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Warners is back with another Bette Davis box, and her filmography still hasn't run dry. The Bette Davis Collection, Vol. 3 concentrates on the war years at WB, where it seemed that the town's top acting diva came up with one winner after another. By 1940 Davis really was a genre unto herself, starring in quality vehicles that repeatedly showed her a master of the dramatic arts. When the material was good she made it better and when it wasn't she made up the difference in personal commitment. Davis' preeminence can be seen in the opening of the trailer for The Old Maid. Bold lettering scrolls up the screen over a Davis portrait: "The Most Exciting Actress of Our Time .. Bette Davis" followed by "co-starring with Miriam Hopkins."
Savant is purposely going into less detail on the plots of the movies in this set, to see if I can convey their tone without spoiling plot developments best discovered afresh. That should make the reviews friendlier to first-time viewers. Conversely, I've gone into more detail with the set's numerous extras.
Any movie with a title like The Old Maid is going to be a tough sell to those who want to see I Am Legend, but this Bette Davis - Miriam Hopkins soaper is easily one of the best of its kind -- direct, insightful and cognizant of the way family heartbreak works itself out in real life. Casey Robinson scripted from a Zoe Atkins play, itself adapted from a novel by Edith Wharton.
The story leaps from the beginning of the Civil War, to five years later and then fifteen more, to finish in the early 1880s. Tired of waiting for her sweetheart Clem Spender (George Brent), Yankee debutante Delia Lovell (Hopkins) marries banker Jim Ralston (James Stephenson). Her younger cousin Charlotte Lovell (Davis) then falls madly in love with Spender, who soon goes away to war. What follows are years of romantic misery for Charlotte, all based on her sister's unspoken resentment regarding Clem Spender, who she still regrets not having married.
Delia makes terrible, selfish choices for Charlotte, and ruins her chances to find a husband of her own. An illegitimate baby comes into the picture as well. When the wealthy Delia brings Charlotte and the young girl, Clementina, into her house, her 'generous' gesture is slowly revealed to be anything but. Delia has essentially absorbed Charlotte's life -- past, present and future. The final scenes are excellent examples of finely tuned dramatic tension. The grown Clementina (Jane Bryan) resents 'Aunt Charlotte's' dictatorial criticisms and is on the verge of embarking on a socially difficult course with her beau Lanning Halsey (William Lundigan). Clementina considers Delia her mother, a situation that Charlotte can no longer bear.
The resolution is uncommonly mature, as Charlotte ends up taking upon herself the burden for everything -- lies by other people, the injustice of social snobbery and the responsibility for doing what's in Clementina's best interest. Few 'women's pictures' are as satisfying.
Max Steiner pulls some nice tricks with his underscore for The Old Maid: whenever a major dramatic bombshell is about to drop, a subtle buzzing of violins begins, almost like a drum roll. That makes up for some of Steiner's lame musical choices, like accompanying Clementina with a refrain of My Darling Clementine. With top WB studio cameraman Tony Gaudio on the job, the main function of director Edmund Goulding was probably to keep competitive stars Davis and Hopkins from each other's throats. Davis doesn't hog scenes; even when she's the quiet one in the room, she knows that the dramatic focus will still be on Charlotte Lovell and allows the story to keep a civil balance. Most 'weepies' are satisfied with finding new ways for women to suffer, but in Davis' pictures the melodramatics are always earned.
All of the discs in the Davis 3 come with a full Warner Night at the Movies complement of extras. The trailer for Confessions of a Nazi Spy makes us want to see the courageous 'premature anti-Fascist' WB picture, made when Hollywood was being warned to stay neutral regarding the war in Europe. A Newsreel covers a bathing beauty contest in Venice Beach. Lincoln in the White House is a 'Lincoln's Greatest Hits' digest story showing an almost angelic Lincoln (Frank McGlynn Sr.) dealing with sick children while rattling off speeches for the ages. The Technicolor short looks like a surviving print with faded color, or perhaps one of its color registers is missing. Sword Fishing is a Ronald Reagan-narrated piece about an angler who uses a hunting bow to bag big sports fish off the coast of Mexico. Animation fans will want to see two fall-down hilarious Bob Clampett-Porky Pig cartoons. The Film Fan shows Porky catching a matinee, while Kristopher Kolumbus is a fractured retelling of the events of 1492, with Porky standing in for the great explorer. They cartoons are jammed with crazy puns, visual gags and frequent non-PC images of American Indians.
Much more expensive but not quite as successful is 1940's All This, and Heaven Too which, incidentally, is graced with one of Max Steiner's most beautiful musical openings. The sweeping melody sets up a soapy story that unfortunately is a hard sell, even if one is not a cynic. The great Casey Robinson repeats as screenwriter.
Governess Henriette Deluzy-Desportes (Davis) has changed her name to re-start her life as a French teacher in an American school, circa 1850 or thereabouts. News of Henriette's notorious past has reached her young pupil Emily Schuyler (Ann Gillis of Bambi), and the teacher begins her day facing accusations that she's unfit to teach. The composed Frenchwoman chooses instead to tell the children her story -- in the third person.
In 1846 Henriette takes a job as governess for the troubled Praslin family. The Duc de Praslin (Charles Boyer) has washed his hands of his cloying, temperamental Duchesse (Barbara O'Neil), who begs for his affection one moment and screams irrational accusations the next. The Duchesse also ignores her children, who welcome the loving Henriette with open arms. Helped by The Duc's disloyal servants, gossip soon spreads that the master is spending too much time with the Governess. The Duchesse uses false accusations to keep her husband in line, and then has fits when he refuses to do anything more than keep up appearances. The terrorized children love Henriette and The Duchesse causes more unprovoked scenes. The Duc begs Henriette to stay on, while acknowledging that he does indeed love her.
All This, and Heaven Too rubs its own premise the wrong way, for as much as it wants to claim that The Duc and Henriette's relationship is guiltless, both audience expectations and clues in the film point the other way. First, The Duc doesn't come off as a particularly wonderful man. Women as nuts as his wife normally don't get that way without provocation. The Duchesse wants her husband's love so badly, we can't help but think that the right person could tip her off that the path to happiness is by being a better mother. (This on the evidence of the movie, not the source book.) No, the Praslins are hopelessly conflicted, which means that The Duchesse tortures hubby with threats from her rich relatives, etc.. The Duc treats her like dog food while showing a completely different side to the innocent Henriette.
A crumbling marriage like this needs a loving, older governess, one who could earn extra points by charming The Duchesse and showing her how to win back her man. Nope, Henriette proves with every passing minute that she'd be better for The Duc than his dark-haired harpy. As for the fact that she never commits any physical misdeeds with her employer, I say piffle. Right in the nursery, when she tells the kids that, "Happiness cannot be cut up and doled out when one needs it" (para.), she's looking right at The Duc with those criminal Bette Davis eyes. When she and The Duc take the oldest daughter (cute as a button June Lockhart) to the theater, Henriette sits between father and daughter, instead of letting the daughter sit between the adults. As the show is some kind of command performance, Henriette should really sit behind the Praslins, or by herself down in the orchestra. Anything else is bound to hit the gossip columns. Heck, the daughter is plenty old enough to accompany père without a governess in tow.
The movie could easily be titled "Mock Adultery and Absolution Too" -- it plays like the memoir of a woman with a 'difficult' past re-framing her experience in a favorable light. It was all for the children, honest. Perhaps Henriette got off easy. If she thinks life with The Duc would be heaven, she should first consider what he's done to his first wife. It's pretty foolhardy to conclude that it's all The Duchesse's fault, no matter how villainous the narrative paints her. 1
(Unavoidable spoiler) Back in class, the girls hearing Henriette's tale of woe drown in guilty tears, instantly declare their love and swear to keep her secret forever. Henriette beams, and whattaya know, there's a handsome minister with 'new ideas about love' waiting for her in the wings. I can't help but think that Henriette's French goose will be cooked as soon as the precocious girls blab about her at home -- it's almost a setup for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. And how soon will it be before one of the girls, excited by Henriette's tale of handsome French royalty, asks her how she really enticed The Duc to spend so much time in the nursery, hot cha?
All This, and Heaven Too tips its hand as delirious wish fulfillment when Henriette tells the class that her affair, I mean, her non-affair, is directly responsible for triggering the revolutions of 1848 and toppling the French government. Isn't it swell for a simple woman (whose stated duty in the film is 'to love and suffer') to change history? Maybe All This, and Heaven Too is Monica Lewinsky's favorite weepie.
Anatole Litvak's direction is smoothly adequate. Boyer is his usual smoldering stiff and Davis of course adds levels of subtlety to her work. But not enough credit can be given to Barbara O'Neil, in a stunningly thankless role which she performs extremely well.
Film historian and author Daniel Bubbeo clocks in on the commentary track for this 143-minute kidney buster. He pegs All This as one of many period films made in the wake of Gone With the Wind, and reveals that the story was based on an event in the life of author Rachel Field's grandmother. Star Charles Boyer was concerned during filming, which happened as Paris was falling to the Nazis.
The parade of extras is indeed a treat. A trailer for Dr. Erlich's Magic Bullet ("The Movies face the Facts of Life!") is followed by newsreel footage of Bette Davis and Mickey Rooney receiving a popularity award. Rooney turns on the 'character' only when he thinks the cameras are rolling. Rooney and Davis look odd together, being from rival studio systems; it's like seeing a DC comic character interact with a personality from the Marvel stable. Meet The Fleet is a snappy-looking two reel advert for the Navy, with beautiful Technicolor scenes on the deck of the Arizona, or another identical dreadnaught. Future producer William T. Orr, George Reeves and Dennis the Menace's father Herbert Anderson are new sailors ("Is that a submarine?") while old salt Robert Armstrong doltishly courts librarian Mary Cheffey. Instead of musical shorts, we get the Robert Clampett/Porky Pig/Daffy Duck cartoon Porky's Last Stand, which has personality to spare -- Porky doesn't walk through scenes, he Bops.
Also included is a radio show adaptation starring the same actors. I'll bet that the stars were eager to do these shows to make extra money outside of their often-low contract salaries.
Moving a bit further down the line is 1941's The Great Lie, a fairly shallow story about two strong women and their rivalry over the man they love and the baby they both claim as their own. It's well done, but unlike The Old Maid, the story in this one has been calibrated too obviously to touch all the right 'Kleenex buttons'. Get your checklist ready -- classy 'cultural' music background, husband presumed killed in darkest Brazil, baby conceived under oddball married/not married conditions, and a compromise between female enemies that constitutes 'The Great Lie.' Compared to modern-day soap shenanigans it's kid's stuff, but in The Great Lie we can't help but feel that great talent is being wasted on a trifle.
Maggie Patterson (Davis) is heartbroken when her beau Pete Van Allen (George Brent) marries playgirl concert pianist Sandra Kovak (Mary Astor) while on a drunk. But Pete discovers that Sandra is mistaken about the date that her divorce from her previous husband was due, and they're not really married. When Sandra refuses to cancel a performance date to remarry Pete, he marries Maggie instead. Sandra swears that she'll get him back. The new Van Allens reopen the Patterson mansion in Maryland, but Pete flies off on a special mission for the government and is lost over Brazil. When he's listed as dead, Sandra confides to Maggie that she's pregnant. Sandra has no interest in the baby, but Maggie wants it desperately, so they make a bargain to pretend that Pete Jr. is Maggie's baby, and go off to Arizona to have it in secret. Thus is born 'the great lie'.
As far as soapbox dramatics go, The Great Lie works fine. Bette Davis and Mary Astor make a terrific pair of civilized fighting cats, conducting their business with polite conversation and, never, never tell poor clueless George Brent what's going on. Astor and Davis reportedly rewrote the script, probably for the better. Miss Astor ended up with a Best Supporting Oscar. The classy siren and ex-scandal queen Astor certainly deserved the nod, even though the scene where she cracks up while waiting for the baby borders on the silly side. Alone in a desert shack in Arizona (how secret must this baby be?) as the WB wind sound effects howl outside, we keep expecting the unlikely pair to be attacked by giant ants.
In almost a parody of soap conventions, Maggie and Sandra exchange meaningful and furtive looks as Sandra draws blood with barbed comments that Pete won't understand. Of course, the entire story collapses when one realizes that a timely explanation could have avoided all of the sadomasochistic thrills. Nope, the 'women's film' subgenre seems to believe that a woman's duty is to withhold the truth from her man. George Brent's Pete is supposed to be completely innocent, but the movie's morals are at best slippery. Pete and Sandra considered themselves married, and despite the legal mistake, it seems like a cheap dodge for Pete to ditch her. Insisting that Sandra cancel a performance to stay with him sounds more like a thin pretext to call the whole thing off -- after the honeymoon.
The fringes of the movie have items of interest as well. Pete is engaged in government work involving 'Hemispheric Defense', a euphemism for war preparedness that had to be used because the U.S. Congress was down on Hollywood for violating America's neutrality, even in spirit. Everyone knew war was coming but the movies had to pretend otherwise. Less palatable, and perhaps responsible for The Great Lie's infrequent TV appearances, are the scenes on Maggie's farm involving Hattie McDaniel and her brother Sam, as old-fashioned yowza-type servant and farmhand. When Maggie reopens the old Patterson mansion, it's like rebuilding Tara. Pete and Maggie's wedding is serenaded by what was once called a darkie chorus, black folks who like nothing better than to celebrate the Massa's happiness. Otherwise, the blacks are irrelevant non-entities. The scenes aren't openly insulting, but they put The Great Lie way out of date.
The Great Lie's extras open with a trailer for The Strawberry Blonde, followed by newsreel outs from an event at Ciro's, attended by some recognizable female stars and a great many unrecognizable men -- perhaps film distributors? The dramatic short subject At the Stroke of Twelve is a sentimental crime story by Damon Runyon starring Craig Stevens (and in a small role, Howard da Silva). Two sports related pieces follow, both involving horses. The Technicolor Kings of the Turf covers the career of a race horse from the time he is born, and the B&W Polo with the Stars tries to explain the favorite sport of Hollywood princes, with comic assists from Jack Oakie, Joe E. Brown and Edward G. Robinson. The funny Bob Clampett/ Porky Pig cartoon is Porky's Pooch. A showcase of precise animation characterization, it gives us the unforgettable scene of a cartoon dog, locked out on the 40th floor of a building, scowling a string of (silent) profanities through the window.
After waiting so many years, I was expecting to see the entire cast of The Maltese Falcon in a hotel or tavern scene in In This Our Life. It's said that director John Huston put them there as a lark, but the story is apparently apocryphal. Huston biographers don't have much to say about this drama, one of the best in the set. The Howard Koch screenplay gets maximum mileage out of a compressed, highly dramatic family situation, and until the obvious Production Code mandated ending, the picture is darn good.
In an unusual choice of makeup and wig that often makes her look just like Lucille Ball (no kidding), Davis is Stanley Timberlake, the spoiled-rotten daughter of businessman Asa Timberlake (Frank Craven), cheated out of his fortune by his brother-in-law William Fitzroy (Charles Coburn), an old man who fantasizes about his niece and showers her with gifts. Stanley is a selfish she-rat all the way. She accepts William's fat wedding gift check for her marriage to struggling lawyer Craig Fleming (George Brent), but shocks everyone by running off with her sister's husband, surgeon Peter Kingsmill (Dennis Morgan). Sister Roy Timberlake (Olivia de Havilland) turns bitter for a while, and Craig is equally disheartened, but they eventually begin a romance, both cautious about being burned a second time. Meanwhile, Stanley and Peter marry when his divorce papers come through but do not settle down well. Stanley spends money Peter hasn't got, and spoils him for his surgery duties by toying with his affections and keeping him out drinking.
In This Our Life is good enough not to spoil by revealing more of its plot. John Huston's direction beautifully sketches the complex relationships between the Timberlake and Fitzroy families, and holds the characters to account for their moral choices. Old Asa Timberlake (Frank Craven of Our Town and City for Conquest has the grace to accept his defeat as a businessman, while his daughter Roy (why did he give his girls boys' names -- did I miss the explanation?) displays her integrity in good times and bad. Charles Coburn is also impressive as a pompous coot too proud to listen to doctors and too foolish to realize how his money enables Stanley to wreak havoc on those around her.
The film's last act involves a fairly progressive subplot about an ambitious black man (Ernest Anderson) unjustly framed for manslaughter. Although this story thread marks John Huston's first directorial experiment with a liberal theme, it also stops the film's investigation of family politics, and interrupts the dramatic flow. In This Our Life shouldn't need to employ melodramatics to keep itself going.
Davis is different here -- she's an almost unredeemable bad girl, plain poison. The family welcomes Stanley back, only for her to wreck their lives a second time. Davis is forever moving or dancing, and is so restless (read: sexually amok) that it's tempting to accept her character as the Bad Example to contrast with Good sister Roy. Fortunately, Davis is so arrestingly wicked as Stanley that we don't see the need to look for an overall moral. The movie is as interesting as real-life family madness, at least until the point where the extraneous melodrama takes over.
Olivia de Havilland is superb as the thankfully rational Roy; this is the movie to compare with Davis and de Havilland's later battle royale Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte. George Brent is his usual solid self while Dennis Morgan is still the WB pretty boy who doesn't quite make the grade. His is the only unconvincing character, and the movie stumbles when his behavior takes a violent mood swing.
John's father Walter Huston definitely shows up as a bartender, making his cameo appearances in his son's films a clean 2 for 2.
The extras on In This Our Life continue the pattern. Jeanine Basinger's well-informed commentary tells us that the novel won a Pulitzer Prize and that Bette Davis thought the finished film was one of the worst ever made. Basinger has an easy-going authority that makes one want to listen to everything she has to say. Through her we learn that Raoul Walsh did some reshoots after John Huston left to do war work. Also, the film was almost denied an export license for sending the wrong message about America with its depiction of racial injustice.
The film's trailer emphasizes Bette Davis' intensity as a vicious predator. The Warners Night at the Movies lineup begins with a trailer for Desperate Journey. It happens to show one of Savant's favorite stunts: a German officer is shot, spins, takes two steps down a flight of stairs, pivots once more to better position himself, and finally topples face forward over a balustrade. You'd think he was a ballet dancer. The two-reeler flag-waving Technicolor short March On, America! uses every bit of Technicolor stock footage in town (including some scenes from Fox & Ford's Drums Along the Mohawk) to tell a Little Golden Book version of U.S. history, from Plymouth Rock to Pearl Harbor. We even see Lincoln from the short subject noted three films above.
Real ballerinas from the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo dance to Rimsky-Korsakov's Cappriccio Espagnole in the Technicolor spectacle Spanish Fiesta. Léonide Massine (from several Powell-Pressburger dance classics) and Tamara Toumanova (The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes) make a rather Russian pair of flamenco lovers, but the dancing's definitely high quality stuff. Porky Pig appears the zookeeper of the Azusa Zoo in the cartoon Who's Who in the Zoo? Some good laughs, but not the killer comedy of the earlier Bob Clampetts.
The newsreel is like a gold strike for star-struck fans -- it's apparently raw dailies from some kind of personal appearance by a flood of stars in support of the war effort. The audio recording is almost inaudible but we get a great look at (just the ones I remember) Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Bert Lahr, Charlotte Greenwood, Pat O'Brien, Joan Bennett, Joan Blondell, Desi Arnaz and Groucho Marx. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy do a good gag with Hardy cramming himself behind the wheel of a Jeep, in character. The assembled celebrities laugh right along with a bunch of onlookers, including soldiers on guard. It's pretty darn priceless.
Watch on the Rhine is possibly the best known picture in this Davis stack, yet it doesn't hold up very well. Lillian Hellman adapted her own play for the screen with Dashiell Hammett and the result is two hours of patriotic speechifying. The original 1941 stage production was an anti-isolationist tract meant to shake the U.S. out of its complacency toward the Nazi threat. Filmed two years later in the middle of the war, the movie seems like old news. Hellmann picks a wealthy Washington family presided over by Fanny Farrelly (Lucile Watson), widow of a Supreme Court Justice. Her house becomes a hotbed of intrigue when daughter Sara (Davis) returns from Europe after eighteen years, with a husband and three rather impossibly noble children. Kurt Muller (Paul Lukas) only seems to be a refugee as they limp in across the Mexican border; he's really a Victor Laszlo-like resistance fighter. Kurt hasn't worked as an engineer in years, and when pressed by Fanny to account for himself, responds with the line, "I'm a professional fighter of fascism." Shifting instantly from obnoxious matriarch into a true-blue American, Fanny says she'll ask no more questions. "Well, here we are, shaken out of the magnolias." Lukas received a Best Actor Oscar for the role.
Also in the family is another Farrelly daughter, played by Geraldine Fitzgerald. She's married to a shifty German, Teck de Brancovis (George Coulouris), a skunk who hangs around the German embassy looking for ways to make money through idle treachery.
90% of the film consists of characters planting their feet on the carpet and giving out with position speeches. Sara talks about hardship, sacrifice and the necessity for Karl to get back into the fight now that his family is safe. The children harp on all day about the meaning of freedom. We're no sooner introduced to a roomful of Nazi officials and fellow travelers than they conveniently psychoanalyze one another. The writing may be good propaganda, but it's terrible drama, with sneering baddies like Henry Daniell and Rudolph Anders telling each other how ruthless and corrupt they are.
Good propaganda (well, effective propaganda) urges people to action, and Watch on the Rhine places the need to neutralize the Nazi threat above any other concern. (Spoiler) The final act has a cold-blooded murder, after which the Farrelly family unites in a cover-up. Fascist treachery excuses quite a bit, but it's more than a little disconcerting when our heroes make platitudinous speeches over a fresh corpse. It sounds altogether too much like the self-righteous talk we'd hear later in the sixties, directed at anyone from political activists to kids with long hair. "The war isn't somewhere else. It's here in our homes, in our families..." The movies have always known that Nazis make the best villains -- they're 100% evil. The hero can commit any atrocity and still be heroic, so long as the victim is a despised Nazi. Perhaps I should backtrack a bit -- Watch on the Rhine is relevant today after all.
The film was directed by Herbert Shumlin, a stage man with liberal credentials (Spanish Earth, 1937). The action is blocked rather rigidly but cameramen Merrit Gerstad and Hal Mohr come up with the occasional striking image. Subsumed into the ensemble cast, Bette Davis is given the obligatory scene where she dresses up to show that running from Nazis halfway across the globe hasn't robbed her of her beauty. Paul Lukas holds the center while George Coulouris grumbles that his wife Fitzgerald is getting too chummy with David Farrelly (Donald Woods). The kids are all cute dialogue and noble gestures, and the end sees the oldest son already planning to return to Europe to fight Nazis with his father.
The commentary on Watch on the Rhine is by academic and Lillian Hellman & Hal Wallis biographer Bernard F. Dick. He has the whole story behind the Hellman-Wallis-Hammett movie, which garnered Dashiell Hammett an AA nomination. He addresses the issue of 'premature anti-fascism' and Hellman's next play, The Searching Wind. Dick also tells stories about other playwrights, like Arthur Miller.
The extras begin with an eye-opening trailer for Mission to Moscow, the movie that assures us that Uncle Joe Stalin's purges are cleaning up corruption in the U.S.S.R.. The newsreel is a silent remnant of a piece on the preparation of B-17 bombers for raids on Germany.
The musical short Ozzie Nelson and His Orchestra is an odd show where Ozzie acts like Dagwood Bumstead, joins the Army and leads the band at the same time ... the band singer may be Harriet Hilliard (didn't look like her to me) but Ozzie's 'wife' character is definitely someone else. Then we're back to Bob Clampett with the Technicolor cartoon The Wise Quacking Duck, with Daffy being chased around a barnyard by an Elmer Fudd-like guy who wears glasses.
Each of the The Bette Davis Collection, Vol. 3 films is represented by a beautiful new transfer and a solid audio track. The commitment to quality at Warner DVD is such that anything short of excellence from them is becoming a very rare occurrence. Each film comes with its original trailer, outside the Warner Night pre-show packages, so as not to spoil the main features.
After three boxed sets, there are still probably enough A-Rank Davis pictures to form a fourth collection: Cabin in the Cotton, Ex-Lady, Of Human Bondage, Dangerous, The Sisters, Juarez, The Corn is Green, Beyond the Forest. "Women's Pictures" though they may be, these are just plain good movies.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Bette Davis Collection, Vol. 3 rates:
1. Which is always the best advice against actively filching another woman's husband. If he was rotten enough to ditch her, he'll surely ditch you too. That common sense rule is almost as axiomatic as marrying a woman with a fat mother. When the wife becomes fat too, it's always a big surprise. Savant is thinking of opening up a Tough-Love center for Cynical Relationship Studies.
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