an unfortunate didactic tone at times, especially during the first half-hour; the anonymous narration (by Paul Stewart) could and should have easily been cut, though I suppose it was assumed that audiences at the time were used to a Voice of God explaining to them the terrible truths of war-torn Europe. Thankfully, one can choose to ignore this and focus instead on both the exciting, twist-filled narrative and the lovely cinematography (by Lucien Ballard, Oberon’s husband at the time).

Note: Listen for the best response in the film (I won’t give away context or spoilers): “I think you’ve got that now.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Paul Lukas as Dr. Bernhardt
    Berlin Express Lukas (2)
  • Reinhold Schunzel as Walther
    Berlin Express Schunzel
  • Lucien Ballard’s cinematography
    Berlin Express Cinematography
    Berlin Express Cinematography2
    Berlin Express Cinematography3
  • Respectfully authentic integration of multiple languages (without subtitles)

Must See?
Yes, as a fine (if subtly flawed) outing by a master director.

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Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1960)

“On Mars, you’ve gotta face the reality of being alone forever!”

Robinson Crusoe on Mars Poster

Synopsis:
An astronaut (Paul Mantee) stranded on Mars with a monkey named Mona struggles to survive while aching for humanoid contact — which he finally achieves when he encounters a runaway alien slave (Victor Lundin) he dubs “Friday”.

Genres:

Review:
Byron Haskin was a Hollywood Renaissance man who worked his way through a series of positions (including newsreel cameraman, DP, and special effects supervisor) before directing a handful of notable titles, including this cult sci-fi flick (inspired by Daniel Defoe’s literary classic — perhaps best known by film viewers through Luis Bunuel’s 1952 adaptation). DVD Savant refers to RCOM as “a unique and serious adventure” sandwiched chronologically “between silly efforts like Queen of Outer Space and the high budget wonders of the later 2001: A Space Odyssey” — indeed, its poster (see still above) boasts, “This film is scientifically authentic! It is only one step ahead of present reality!” Naturally, such claims can’t even begin to hold up today, so one must watch a flick like this with historical perspective firmly in mind. Indeed, rather than viewing RCOM for its “scientific authenticity”, one appreciates it as a reasonably taut tale of personal survival, featuring a charismatic performance by hunky unknown Paul Mantee (those zippered pants!) and bolstered by the refreshingly unsentimental presence of a pet monkey.

Once “Friday” (Lunden) arrives on the scene, however, things quickly go downhill — both because we see sides of Mantee’s personality we’d rather not be privy to (he refers to Lunden as both “retarded” and an “idiot” in the same breath), and because the overall credibility of the storyline is suddenly strained. It’s somehow easier to imagine a lone astronaut stranded on Mars with a monkey than to envision intergalactic miners with eerily Egyptian-looking slaves attacking the planet. Speaking of the planet, the special effects and sets are quite impressive (at least most of the time); a notable exception is the relentless cheesy intrusion of the invading space ships, apparently spliced in on repeat. Ultimately, this mixed bag adventure tale will probably be of interest to film fanatics simply given its intriguing title, but it isn’t must-see for all viewers.

Note: Other Haskin-directed titles in Peary’s GFTFF include Treasure Island (1950), War of the Worlds (1953), Conquest of Space (1955), and From the Earth to the Moon (1958).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Paul Mantee as Kit Draper
    Robinson Crusoe on Mars Mantee
  • Excellent special effects and sets
    Robinson Crusoe on Mars Special Effects2
    Robinson Crusoe on Mars Death Valley
    Robinson Crusoe on Mars Special Effects

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look simply for its cult status.

Links:

Back Street (1932)

“There isn’t one woman in a million who’s found happiness in the back street of any man’s life.”

Back Street Poster

Synopsis:
A young woman (Irene Dunne) resists courtship by an earnest entrepreneur (George Meeker), instead falling in love with a charming man (John Boles) who’s about to be married. Eventually, she becomes Boles’ mistress, but finds her entire life compromised by her “back street” position.

Genres:

Review:
Based on a best-selling novel by Fannie Hurst (best known for penning Imitation of Life), this beautifully photographed (by Karl Freund) women’s weepie is almost unbearably painful to watch, knowing that our plucky protagonist will be doomed by her undying love for a “taken” man. At first, we admire youthful Dunne’s unabashed certainty that she can have a good time with men while setting up inviolable [sexual] boundaries; the opening scene is particularly masterful in establishing this basic tenet of her carefree existence, especially in contrast with the ironic fate that befalls her over-protected half-sister (June Clyde). When Dunne falls hard for Boles, however, we recognize the dangerous territory she’s entered — and, despite the agony of watching her miss (through no fault of her own) her potential opportunity to meet Boles’ mother and be seen as “legit”, we’re thrilled to see her emerging later in the film as an independent, seemingly happy single career woman in New York.

From the moment she accidentally reconnects with Boles, however, things go swiftly downhill. Proving Blaise Pascal’s dictum that “the heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of”, she allows herself to become a permanent “back street fixture” in Boles’ life. We’re tortured a few times by potential hope of happiness and relief for Dunne, but ultimately, Back Street remains a morality tale through-and-through: despite its pre-Code status, audiences are meant to understand that choosing life as a mistress is a compromised bargain with the Devil. Most infuriating of all is how scot-free Boles’ existence remains: he’s not portrayed as an entirely terrible fellow (he did try, after all, to see if he could manage to make Dunne his legitimate wife) — but hearing him complain childishly about how Dunne CAN’T leave him, how he NEEDS her desperately, makes one sigh with bitterness at the inequity of it all. With all that said, Dunne — beautiful, smart, and tragic — is so marvelous in the lead role that she makes this historical soaper worth sitting through once, no matter how uncomfortable the subject matter.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Irene Dunne as Ray Schmidt
    Back Street Dunne
  • Luminous cinematography by Karl Freund
    Back Street Cinematography
    Back Street Cinematography2
  • Fine historical sets
    Back Street Historical
    Back Street Historical2
  • Refreshingly frank pre-Code dialogue: “Most of them think they can have me without marrying me.”

Must See?
Yes, for Dunne’s performance.

Categories

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Min and Bill (1930)

[Note: The following review is of a non-Peary title; click here to read more.]

“Now you listen to me, you gutter rat! You or nobody else is gonna ruin that kid’s chances! No sir!”

Min and Bill Poster

Synopsis:
The owner (Marie Dressler) of a waterfront hotel encourages her adopted “daughter” (Dorothy Jordan) to leave and create a better life for herself — but will Jordan’s alcoholic birth-mother (Marjorie Rambeau) interfere with her newfound happiness?

Genres:

  • Marie Dressler Films
  • Strong Females
  • Suffering Mothers
  • Wallace Beery Films

Review:
Peary doesn’t include this early talkie — a gritty Stella Dallas-like weeper, based on a script by Frances Marion — in his GFTFF, but he lists it in his Alternate Oscars, where he nominates Dressler as one of the Best Actresses of the Year. He writes that it’s understandable the Academy Award that year went to Dressler “for her tough but softhearted waterfront saloonkeeper” — though he accurately argues that “her part [is] one-dimensional”, given that she plays “a sourpuss for an entire film”. Indeed, Dressler’s role here is both thankless and inconsistent: at first, she seems to be capitalizing on Jordan’s convenient labor to help her run her hotel (rather than sending her to school), then suddenly uses questionably harsh tactics in forcing her away from home — yet she’s meant to be viewed as a secretly loving and selfless mother-figure, someone so fiercely protective of Jordan’s ultimate happiness that she’s driven to extreme measures.

Beery — “Bill” of the film’s title — doesn’t play much of a central role in the storyline, and was clearly included simply to capitalize on his and Dressler’s status at the time as top box-office attractions (!); their extremely rough-and-tumble fight with one another (when Dressler catches Beery fooling around with Rambeau) surely appealed to audience members (see the still of the original movie poster above for further evidence of this marketing slant). Rambeau’s role, meanwhile, is terribly written: she simply shows up one day in full harridan-mode, illogically demanding respect from her long-abandoned daughter. Yet despite the script’s flaws and cliches, it’s filled with plenty of enjoyably salty dialogue:

“Cut out the applesauce — just what did you say?”
“When I was young, I used to make ‘em sizzle.”
“I’ve drunk everything from bug juice to rot gut.”

While it hasn’t held up well as entertainment for modern audiences, Min and Bill is worth a look for those interested in Dressler’s erstwhile popularity.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Marie Dressler as Min (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actresses of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
    vlcsnap-2014-04-03-14h58m59s32
  • Fine use of waterfront locales
    vlcsnap-2014-04-01-15h17m14s237

Must See?
No, though completists will likely be curious to see it simply because of Dressler’s Oscar-win.

Links:

Valley of the Dolls (1967)

“I’m not nutty; I’m just hooked on dolls!”

Valley of the Dolls Poster

Synopsis:
A young woman (Barbara Parkins) seeking adventure in New York City falls for a marriage-phobic man (Paul Burke) while navigating her new career as a famous model; meanwhile, her sexy friend Jennifer (Sharon Tate) marries a singer (Tony Scotti) with a strangely possessive sister (Lee Grant), and a talented ingenue named Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke) becomes increasingly hooked on drugs and alcohol as her star rises.

Genres:

Review:
Mark Robson’s infamously trashy adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s bestselling novel features howl-worthy performances, dialogue, and scenarios — a guaranteed field day for those who enjoy such cinematic “treats”. The story, about a trio of young women experiencing the harsh realities of love, fame, and drugs in the Big City, is loosely based upon the real-life travails of Judy Garland (who was originally cast in Susan Hayward’s supporting role as aging diva Helen Lawson). As young Garland’s fictional doppelganger, Patty Duke’s “Neely O’Hara” emerges as the true focus of the film — and it’s her egregiously over-the-top performance that’s often cited as the pièce de résistance of this venture. She’s given (and runs with) countless unintentionally hilarious lines:

“Mother, I know I don’t have any talent, and I know I all I have is a body, and I am doing my bust exercises.”
“Boobies, boobies, boobies. Nothing but boobies! Who needs ‘em? I made it fine without ‘em.”
“Ted Casablanca is NOT a fag… and I’m the dame who can prove it!”

But other scenes and interactions are worthy of chuckles as well — including Tate watching her “art film”, Lee Grant muttering about heating up a lasagna after arguing with her brother (Scotti), and Hayward channeling Judy Garland as she sings “I’ll Plant My Own Tree” while a colorful, Calder-esque mobile spins around her, periodically shading her face. Ultimately, your enjoyment of this one will be predicated entirely upon how much you appreciate such campy fare — but all film fanatics should check it out once, for its infamy.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Occasional creative cinematography
    Valley of the Dolls Cinematography
  • Many unintentionally hilarious scenes and sequences
    Valley of the Dolls Cinematography2
    Valley of the Dolls French Movie

Must See?
Yes, as a campy cult favorite. (How could this NOT be labeled a CC — or Camp Classic — in the back of Peary’s book?!)

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In-Laws, The (1979)

“The son is the acorn — you gotta look at the tree.”

In Laws Poster

Synopsis:
An unassuming New York dentist (Alan Arkin) finds his life uprooted when the father (Peter Falk) of the boy (Michael Lembeck) his daughter (Penny Peyser) is about to marry enlists his help in an undercover operation.

Genres:

Review:
This hilariously gonzo comedy-adventure — directed by Arthur Hiller and based on a screenplay by Andrew Bergman (best known for scripting Blazing Saddles) — features Peter Falk and Alan Arkin as an unlikely, hysterically mismatched yet ultimately synergistic undercover duo. Both Falk and Arkin play on their strengths as (respectively) a suave operator and an indignantly befuddled everyman, brought together through their children’s upcoming nuptials, then taken on the wildest of adventures, eventually ending up on nebulously intimate terms with a crazed South American dictator (Richard Libertini). In some ways, the less said about this wildly serpentine cult favorite, the better — watch and enjoy!

Note: This film was remade in 2003 by Albert Brooks, though it’s widely acknowledged as the lesser of the two versions.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Peter Falk as Vince Ricardo
    In Laws Falk
  • Alan Arkin as Sheldon Kornpett
    In Laws Arkin
  • Richard Libertini as General Garcia
    In Laws Libertini
  • A frequently hilarious screenplay: “I’ll tell you, the benefits are fantastic. The trick is not to get killed; that’s really the key to the benefits program.”
    In Laws Serpentine

Must See?
Yes, as a cult comedy favorite.

Categories

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