James Pierce

Horse Feathers (1932, Norman Z. McLeod)

Horse Feathers finally finds its funny sometime in the second half. The film plays like the main plot has been removed and just a subplot remains, so it’s impressive it ever does. And when it does, it’s depressing–director McLeod and (wow, four) writers Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, S.J. Perelman, and Will B. Johnstone know how to do good set pieces. They just haven’t been.

Comedically, Horse Feathers turns around when Harpo and Chico go to kidnap rival college’s ringer football players Nat Pendleton and James Pierce. It’s a long, solid sequence–not without some of the standard Horse problems–but it’s way too little, way too late. Until that point, Horse Feathers might have skirted by on some mediocrity. Revealing it could be better timed, the actors could be paired off better; like I said, depressing.

Horse Feathers opens with Groucho Marx taking over a college. It’s a loser college–they took Groucho’s son, after all. Zeppo plays the son. It’s the worst part in the movie. Uncredited Pendleton makes far more of an impression. Even with Zeppo singing and having a long interest (Thelma Todd). Except, of course, “dad” Groucho steals her away from him. Or tries to.

Todd’s working for the rival college; David Landau plays the evil rival dean. Or something. I’m not sure it’s ever determined exactly what he does for the other college, as no one ever finds out he’s working for the rival college. Not even when he’s hanging around Groucho’s football team’s dressing room.

The plot is all about the football team. Zeppo tells Groucho the team has to be better and he should hire some ringers (Pendleton and Pierce). Except Landau hires them first. So Groucho instead hires Chico and Harpo. Chico’s a ice salesman slash bootlegger, Harpo is the dog catcher. Their introductions are good but not great. Harpo’s has a fun, longer physical intro with some actual plotting. They set up jokes and come back to finish them. The rest of Feathers doesn’t take that much time. Not even when it’s funny.

McLeod’s strange direction mars quite a bit of that first Harpo scene (and the rest of the film). He’s got no patience for the script. He can barely wait for the actors to deliver their lines before moving on. And his composition is distant. The first scene–Groucho addressing the students and faculty–turns into an impromptu musical number. Complete with dancing on the stage. McLeod directs it fine, though the effectiveness of Groucho doing a boring musical number first off is a Feathers red flag. After that first scene, McLeod all of a sudden forgets how to set up shots. Or just doesn’t want to bother taking the time. Horse Feathers somehow feels too rushed to even be stagy.

Todd has a great time, being courted by everyone–except Zeppo, after their first couple scenes together, Zeppo loses the girl. Harpo plays the harp for her, Chico plays the piano for her, Groucho letches her. During the first half, the best part about some scenes is seeing Todd trying to keep a straight face. Or at least not busting up entirely.

Horse Feathers has a really small cast. Besides the four brothers, only Todd and Landau get credited. After Pendleton and Pierce, there’s pretty much no one distinct in the cast. Groucho starts as the lead, but ends up without any significant comic sequences. He gets a canoe ride with Todd; it’s slight and funny and narratively pointless. And too short. Because McLeod’s in a hurry.

Harpo comes out best, overall. He at least gets good sequences throughout. The finale is the madcap football game, full of Marx Brothers antics. McLeod’s setups are fine for the big action, bad for the small. Harpo’s got a banana peel gag, which should kill; it doesn’t. Thanks to McLeod.

Horse Feathers needs a lot of work on the script, but it definitely needs someone interested in directing it. McLeod even botches Harpo’s harp scene. Harpo harp scenes are hard to botch.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Norman Z. McLeod; written by Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, S.J. Perelman, and Will B. Johnstone; director of photography, Ray June; music by John Leipold; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Groucho Marx (Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff), Chico Marx (Baravelli), Harpo Marx (Pinky), Thelma Todd (Connie Bailey), Zeppo Marx (Frank Wagstaff), Nat Pendleton (MacHardie), James Pierce (Mullen), and David Landau (Jennings).


Flash Gordon (1936, Frederick Stephani)

Flash Gordon is all about its gee whiz factor. The serial goes all out to create the planet Mongo, which has come out of nowhere (in space) and is on a collision course with Earth. Only scientist Frank Shannon has a plan to save the otherwise panicked and resigned Earth–take a rocketship to the new planet and try to change its course. Shannon can’t do it alone, of course, he needs help; luckily, Buster Crabbe and Jean Rogers’s plane has crashed nearby. And Crabbe is Shannon’s colleague’s son. And Rogers is cute. So, of course, Crabbe and Rogers agree to go off to space to save the world.

Right off, Flash Gordon establishes Crabbe is a force more than a character. Crabbe excels at the role’s physicality–he always tries to do something, no matter the odds. Sometimes it’s to advance the plot, sometimes it’s to stretch out a chapter, sometimes it’s just to lose some of his clothes. Until the last three or four chapters, Crabbe’s always getting stripped down, sweaty, or wet. More on the beefcake in a bit. Crabbe’s enthusiasm is one of Gordon’s greatest assets. He doesn’t overthink his thinly written “never give up” preppy fencer rich kid with a heart of gold. Sure, he’s on an alien planet, and he’s nothing but a man, but he’s got to save every one of us.

So Crabbe goes all in on the physicality. It gets more intense as the serial progresses. By the second half of Flash Gordon, Crabbe’s even doing exagerated arm motions while running. He’s all in on Flash, even when he shouldn’t be trying so hard. His overdone expressions during the swordfights are risible, but earnest. He doesn’t have the same problems in regular fight scenes, just the swordfights. Thankfully, swordfights occur less and less frequently as the serial goes on.

Director Stephani focuses the film on Crabbe whenever he’s onscreen. At least until the last third of the chapters; then Crabbe will either literally disappear or take a supporting part in a scene. It feels a little weird–while the chapters have an excellent momentum overall, Flash’s finale is protracted. The last chapter could’ve finished off the serial at almost any point after the halfway mark. Flash starts as Crabbe’s journey around the kingdoms of Mongo but real quick it’s just about him being maybe a prisoner, maybe not a prisoner, of evil emperor Charles Middleton. It depends on Lawson’s mood; she plays the emperor’s daughter and she takes an immediate liking to the cut of Crabbe’s jib. Both in terms of his earnestness and his beefcakery.

Flash Gordon is a serial for kids with beefcake for accompanying parental units. There’s also some degree of good girl with Rogers and Priscilla Lawson. With the cheesecake, there’s at least have the excuse all the Mongo royalty are pigs. With the beefcake… sure, Crabbe’s an Olympian, there’s got to be some interest in him. But Flash doesn’t stop with Crabbe–almost all the male characters are eventually stripped down and coated in oil. And if they aren’t, they’re wearing shorty shorts. Flash Gordon can be a trip. Watching Shannon calmly deliver nonsense science exposition while in black shorty shorts is something else.

The costume design is a strange mix of various costumed drama and adventure styles. You have Greek and Roman soldiers–because shorts, after all–next to a guy in a suit of armor. They all have swords and laser guns. Laser guns don’t get used much, because budget. Budget also comes in on James Pierce’s lionman and Duke York’s sharkman. Lionman just means ZZ Top beard. Sharkman means speedos and a diving cap, maybe some drawn-on fins. The actors give it their all, however, which is stunning. Their straight faces help make the non-complementary styles acceptable together.

The only disappointments in the cast are Middleton and Jack ‘Tiny’ Lipson. Lipson’s the king of the hawkmen and he’s either annoying or too broad. It doesn’t help his first scene has him threatening to let his pet tiger eat Rogers since she doesn’t want to be raped. It’s a fairly intense scene for Flash, though Rogers’s under constant threat, whether from Lipson, Middleton, or Lawson. I think there aren’t any blond people on Mongo? So Middleton wants Rogers and Lawson wants Crabbe.

Anyway. Lipson’s not good. Middleton’s not either. The evil emperor never seems megalomaniacal or even regal. Towards the end, when Lawson is revolting against him too, Flash Gordon momentarily seems like a single dad warring against his rebellious teenage daughter, under the same roof, but in separate worlds. It’s only momentarily, because it’s not like Middleton would do it. The character’s one note, the performance’s similarly one note. If he were just a little better, the costume and makeup would probably carry him better.

But it doesn’t matter because Middleton’s far less important for the bulk of the runtime. He’s only important in the beginning and end. The rest of time, Middleton’s mostly around to crack the whip on scientist Shannon, because even though Mongo has spaceships of various designs and anti-gravity rays, somehow Shannon is smarter than all their scientists.

Crabbe and Rogers spend the first half of the serial making new enemies and then turning them into allies. Lawson’s usually around to undermine them and try to get Crabbe for herself. She eventually has to enlist double-dealing high priest Theodore Lorch to figure it all out.

When Flash Gordon does have its second half slowdown, things start getting repetative. How many times can Middleton lie to Crabbe? How many times can Crabbe and company escape yet end up back in Middleton’s palace? Will Shannon ever get his stupid radio to Earth fixed–seriously, it’s like nine chapters about it; way too much.

These repeats don’t end up hurting Flash much. Turns out its nice to see the actors get some down time and just to hang out. Crabbe and Rogers make cute puppy eyes. Lipson gets less annoying. Shannon’s practically an adorable old scientist guy by the end.

And it’s always exciting. Even when the editing stalls out or the cliffhanger resolution is a little lazy. Because Flash isn’t about the cliffhangers, it’s about the gee whiz. Thanks to Crabbe, most of the cast, and the enthusiastic production values, Stephani is able keep that gee whiz going through all thirteen chapters of Flash Gordon. When it seems like the gee whiz might run out, it just starts back up strong again. Flash can never fail.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Frederick Stephani; screenplay by Ella O’Neill, George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey, and Stephani, based on the comic strip by Alex Raymond; directors of photography, Jerome Ash and Richard Fryer; edited by Saul A. Goodkind, Louis Sackin, Alvin Todd, and Edward Todd; produced by Henry MacRae; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon), Charles Middleton (Ming the Merciless), Jean Rogers (Dale Arden), Priscilla Lawson (Princess Aura), James Pierce (Prince Thun), Richard Alexander (Prince Barin), Jack ‘Tiny’ Lipson (King Vultan), Theodore Lorch (High Priest), Duke York (King Kala), and Frank Shannon (Dr. Alexis Zarkov).


Flash Gordon (1936, Frederick Stephani), Chapter 13: Rocketing to Earth

Rocketing to Earth starts out poorly. The cliffhanger resolution is so lazy star Buster Crabbe remarks on it; clearly someone making Flash Gordon knew they’d run out of resolves. Worse, Crabbe and the gang go right back to Charles Middleton’s palace. The past four or five chapters have just been one failed escape or another–and now they go right back.

With Priscilla Lawson now officially one of the good guys, Middleton just seems like an angry dad. It helps his performance (a little). But then just when things seem dire for the heroes, everything turns around–not just for the characters’ struggle against intergalactic tyranny, but the screenwriters. There’s this brisk pace as Rocketing goes from being wrap-up for A plot to epilogue. Except everyone’s savvy enough to know Flash can’t go out with a final thrill.

Enter Theodore Lorch’s stooge. Lorch goes all out and director Stephani lets him. Lorch seems to understand, based on the content, he’s got a lot more leeway with hamming. It’s even more amusing given Lorch’s more restrained appearances in earlier chapters.

As for Stephani, he gets to do some big scale stuff here–Middleton’s fate–and some subjective camerawork with Lorch’s evil glee.

There’s not enough resolution with Middleton, but he and Crabbe didn’t have good nemesis chemistry anyway so it’s not exactly missing… it’s just unfortunate it’s not.

The strangest part is when Frank Shannon, after twelve chapters of just being there to expound, all of a sudden gets cute. He doesn’t succeed as much as affably bewilder.

CREDITS

Directed by Frederick Stephani; screenplay by Ella O’Neill, George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey, and Stephani, based on the comic strip by Alex Raymond; directors of photography, Jerome Ash and Richard Fryer; edited by Saul A. Goodkind, Louis Sackin, Alvin Todd, and Edward Todd; produced by Henry MacRae; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon), Charles Middleton (Ming the Merciless), Jean Rogers (Dale Arden), Priscilla Lawson (Princess Aura), James Pierce (Prince Thun), Richard Alexander (Prince Barin), Jack ‘Tiny’ Lipson (King Vultan), Theodore Lorch (High Priest), and Frank Shannon (Dr. Alexis Zarkov).


Flash Gordon (1936, Frederick Stephani), Chapter 12: Trapped in the Turret

Trapped in the Turret is the penultimate chapter of Flash Gordon, which might explain some of its inconsistencies. After a stunt person heavy resolution to the previous cliffhanger, Richard Alexander tells scheming Priscilla Lawson she might just try being nice to Buster Crabbe and Jean Rogers.

So she does. And becomes a good guy. Apparently. She then intercedes on Crabbe’s behalf with father Charles Middleton, who too agrees to play nice. It’s an anticlimactic scene, with Alexander getting to have the standoff with Middleton, not Crabbe.

The second half of Turret is just talky logistics planning. The good guys are leaving Middleton’s palace for another one. Will Middleton actually leave them alone or will he plot against them, regardless of daughter Lawson’s wishes (and presence)?

I swear a few chapters ago Crabbe and Middleton came to another armistice, which Middleton broke a scene or two later. The screenwriters are rushing to wrap up the serial, with Crabbe (to some extent) and Rogers being left in the proverbial dust.

The editors are particularly clunky this chapter too.

CREDITS

Directed by Frederick Stephani; screenplay by Ella O’Neill, George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey, and Stephani, based on the comic strip by Alex Raymond; directors of photography, Jerome Ash and Richard Fryer; edited by Saul A. Goodkind, Louis Sackin, Alvin Todd, and Edward Todd; produced by Henry MacRae; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon), Charles Middleton (Ming the Merciless), Jean Rogers (Dale Arden), Priscilla Lawson (Princess Aura), James Pierce (Prince Thun), Richard Alexander (Prince Barin), Jack ‘Tiny’ Lipson (King Vultan), and Frank Shannon (Dr. Alexis Zarkov).


Flash Gordon (1936, Frederick Stephani), Chapter 9: Fighting the Fire Dragon

This chapter’s title, Fighting the Fire Dragon, makes a big promise. There’s going to be a fire dragon and there’s doing to be a fight against said fire dragon. Only the former proves true. Any fight is, presumably, coming in a subsequent chapter.

Thanks, as usual, to Priscilla Lawson’s scheming, Buster Crabbe, Jean Rogers, and Frank Shannon are all back in Charles Middleton’s palace. All Crabbe and Rogers want to do is make puppy eyes, all Shannon wants to do is get back to Earth, all Lawson wants to do is get Crabbe away from Rogers.

Enter new character high priest Theodore Lorch. After getting a big part in the cliffhanger resolution, Lorch decides to throw in with Lawson against her father, Middleton.

It’s a bridging chapter. Flash Gordon’s getting geared up for whatever’s next–besides the opening, there’s not even a fight scene. The lull gives Rogers and Crabbe a nice scene together, complete with character development. And Lawson and Lorch are great together.

The hint of the fire dragon is pretty cool too.

CREDITS

Directed by Frederick Stephani; screenplay by Ella O’Neill, George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey, and Stephani, based on the comic strip by Alex Raymond; directors of photography, Jerome Ash and Richard Fryer; edited by Saul A. Goodkind, Louis Sackin, Alvin Todd, and Edward Todd; produced by Henry MacRae; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon), Charles Middleton (Ming the Merciless), Jean Rogers (Dale Arden), Priscilla Lawson (Princess Aura), James Pierce (Prince Thun), Richard Alexander (Prince Barin), Jack ‘Tiny’ Lipson (King Vultan), Theodore Lorch (High Priest), and Frank Shannon (Dr. Alexis Zarkov).


Flash Gordon (1936, Frederick Stephani), Chapter 8: Tournament of Death

Tournament of Death is an unexpectedly strong chapter. There’s a lot going on. There’s the cliffhanger resolution, there’s Buster Crabbe facing off with Charles Middleton for the first time since Chapter One, there’s Frank Shannon saving the day, there’s Jack Lipson having character development, there’s Richard Alexander having hilarious character development, and there’s Jean Rogers screaming every once in a while. It’s actually a better part than Priscilla Lawson has this chapter; she just stands and looks reservedly terrified.

Why’s she terrified? Because of the titular Tournament of Death. First, Crabbe has to fight a masked swordsman. The masked swordsman’s identity is pretty obvious, which leads to an amusing scene for Crabbe. Because Tournament is where Crabbe gets to round out the character a little. He’s a bit of a primpy preppy. During the sword fight, Crabbe’s always keeping form. It’s silly. But it proves endearing.

And then the second match of the tournament is Crabbe versus a giant horned ape. The tournament “arena” is a big empty space, ostensibly part of Lipson’s throne room, but it’s just a big empty space. And Crabbe versus giant horned ape in this big empty space–even with the film sped up and the editors overwhelmed–it’s a bitching fight scene. Director Stephani kind of drags this one with the pacing, but it pays off.

CREDITS

Directed by Frederick Stephani; screenplay by Ella O’Neill, George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey, and Stephani, based on the comic strip by Alex Raymond; directors of photography, Jerome Ash and Richard Fryer; edited by Saul A. Goodkind, Louis Sackin, Alvin Todd, and Edward Todd; produced by Henry MacRae; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon), Charles Middleton (Ming the Merciless), Jean Rogers (Dale Arden), Priscilla Lawson (Princess Aura), James Pierce (Prince Thun), Richard Alexander (Prince Barin), Jack ‘Tiny’ Lipson (King Vultan), Theodore Lorch (High Priest), and Frank Shannon (Dr. Alexis Zarkov).


Flash Gordon (1936, Frederick Stephani), Chapter 7: Shattering Doom

It’s another heavy chapter. Despite a valiant escape effort, Buster Crabbe ends up back in chains. He and his fellow, shirtless men in shorts shovel radium into king hawkman Jack Lipson’s furnance.

Lipson’s still testing Jean Rogers’s affections. She’s got a couple rather good moments as she tries to misdirect Lipson. Lipson’s a little better in this chapter than the previous ones. He’s less obnoxious and also less sinister. He’s just a doofus now.

Priscilla Lawson gets her emotional showdown with Crabbe, which is another solid scene. Shattering Doom is a character chapter. There’s a hard cliffhanger involving another escape attempt but also a softer one with Charles Middleton arriving to reclaim Crabbe, Rogers, and all their pals.

It’s good. Even if Crabbe sometimes looks like he’s running into action scenes to avoid doing dialogue.

CREDITS

Directed by Frederick Stephani; screenplay by Ella O’Neill, George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey, and Stephani, based on the comic strip by Alex Raymond; directors of photography, Jerome Ash and Richard Fryer; edited by Saul A. Goodkind, Louis Sackin, Alvin Todd, and Edward Todd; produced by Henry MacRae; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon), Charles Middleton (Ming the Merciless), Jean Rogers (Dale Arden), Priscilla Lawson (Princess Aura), James Pierce (Prince Thun), Richard Alexander (Prince Barin), Jack ‘Tiny’ Lipson (King Vultan), and Frank Shannon (Dr. Alexis Zarkov).


Flash Gordon (1936, Frederick Stephani), Chapter 6: Flaming Torture

Flaming Torture is about flaming torture. Buster Crabbe and his allies get captured when they’re trying to rescue Jean Rogers. While Rogers has an arc with Priscilla Lawson–Rogers has to seduce moron king of the hawkmen Jack Lipson (in an atrociously annoying performance)–all Crabbe gets to do is get tortured. With flames.

Crabbe has little to do this chapter save flex when shirtless and greased up, which is most of the chapter. He’s got to be shirtless to be tortured. With flames.

Because the only way Lipson can tell if Rogers loves Crabbe is to make her watch him get tortured. So there’s a big finish with Crabbe getting tortured again. However, not with flames. Electricity.

While the chapter’s constantly downbeat, Rogers at least gets to do some stuff. Lawson gets to scheme. Crabbe gets to set up his team of shirtless male fighters.

Lipson’s real bad though; real bad.

CREDITS

Directed by Frederick Stephani; screenplay by Ella O’Neill, George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey, and Stephani, based on the comic strip by Alex Raymond; directors of photography, Jerome Ash and Richard Fryer; edited by Saul A. Goodkind, Louis Sackin, Alvin Todd, and Edward Todd; produced by Henry MacRae; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon), Charles Middleton (Ming the Merciless), Jean Rogers (Dale Arden), Priscilla Lawson (Princess Aura), James Pierce (Prince Thun), Richard Alexander (Prince Barin), Jack ‘Tiny’ Lipson (King Vultan), and Frank Shannon (Dr. Alexis Zarkov).


Flash Gordon (1936, Frederick Stephani), Chapter 5: The Destroying Ray

Despite a lackluster resolution to the cliffhanger–there’s a questionably timed emergency response–and some dawdling, The Destroying Ray eventually comes through. Director Stephani, along with the editors, works up a pace throughout and stops at just the right moment for maximum effect.

Most of the chapter is a bridge between Buster Crabbe and company in the undersea palace to getting them to the Hawkmen’s flying palace. They’re out to rescue poor Jean Rogers, who again gets zilch, even when new bad guy Jack Lipson looses a bear on her for declining his advances. There’s a definite disconnect in the editing this chapter–some of its good, some of its bad. Rogers gets worse editing in her story line.

There’s a fight scene with some Hawkmen, who also fly in for the attack. The flying in sequences go on a while, but the special effects are effective. The giant lizards also reappear but without anything to do (Destroying Ray does drag quite often).

While Lipson’s new villain terrible, it’s too soon to tell how new ally Richard Alexander’s acting is going to shake out. He might be an asset… depends on Alexander (and the script).

CREDITS

Directed by Frederick Stephani; screenplay by Ella O’Neill, George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey, and Stephani, based on the comic strip by Alex Raymond; directors of photography, Jerome Ash and Richard Fryer; edited by Saul A. Goodkind, Louis Sackin, Alvin Todd, and Edward Todd; produced by Henry MacRae; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon), Charles Middleton (Ming the Merciless), Jean Rogers (Dale Arden), Priscilla Lawson (Princess Aura), James Pierce (Prince Thun), Richard Alexander (Prince Barin), Jack ‘Tiny’ Lipson (King Vultan), Duke York (King Kala), and Frank Shannon (Dr. Alexis Zarkov).


Flash Gordon (1936, Frederick Stephani), Chapter 4: Battling the Sea Beast

Battling the Sea Beast opens with Buster Crabbe fighting an octopus. Mostly it’s Crabbe–quite enthusiastically–feigning a struggle against one or two legs of the octopus, which shows no life once they’re battling. Before it was stock footage; with the fight, it’s a passive prop Crabbe has to get going.

And it’s the only fight scene in Sea Beast, with the exception of an off screen one between Crabbe and a guard while Priscilla Lawson stands by and plots her next move.

It’s a suspenseful chapter; Lawson’s duplicity leads to a catastrophic event, one Crabbe can’t fix. But he still tries to save the day, much to Lawson’s chagrin (and confusion).

There’s some plot development involving Frank Shannon trying to get in touch with Earth. Charles Middleton comes in and cuts it short. Middleton’s not really any better than usual, but for whatever reason he’s more tolerable. Maybe he just wears you down.

Jean Rogers gets nothing to do. She stands by while James Pierce and Duke York argue. They’re fine at it.

It’s a good Flash Gordon. Director Stephani does quite well with the tension.

CREDITS

Directed by Frederick Stephani; screenplay by Ella O’Neill, George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey, and Stephani, based on the comic strip by Alex Raymond; directors of photography, Jerome Ash and Richard Fryer; edited by Saul A. Goodkind, Louis Sackin, Alvin Todd, and Edward Todd; produced by Henry MacRae; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon), Charles Middleton (Ming the Merciless), Jean Rogers (Dale Arden), Priscilla Lawson (Princess Aura), James Pierce (Prince Thun), Duke York (King Kala), and Frank Shannon (Dr. Alexis Zarkov).


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