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not all great DVDs are in 5.1

Silent DVD Archive


First Ladies: Early Women Filmmakers
A column on the world of early cinema by DVDTalk reviewer John Sinnott

Back again with another column, only two weeks after the last.  I have always intended for Silent DVD to come out once a month, but it seems with early cinema releases it's either feast or famine.  Right now there's a lot of great silent movies that are being released on DVD, and I'm not complaining.

This time around we have a look at a trio of Kino releases released under the banner of First Ladies:  Early Women Filmmakers. These discs, available separately, consist of four features and a short all directed and/or produced by female filmmakers.  The most interesting is The Red Kimona, more for the story behind the film, but it's a well crafted work in and of itself.  Next is the heavy-handed moralistic allegory film Hypocrites by Lois Weber which also includes the delightful short, Eleanor's Catch.  The series wraps up with a double feature:  The Ocean Waif, directed by Alice Guy-Blanche, the first woman to direct movies, and 49-17 with Ruth Ann Baldwin at the helm, a fun parody of westerns.

Rounding out the column is a documentary on the first significant American director:  Edwin S. Porter.  While Before the Nickelodeon:  The Early Cinema of Edwin S. Porter does have its flaws, the film is a nice overview of both the style and exhibition of very early film.

Next time around I'll have a review of the Houdini set.  I was hoping to have it done for this column, but there's a lot to go through and it's so enjoyable I don't want to rush it.  I'll also take a look at Kino's recent release of early French films, The Magic of Melies, and the first installment of the third wave of Kino's Slapstick Symposium:  Harry Langdon's feature films Three's a Crowd and The Chaser.


The Story of Mrs. Wallace Reid, Gabrielle Darley, and the Red Kimona:

Kino has released a silent film in their First Ladies film series that was previously only available on VHS tape:  The Red Kimona.  This is a film was produced by Wallace Reid's widow, written by Dorothy Arzner from a story by Adela Rogers St. John, and while Walter Lang gets the directorial credit in the film, Mrs. Reid was very involved and approved all of the shots.  A socially conscious film, (the type that wouldn't be produced any longer once the Hays Code came into being,) this melodrama is entertaining, if slightly predictable.  It's also one of those films where the story behind the story is just as interesting as the movie itself, if not more so.

Mrs. Wallace Reid:

Dorothy Davenport was an ingénue of 17 at Universal Studios when she was cast opposite an up and coming actor, Wallace Reid.  The two hit it off and were married in 1913.  Dorothy continued to act until 1917 when she gave birth to her first child, Wallace Reid Jr.

Reid's star grew.  He appeared in D.W. Griffith's A Birth of a Nation (1915) and then signed with Famous Players and was soon their biggest star, headlining a series of daredevil race films that were popular with the public.

In 1919 tragedy struck.  While filming a train wreck for The Valley of the Giants, Reid injured his back.  Not wanting to lose their star for any longer than was necessary, the studio sent a doctor to Wallace who prescribed morphine to kill the pain and get him back in front of the camera.  Already a heavy drinker, Reid's back healed but the need for morphine didn't leave.  He was addicted and the studio made sure he had a good supply so that he could keep working.  In a few years his health started to fade and in January of 1923, at the age of 31, the once fit and strapping Wallace Reid died of influenza which had ravaged his weakened system.

Dorothy poured her anger and frustration at her husband's senseless death into making movies.  That same year that he died, she made Human Wreckage with Bessie Love.  Now a lost film, this movie tells the tale of a wife (Davenport) who tries to save her lawyer husband from a drug addiction.  The film was a popular and critical success, and made Davenport, who was now billed as Mrs. Wallace Reid, enough money to start her own production company.  Next she made another film spotlighting one of society's ills, Broken Laws (also lost.)  This one dealt with Juvenile Delinquency.  In 1925 she made her third and final film with a conscience, The Red Kimona which centered on prostitution.  For her story she took a real-life crime, a sensational case in the LA area when it occurred (1917,) and dramatized it.  Written by Dorothy Arzner from a story by Adela Rogers St. John, the film was The Red Kimona.

The Red Kimona:

The film opens with a lady (Mrs. Reid herself in an uncredited role) leafing through a compendium of newspapers.  She stops at one headline that reads "Story of Gabrielle Darley Startling Human Document" and informs the audience that the story she is about to tell is true, and that "if it contains bitter truths, remember that I only turn the pages of the past.

The narrative then turns to Gabrielle Darley (Priscilla Bonner1), a prostitute in New Orleans.  In a flashback we discover that Gabrielle grew up in a house with a cruel father (played by Tyron Power Sr, father of the famous swashbuckler) and an indifferent mother.  When a smooth talking city fella, Howard Blaine (Carl Miller) starts to admire the attractive school girl she immediately falls in love with him.  He promises to marry her when they get to his home in New Orleans, and the two run off together.

One in the Big Easy however, Howard takes Gabrielle to the red light district and sets her up in her own apartment.  An apartment where she entertains men for money.  She does this because she loves Howard so much and wants to make him happy.

When she discovers that Howard has taken all of her money and run off to LA in order to marry someone else, she follows him.  When she discovers the man she loves in a jewelry store buying a diamond ring for another woman she can't stand it and shoots him dead.  She is arrested and tried for murder.  Telling her story and painting Blaine as a monster, Gabrielle is acquitted.  Now something of a celebrity, the socialite Mrs. Beverly Fontaine (Virginia Pearson) offers to take her in, but only so she can be the centerpiece of her tea parties and social gatherings.  After Fontaine tires of the young girl, she kicks her out onto the street.  There, poor Gabrielle can't seem to hold a job.  She works hard and is willing to learn, but whenever someone discovers her past, she's fired.  It seems like there's only one route left open to her, to return to her earlier lifestyle.  But will she?

This was a fine film, with some nice direction but ultimately there wasn't a lot to separate it from the other melodramas of the period, aside from the subject matter.  They treat the prostitution tastefully, never actually mentioning sex or showing Bonner with a man, but it's obvious what's going on.  The ending is predictable (I left out the sub-plot about Fontaine's chauffer who falls in love with Gabrielle in my synopsis) and very "Hollywood" but still satisfying.

Bonner does a great job playing the hooker with a heart of gold who just wants to be given a fair shake.  She's isn't as over-the-top as I was expecting, and manages to breath life into her character.  The scene where the bell in her apartment rings, signaling that a customer is coming up, was very good.  She bolts the door and stands against it defiantly, but slowly realizes that she has no choice.  She physically withers as she unbolts the door and powders her face for her visitor.

The Real Gabrielle Darley:

The film opened in 1925, and soon after Dorothy Reid (as she was now known) found herself being sued for $50,000 for invasion of privacy.  The real Gabrielle Darley (now Gabrielle Darley Melvin) saw the film and was aghast.  It wasn't the fictitious parts of the movie that bothered her, but the true events.  In her court filing Darley-Melvin stated that after her trial she married, settled down, and was a respected member of society.  None of her friends and neighbors knew of her past since she took her husband's name, but when the movie come out she found herself ostracized once again.

It's ironic that a movie that pleads with its viewers to "help - rather than hinder - the upwards struggles of such unfortunates" would end up ruining the life of the exact person they were trying to help.  Presumably Reid used Darley's real name in order to create a little publicity and entice people who remembered the trial into the theaters.   The odd thing is that every other real person in the film was either unnamed or had their name changed.  Darley's attorney for her murder trial in real life was one of the best trial lawyers around, Earl Rogers, father of the writer Adela Rogers St. John.  He wasn't named in the film.  There was a socialite that appeared with Darley in court and took her in afterwards, the famous soprano Ellen Beach Yaw.  Even her victim's name was changed; in reality he was named Leonard Topp.   It would be unfortunate that Reid didn't change the main character's name too.

Today it would be a hard case for the plaintiff to win.  Events in the public record are fair game; look at the recent movie about the 2000 Presidential Election recount in Florida.  Things were a bit different in 1925 however.  Both the lower court ruled in Darley-Melvin's favor.  It was almost like they were looking for a reason to grant her a win when they proclaimed that the California Constitution guarantees the pursuit of happiness, and that Reid made that impossible for Darley-Melvin with her film.  The upper court agreed, and the Supreme Court for the State of California refused to hear the case, granting Gabrielle her victory.  Reid was forced into bankruptcy.

The Story Continues:

The odd thing about Gabrielle's court victory is that her case against Reid was pretty much fabricated out of whole cloth. Unlike the film's ending, Gabrielle had reverted to her old ways.  She was a prostitute and Madam and apparently spent most of the rest of her life as one or the other.  Not only that, but she left a trail of dead lovers behind her.  By one account six of her lovers were either shot, poisoned or died under mysterious circumstances.  Ya know, I bet there's a movie in that story somewhere.

The DVD:


Audio:

The scene-specific piano score was written and performed by Robert Israel and he does a very good job.  There were a couple of sections where I thought the music could have been a little dourer to mirror the heroine's troubles, but this is a minor point.  In general the score fits the mood quite well and makes the film more fun to watch.

Video:

It looks like Kino has used the same master that they employed for the videotape release some years ago.  (The VHS tape release was aimed at libraries and rental stores and retailed for $50, 2 ½ times the MSRP of this DVD!)  The film was restored by Bret Wood and is from the American Film Institute at the Library of Congress.  It looks very good though it doesn't fall into the top-tier of restored silent movies.  The contrast is very good and the level of detail is also fine.  Some highlights are washed out, but this isn't a major defect, and there are some spots and dirt on the print, which isn't surprising given the age of the film.  The movie does include the hand-painted sequences that match the original release.

Extras:

There are no extras.

Final Thoughts:

This is a fine example of a socially conscious film, something that was largely missing from Hollywood's output during the days of the Hays Code.  (And some would say now too....)  The story is a bit melodramatic, but it's still very enjoyable and worth a spin.  And while the print has a little damage, the image is overall very good.  Fans of silent films should certainly check it out.  Recommended.

1)  Though she's not famous today, Priscilla Bonner had a number of important roles in the silent era.  She stared in two of Harry Langdon's best films, Long Pants and The Strong Man and was Clara Bow's best friend Molly in It.  This film shows that she's just as adept at dramatic roles as she was at comedies.  She left acting when she married her second husband in 1928.


Hypocrites:

Kino presents a film by Lois Weber, one of the first female American directors, as part of their First Ladies:  Early Women Filmmakers series.  The film at hand, Hypocrites, was written, produced, and directed by Weber, and covers a theme she obviously felt strongly about.  The film looks at hypocrisy in society, at all levels; from politics to business and even social and home life.  While the directing is excellent and many of the scenes beautiful, the movie itself is rather heavy-handed and therefore unexciting.

Lois Weber started out as an actress in Hollywood, but went on to become a director, writing many of her movies herself.  What's so interesting about her story is that she did all this in the early days of the last century.   Weber directed her first film in 1913; years before she even had the right to vote.  In 1914 she became the first woman to direct a feature production.  Weber rose up to become one of the most respected directors in Hollywood, and the highest paid at one point too.  She was a feminist too, and her movies, almost always dramas, often focused on social themes.  But as styles changed in the 1920's, Weber fell out of fashion.  The rise of the studio system pushed many women out of the field too, and by the late twenties her career was all but over.

Hypocrites was made in 1915 at the height of her career.  The story starts in a church, where a minister, Gabriel (Courtenay Foote), gives a sermon on hypocrisy.  Some of the people are moved by it, but most aren't.  One member of the congregation, a business man, is so offended he instructs others to demand Gabriel's resignation, but not before complimenting the preacher on his speech.

Distraught that he wasn't able to make his flock see the beauty in being truthful, Gabriel dies immediately after the service.  His spirit, cloaked in white robes, leaves his body and turning the film into pure allegory, beckons his congregation to follow him up a mountain to find Truth, portrayed as a double exposed naked woman (uncredited).  Many start up the hill, but the going is too difficult and Gabriel is the only one who makes it.

If he isn't able to bring the people to Truth, he'll bring Truth to the people.  He then becomes a monk in a medieval society.  While the other so-called holy men eat and get fat, Gabriel works and works on an unseen statue.  On the day of the village fete everyone gathers around for the unveiling.  It's a beautiful sculpture of the naked Truth, which offends everyone who is present.  In their anger the crowd kills Gabriel.

Having failed twice, Truth takes Gabriel on a tour of society, holding her mirror up to different scenes to reveal the truth of their character.  Politicians take graft, business men are dirty, society people are fake and even a seemingly nice set of parents overindulges their children with sweets and themselves with sex.

The direction on this movie was excellent.  Weber certain knew how to block a shot in order to create a beautiful image that had a lot of visual impact.  She experiments successfully with pans and dolly shots too.  At the beginning and end of the fete there are a pair of very long and impressive shots of the crowd.  The camera moves across the people excited (or later angry) to see what Gabriel has sculpted.  These shots would make a modern day director nervous since they are so long and involve so many extras having to act, but Weber pulls it off and these scenes are the most memorable in the movie.

The problem with the film is that Weber is about as subtle as a flying mallet.  She eschews entertainment or even much of a narrative structure in order to pound her message home:  if no one in the film is honest and embraces truth, maybe the audience doesn't either.  Some scenes don't work either.  The mountain climbing sequence is problematic and a bit confusing, especially at first when viewers don't understand why Gabriel wants everyone to follow him.  Most of it is clear, like the man who can't get up the mountain because he's carrying a heavy bag of gold that he won't leave behind.  Other parts don't make much sense though.  One character is a man who is carrying a young child.  He can't even start up the steep slope without falling.  He calls to his wife who turns around and goes back down.  What was he supposed to do, leave his infant child?  How is caring for your offspring hypocritical?  There's also a woman who nearly makes it to the top but gets too tired and can't quite complete the journey.  She calls to Gabriel to help her, but he doesn't.  You'd think if he really wanted to lead people to truth he'd lend a hand.

Almost an experimental film in style, even at a scant 50 minutes the movie seems too long.  After the first section it's easy to see where Weber is going with the film and THE MESSAGE becomes overwhelming.  The problem is that she doesn't offer any compelling arguments why hypocrisy is so horrible.  Yes, the politician taking graft is bad, but her audience can't relate to that.  She's obviously trying to get people to examine their own lives, but never provides a reason that they should.

The DVD:


Audio:

The original score was written and performed by Jon Mirsalis.  Mr. Mirsalis performs to his usual standard, which is to say he does a great job.  The scene-specific score is nice to listen to and mimics the emotions presented on the screen.

Video:

The full frame image has some nitrate decomposition, all of it near the beginning of the film, but aside from that it looks great.  The image has very nice definition and the picture is very clear.  The contrast is excellent and aside from the nitrate damage the film looks like it was from the 50's not the 10's.  Fans of the director's work will be very pleased with the quality of this print.

Extras:

The disc also comes with a short, Eleanor's Catch from 1916.  This film is directed, produced, and stars Cleo Madison.  This is one of the best films in Kino's three disc First Ladies series.  Cleo is a young girl who falls under the charm of a smooth-talking city-slicker.  The surprise ending works particularly well and makes this a fun film.

Final Thoughts:

I've always found Lois Weber to be heavy-handed in her stories and this is no exception.  The bizarre structure of the film may have worked with a story that wasn't so preoccupied with driving home a message, but as it is this film's lack of subtly dooms it.  Filled with some very nicely composed shots, it's too bad that the movie isn't more entertaining.  As it is only die-hard silent cinema fans will want to screen this.  The same can't be said of Eleanor's Catch, a fun and delightful short that is the highlight of this three disc series.  Overall this disc would make a good rental.


The Ocean Waif / 49-17:

Kino has started to release some restored silent films on DVD that were previously available on VHS tape, including their First Ladies:  Early Women Filmmakers series.  Featuring rarely seen movies created by women, these three DVDs have some interesting films and are quite a bargain, retailing for just half of what their VHS counterparts sold for.  This disc contains two short features, The Ocean Waif, directed by Alice Guy-Blanche, the first woman to direct movies, and 49-17 with Ruth Ann Baldwin at the helm, a fun parody of westerns.

The Ocean Waif (1916):  Millie Jessup (Doris Kenyon) is a young girl living as a slave to her mean step-father.  He found her on the shore as an infant and raised her ever since, but he's never treated her kindly.  One day he starts to beat her over a small mistake when a local boy, Sem (Fraunie Fraunholz), rushes in and saves her.  Millie runs off and takes up living in an abandoned house, which is rumored to be haunted and in immaculate condition.

A famous novelist, Ronald Roberts (Carlyle Blackwell), needs peace and quiet to work on his next book, and takes up residence in the town where Millie lives.  Not finding the local hotel to his liking, Roberts and his valet Hawkins (Edgar Norton) decide to move into the same abandoned house that Millie is squatting in.  Eventually they meet and Millie falls for the young author.  When his fiancée arrives from New York however, Millie realizes that they come from different background and can never be together.

This is a fairly typical melodrama for the time and while it was worth sitting through, wasn't exceptional.  Made for The International Film Service, owned by W. R. Hearst, the story was mostly predictable and the action wasn't very dramatic but there were some nice touches.  The scene where the writer is reading his newest book to his man-servant was funny, and Doris Kenyon was lovely her scenes.

There were some odd moments in the film, and whether it was because scenes are lost, studio directed cuts at the last minute, or just unusual directing I can't be sure.  One such moment comes near the end, when a main character is written out in a dramatic way with just a title card.  The scene where the writer finds the Waif in the field and kisses her was awkward because there wasn't any set up.  The previous scenes had both people somewhere else, and the writer had shown no interest in Millie before that kiss.  This made the film feel a bit abrupt, unpolished, and improvised.  That doesn't mean the film played that way during its original release, but it does in this edit.

49-17 (1917):  This oddly named film is a bit strange in itself, but I really enjoyed this light-hearted look at the old west.

It's 1917 and Judge J.R. Brand (Joseph Girard) is a successful, and very rich, adjudicator in the East, but he was raised in the old West and misses his adventuresome youth as a '49'er.  He wants to recapture the times of his youth, and so he sends his secretary, Tom (Leo Pierson) to buy up the old abandoned town of Nugget Notch and find some cowboys to populate it.  That was the town that Brand and his partner were living near when they struck it rich.

Tom travels west and finds it hard to locate anyone willing to uproot themselves and move to a ghost town.  Then he happens across a '49'er sideshow attraction at the San Diego World's Fair that wasn't doing too well.  He hires the whole cast to move into Nugget Notch and they're more than happy to do so.  When the Judge arrives to the town of his youth he's very pleased.  Until one of the cast decides to take all of the Judges money that is, along with the attractive Peggy Bobbett (Donna Drew).

This first western ever directed by a woman is a lot of fun.  It's not meant to be taken seriously, and the film knows it.   When Judge Brand arrives in town, for example, he admonishes the new locals for being to civil.  "You're a fine, tame bunch of Westerners, you are!  How long would a plug hat have lasted in the old days?"  With that he takes off his hat, throws it in the air and shoots it.  Then he starts taking shots at the people standing around!  What fun!

Another thing that was enjoyable about this movie was the twist one of the sub-plots had.  Right from the beginning viewers will be sure of someone's fate, but near the end it takes a 90 degree turn unexpectedly.  It isn't often that light dramas such as this one have plot twists. Yeah, there are some problems with the film.  The time doesn't work out at all.  (If Brand was 25 years old in 1849 he would be 93 in 1917.  That's not to mention that the daughter of his partner would have been 68 year old.)  When all is said and done though, this is a light and enjoyable film that has some nice twists.

The DVD:


Audio:

Both films include solo piano scores composed and preformed by Jon Mirsalis.  Mr. Mirsalis does a great job with the music, making the audio both entertaining and having it accentuate the on-screen action.  Being a recent recording there are no audio defects of note.  Both of these films have nice sounding soundtracks.

Video:

The Ocean Waif:  This film has been restored from the only existing print, and it was saved just in time.  The film has started to decompose in places, and some scenes are nearly totally gone.  Luckily it is only a handful of sequences, mostly at the beginning.  The parts of the film not ravaged by decomposition look pretty good however.  The full frame image, tinted according to the director's written instructions, has fine contrast and a good level of detail.  It's just too bad that an otherwise fine film has started to decompose.
 

The only surviving copy of The Ocean Waif has started to decompose.

49-17:  The image is a bit jittery in places, but only marginally so.  The full frame picture is tinted and has a good amount of contrast and detail, though it is fairly soft.  While there is some print damage (scratches and dirt mainly) including several missing frames, the overall appearance is very good.

Extras:

Unfortunately there are no extras at all.

Final Thoughts:

I had a lot of fun with 49-17.  It was a light and amusing drama/western that had a few plot holes but was so enjoyable it was easy to overlook them.  Not so much with The Ocean Waif.  Though it is a fine film, there are a few plot points that happen too abruptly or aren't shown on screen at all.  Some of the ending feels like an after thought rather than a carefully crafted story.  Even so both film are worth watching.  Recommended, especially for the second feature.


Before the Nickelodeon:  The Early Cinema of Edwin S. Porter:

Kino has released a nice companion to their earlier boxed set: Edison:  The Invention of the MoviesBefore the Nickelodeon:  The Early Cinema of Edwin S. Porter is an hour long documentary that focuses on the career of the first great American director.  While the film is a bit dry and offers little in the way of revealing Porter the person, it is a very nice chronology of early film including discussing both changes in technique and methods of exhibition.

Edwin S. Porter started his career in film after leaving the Navy in 1896.  He was a traveling projectionist, taking a set of films on the road with a projector and showing them to communities that didn't have a theater.  In this capacity he traveled through Central and South America.  When he returned to New York, he landed a job as a projectionist in a theater where he would arrange several different short films together to tell a story; projecting a few films about the Spanish-American War sequentially for example.

In 1899 Porter started work for Edison, and soon was in charge of the inventor's motion picture production department.  There he filmed, directed, and edited films.  At first audiences were mainly interested in news stories, reenactments of events making headlines, and Porter gave that to them.  Soon however those films fell out of favor and Porter changed with the times, creating narrative stories.  Influenced by Méliès and other European directors, Porter soon started experimenting with cross-cutting action scenes - showing events that are taking place in two locations simultaneously. He added dissolves and fades to his films, making the transactions less jarring.

His most famous film is "The Great Train Robbery" (1903), a classic early film that includes superimpositions and other camera tricks along with tight cutting to create a rip-roaring western flick.  It was a huge hit, touring the country for years and making piles of cash for Edison.

After that Porter continued to experiment a bit, but soon stagnated.  Refusing to adapt to the industry that he helped to create, by 1909 he had left Edison to join and independent producer and by 1915 he had stopped making films all together.

This documentary gives a nice general overview of Porter and the state of the movie industry while he was working in it.  It not only chronicles the development of a film language, but also traces the evolution of film presentation, from traveling shows, to Nickelodeons, to full fledged theaters.

While this is a nice overview, it comes across as being somewhat superficial.  The film never delves into Porter's personality and viewers never get a sense of what he was like as a man.  They also point out some paradoxes concerning Porter, such as the fact that he was very innovative in the beginning of the film industry but then became stuck in his ways only a few years later, but never try to explain them.  Why didn't Porter use techniques in story telling that others developed?  Why didn't he go into management at Edison?  How did he feel in the later years of his life about the film industry?  None of these questions are examined.

In addition to the lack of personal information about Porter, the documentary takes some odd choices in selecting what to discuss.  It spends a good amount of time on "Life of an American Fireman" (1903) which was one of the first films to use cross cutting, but the documentary admits that they are not sure if Porter was the one to edit the film in that fashion or if it was done a decade or two later to make it seem more up to date.  While clips of "The Great Train Robbery" (1903) are shown and the film is mentioned as being important, it's mainly glossed over.  You could make an hour long documentary on just that 12 minute film, and to practically omit it from a biopic about its director is almost criminal.

The DVD:


Audio:

This film, made in 1982, is narrated by Blanche Sweet and sounds fine.  The two channel soundtrack sounds about average for a 25 year old documentary.  There isn't a lot of bass but the narration is easy to understand.

Video:

The full frame video consists mainly of vintage photos and clips of Porter's films.  Some of the clips are old and faded, and other have a fair amount of dirt, but overall the image quality is fine.

Extras:

This disc also includes three early Porter films:  Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show (1902 - 3 min.), Life of a Cowboy (1906 -17 minutes), and Waiting at the Church (1906 - 9 minutes.)  These are nice examples of Porter's work, but better selections would have been some of the films discussed in the documentary such as Jack and the Beanstalk or Rescued from an Eagle's Nest.

Final Thoughts:

After watching this documentary I didn't feel that I knew much more about Edwin S. Porter than I did before screening it.  The film hits the highlights of his movie career, but glosses over his personal life and lacks significant analysis of his body of work and some of the decisions that he made.  Told in a rather dry manner, this would for someone just starting to explore early cinema who wants the facts presented in a straight forward and concise manner.  In that case this would make a good rental.



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