Wednesday, September 30, 2009

DVR-TiVo-Or whatever recording device strikes your fancy-alert!

Apologies for cutting this extremely close—but I just took a quick look at the TCM schedule for today and they’re programming another one of the Hal Roach Boy Friends comedies in about two hours; a 1931 two-reeler entitled Mama Loves Papa (the ninth in the short-lived series) directed by George Stevens and featuring Mickey Daniels, Mary Kornman, Grady Sutton and Gertie Messenger. My CharredHer schedule says it will commence about 10:57am EST and will run until 11:15. If you’re near your recording device, you’ll certainly want to grab it—if not, better luck next time. I’ve been fortunate to see a few of these shorts in the past and while they’re not all spectacular they’re certainly good for a chuckle or two. Again, sorry about the last minute heads-up!

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When worlds collide #60

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Singular Case of the Missing Cinematic Essay

My screenwriting pal Lloyd Fonvielle had posted a wonderful piece (at his blog, on John Ford’s Wagon Master (1950), which was released on Region 1 DVD two weeks ago and because I didn’t have time to peruse it thoroughly I bookmarked it for a later look-see. Now, when I try to bring it up I get an error message that reads: “This blog is on hold because its bandwidth has been exceeded. Please contact your blog provider.”

Okay, in the first place—I don’t know who my blog provider is. I suppose in the case of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear it would be Blogger, but I don’t know what the hell they can do about this since Lloyd uses another host for his blog (something called, since I had to sign up with it one time in order to post some heady praise for something he wrote). Second, how does one put a blog “on hold”? And if they’re on hold, do they play music while you’re waiting to make a connection? (I don’t even want to get started on the phone tree.)

I mention Lloyd’s piece because I had originally planned to watch and do a write-up on the film as part of this blog’s rapidly-becoming-so-popular-it’s-now-eating-at-the-kewl-kidz-table feature, Region 2 Cinema. This idea was, of course, kicked around when the only available evidence of Wagon Master being on DVD was part of the R-K-O Collection at editions montparnasse (Le Convoi des Braves). So, now that the chore of writing an essay has been rendered moot on my end, I can check it off my “To Do” list—along with these other interesting articles:

Stacia, the classic movies doyenne who toils (and as a result, shames practically every classic film blogger in the process) at She Blogged by Night, has a nice essay on the Perry Mason film series churned out by Warner Bros. from 1934 to 1937. Again, I had planned to do something along similar lines so I’m glad she took the initiative—it’s a most worthwhile read.

“Uncle” Sam Taylor takes the WABAC machine to 1973 for a well-written look at Emperor of the North (1973; a.k.a. Emperor of the North Pole)—the Depression-era battle o’wills between King Hobo Lee Marvin and railroad conductor Ernest Borgnine. It’s one of my favorite Robert Aldrich films, and I had every intention of revisiting it when I bought it on DVD back in 2006. So a special shout-out to Samuel for doing the heavy lifting.

In breaking television news, Rick Brooks just e-mailed (via Facebook) to inform me Encore Westerns is adding a slew of vintage Westerns to the lineup beginning in January 2010 (this news was originally posted on the Classic Horror Film Board by none other than Lon Chaney expert Michael Blake). Encore is adding seasons 7-11 of Gunsmoke (the hour-long black-and-whites), plus Have Gun – Will Travel and The Virginian. The classic half-hour oater Lawman will join these shows in July, with Wagon Train to follow in January 2011 (you like how I tied this to the original Wagon Master news?) and Rawhide and Laredo in January 2012. The news about Virginian, Wagon Train (I hope they have more episodes than RTV does right now) and Laredo does not bode well, however—it sounds as if RTV will be dropping some of the shows on their current schedule and going the Nick at Nite/TV Land route by featuring those “golden oldies” like Growing Pains and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

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Movies I’ve stared at recently on TCM #40

Yesterday was Donna Reed’s birthday, and Turner Classic Movies showered everybody’s favorite TV mom with a not-too-shabby tribute including a pair of westerns—one of which I had not seen and the other I revisited. Later that evening, however, TCM had other fish to fry—a nod to Mia Farrow which contained a suspense thriller that I had not seen since my halcyon days at working at Ballbuster Blockbuster Video. As always, the chance of spoilers remains high so be forewarned!

Hangman's Knot (1952) – This entertaining oater—written and directed by TDOY icon Roy Huggins (Maverick, The Fugitive, The Rockford Files)—opens with an interesting establishing shot that introduces the members of an elite squad of Confederate soldiers about to pull off a gold heist, led by none other than Randolph Scott. (The credits then begin; with Randy’s name nearly ten feet tall…and I swear I could hear the chorus from Blazing Saddles singing “Randolph Scott!”) Yes, it’s the A-Team out west—Scott being assisted not by Mr. T or Dirk Benedict, but by Claude Jarman, Jr., Frank Faylen (apparently William Demarest wasn’t available), John Call and Lee Marvin, who gives Scott nearly as much grief as he does in Seven Men from Now (1956). The swiping of the gold proves to be a success, but there’s just one tiny snag—Scott and Company learn from a dying officer that the war’s been over for a month now, and so they high-tail it back in the direction of the South (to avoid facing criminal charges) only to be pursued by a gang of “deputies” that includes Ray Teal, Monte Blue and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams. Scott and his men stop a stagecoach along the way and join Union Army nurse Donna Reed and “fiancé” Richard Denning on their flight to escape, but they end up trapped in a way station run by Clem Bevans and his daughter, Jeanette Nolan—with the “deputies” determined to smoke them out (and I mean that literally).

Knot is a good ol’ fashioned slam-bang western with an interesting plot and a surprising amount of dry humor (sort of a Huggins trademark); most of which emanates from Faylen’s character—particularly in this scene where he’s just been rescued by Scott (he was being held prisoner outside by the “deputies”) and wants to know what the game plan is:

STEWART (Scott): After you get cleaned up, you and Jamie get some sleep…you can relieve Rolph and me in a couple of hours…

CASS (Faylen): Yes, sir…I guess I don’t have to tell you that them ain’t deputies out there…just a bunch of drifters…

STEWART: Do they…do they know the gold’s in here?

CASS (smiling): You got ‘em confused… (Chuckling) If they ever find out, though, and get their hands on it…there ain’t gonna be nobody left alive in here to tell…you got any plans?

STEWART: Mm-hmm…we go out shooting…sometime tomorrow…

CASS (after a pause): Wish I hadn’t asked

What I found most fascinating about Knot is how Reed’s hair and makeup remains impeccable even though she’s kept pretty busy tending to the wounds of gang member Call—okay, I am kidding a bit; overall the film is pretty solid (there’s an impressive runaway stagecoach sequence that’s nicely handled by Huggins), with no loftier ambition other than to be enjoyable. The producer of this film was none other than Harry Brown, who, as you well know, was part of the team that cranked out the memorable Randolph Scott westerns directed by Budd Boetticher in the latter part of the 1950s. Without giving too much away, let me warn you that Denning’s character turns out to be a real piece of work; the actor may have been a good husband to both Lucille Ball (My Favorite Husband) and Barbara Britton (Mr. and Mrs. North) but he played his fair share of silver screen bastards, as Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) will readily attest.

Gun Fury (1953) – After a repeat showing of Scandal Sheet (1952), which was discussed here on Saturday, we find our gal Donna back in the saddle in another western (this one co-written by Huggins, adapted from the novel Ten Against Caesar) as Jennifer Ballard, a woman who’s been journeying westward to join up with her fiancé, ex-Confederate soldier Ben Warren (Rock Hudson), who owns a ranch in California. On the stagecoach trip in, she makes the acquaintance of a courtly Southern gentleman named Hampton (Philip Carey) and his sidekick, Tom “Jess” Burgess (Leo Gordon). Hampton takes a shine to Jennifer almost from the get-go, and his plans to get better acquainted are interrupted when Ben surprises Jennifer by showing up at the stagecoach stop. But it’s really the young couple who get a surprise—when the stagecoach continues on its way it’s held up by the soldiers accompanying the coach (as you’ve probably guessed, there was a gold shipment on board), and Hampton reveals himself to be none other than outlaw Frank Slayton—one of those Southerners who just isn’t comfortable with the fact that his side lost the war, despite it being in all the papers. Slayton abducts Jennifer for his own evil purposes and leaves Warren for dead; however the very-much-alive Ben soon comes after the outlaw, with some help from Burgess; an Indian named Johash (Pat Hogan), seeking out vengeance on Slayton for the death of his sister; and hell-hath-no-fury-like-a-woman-scorned Estella Morales (Roberta Haynes)—an old girlfriend of Frank’s who doesn’t take the news that he’s now going around with Jennifer too well.

Normally, I try not to read too much of this sort of thing into movies but Gun Fury is sort of fascinating because of its none-too-subtle gay subtext—and I’m not just saying this because Rock Hudson’s in the movie…even though he does struggle valiantly to remain butch throughout the proceedings. What I’m referring to is the relationship between the Slayton and Burgess characters; from the moment Slayton meets Jennifer the jealousy displayed by Burgess is simply too hard to ignore. When Frank invites Jennifer to dinner and is soundly rebuffed Jess remarks: “Don’t worry about it, Mr. Hampton—I’ll eat with you.” “If I had known that, Mr. Burgess, I wouldn’t have asked the lady,” is Slayton’s terse reply. Later, as the two men freshen up in their hotel room:

SLAYTON: She’s quite a woman, isn’t she?

BURGESS: As far as I’m concerned, all women are alike…they just got different faces so you can tell them apart…

SLAYTON: To a man without taste, I suppose all women are alike…she’s as different from other women as cognac is from corn licker

BURGESS: You get the same kind of headache from either one…

Burgess makes it a point to warn Slayton to stay away from Jennifer—and even tells Jennifer in a scene where the two of them are tripping the light fantastic not to get back on the stagecoach in the morning (it’s later explained that he did this because he knew the stage would be held up, but I’m not so sure of this). Later in the film, Jess and Frank have a disagreement (a ‘tiff’?) regarding Jennifer’s abduction—which leads Slayton to tying Jess to a stake as buzzard bait (“I told you before there couldn’t be two generals,” he warns his partner). Jess is rescued by Ben, and agrees to partner up with him in going after Slayton—his motivation is revenge, of course, but toward the end of the movie Slayton offers to trade Jennifer for Jess, telling Ben, ”I made a mistake—I’m willing to admit it…”

When I started, it was just Jess and me…now that he’s not with me, I know how much I need him…to keep the men in line, help me work out our plans…without Jess, I’m like a man with only one arm…

Jess’ reaction? He’s amenable to the deal…though he rationalizes this by stating that his only motivation is his share of the gold that Slayton and Company stole. (Speaking only for myself, if someone had tied me to a stake and left me there as a potential buffet for scavenger birds I wouldn’t be all that anxious to cut any deals with him.)

Carey makes for a formidable villain, and the members in his gang include Lee Marvin (as “Blinky”—is there a 1950s Western Marvin doesn’t appear in?) and his future Laredo co-star Neville Brand (I’m sure Scott would enjoy this)…but of course, the great thing about these movies are the wondering supporting players: OTR veteran Forrest Lewis plays the gentleman who chats up Reed on the stagecoach, and there are also bits contributed by John Dierkes, Maudie Prickett and Mel Welles. If you’re curious why people are shooting and throwing things at the camera, it’s because this film was originally released in 3-D (with a one-eyed Raoul Walsh directing!).

See No Evil (1971) – During my brief stint working at a Blockbuster Video franchise in Savannah, GA, I had a customer ask me to recommend a suitable horror film to show for a Halloween party—the stipulation being that since the guest list was made up of impressionable young teens, she didn’t want any of the Friday the 13th or Freddy Krueger movies on the menu. Having just watched Evil (originally released in the U.K. as Blind Terror), I told her that this nifty suspenser starring Mia Farrow as a blind woman who discovers that the family she’s staying with in her period of adjustment have been killed off by a psychopath would be a good choice, and she accepted my recommendation. (Whether or not it paid off is a question I can’t answer, since I never saw her again. I guess this wasn’t as interesting a story as I had hoped.)

But I watched it again last night and was pleased to find that it still holds up pretty well, as well as providing further evidence that director Richard Fleischer could still deliver the goods after years of big-budget prestige films (he also directed 10 Rillington Place that same year, which I’m considering as next week’s Region 2 Cinema pick). Farrow is pretty good as the blind girl in peril, and I recognized Lila Kaye (An American Werewolf in London), Paul Nicholas, Michael Elphick and Norman Eshley (as Mia’s boyfriend) among the cast; Eshley is a familiar face because he played the snooty next-door neighbor Jeffrey Fourmile on George and Mildred (he was also on George’s predecessor, Man About the House, as Richard O’Sullivan’s brother—who comes out of nowhere to win and woo the lovely Paula Wilcox…lucky bastard) and Elphick co-starred in an entertaining sitcom Three Up, Two Down about two bickering in-laws (Angela Thorne, Ray Burdis) forced to share a flat (Elphick was Burdis’ son, married to Thorne’s daughter, played by Lisette Anthony). Nicholas was the co-star of the John Sullivan-created Britcom Just Good Friends—but he’s achieved immortality at Rancho Yesteryear for his 1978 Top Ten pop smash Heaven on the Seventh Floor.

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Monday, September 28, 2009

Region 2 Cinema: Station West (1948)

Since I’ve been nursing a jones for some Dick Powell movies ever since TCM ran one of my all-time favorites, Murder, My Sweet (1944), last Wednesday, I chose this “Philip Marlowe Goes West” as this week’s Region 2 Cinema entry. As always, there may be a spoiler or two.

A stranger (Powell) rides into a small Western town and immediately makes his presence known by antagonizing some of the patrons of the local saloon, one of which is an Army lieutenant (Steve Brodie) who later meets up with him at a conference with Captain George Iles (Tom Powers), commander at the local Army post. The stranger is actually Lt. John Martin Haven, an undercover Army officer assigned to Iles to investigate the murders of two soldiers who had been assigned to protect a gold shipment (the two men died at the hands of a gang of unknown masked bandits). Haven manages to wangle a job managing the stagecoach line owned and operated by a woman named “Charlie” (Jane Greer), who has a finger in every financial pie in town. Haven convinces Iles’ fiancée, Mrs. Mary Caslon (Agnes Moorehead), to allow him to transport some of the gold from her mine as part of a “sting” operation—but his scheme goes sour when he and “shotgun rider” Jim Goddard (Regis Toomey) are ambushed by the gang and Goddard (in actuality an undercover Wells Fargo agent) is killed. Haven manages to make his way to a sawmill (run by Greer’s character), where he learns that Charlie’s right-hand man Prince (Gordon Oliver) has plans to disguise a group of men as Army soldiers, allowing them to infiltrate Iles’ post and steal the gold that is stashed in the warehouse there. Haven manages to kill the individuals responsible, thus saving the day—but his romantic ardor for the seductive Charlie is dampened when she is felled by a bullet from Prince’s gun, and our hero must ride out of town alone.

Station West (1948) is an example of what might be called “western noir”; an appellation that is also applicable to films like Pursued (1947) and Blood on the Moon (1948)—both of which star Robert Mitchum. A lot of noir elements are present in West: the sultry femme fatale (Greer); the laconic protagonist (Powell) prone to bluffing his way in and out of situations (and always with a wisecrack at the ready); and shifty characters who may or may not be on the side of the law (notably an unscrupulous lawyer named Mark Bristow, played by noir icon Raymond Burr). Written by Frank Fenton and Winston Miller (based on a novel by Luke Short), the film is jam-packed with snappy one-liners and hard-boiled dialogue (having injured his hand in a brawl, Powell tells Greer: “You can take my hand if you don’t squeeze it”); my favorite is this exchange between Powell and Brodie as they square off in the saloon:

STELLMAN: If I weren’t in uniform, I’d teach you a few manners…

HAVEN: If you could teach me anything, you wouldn’t be in uniform

While West’s plot isn’t anything we haven’t already witnessed before, it’s the dialogue and the performances that compensate; Powell is in his element as the jaded investigator who’s determined to administer justice but can’t help falling for the attractive Greer—and Jane resurrects her black-widow-like Kathie Moffatt demeanor as the worldly and amoral Charlie (a derivative of Charlene). (Station West is always the third film I mention when I’m ticking off a list of Greer’s movies, right after Out of the Past and They Won't Believe Me.) I really like Moorehead in this movie, too—she plays it perfectly straight and avoids the wealthy-old-dame stereotype to which a lesser actress might succumb. It’s also surprising to see Guinn “Big Boy” Williams—a character actor whom I usually associate as the dumb but lovable sidekick—play a real heavy (he’s still short-on-brains-but-big-on-brawn); as one of Greer’s goons he engages in a lively knuckleduster with Powell that is one of the movie’s highlights. Burl Ives also appears in this film (one of his earliest performances) as a desk clerk whose guitar picking and singing act as kind of a Greek chorus to Powell’s comings-and-goings—but while he received mention on the posters promoting the film he gets no acknowledgment in the opening credits.

West was directed by Sidney Lanfield, a 20th Century-Fox journeyman who held the reins on a few big-name pictures including The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939) and You'll Never Get Rich (1941), but became more popularly associated with a lot of Bob Hope’s vehicles…notably My Favorite Blonde (1942), Where There's Life (1947; one of the most underrated of Hope’s comedies) and Sorrowful Jones (1949). (Lanfield also received credit for Hope’s The Lemon Drop Kid [1951], though most of that film was directed by Frank Tashlin.) Lanfield later moved on to television work, directing a goodly number of McHale’s Navy and The Addams Family installments. Once again, Station West (La Cité de la peur) is one of the many DVDs available in The R-K-O Collection at editions montparnasse; I purchased my copy from back in January 2008 to replace my home-recorded copy that I “liberated” from TCM. Definitely a film well worth catching, and if you want to save yourself the scratch it turns up regularly on what my friend Rick Brooks calls “The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™.”

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The wonderful world of Facebook #19

Sunday, September 27, 2009

“Drawing on my fine command of the English language, I said nothing…” – Robert Benchley

Every Friday, the TCM on Demand service changes a bit of their programming—usually their shorts schedule, as whatever movies they happen to be currently showing demonstrate a longevity not unlike the Energizer Bunny. So they’ve finished with the last three Dogville shorts—Trader Hound (1931), The Two Barks Brothers (1931) and Love-Tails of Morocco (1931)—and have moved on to some one-reel comedies that are a little more palatable to my admittedly finicky tastes, the Robert Benchley series produced at M-G-M from 1935 to 1940, and again from 1943 to 1944. (The date gap is due to the fact that the Benchley shorts moved to Paramount from 1940-42.)

(Incidentally, I ended up taping all of the Dogville shorts—I haven’t come up with an explanation for doing so yet; the closest I’ve come is that I might be able to use them as “guest repellent” in an emergency…an idea I got from Cliff “Laughing Gravy” Weimer. I mention this only because I also need to acknowledge that it was he who provided the quote for this post’s title. And by home recording the Dogvilles, I feel like I saved some money by not having to buy the Warner Archive DVD…though it’s highly unlikely I would have even if I had the extra cash to spend.)

I don’t recall the first time I saw one of the Robert Benchley shorts or even which one it was, but I do know that had I not taken the time to sit down and watch it I would have missed out on a great deal. For it was through these comedies that I became interested in reading his essays, and then later on had the privilege of enjoying his hilarious appearances in films like Foreign Correspondent (1940) and It's in the Bag! (1945), to name a couple off the top of my head. Some of these one-reel comedies are among the best ever produced in Hollywood (I’m particularly fond of jewels like A Night at the Movies [1937] and Opening Day [1938]) but the great thing about the Benchley shorts is that even the poorest ones have something in them to make me smile. (Particularly some of the Paramount entries, which are accessible on a nice Kino collection entitled Robert Benchley and the Knights of the Algonquin.)

Things were a bit slow around Rancho Yesteryear last night, so after I finally was able to get the On Demand function working, I watched all four of the Benchley comedies being showcased this week. Two of them I had already seen: the Oscar-winning How to Sleep (1935) and one of my personal favorites, How to Be a Detective (1936—this one has a great closing gag). The other two were How to Train a Dog (1936)—which I found only so-so—and How to Start the Day (1937), another winner whose story was written by Robert Lees and Frederic I. Rinaldo, the architects of many of the best Bud Abbott & Lou Costello comedies like Hold That Ghost (1941) and The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap (1947). I also get a kick out of watching these shorts because they were often the starting point of several well-known directors’ careers; Felix E. Feist handles the reins on Detective (he would later direct some not-too-shabby noirs like The Devil Thumbs a Ride [1947] and The Threat [1949]) while Roy Rowland (Witness to Murder, Rogue Cop) is credited with the direction on Day—in fact, he may have directed more Benchley shorts than anyone else, and also indulged himself on a number of Crime Does Not Pay efforts. (Veteran silent comedy director Arthur Ripley—who played an important part in the film career of Harry Langdon—flexed his comedy short muscles on How to Train a Dog.)

After the Benchley Fest, I used the remaining time to watch Monster (2003; on IFC on Demand), the critically-acclaimed suspense thriller based on the life of prostitute/serial killer Aileen Wuornos—played here by Charlize Theron, who was awarded the Best Actress Oscar the following year for her performance. Since I didn’t see any of the other nominated performances for that year it would be presumptuous of me to pass judgment on whether or not it was deserved, but since I have seen interviews of the real Wuornos (in the documentary directed by Nick Broomfield, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer [1992]) I have to say Theron pretty much nailed the part. Unfortunately, the Broomfield doc sort of colored my judgment of Monster; director Patty Jenkins seemed to be pushing in a direction that suggested sympathy for the admittedly hard-luck Aileen, but I wasn’t buying it—Wuornos was a dangerous anti-social psychopath and focusing on her affectionate relationship with her lesbian lover (Christina Ricci) did nothing to win me to her cause. I enjoyed seeing Bruce Dern in a small part, and especially TDOY fave Scott Wilson (In the Heat of the Night, In Cold Blood, Dead Man Walking), who practically walks away with the film as the last of Wuornos’ “johns” pleading for his life in a surprisingly tender scene.

Then after taking a break for some Britcoms (including a viewing of Last of the Summer Wine’s “Surprise at Throttlenest”—which finds Truly and Clegg carrying out Compo’s last wish…finding a proper home for his beloved ferrets) I watched The Chocolate War (1988), director Keith Gordon’s fascinatingly surreal allegory (based on the novel by Robert Cormier) about an iconoclastic Catholic school student (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) who refuses to participate in the school’s annual fund-raising drive (selling boxes of chocolates), earning him the enmity of the institution’s head teacher (John Glover, wiggy as always) and a secret organization known as The Vigils, which rules over the other students via threats and intimidation. Gordon—an actor who was the epitome of the modern-day nerd in films like Home Movies (1979), Christine (1983) and Back to School (1986)—turned to directing in the late 1980s, with Chocolate being his feature-film debut and fine follow-ups like A Midnight Clear (1992) and Mother Night (1996) demonstrating he was no flash-in-the-pan. Chocolate is sort of a blending of If.... (1969) and The Lords of Discipline (1983), demonstrating that greed and cruelty are never as far away as your friendly neighborhood private school. A mostly no-name cast (save for Wallace Langham [billed here as Wally Ward], Bud Cort, Adam Baldwin and Jenny Wright) really delivers the goods in this little sleeper, which I caught on Flix on Demand.

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DVR-TiVo-Or whatever recording device strikes your fancy-alert!

TCM has a quartet of Charley Chase two-reelers scheduled in their Silent Sunday Nights timeslot this evening—three of which I have not seen and one that I was able to see when Kino released their second Chase collection back in September 2005. That short is Isn't Life Terrible? (1925) and it’s a fitfully funny comedy, as evidenced by the heady praise I bestowed upon it at the time:

I also enjoyed Isn’t Life Terrible? (1925), in which a free ocean cruise won by Charley (for selling fountain pens—the housewife he tries to sell a pen to, incidentally, is played by King Kong’s Fay Wray) turns into a disaster of comic proportions. Terrible features a supporting performance from Oliver Hardy as Chase’s malingering brother-in-law Remington (“It’s lucky none of my things were in there!”) and was, I believe, his first appearance in a Chase two-reeler. (Hardy’s also in Bromo and Juliet [1926], another short in this collection, playing a cab driver trying to get a fare owed to him by Charley’s inebriated future father-in-law.) Terrible is also—from what I understand—missing a bit of footage but fortunately this doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the film.

The three shorts I haven’t seen are Bad Boy (1925; which is on the Becoming Charley Chase collection recently released by VCI Entertainment—a set that I hope to crack open one of these days), The Uneasy Three (1925) and Mama Behave (1926). These last two shorts were originally going to comprise a fistful of comedies on a collection once proposed by Milestone (Cut to the Chase), but the only information as to the date when this will be forthcoming reads “Coming Soon.” (I’m not 100% certain on this, but I had heard a rumor or two that the project has been abandoned. If it’s a funding issue…well, I’m tapped out at the present but I’m certainly not too proud to pass a hat around if necessary.) I’m particularly pumped about seeing Three; I’ve heard quite a bit of positive buzz that this one is a doozy.

Sunday Silent Nights starts on TCM at 12:00 midnight EST and in between Terrible and Three they’re going to squeeze in the silent comedy short Help (1916) starring Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew. Sounds like must-see TV for silent comedy fans—so start those recorders already!

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Only in America

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Movies I’ve stared at recently on TCM #39 (“I’ve had my Phil” edition)

Turner Classic Movies ran a mini-marathon of some of the films directed by B-movie icon Phil Karlson, a woefully neglected director who specialized in gritty film noir pieces like Kansas City Confidential (1952) and 99 River Street (1953) as well as low-budget oaters like They Rode West (1954) and Gunman's Walk (1958). I managed to make time for all four entries showcased last night, with the exception of The Brothers Rico (1957) which I recorded to watch later. As always, there are some spoilers dropped hither and yon, so be forewarned.

Scandal Sheet (1952) – Broderick Crawford is Harry Brock, a man…um, sorry about that—it’s just that in every movie Crawford made after Born Yesterday (1950) he seemed to channel the irascible junkyard tycoon who is outwitted by “dumb blonde” Judy Holliday, regardless of what the character’s name was. All seriousness aside, he’s newspaper editor Mark Chapman in this one—a ruthless martinet who’s responsible for transforming a once respectable New York paper into a tawdry tabloid (any resemblance to a certain media mogul with an Australian accent is purely coincidental) that panders to the ever-present lowest common denominator of the population…and sells more newspapers in the bargain. He’s admired by a slightly unscrupulous reporter named Steve McCleary (John Derek, who played Crawford’s son in All the King's Men [1949]) and despised by McCleary’s girl friend, Julie Allison (Donna Reed), who also works at the paper as a columnist. The paper’s latest wallow into exploiting human misery concerns a “lonely hearts dance” sponsored by the publication; Chapman is hoping to get couples together in holy matrimony and make the most of their couplings. But at this dance, he’s recognized by a woman (Rosemary DeCamp) named Charlotte Grant—who knows a dirty little secret about Chapman: his real identity is George Grant, and as his abandoned wife she should know. She threatens to publicly expose Chapman, and in the midst of a lovers’ “tiff” he throws her up against a water pipe…causing her to hit her head and…well, let’s just say Rosie won’t be answering any more phones for Dr. Christian anytime soon.

McCreary is quick to follow up on the story and finds a clue on the deceased woman’s dress that he conceals from the gendarmes: the remnants of a name tag the “lonely hearts” contestants wore at the dance that night. Chapman’s no fool; he knows the story will sell papers but at the same time he fears being revealed as the killer. He even goes so far as to fix a drunken, washed-up reporter named Charlie Barnes (Henry O’Neill) so he won’t be answering any phones either when he learns that Barnes has found a photograph identifying the dead woman’s husband (him). As McCreary and Julie continue to track down leads, Chapman begins to sweat like Edmond O’Brien on a good day—and the suspense builds to a palpable climax as the noose tightens around Chapman’s neck.

Sheet was adapted by scribes Ted Sherdeman, Eugene Ling and James Poe into a screenplay based on a novel entitled The Dark Page…which was written by future director-producer-screenwriter Sam Fuller. (This is the book that the Private Zab character, based on Fuller himself, boasts about writing in The Big Red One [1980].) It’s got Fuller’s stamp all over it, even though the film also shares similarities with The Big Clock (1948; powerful publisher Charles Laughton kills his mistress and sets up ace reporter Ray Milland to take the rap) and Deadline - U.S.A. (1952; Humphrey Bogart is the editor of a revered newspaper forced to go commercial). Crawford is appropriately blustery here (I like Brod, but he could be awfully one-note at times), and Derek and Reed make a cute couple but the best performances come from DeCamp, O’Neill (his confrontation with Crawford’s character just before he gets croaked is particularly touching) and Harry (Henry in this one) Morgan as Derek’s cigar-chomping photographer sidekick. Others in the stand-out cast include James Millican, Griff Barnett, Jonathan “Mr. Dithers” Hale and Kathryn Card. TCM is going to run this little sleeper again on Monday at 4:45pm EST (it’s Donna Reed’s birthday) so if you missed it, write yourself a note.

The Phenix City Story (1955) – I’ve been championing this neglected noir for quite a few years now—it may very well be my favorite of Karlson’s oeuvre—and it was great to see it premiere on TCM last night…and in a letterboxed version, the way the Movie Gods intended (my VHS copy came from a long-ago showing on Encore Mystery). Based on the true-life events that took place in an Alabama town once dubbed “Sin City, USA” it stars TDOY fave John McIntire as Albert Patterson, a laid-back attorney who refuses to get involved with a “good government” committee created to smash the corrupt political machine that knowingly gives its stamp of approval to the profitable gambling, prostitution and drug operations run by the town’s criminal element—headed up by an appropriately unctuous Edward Andrews as “Rhett Tanner”. But Albert changes his mind when his son John (Richard Kiley) is attacked by Tanner’s gang of goons (which include John Larch as a peckerwood named Clem Wilson—my God, is Larch dead-on in his portrayal) while running an errand for his wife (Lenka Peterson)…and then when the child of a friend (James Edwards) is murdered by Larch and tossed out on his front lawn. Patterson campaigns across the state in the race for Alabama’s Attorney General—and after having won the nomination, is murdered in cold blood by Tanner and Company. Will John pick up his father’s mantle and spur the community on to demand the arrests that need to be made…even if it means placing Phenix City under martial law?

Because Story is preceded by a thirteen-minute “newscast” prologue (in which several individuals involved in the case are interviewed by Clete Roberts, the veteran newsman who was featured in the classic M*A*S*H episodes “The Interview” and “Our Finest Hour”) that pretty much brings you up to date on the status of these trials, the answer to the question is a resounding “yes”—but though the prologue may seem a bit unnecessary the studio had to include it to pacify the censors (and even after that, the film was banned from being shown in several places in the South). The film is one of the best examples of docu-noir (an offshoot that was popular in the late 40s with films like The House on 92nd Street [1945] and Call Northside 777 [1948]) that I know of and is unflinchingly realistic at times; a minor character in the film mentions that a man worked over by Tanner’s thugs has been “carried over to the hospital”—and you don’t get much more Southern than that. (A couple of the characters in this film are played by the actual individuals themselves.) McIntire gives a first-rate performance, as do Kiley, Andrews and Edwards…and the future Mrs. Der Bingle, Kathryn Grant-Crosby, who plays a young girl working at Andrews’ “Poppy Club,” acting as McIntire’s eyes and ears as to what Andrews and the boys are up to. A top-notch film in all departments (with a screenplay by Crane Wilbur and Daniel “Out of the Past” Mainwaring)…and one that would already be available on DVD in a saner world.

Ladies of the Chorus (1949) – In addition to his noir and western assignments, director Karlson had a number of offbeat entries on his resume—everything from Charlie Chan films (The Shanghai Cobra [1945], Dark Alibi [1946]) to Bowery Boys vehicles (Live Wires [1946], Bowery Bombshell [1946]). But this Columbia musical—starring Marilyn Monroe on the cusp of her career—is a real curio; it runs little more than an hour and features Norma Jean as a chorus gal bumped up into the top spot when the show’s temperamental star quits. MM falls in love with a society dude (Rand Brooks) and wants to marry him…despite her mother’s (Adele Jergens) reservations that heartbreak is sure to follow (mama Adele experienced a similar situation when she tied the knot with Monroe’s father, becoming ostracized once his family learned she was a burlesque queen).

Chorus has the nutritional equivalence of a Dolly Madison Zinger, but I must reluctantly admit I was sort of fascinated by the film, particularly its offbeat touches like having Jergens play Marilyn’s mother (Adele was 31 at the time) and allowing the wacky Bobby True Trio to perform at an engagement party. Eddie Garr plays “Uncle Billy,” a burlesque comic who’s been carrying a torch for Jergens; you may not have heard of him but you certainly have a passing familiarity with his daughter Teri. There is also a bizarre sequence in which Dave Barry (not the famous columnist) plays a decorator named “Ripples”; Barry had a vocal talent that allowed him to speak as if he were underwater (sort of a gargling-and-talking effect) which he put to good use on radio shows like The Jimmy Durante Show (the kid who plays his son in Chorus goes uncredited, but I’ve heard him on a Durante broadcast, too). (Barry was also a first-rate impressionist—and in fact imitates Gabriel Heatter, Arthur Godfrey, Walter Winchell and Winston Churchill on a November 9, 1952 Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy broadcast that features as its guest star…Marilyn Monroe! How’s that for synchronicity!) Marilyn sings two numbers, Adele one (dubbed by Virginia Rees)—and the two of them duet on the title tune…but I actually enjoyed more the number performed near the ending by Nana Bryant, who plays Brooks’ mother (and who tells her bluenose friends that she was once in burlesque in order to protect her future daughter-in-law). The cast also features Steven Geray, Gladys Blake, Myron Healey, Almira Sessions and Frank J. Scannell.

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Boy, is my face red…

Official TDOY cub reporter Larry Shell e-mailed me yesterday with an update on the Laramie box set he spotted at a New Jersey Sam’s Club the other day, and it appears that he confused this with the Laredo box set announced by yesterday. It’s an honest mistake, of course, and Larry is most apologetic for the error...or what he refers to as “a senior moment.”

Thrilling Days of Yesteryear also regrets the erroneous post, and I offer anyone who read it my maximum mea culpa. And I’m sure once Larry finishes his penance covering the Jon & Kate Plus 8 beat, he’ll be a bit more careful in the future.

In other news, Eddie Copeland asked me sometime back if I could whip up a little something commemorating the 40th anniversary of the television premiere of the classic family sitcom The Brady Bunch. You'll find it here if you're curious.

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When worlds collide #59

Friday, September 25, 2009

Things were bad and that ain’t good announced yesterday that there is considerable grapevine buzz that the cult television comedy classic When Things Were Rotten—created by Mel Brooks and Norman Stiles—may be coming to DVD in 2010. The series, originally telecast on ABC in 1975 for a short while (there were thirteen episodes in toto, so if you blinked you probably missed it), has been a highly requested item for TV-on-DVD collectors; premise-wise, it was a spoof on Robin Hood starring Dick Gautier (as Robin), Dick Van Patten, Bernie Kopell, Misty Rowe, Henry Polic II and Ron Rifkin.

I’m sure I was just one person who comprised the show’s original viewing audience and while I remember the pilot as being falling-down funny, Rotten had difficulty sustaining its promise in subsequent outings. When the series was repeated on the Comedy Channel/Comedy Central/whatever-the-hell-they-were-calling-it-back-then, I watched a handful of the repeats and concluded that time hadn’t been kind to it all. But for those fans that still cherish the show, I’m glad to see that a DVD set is in the offing.

Also, in a sort of follow up to yesterday’s Laramie report, Timeless Media will be releasing a 12-disc set entitled Laredo: The Complete Series on November 24th, to the delight of those who shelled out the cabbage to buy the previously released four three-disc sets containing all fifty-six episodes of the NBC western originally telecast between 1965-67 (that would be Mr. Clevenger and myself). I know that in the past I have bestowed many a congratulatory kudo to the Timeless folks but they’re starting to emulate the weasel-like behavior of other companies who release these sets one season at a time and then decide to release a complete set, often replete with bonus material not available on the previous collections.

Oh, well…

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Better living through blogging #4

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The men from Laramie

I received an e-mail from faithful TDOY reader Larry Shell about an hour ago, and Larry informs me that on a visit to a Sam’s Club in Linden, NJ (population: 40,014—sal-ute!!) he spotted a Laramie DVD box set for $49.95. This wasn't one of the Laramie sets Timeless released recently, but a set containing the complete series (emphasis mine)!” he explains. “These seem to show up either before there is ANY kind of announcements about their release or months before their announced release date. So his burning question is: Does Sam’s have a special arrangement with Timeless Media Video?

This isn’t the first time that I’ve heard whisperings (some folks have even remarked on in the comments section in the past…I’m just too lazy to look those up) that Sam’s has gotten the jump on Timeless Video product before it’s officially announced or shows up at A complete series box set containing all 124 episodes of the western originally telecast on NBC from 1959-63 would be a sweetheart of a deal…particularly if it has a price tag of $49.95; I paid $35.92 for the third season alone at DVD Pacific—and at the time, that was the lowest price available online. Naturally, after making that purchase, marked the third season down even lower in a sale of Timeless’ sets, selling the collection for $24.99.

Amazon is no longer offering Laramie: The Complete Third Season at the discount price, and I’m curious as to whether that might have anything to do with the news that many individuals who purchased the set were disappointed with the visual quality. I’ve not opened my copy, but I have seen at least one episode—“The Runaway” (01/23/62)—on Timeless’ Classic TV Western Collection and while it’s certainly not of CBS DVD-Paramount caliber I didn’t think it was all that bad—it wasn’t unwatchable, let’s put it that way. When you factor in the info that Universal/NBC is just leasing the rights to these shows to Timeless and not providing them with fresh prints from the original negatives (if they exist at all) I don’t get too wound up about pristine picture quality. (Perhaps I should—but I prefer to focus my rants in the direction of this idiotic “split-season” crap.) Also, at a time when discretionary spending is taking a beating from the economy, any company willing to take a chance on releasing shows that don’t receive a great deal of exposure except in people’s memories is aces in my book. In summation, maybe Timeless decided to go ahead and bunch all four seasons together in the lower-priced collection because of the visual quality concerns. I don’t have all the answers—but if I turn on the Public Domain signal, maybe Bob Huggins can fill us in.

Larry also mentions that he spotted a collection combining the first and second seasons of The Guns of Will Sonnett “…which I don’t recall seeing announced nor is it available at Amazon…” This set was announced—I mentioned it here—and it is available at Amazon for the low price of $23.99 (and if I could scrape that up, believe you me I’d have a copy by now)—another great bargain, and if you’re not familiar with this underrated series it’s certainly worth a flutter. I was going to give Larry a demerit for not paying attention in class (particularly since I just now discovered that he was the individual who pointed out that Sam’s was selling these collections in the first place—including Sonnett!) but since he signed off on his e-mail as “Larry Shell, Cub Reporter” I’ll give him a pass. (I also hereby declare that Larry is now TDOY’s official cub reporter—wave the flag high and proudly, Lar!)

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Buried Treasures: The Well (1951)

I know the title of this post sounds a bit like I’m straining for a laugh—come to think of it, most of my post titles start out with that purpose in mind—but Buried Treasures is a new semi-regular feature that I’m introducing here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, concentrating on films inside the dusty TDOY archives that may not be particularly well-known but are well worth the time invested to watch them. (I swear these “well” references are unintentional.) I decided that the inaugural feature would be the 1951 suspenser The Well, a well-made B-picture about the racial tensions that explode in a small, racially-mixed town when a young black girl (Carolyn Crawford) turns up missing and is thought to have been killed by a stranger (played in first-rate fashion by Harry “Bill Gannon” Morgan, who was still being billed as Henry at this point in his career). As always, I need to give you a heads-up and tell you that I do give away the ending of the film—so if by chance you haven’t seen the movie, do so at your first opportunity and then come back to read what I’m sure will be by that time heralded as a critically-acclaimed bit o’cinematic review. (Well…I can dream, can’t I?)

I remember seeing this film a long time ago as a kid one Saturday afternoon and while I’m a bit fuzzy on the actual time frame (yeah, it’s hell getting old) I know that my family and I were still living in West Virginia because I saw it on Charleston’s WCHS-TV, Channel 8. (The fam and I dug up stakes and moved to Savannah in May 1983, so it’s possible that it may have been five or ten years before that.) While I remembered the general story about rescuing the little black girl from the well, I had no recollection of the subplot involving the ugliness that erupts when the word gets out that she was last seen in the company of an adult white man and that the town’s sheriff (Richard Rober) is grilling said individual in the city jail. (I bought this DVD at last year for $4.99 thinking I would watch the movie once and then offer it up for sale on eBay—in fact, the original title for this series was going to be “$4.99 Theater.”) So naturally, I was pleased that The Well turned out to be a much better film than I recalled from my frequent hazy memory.

Claude Packard (Morgan) is a “person of interest” in Sheriff Ben Kellogg’s (Rober) investigation of the child’s disappearance; at least three adult witnesses—a florist (Wheaton Chambers), a milkman (Edwin Max, “the judge” in Follow Me Quietly [1949]) and a baggage man (Guy Beach)—all saw Packard in the company of the girl, not to mention several of her schoolmates. A black teenager who works for the florist gets wind of the white man’s involvement and soon plays Paul Revere throughout the town, lighting the match that will soon touch off the powder keg of racial violence. To make matters worse, the white stranger is the nephew of the town’s main employer, contractor Sam Packard (Barry Kelly), and word also begins to get out that the suspect is going to get preferential treatment because of his connections. Packard pays his nephew a visit and advises him to keep his trap shut and simply tell the police he was with his uncle at the time the girl was allegedly abducted—but Claude balks at this: he knows he’s innocent of any wrongdoing, though he is concerned that something like this could “ruin him” (he pleads with the gendarmes that he’s got a wife and two kids). Going back to his car, the senior Packard is confronted by the girl’s father (Ernest Anderson) and uncle (Alfred Grant); a scuffle ensues, and the next thing you know blacks and whites are fabricating stories, beating one another up and making liberal use of the N-word.

Unbeknownst to the townspeople, the girl is still alive…but has been seriously injured due to falling down an abandoned water well. There’s an incredibly palpable moment when Kellogg and one of his deputies (Dick Simmons) are searching the very meadow the well is located on, and they’re not more than a few yards away…when they get the news that violence has broken out in town, so they pack up and head on back. It’s up to a young boy (Pat Mitchell) and his dog (no, it’s not a collie) to stumble upon the well site, and he quickly races back to town to inform the girl’s mother (Maidie Norman) of her whereabouts…effectively pre-empting the plans of Sam Packard, his right-hand man Alex Wylie (Robert Osterloh) and an army of disgruntled townsfolk to open up a forty-gallon drum of Whupass on the black population. (Indeed, when Packard learns from a radio repairman [OTR veteran Jess Kirkpatrick] that “they found the kid” his first reaction is “What kid?” before he realizes that’s how the ugliness got started in the first place.)

The remainder of the film finds the town’s population banding together to save the little girl in a race-against-the-clock rescue attempt, with Packard advising Kellogg and the others on the best way to reach the little girl in time—putting in a parallel shaft near the well and then tunneling over to rescue the child. He needs the help of an experienced miner/engineer who, as luck and movie scripting would have it, turns out to be his incarcerated nephew. Claude is being released from the nick when his uncle pleads with him to assist the workers in the effort, but the disgruntled guest of the city’s penal facilities is anxious to put as much distance as possible between him and that unpleasant little town. “I’m gonna do just as you told me,” he snarls at the senior Packard. “I’m gettin’ out of here as fast as I can…I hate this town and everybody in it! I wanna forget I ever saw it, or you, or him, or anything about it!” Of course, Claude’s enough of a right guy to change his mind at the last minute, and his contributions in the rescue attempt pay off when the little girl is retrieved, unharmed.

An independent film produced by Harry M. Popkin (Impact, D.O.A.) and co-directed (along with Russell Rouse) by his brother Leo, The Well was a modestly budgeted film released through United Artists whose searing portrayal of race relations still resonates with audiences today. With the exception of Morgan (who at that time in his career was a seasoned character actor but had not yet reached the point where he would become a household name), the film features a no-name cast but its white-knuckle suspense plot made members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences sit up and take notice long enough to get the movie two Oscar nominations, one for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay (Rouse and Clarence Greene) and one for Best Film Editing (Chester W. Schaeffer). The film also benefits from a superb music score courtesy of Dmitri Tiomkin (who was nominated for a Golden Globe award that same year). Many of the actors in The Well give outstanding performances, notably Morgan, Norman, Kelly and veteran Bill Walker…who has a tiny role as a black doctor trying to stress the need to back up the sheriff when the lawman announces to a room of the burg’s movers and shakers that he may have to call in the state militia to prevent a race riot:

Has any of you ever seen a race riot? (after a pause) I have…I saw a whole town go bad…a town very much like this…I saw my own father’s body tied to a car and dragged through the streets…and the driver of that car was a man my father had known for twenty years…I saw a white child beaten to death by my own people… (turning to a man standing beside him) She was just about the same age as your daughter, Mr. Lobel…oh, you can’t believe it unless you see it with your own eyes…it happens fast, just like this is happening—and then suddenly it turns into mob violence! And once it grows into mob violence, it’s a shocking, frightening spectacle…decent people go suddenly insane…there is no reasoning, no feeling of guilt…just hysteria! A wild, uncontrollable hysteria…and then the fear…the terror of helpless victims…something that you can never forget as long as you live…

Richard Rober receives top-billing as Sheriff Kellogg, and while he doesn’t fall down completely in a difficult role he comes across as a bit stiff at times…and there’s a rather awkward scene in which he addresses some civil defense volunteers who have expressed a reluctance to confront the mob outside with guns (many of the mob’s members are close friends, relatives, neighbors, etc.) with: “Now let’s get this straight—you’re not doing me any favors, you’re doing this for yourselves! There are women and children in this town…some of them your wives, and your children. When this thing breaks, life is going to be awful cheap…nobody’s walking away from this because I need fifty for every one of you! I’d like to walk out of it, too! But if I’m in it…you’re in it with me.” Yeah, that’s the kind of pep talk that would make me go and play my guts out in the second half.

The glaring weakness of The Well resides in the inescapable conclusion that scorching social drama or no, it is a Hollywood motion picture and it’s got to have a happy ending—which is why the film calls it a wrap by allowing the child to survive and all of the townspeople are friends again…despite the reality that they were ready to tear one another apart in the first half of the film. So you have to put up with a cornball ending which has the unintentional effect of negating a lot of what previously occurred. I will say this for the rescue climax—I think it is suspensefully done (this reviewer says it goes on too long) and I like how the low budget necessitated most of the rescue be done in sort of “audio” form; Morgan appeared on radio shows on occasion during his acting career, notably as the announcer on the 1947 summer series Mystery in the Air and appearances on Dragnet and This is Your FBI. I shudder to think what would happen if someone got a notion to do a big-budget remake of The Well; the rescue attempt would be an overdone and bloated CGI affair, robbing the movie of its dramatic tension and effectiveness.

In real life, a child who disappeared down a similar well was not so lucky. In the liner notes on the back of the DVD, producer Wade Williams mentions that the 1949 incident of Kathy Fiscus (spelled “Friscus” in the notes, which could either be a typo or Williams’ Ivan-like memory) inspired the movie (Wikipedia also says the Fiscus girl’s death motivated Ace in the Hole, but I believe the celebrated Billy Wilder film took most of its cues from the 1925 death of Floyd Collins). The back of the DVD also contains a ringing endorsement from former—and I do mean former—first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who is quoted as saying: “An exciting movie, filled with drama and tension…None of you want to miss it!” As for the front—well, Image Entertainment must surely win an award for a eye-catching and fanciful cover depicting a scene in the film that doesn’t exist. The female is supposed to be actress Christine Larson (who plays a waitress named “Casey”) and I’m assuming the guy who’s guessing her weight is Rober—though he looks a lot more like William H. Macy. You have to admire the ingenuity of some of these folks in the DVD bidness, that’s for sure.

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