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Monthly Archives: July 2011

Copacabana (May 30, 1947)

Hey there! Do you like the comedy of Groucho Marx? Do you like the music of Carmen Miranda? Do you like the sweet song stylings of Andy Russell? Do you like beautiful women with nice legs?

You do? Well then, brother, have I got a picture for you.

Alfred E. Green’s Copacabana is a classic example of a Hollywood product that is designed for only one purpose — to entertain.

The plot of the film is little more than an excuse to showcase Groucho Marx’s wordplay and fast-paced comedic line deliveries, Carmen Miranda’s mesmerizing vocal performances, big musical numbers featuring the 14 beautiful “Copa” girls, and Andy Russell’s syrupy, sentimental songs.

The plot, which can summarized on the back of a cocktail napkin, is this: wildly unsuccessful nightclub performer Lionel Q. Deveraux (Groucho Marx) and his fiancée of 10 years, equally unsuccessful nightclub singer Carmen Navarro (Carmen Miranda), decide that desperate measures are called for. Deveraux has been kicked out of more clubs than he can count, and threats like, “This is an outrage. You’ll hear from my lawyer, as soon as he gets a telephone,” clearly aren’t getting him anywhere.

So Deveraux decides to pass himself off as a top talent agent. He arranges for Carmen to perform for Steve Hunt (Steve Cochran), the owner of the most glamorous nightclub in Manhattan, the Copacabana. Without Deveraux onstage with her, Carmen makes a positive impression, but Steve wants to see more of Deveraux’s acts. Naturally, he has only one act — Carmen — but some quick thinking produces a second act, the beautiful and mysterious “Mademoiselle Fifi.”

Mlle. Fifi is of course just Carmen with a white costume straight out of the Arabian Nights, a blond wig piled atop her head, and a heavy veil to cover her face. Deveraux explains to Steve why she never takes the veil off. “No one but her lover is allowed to gaze upon her face,” he says. “Not even her husband.”

Meanwhile, the starry-eyed Anne Stuart (Gloria Jean) toils away in the office of the Copacabana as Steve Hunt’s gal Friday, unable to tell Steve how she really feels. Will she ever be able tell him? Will the wide-eyed, golly-gee naïveté of singer Andy Russell (played by singer Andy Russell) and his encouragement that she express herself through song help? Will that song be called “Stranger Things Have Happened”? You’ll just have to see Copacabana to find out.

I’m not the biggest fan of musicals, but I’m perfectly willing to sit back and be entertained by one if it’s well put together, and Copacabana features plenty of entertainment bang for your buck. It’s especially entertaining if you’re as much of a sucker for great gams as I am. The Copa girls are blessed with pretty faces, good singing voices (although I’m not sure if they were actually singing during their numbers), dancing ability, and — most of all — shapely getaway sticks, which are on display even when they’re in the background. When Mlle. Fifi sings her first number at the Copa, “Je Vous Aime,” the Copa girls are draped all over the place like leggy cats, listening in rapture.

And speaking of perfect pins, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Gloria Jean’s final song and dance with Groucho Marx and Carmen Miranda, in which she wears a shorts and high heels outfit that might be the cutest thing I’ve seen in a movie from 1947 so far.

I believe this was the first film in which Groucho Marx appeared without his classic greasepaint mustache and thick glasses get-up. (His actual mustache and regular glasses aren’t wildly different, of course.) Also, his brothers, Harpo, Chico, and sometimes Zeppo, are nowhere to be seen in Copacabana, but it’s still worth seeing if you’re a Marx Brothers fan. It’s not as sublime as Duck Soup (1933) or A Night at the Opera (1935), but it’s still a funny, entertaining film, and offers the last chance to see Groucho in his classic get-up, when he performs Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby’s song “Go West, Young Man” in a slightly surreal scene. (Click the name of the song to watch the performance.)

Most of the music in Copacabana is written by Sam Coslow. It’s uniformly good, but for my money, the best song in the picture is Carmen Miranda’s performance of “Tico Tico No Fubá,” which was written by Zequinha de Abreu and Aloysio de Oliveira.

Moss Rose (May 30, 1947)

Gregory Ratoff’s Moss Rose is a murder mystery set in Victorian London. It stars Peggy Cummins — a beautiful blond actress who looks like a doll come to life — as Rose Lynton, a Cockney chorus girl. Rose works under the stage name “Belle Adair.” She may have grown up in Shoreditch, but she aspires to be a fine lady.

Margo Woode plays Rose’s friend Daisy Arrow, a fellow actress who has a mysterious boyfriend. He’s a handsome, well-dressed gentleman who Rose only catches glimpses of as he moves in and out of the shadows. Daisy only appears in a handful of scenes before Rose discovers her corpse in bed in the room they share, an open Bible lying on the bed next to her with a dried and pressed moss rose laid across its pages. Was it her suitor who killed her? Or someone else?

Vincent Price — always a welcome sight — plays Inspector Clinner, the Scotland Yard detective who investigates the case along with his lumpy little partner, Deputy Inspector Evans (Rhys Williams). Soon, the identity of Daisy’s suitor becomes clear. He’s a wealthy gentleman named Michael Drego, and he’s played by the always oily Victor Mature, whose lack of a British accent is explained away by the fact that his Canadian father took him away from England when he was very young.

Rose plays girl detective, and it’s not long before she seems to be two steps ahead of the police in identifying Michael as Daisy’s murderer. At first it’s unclear what she wants from him, or why she fails to identify him to the police. She initially blackmails him, but then gives the money back and tells him that all she wants is for him to take her with him to his home, Charmley Manor, for just two weeks. Michael denies that he is guilty of Daisy’s murder, but he tells Rose he’ll go along with her scheme because he’s desperate to keep his family’s name out of the spotlight.

Most of the film takes place at Charmley Manor, which is presided over by Michael’s mother, Lady Margaret (played by the grandest Hollywood dame of them all, Ethel Barrymore).

Lady Margaret keeps her son’s childhood room exactly as it was, because when he was taken away by his father, she knew it was the last time she’d ever see that little boy again. She doesn’t allow anyone in the room, not even the servants, but after her first flash of rage at Rose when she discovers her snooping around the room, she softens, and tells Rose that there’s nothing like a secret to bring two people together.

Complicating matters for Rose at Charmley Manor is the presence of Michael’s fiancée, the beautiful Audrey Ashton (Patricia Medina). Lady Margaret grows to accept Rose, even going so far as to tell people that she is her “companion,” but Audrey sees Rose as a threat to her impending nuptials, and rightly so.

Moss Rose is based on The Crime of Laura Saurelle, one of author Joseph Shearing’s many Gothic thrillers, which were quite popular at the time of the film’s release. (Shearing was one of several pseudonyms used by writer Marjorie Bowen.) It’s a decent whodunnit that will keep you guessing. Michael Drego is the prime suspect, but Inspector Clinner loves flowers — moss rose in particular — and he’s played by Vincent Price, so he always seems suspicious, especially when he’s cutting himself a piece of moss rose in Lady Margaret’s greenhouse and he has a maniacal gleam in his eye. There is also Lady Margaret’s intense-looking butler, Craxton (George Zucco), and as we all know, butlers are always under suspicion. The ladies aren’t exempt from suspicion, either. We learn that Audrey made a mysterious bulk purchase of three Bibles just like the one found next to Daisy Arrow’s corpse, and she’s obviously jealous of any woman in whom Michael shows an interest. And Lady Margaret is hard-headed and clear-eyed, but she seems like a different person whenever she speaks of her son.

Despite the wealth of suspects, Moss Rose turned out exactly how I thought it would, but it wasn’t a bad way to kill some time.

Dear Murderer (May 29, 1947)

Arthur Crabtree’s Dear Murderer is a well-acted, competently directed British murder story that ultimately collapses under the weight of its own moving parts.

Successful businessman Lee Warren (Eric Portman) has just returned to England after a five-month assignment in New York, and he has murder on his mind. And not just any murder … the perfect murder.

But as any fan of murder mysteries knows, truly perfect murder schemes are rarely the subject of books and films, since the killer invariably does something to trip himself up.

Lee Warren alludes to this when he tells his victim, “The perfect murder is the one that nobody every hears about, because nobody thinks it is murder.”

Warren’s victim is a handsome young lawyer named Richard Fenton (Dennis Price), and Warren wants to kill him because he found out he was making love to his wife, Vivien, while Warren was living in New York.

After convincing Fenton to write a letter breaking it off with Vivien, a letter which Warren partially dictates, Warren “accidentally” spills a drink on the letter. Then, after Fenton begins to rewrite the letter on a dry piece of paper, Warren stops him midway through by pulling a gun on him and tying his wrists behind his back with the silk cord of his dressing gown. Without the second half of the letter, it reads exactly like a suicide note.

Warren informs Fenton that he intends to commit “the perfect murder,” and he’ll be convinced not to go through with it only if Fenton can find a flaw in his plan.

He tells Fenton that he’s going to give him a little rap on the head, just enough to knock him out, then gas him with a pillowcase and tube contraption he’s come up with that will go over Fenton’s head.

He’ll attach the tube to the gas jet in the living room, then move Fenton’s unconscious body into the kitchen and stick his head in the oven, where he will lie until he dies. Since no man can be forced to stick his head in an oven until he dies of gas inhalation without marks of violence, it’ll look like suicide, and the note will clinch it with the authorities.

Fenton tells Warren that Vivien isn’t just interested in him, she’s interested in many men, and Warren can’t kill them all. Warren hits him in the face and then draws back, telling Fenton he’s just being clever and trying to get him to lose his temper. What about an alibi? Warren says he doesn’t need one. He arrived home by plane that night, ate dinner, and went home alone. What about motive? As far as the rest of the world knows, Warren doesn’t even know Fenton exists. Is that all? Fenton sputters, but can’t think of anything else.

“You’re a bit of a failure as a lawyer. I’m glad my life didn’t depend on your arguments,” Warren says, then proceeds to do his cruel work.

By the 30-minute mark, I realized the film must have been based on a play. My moment of realization came when the handsome Jimmy Martin (Maxwell Reed) and Warren’s wife Vivien (Greta Gynt) show up in Fenton’s flat thinking they are alone, and discuss their affair. Jimmy tells Vivien that he wishes she would divorce her husband and marry him. Warren hides around the corner, listening in horror as he realizes that he should have taken Fenton’s admonishment about Vivien’s other lovers more seriously.

These bizarre clown-car meetings of several characters in one place continue for the remainder of the film. I’m sure they made perfect sense in the original stage play by St. John Legh Clowes, but plays have different rules than films do, and the screenplay of Dear Murderer, by Muriel & Sydney Box with Peter Rogers, does nothing to alleviate the staginess of the proceedings.

The first half hour is the best part of the film. It’s clever, sardonic, and involving. By the end of the film, however, the contrivances have stacked up higher than a 4,000-deck house of cards. I didn’t hate Dear Murderer, and could imagine it working very well as a campy stage production full of clever twists and funny dialogue, but as a film, it was too hidebound and stodgy to keep me involved throughout the running time. (It also doesn’t help that Portman and Jack Warner, who plays Inspector Penbury, the police detective investigating the case, look so much alike that I was frequently confused when a new scene opened.)

Dear Murderer compares unfavorably with another British film I saw that starred Eric Portman, Lawrence Huntington’s Wanted for Murder (1946), in which Portman plays a more sinister and psychopathic murderer than the one he plays in Dear Murderer. Wanted for Murder was also based on a play, but I never suspected it while watching it. The direction was creative and the settings in the film were dark, creepy, and often out of doors.

The Millerson Case (May 29, 1947)

The Millerson Case
The Millerson Casee (1947)
Directed by George Archainbaud
Columbia Pictures

George Archainbaud’s The Millerson Case is the eighth film in the Crime Doctor series from Columbia Pictures and for my money, it’s easily the worst.

Produced by Rudolph C. Flothow, the picture finds Dr. Robert Ordway (Warner Baxter) leaving his Manhattan medical office in the incapable hands of his partner, Dr. Shaw (Walden Boyle), and taking a well-earned vacation in the country for some hunting and fishing.

I’m not sure exactly which remote rural area the film is supposed to depict. Dr. Ordway drives to it from New York City, but it looks suspiciously like California. All I can tell you for certain is that it’s a part of the country where people are always asking, “What fer?”

After a young man named Eben Tuttle (Elvin Field) is shot while carrying a deer on his back, Dr. Ordway comes face to face with the superstitious and uneducated ways of local physician Sam Millerson (Griff Barnett). When an epidemic of typhoid fever breaks out, Doc Millerson dismisses it as “summer complaint” and treats it with “complaint bitters.” He says that he’s been doctorin’ man and beast for 30 years in these parts and he’ll be damned before anyone else tells him what to do.

Three people in the rural community die during the outbreak of typhoid, but one of them, Ward Beechy (Trevor Bardette), has peculiar symptoms. One of the more sensible medical men in the area, Dr. Prescott (Robert Kellard), who’s sent in after the government quarantines the area, isn’t surprised to find evidence of perforated peritonitis in Beechy’s intestinal tract, but he’s never seen a typhoid case with perforations throughout the entire alimentary canal, such as might have been caused by a corrosive poison. Dr. Ordway is unsurprised, since he found no evidence of typhoid bacilli in Beechy’s blood sample and knew something was fishy.

We get a sense of Ward Beechy’s character as he lies dying on his sickbed and he amorously tells his wife’s sister, Belle Englehart (Nancy Saunders), “Sometimes I wish you wasn’t my sister-in-law, Belle.”

This turns out not to be just a typical piece of throwaway hillbilly humor (of which there’s plenty to go around in The Millerson Case). After his death, we learn that Beechy was the local Casanova and had made plenty of enemies — mostly cuckolded husbands and boyfriends who had access to poison. He’s also described as the handsomest man around, which, if you know what Trevor Bardette looks like, should give you some idea of how good-looking the average man in town is.

Doc Millerson, who claims he knows who the guilty party is, receives a note in a woman’s handwriting requesting a meeting at the river bank. He goes there and is killed in an ambush by a rifle shot. With only the note as a clue, Dr. Ordway sets out to find the murderer (or murderers) of Beechy and Millerson and set things right.

I generally like the Crime Doctor series, and while I didn’t hate The Millerson Case, it was the weakest entry yet. There was too much broad humor for my taste, and the mystery just wasn’t very compelling.

The Long Night (May 28, 1947)

Anatole Litvak’s The Long Night is a remake of Marcel Carné’s 1939 drama Le Jour se lève. It stars Henry Fonda, Ann Dvorak, Vincent Price, and Barbara Bel Geddes in her screen debut.

Litvak, who was born in Kiev, worked in the Soviet cinema system in Leningrad, in the pre-war film industry of Berlin, in France after Hitler’s rise to power, and finally in Hollywood, where he became a contract director for Warner Bros. in 1937. Litvak became an American citizen in 1940, enlisted in the Army, and worked with Frank Capra on his Why We Fight series of short films. Litvak finished the war with the rank of colonel and returned to directing Hollywood features. Two of his most famous films would follow — Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) and The Snake Pit (1948).

The Long Night, his first post-war feature, is less well-known. For a long time, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who remembered seeing it. But thanks to a pristine print on DVD from Kino Video (released in 2000 along with a VHS version), this flawed but worthwhile drama is now widely available. In the special features section of the Kino DVD, there are a couple of side-by-side comparisons with Le Jour se lève — a murder sequence in a darkened stairwell and the first meeting of the two lovers — that show how heavily Litvak borrowed from Carné’s film, at least stylistically. (The ending of The Long Night is radically different from the ending of Le Jour se lève, however, which is a standard practice in Hollywood remakes of depressing European art films.)

Despite the happy ending, Litvak infuses The Long Night with a pervasive sense of doom. After shooting a man in his apartment building in an unnamed steel town somewhere near the Pennsylvania-Ohio state line, Joe Adams (Henry Fonda) sits alone in his rented room, the door barricaded as police and onlookers swarm the street below his window. Accompanied by a refrain from Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, Joe tells his story through flashbacks, and we learn what brought him to this desperate place. “How can I explain when I don’t understand myself?” he thinks to himself.

Joe Adams grew up in an orphanage. “Class of ’34,” he tells the pretty young Jo Ann (Barbara Bel Geddes) when he meets her. (We must presume that Joe is younger than the man who plays him, since Fonda was 29 years old in 1934.) Jo Ann also came from the orphanage, and her romance with Joe is simple, childlike, and profound. Fonda plays Joe as a sweet-natured boy with no ability to plan long-term or handle disappointment or frustration. Bel Geddes plays Jo Ann in much the same way, but instead of being petulant she is naïve and unworldly, and open to the manipulation of a slimy magician named Maximilian the Great (Vincent Price).

Maximilian is a congenital liar. His relationship with Jo Ann is nebulous for some time in the film. He first tells Joe that Jo Ann is his daughter, but that he had to go on the road for 15 years and leave her in the company of strangers. After another series of flashbacks, however, it becomes clear that Maximilian and Jo Ann were romantically involved. He took her to see the Cleveland Symphony when she had never been as far west as Pittsburgh, and forced himself on her when she had never been kissed. Jo Ann was uncomfortable with Maximilian’s actions, but she was also lonely, and Maximilian offered her a world of excitement and glamor.

The visual style of The Long Night, its doomed protagonist buffeted by forces outside of his control, and its story told through flashbacks are all hallmarks of film noir, but it also has elements of social realism. For instance, Joe befriends Maximilian’s assistant Charlene (played by the always wonderful Ann Dvorak). He lies on her bed on a Sunday afternoon, reading the funnies, in her crummy room full of clutter, next to a couple of big bottles of beer and a bag of pretzels he brought for them to eat. She provides a stack of toast. She’s in the bath when he arrives, and throws on a slinky silk robe. It’s unclear how close Joe and Charlene really are, but the realism of the setting and the intimacy of the situation push the limits of Hays Code acceptability.

Along with the realism and intimacy of some of the interior settings, there’s plenty of artifice in The Long Night. Unlike the typical Hollywood production in which backdrops were either matte paintings or rear-projection film, production designer Eugène Lourié used elaborate sets with tricks of forced perspective in The Long Night. For example, a factory on a hillside in the distance is really a small model that could be lit in whichever way the filmmakers wanted. Lourié and Litvak intended to achieve a kind of “poetic reality,” and they succeeded. At the same time, the artifice sometimes clashes with the realism, and when it does the film feels aimless.

The Long Night was a commercial and critical failure, and lost approximately $1 million, but it was also the springboard for Barbara Bel Geddes’s long onscreen career. After seeing her performance in the film, RKO signed her to a seven-picture deal.

Black Narcissus (May 26, 1947)

A lot of people make a big deal of the fact that Black Narcissus was released the same year that India became an independent nation. The film, which was written, produced, and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, is a sensuous, beautifully lensed Technicolor production. (Black Narcissus won two Academy Awards. Alfred Junge took home the award for best art direction and set direction in the color category and Jack Cardiff won the Oscar for best color cinematography.)

The reason a lot of people make a big deal of its 1947 release is because a major theme of Black Narcissus is the inability of the British heart and mind to penetrate the mysteries of the Indian subcontinent. Deborah Kerr plays a young Anglican nun, Sister Clodagh, who is appointed Sister Superior of the Convent of the Order of the Servants of Mary, Calcutta. Not only does the convent occupy an abandoned harem high in the Himalaya mountains, but Sister Clodagh will be the youngest Sister Superior in the history of her order.

The plot of Black Narcissus isn’t as important as the mood the film creates, its scenery, or its overwhelming sense of lush sensuality.

Michael Powell wrote of Black Narcissus that it was the most erotic film he ever made. “It is all done by suggestion, but eroticism is in every frame and image, from the beginning to the end.”

None of this is to say that the eroticism of Black Narcissus is the only thing that makes it worth watching. It’s a fine character study and a well-acted story of the clash between fantasy and reality. But its visual textures, breathtaking scenery, and exquisite attention to detail are overwhelming.

Remarkably, Powell and Pressburger — who produced films together under the name “The Archers” — created all of their majestic Himalaya settings on the soundstages of Pinewood Studios. Usually matte paintings call attention to themselves and fool no one. In Black Narcissus they are seamlessly integrated into the rest of the film and are good enough to create a sense of vertigo in the scenes in which Sister Clodagh rings the enormous bell that hangs near the precipice on one side of the convent.

Black Narcissus is not a perfect film. While the performances are generally good, especially from Kerr as Sister Clodagh, David Farrar as the insouciant and charming British agent Mr. Dean, and Kathleen Byron as the unhinged Sister Ruth, the native characters are mostly played by British actors, which doesn’t always work. The 18-year-old English actress Jean Simmons is beautiful and beguiling as the dancing girl, Kanchi, but her light-colored eyes clash with her brown face makeup. Much less effective is May Hallatt as the deranged Angu Ayah, a servant inherited by the convent. Her screeching Cockney line delivery was so confusing that for most of the picture I wasn’t sure where her character was supposed to be from. (The only Indian actor in the film, Sabu, who plays the Young General, is from southern India, not northern India, where the film takes place.)

But these are minor quibbles. Black Narcissus is a stunningly beautiful film that I look forward to seeing again some day. Despite its sometimes outlandish story and its melodramatic elements, it’s a meticulously crafted piece of art from the greatest British directors of all time.

The Web (May 25, 1947)

The Web is a classic case of mediocre material made incredibly entertaining by an excellent cast and a good director. The film’s plot may be run-of-the-mill, but the film itself is never boring.

The exciting opening takes the viewer along the busy Manhattan streets and overpasses that lead to Grand Central Station and culminates in a tearful reunion between an old man, Leopold Kroner (Fritz Leiber), and his daughter Martha (Maria Palmer). Kroner has just been released from prison, and he is surprised that “Mr. Colby” didn’t come to meet him at the train station. The viewer immediately knows that something sinister is going on, because we see a mug trailing Kroner and his daughter through the train station.

Next, we meet brash young attorney Robert Regan (Edmond O’Brien), who’s trying to force his way into Andrew Colby Enterprises to see the man in charge. When he pushes through several sets of doors and finally meets Noel Faraday (Ella Raines), he demands to see Mr. Colby. When she’s asks what his business with Mr. Colby is, he says, “Well, he’s been carrying on with my grandmother, and I’d like to find out what his intentions are.” When Noel tells him that she’s Mr. Colby’s personal secretary, he responds, “Well that just goes to show you how far a girl can get if she keeps her stocking seams straight.”

Their dialogue continues in this vein for the rest of the picture. Regan is the kind of person who would be known today in some circles as a “jerk,” and if he said half the things he says in The Web during working hours he’d be sued for sexual harassment.

But he’s also a tireless crusader for his clients, which becomes clear when he finally comes face to face with Andrew Colby, who’s played with smooth, villainous charm by the one and only Vincent Price. Regan is there to serve him with a summons on behalf of his client, Emilio Canepa (Tito Vuolo). As a result of Colby’s negligent driving, Canepa’s pushcart and load of bananas were damaged to the tune of $68.72.

Colby sees in Regan’s bullheaded doggedness an opportunity, and offers Regan a $5,000 retainer to come and work for him. Colby tells Regan that five years ago, his business associate Leopold Kroner took nearly $1 million worth of bonds belonging to Colby’s firm, made duplicates, and sold the counterfeit bonds. He was caught and sent to prison, but now that Kroner has been released, Colby claims he’s been threatening him. Colby has a big deal coming up, and he doesn’t want it known that his life is being threatened. If he hired a bodyguard, it would become public knowledge.

If he just hired another lawyer, however, no one would think twice. All Colby asks of Regan is that he work for him for two weeks as a bodyguard and tell no one what he’s doing.

If you know what the word “patsy” means, you’ll probably have no difficulty figuring out what Colby really wants Regan for.

Rounding out the excellent main cast is William Bendix as Lt. Damico, Regan’s friend on the force. Bendix was equally adept at playing tough guys and clowns, and he gets to flex both his dramatic and comic acting muscles as the long-suffering Damico, who’s a lot wiser than Regan gives him credit for.

Even though he’s the protagonist, O’Brien is probably the weakest link in the film. Regan isn’t a very interesting character, and he’s mostly only good for one-liners, but at least they’re decent one-liners. O’Brien’s innuendo-laced banter with Raines isn’t quite Tracy-Hepburn or Bogie-Bacall, but it’s clever and fast-paced enough to satisfy discriminating noir fans, and Raines’s dark beauty and way with a retort elevate their exchanges.

The screenplay by William Bowers and Bertram Millhauser (based on a story by Harry Kurnitz) really crackles in the dialogue department, which makes up for the pedestrian plot. Director Michael Gordon keeps things moving along nicely, and delivers a satisfying final product. The Web might not be a classic film noir, but it’s thoroughly entertaining.

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