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by Sam Juliano

You’d almost think that the fictional town of Mayberry, North Carolina was the creation of renowned American playwright Thornton Wilder.  That is until you realize that life in Grovers Corner, New Hampshire is steeped in melancholy, and the concerns are more deeply philosophical.  Yet one would be hard pressed not to note the small town parallels, and how seemingly innocuous village institutions like a drug store, barber shop, auto repair depot, school, post office, courthouse, and town hall can be the center of every mode of interaction and incidence, a place where everyone knows everyone else, and where for its erstwhile inhabitants life stands still.  Mayberry is a town with a purported population of 5, 360, and an elevation of 671.   Scholar Donald Margulies declares in his Our Town forward, “the work is about the universal experience of being alive” and the same came be said for the archetypal Mayberry, which bears the name of the county that owns it.  The Bluebird Diner, The Grand Theater, Floyd’s Barber Shop and Myer’s Lake are central to the Mayberry experience as it was played out in eight long years in one America’s most revered and enduring sitcoms, The Andy Griffith Show, a television watermark that continues to this very day to attract new fans, while remaining a treasured refuge for those who either grew up with it during the baby boomer era or discovered it in syndication.  There are very few American television enterprises that have maintained the kind of fervent appeal as this CBS tour de force, a show as ingrained in the nation’s culture as any before or since, and one remarkably that has never dated one iota, since the full run of emotions and human inhibitions are as relevant today as they were six decades ago.  I’d venture to pose that a hundred years from now The Andy Griffith Show will be scoring new adherents, people all too eager to ingest its tame but telling brew and to find special solace spending time with characters everyone has grown to know and love.  The program was and remains a sanctuary from crisis and unease and an invitation to indulge in the show’s meditative showcase of life’s inscrutable mundanities.  Alas, in the end the show is deep, wistful and profound, and is fully foolproof to those who would ordinarily look down their nose at such seeming simplicity.  One can never deem to understand and appreciate American television and indeed the culture without visiting Mayberry and partaking either moderately or with the force of a tornado, in The Andy Griffith Show.

First aired in September of 1960, The Andy Griffith Show became an immediate hit.  It continues to run several times a day in some markets, and the overall circulation circulation needs to be spoken of in worldwide terms.  It would be difficult to argue that by way of staying power it doesn’t rival The Honeymooners or I Love Lucy, those other CBS masterpieces, but unlike them the appeal can’t be explained completely by acting and writing excellence.  At a time when the civil rights movement was gaining momentum, sex, drugs and rock and roll were redefining the culture, and riots and assassinations began their tragic paths, this celebration of life in the slow lane was of special interest to those wanting to resist the turbulent changes and to remember what it once was in less complicated times.  Black and white helped to frame this nostalgic program, and in some cases it allowed viewers to reconnect with their own past.  Andy Griffith himself grew up in Mount Airy, NC, which some assumed was the model for Mayberry, though the performer himself refutes that, declaring instead that the nearby Pilot Mountain was the intended replica.  His beloved co-star Don Knotts was also brought up in a rural hamlet in West Virginia, so it could be confidently posed that the setting was exceedingly well suited.  The show’s central dramatic concern was the friendship between these two men, Griffith as likeable Mayberry Sheriff Andy Taylor, and Knotts as his big-eyed and child-like deputy Barney Fife.  Andy’s lawman possessed a gently satiric edge, since the town he was entrusted with had almost no crime.  If anything, through his actions, or more often non-actions Andy helped the town’s citizens to hold steady to their homespun values, while protecting his compulsive deputy from a variety of problems emanating from his overwrought behavior.  The other major player in this minimalist dynamic is the widower Andy’s eight year-old son Opie, a precocious boy who his only child and immediate family member.  Some of the show’s most memorable episodes and situations are fueled by this irresistible lad, one who of course grew up to be the major Hollywood director Ron Howard. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

 There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.

Jules Dassin’s 1948 film noir The Naked City was particularly prominent for its location photography on the streets of Manhattan.  Shot in  cinema verite style, the gritty realism that resulted practically made one think that Vittorio de Sica was part of the production team.  The use of alleyways, parks, restaurants, taverns, churches, industrial zones, steaming urban corners and landmarks like the Williamsburg Bridge, Penn Station, and the Chrysler Building worked against any perceived artificiality of the stories, thereby wedding fiction narrative with the perception that what has been seen and heard actually took place.  The film’s producer Mark Hellinger handled the film’s narration, which was one of the most effective ever delivered for a movie, both in substance and discarnate delivery.  In the opening five minutes Hellinger expresses plaintive and philosophical thoughts about the concept of a city which are juxtaposed with evocative images of New York in the late 1940s.  He explains that actors will tell the tale and consequently as viewers we  highly conscious that this is a “staged” documentary film played out in the background of real life. Though the main thrust of the film, and a vital claim of it be classified as a noir is the search for truth in a climate of murder and deceit, it is invariably the manner in which the city of New York takes on its own life, a sleepless, merciless  asphalt jungle that is unremittingly corrupt. Much of what Dassin coordinated in the film was revisited in his Night in the City a year later, though his setting there was a monochromatic London.  The Naked City is also a prime example of a police procedural, chronicling as it does an investigation into the murder of a young model by homicide detective Lt. Dan Muldoon and his assistant Jimmy Halloran   The film’s cinematographer William H. Daniels and editor Paul Weatherwax deservedly won Academy Awards for their work.

In 1957, a television producer named Herbert Leonard- who had scored impressively a few years earlier with Rin Tin Tin- contacted Hellinger’s widow (sadly the film’s producer had died just a month after the film’s shoot completed) to secure the rights for a show to be loosely based on the Dassin film.  After the deal was signed, and some powerful sponsors in place the Screen Gems television division of Columbia Pictures asks acclaimed writer Sterling Silliphant to take up the role as primary scribe.    The series centered on the detectives of NYPD’s 65th Precinct, located in the Broadway theater district, although episode plots usually focused more on the criminals and victims portrayed by guest stars, characteristic of the “semi-anthology” narrative format common in early 1960s television. Primary writer Stirling Silliphant nurtured a focus on intelligent drama with elements of comedy and pathos, leading to significant critical acclaim for the series and attracting film and television actors of the time to seek out guest-starring roles. In addition to Silliphant, one of the busiest and most respected writers of the period, and winner of an Academy Award for his script for  In the Heat of the Night, those entrusted to craft the stories included veteran writer Howard Rodman,  blacklisted screenwriter Arnold Manoff, writing under the pseudonym Joel Carpenter, and perhaps most notably, Abram Ginnes, who wrote some of the show’s most poignant and profound episodes. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

It all began as a harmless curiosity.  A few of my seventh-grade friends clued me in on an afternoon soap opera they had been watching daily.  Mind you, they didn’t initially volunteer the information, almost as if to keep this new discovery a private matter that might be compromised if it became too popular.  But when I got frustrated that our after school stickball games had lost the majority of the players, I pressed harder for the cause.  I was told the half hour show, known as Dark Shadows, which ran between 4:00 and 4:30 from Monday through Friday on ABC, had recently introduced a vampire among its characters.  His named was Barnabus Collins, and it seemed that his first appearances on the show brought what was initially a rather tepid affair a new prominence, one that turned into quite a sensation – certainly the equivalent of a present day online viral.  After I got over the shock that some of my teenage jock friends had actually been seduced by a soap opera, I decided I must investigate before damning the practice.  I was after all a big horror fan from the day I can first remember availing myself of the likes Chiller Theater and the re-runs of 1950’s science fiction/horror B flick re-runs.  Like so many of my friends I adored the Universal horror films, and had just at that very time developed an appreciation for the atmospheric productions from Hammer Studios.  In early 1966 I vividly recall walking down to the Embassy Theater about twenty-seven blocks from my home to see Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors.  It was love at first site, or more aptly, love at first bite, since the vampire and werewolf tales were at center stage.  Still, I had a problem believing it was hip for a thirteen year-old boy to be watching a soap opera.  These shows were for my mother and those weeping middle-aged women, who enjoyed getting a good cry out of their daytime programming.  After all Dark Shadows was running side-by-side on the schedule with As the World Turns and One Life to Live.  Vampire or not, the target audience couldn’t be little old me, especially during prime outdoor athletic immersion.  No, I was certain this irksome proposition would end up a certain bust.  But, alas, the proof would be in the pudding.

What I could have never foreseen is that afternoon stick ball was in some serious danger.  A few weeks with this quietly enveloping Gothic soap permanently relegated our post-school day games to the weekends, or to be more specific to any free time when Dark Shadows wasn’t enthralling us.  Like the best television, this was a show we not only were entertained by, but one where we became intimate with the characters, and were so entwined with the drama, that we were infuriated every Friday afternoon when we were left hanging, in the manner of soap opera formula.  Of course this narrative design was aimed at keeping people aboard, but we were probably a bit too young to fully understand the nature of ratings and network scheming.  We needed to know immediately what would happen to Dr. Julia Hoffman after she got bitten by Barnabus or what would happen after Barnabus hires Sam to age the portrait of the witch Angelique.  When Julia embarks to hypnotize Willy, what will he reveal?  After Julia locks Barnabus in the basement, we need to know then and there if Barnabus will find a way to escape.  And it went on and on.  Almost every day the show ran they left you in the lurch, causing us to accuse the creators of dragging out a plot line for the full duration of the episode so they could hold back a major revelation for the next day.  That of course is the very business of soap opera, but we thought this show – the show we grew to love- would not be playing by those rules. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Note: This review is dedicated to the memory of Jonathan Crombie, who passed away in New York City at the age of 48 in April of 2015 of an unexpected and tragic brain hemorrhage The beloved actor was, is, and forever will be the world’s only Gilbert Blythe.  The essay has been marginally revised from a prior posting on the Romantic countdown.

I don’t want sunbursts or marble halls.  I just want you.

Anne Shirley to Gilbert Blythe, “Anne of Avonlea”

Mark Twain once described freckled-faced and incorrigible Anne Shirley as fiction’s dearest child since Lewis Carroll’s Alice.  While such a glowing contention would be difficult to contest, it might be harder yet to deny she is the most famous character in all of Canadian literature, and that her creator, Lucy Ward Montgomery  is often referred to as the “American Mark Twain.”  The author’s young heroine was the subject of an eight book series that brought great fame to Montgomery in her lifetime, giving way to translation in twenty-five languages, and bringing sustained scrutiny to the author’s diaries, letters and full body of work.   This brought bringing lasting fame to her birthplace, homes and grave site on the extraordinarily beautiful Prince Edward Island, a tiny province of Canada off the shore of Nova Scotia that now owes much of its prominence to Montgomery and her venerated Anne.  Tourism is a one of the island’s most lucrative assets, and for decades a “Green Gables Tour” has been a godsend for fans of her novels.  Canadian tourism officials report that in excess of 125,000 visitors a year descend on the paradise hamlet to behold the literary landmarks and partake in the related festivities.  It could well be argued that Prince Edward Island can’t be even contemplated without a thought for Anne and the author who best extrapolated on the place’s special and incomparable allure.  To this end there can be no doubt that the mid-80’s television adaptations have taken the franchise to places never seen before.

Though the beloved first book in the series – Anne of Green Gables – was made into a successful RKO film in 1934, its extremely short length didn’t give opportunity for a well-rounded look at Anne, nor at the many narrative and character complexities in the novel.  Some stage plays followed, but not until Kevin Sullivan acquired the rights in 1984 did the book receive the kind of treatment that not only exhibited fidelity to its source but brought an exceeding level of warmth and humanity that has continued to hold thrall with viewers around the world.  Sullivan’s battles in court to defend his acquisition of the rights and the lawsuits connected to them have reached all the way to the shores of Japan, where ironically the most passionate Anne of Green Gables fans reside.  Sullivan took full advantage of the loveliest of rural settings, filming on the island and assembling a dream cast that to this day represents a rare chemistry that is achieved through luck, timing and talent.  Sullivan co-wrote the script for Green Gables with Joe Wiesenfeld and handled the direction, and for all the film’s exemplary components it remains the key ingredient in the work’s enduring appeal.  When the great success of the 200 minute film was assured -Sullivan moved forward on a sequel, which is titled Anne of Avonlea, and as written and adapted solely by him based on three books in the series – Anne of Avonlea (Book Two); Anne of the Island (Book Three) and Anne of Windy Poplars (Book Four) it represented a unique hybrid.   Again the writing was exceptional, and the addition of several characters and sub-plots were woven in successfully.  Avonlea also featured a hefty running time at 230 minutes, though as fans and critics have glowingly attested it remained engrossing throughout.  Following up on the heels of its revered predecessor, Avonlea in short order became the highest rated drama to air on network television in Canadian broadcasting history.  It spawned a spectacularly successful television series Road to Avonlea, which was activated by some of Montgomery’s short stories and novellas.  At 93 episodes it remains the longest running, most popular and lucrative drama series ever produced in Canada.   A third film, Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story arrived in 2000, though to weak reception.  But the first two films, which are the subject of this review, will be considered as a single work, though with the dividing specifications.  Together they comprise what is arguably the most magnificent television work based on fiction ever produced in the western hemisphere.  Sullivan later added an animated Anne of Green Gables, which was fairly well-received, and then a fourth film a few years back that was lesser regarded. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

This towering mute has been shambling around the house forever…He is not a very good butler but a faithful one…One eye is opaque, the scanty hair is damply clinging to his narrow flat head…generally the family regards him as something of a joke.

-Charles Adams, describing Addams Family butler Lurch

A darling octopus named Aristotle.  A pet tarantula called Homer and Lucifer, a domesticated salamander with a hankering to slither around one’s neck.  A cuddly feline known as Kitty Kat, a full-grown African lion prone to roaming the house without restrictions.  An alligator residing in the basement and a piranha that was the aquatic creature of choice that swam in the living room fish tank.  And then there was Zelda, a vulture that was invariably perched in a corner in said den.  In such a unique household one could hardly be surprised some of the culinary delights served with abandon included “henbane soup”,  “baked iguana,” “casserole of yak,” “baked eye of newt”, “casserole of spleen” (with a pinch of hemlock), “fricassee of toad,” “souffle of aardvark” and for desert some delectable “yak fudge” and “a cup of hot sea sludge.”  The favored beverage is “pinecone nectar.” Of course with such wildlife and daily menus one can’t be too surprised that the the female host is dressed in a manner that would have Count Dracula proud, and that she offers her a guest a choice of salt, pepper or cyanide.

But of course these unseemly revelations are only the tip of the iceberg or in the lingo of this decidedly macabre brood the gizzard of a lizard.  Only the most cloistered of souls by now won’t have any kind of a clue as to the identity of such a creatively dysfunctional band of house dwellers, though on the other hand there is an “either or”  condition attached to the anticipated response.  During the 60’s Golden Age of television sitcoms warring networks unearthed their own brand of ghoulish guffawing by way of shows that exhibited remarkable kinship that went far more than just their comparable launchings, duration and common mise en scene.  CBS had The Munsters, a family, whose patriarch was patterned after the Frankenstein monster, and whose wife was nothing if not a reincarnation of Dracula’s daughter.  Her father, an aging Count, a son seemed doomed to lycanthropy, and a beautiful older nice, who is as normal as they come, but to the family an unfortunate (think Planet of the Apes) young lady with physical abnormalities.  Over at at ABC, a similar study in gruesome domestication -the subject of this essay- invaded the tube with the same formula.  The Addams Family, unlike their network siblings and online rivals were a sophisticated and cultured lot, even if they shared the same basic laugh premise with their 1313 Mockingbird Lane cousins with the ongoing running gag of the families, while decidedly odd, consider themselves fairly typical working-class people of the era.  Yet, fans of both shows have come to know that there are many substantial differences in the shows, and those who promote and appreciate the art in television will usually choose The Addams Family as the legitimate representative of this irreverent type of sitcom humor.   (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

It has been maintained that the prolific output of Dame Agatha Christie has outstripped the sales of all published works aside from the Bible and Shakespeare’s plays.  Her works have been translated into a hundred languages,  700 million copies have been sold of her 66 novels and 14 story collections, her beloved And Then There Were None alone has achieved 100 million copies in circulation and her celebrated play “The Mousetrap” has by far enjoy the longest stage run of any ever written.  Witness for the Prosecution’s popularity has never abated and a film version from Billy Wilder is counted as an all-time classic.  These inconceivable statistics for a writer who specialized in a single form and was never seen as a major literary talent to be placed in the company of Poe, Collins or even her contemporary Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are astounding.  Hence, it is her books that have endured in the public’s affectations, and have not only been read and discussed in schools and book groups, but have been honored with endless film and television adaptations, following radio play runs and theatrical treatment.  Her most ardent fans can never seem to get enough of her even with the astonishing six decades-long output that concluded about with her finale Elephants Can Remember, released four years before her passing in 1976 at the age of 85.  The key to the Queen of Crime’s continuing popularity can be succinctly attributed to her ingenious plotting, which arguably places her at poll position among all mystery writers.  While Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved Sherlock Holmes and some fringe creations like John Dickson Carr’s Dr. Gideon Fell have also held the stage, Dame Agatha’s two most celebrated sleuths, the fastidious, egocentric Belgian Detective Hercule Poirot and the English village spinster Jane Marple have been entered into Western culture, incomparable in reader veneration and by way of prolific adaptation.  The American television series Murder She Wrote starring Angela Lansbury was heavily inspired by the character of Miss Marple, while the BBC has also sponsored a few series on Christie’s favorite character, most notably the one that features Joan Hicks.  But the British ITV studio’s monumental study of Poirot, one spanning twenty-five years and entailing seventy episodes is the high watermark of any project ever committed to Dame Agatha’s work.

Agatha Christie’s Poirot or just Poirot debuted in 1989 with a January 8th broadcast of “The Adventure of the Clapham Cook,” a 51 minute episode based on a short story that features the inimitable detective investigating a case in spite of termination by his client’s husband.  Much more than the unveiling of a new series, the show introduced to the world the actor David Suchet, whose incarnation of the stout and mincing mustached Belgian won the highest praise from Dame Agatha’s daughter Rosalind Hicks and grandson Matthew Pritchard, both of whom recommended the actor for the role.  Such renowned thespians like Charles Laughton, Albert Finney, Peter Ustinox, Sir Ian Holm, Alfred Molina, Tony Randall and even Orson Welles have essayed the famous detective over the years.  And new adaptations are an ongoing affair, with yet another version of Murder on the Orient Express set for November of 2017, with Kenneth Branagh playing Poirot and directing.  Yet, by overwhelming consensus, Suchet embodied what Christie envisioned, and fans worldwide have embraced him as the definitive actor.  Mind you, some of the others have done well by the role (Finny won an Academy Award nomination in 1974 for another version of Orient Express) but the character’s famed eccentricities, mannerisms, implied accent and movements have grandly coincided with how he was described on the written page.  And the feat of playing the character in all seventy of his appearances is one unlikely to be duplicated anytime soon if at all.

(more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Good evening, and welcome to a private showing of three paintings, displayed here for the first time. Each is a collector’s item in its own way—not because of any special artistic quality, but because each captures on a canvas, suspended in time and space, a frozen moment of a nightmare.

Rod Serling is one of the defining figures in television history.  His career began inauspiciously enough when he took on a position as a radio writer in the late 1940’s after a stint in the service during the Second World War. After the small screen medium began to take hold in living rooms across America the upstate New Yorker found it would be the best way for him to get on his soap box and convey his acute criticisms of war, prejudice and corporate business.  His raw sense of realism was lauded in award winning scripts like Patterns, The Rack, and perhaps most famously in the television classic Emmy and Peabody-winning  Requiem for a Heavyweight, which for many is still unparalleled in live action drama. The heart-breaking story of a broken-down club fighter’s decline was Serling’s favorite among all he had written and the big-screen film starring Jackie Gleason and Mickey Rooney is a rightly acknowledged masterpiece.  In 1959, he presented a pilot to CBS for a new series called The Twilight Zone, which incorporated science fiction and fantasy in dramas that negotiated social messages and morals.  The show ran for five seasons, 156 episodes, all in the anthology format (four seasons at a half hour, one at a full hour) and began a new life in syndication that to this day has earned the show new generations of fans and a sustained reputation as one of the finest programs in television history.  Serling did write movie scripts for films such as Planet of the Apes and Seven Days in May after The Twilight Zone completed its run in 1964, and served as distinguished creative writing Professor at Ithaca College until his untimely death after undergoing heart bypass surgery brought on in some measure by many years of sleepless nights and chain smoking.  However, he did manage to create one more anthology television series at the end of the 60’s when the form was considered a dying breed.  Over three seasons that final television opus, a tumultuous experience replete with ill-advised decisions and some of the most Godawful scripts any director has ever been handed, the show reached the zenith of television excellence, and sank to the pits of incompetence.  Yet as many admirers, this writer included will enthusiastically opine, there were enough great episodes over the span to make it an essential choice for anyone looking to explore the most creative shows the medium has ever offered.

Night Gallery was intended to achieve the same kind of the success as that enjoyed by The Twilight Zone, but NBC studio bosses were exceedingly skeptical and wouldn’t even entertain the possibility of a series until viewers put their seal of approval on the pilot.  Purportedly few thought the trial balloon would amount to much and fewer still that a television series could be built on the concept even with Serling’s brand as the integral creative talent involved.  But a funny thing happened on the way to the morgue.  The three part two-hour presentation proved a smashing success, and disbelieving executives had little choice but to sign Serling and assemble a crew to commence with production.  The pilot impressively brought together old fashioned horror and suspense, and two of the trio of stories must surely count among the three season show’s very best installments if they are considered.  For the sake of my review of the series I have not, feeling as it is a kind of self entity, an artistic enterprise that attracted some of the cinema’s biggest names -Joan Crawford, Steven Spielberg, Richard Kiley, Roddy McDowall, Ossie Davis among others- in a longer ninety minute window.  “The Cemetery,” written by Serling and featuring McDowell in a deliciously sardonic role as a greedy relative who will stop at nothing to gain a fortune, is set in a gothic mansion and borrows a bit from the plot of The Monkey’s Paw.  Perfectly attuned to the coming show’s concept, the plot involves the use of a series of macabre paintings, that not only bring about the death of the murderous nephew Jeremy, but the equally if reserved butler, who falls victim to the terrifying tale’s supernatural final twist. Crawford, fully in her element, plays a heartless narcissist, a blind New York City socialite living in a penthouse, who blackmails her longtime physician into performing a radical new surgical procedure that will give her sight for eleven hours, but at the expense of depriving the donor of his own eyesight for the remainder of his own life.  Crawford (Claudia Menlo) callously refuses to give the hapless donor, bookie Sidney Resnick a penny more than the nine-thousand dollars he needed to allow to escape certain assassination.  Resnick (Tom Bosley) sadly prioritizes his hopeless predicament to Dr. Heatherton (Barry Sullivan) by telling him:  “You want the eyes, they want my body.”  Menlo plans to spend the precious time window storing up every image of paintings, outdoors lights, colorful signs and sunsets in her mind for re-visitation until her final days.  But fate steps in, seemingly all-too-cognizant of this diabolical act, and just after she begins to see a blackout puts out her own ‘lights’ until the time when her eleven hours are up.  The episode is directly moodily and with great skill by a very young Spielberg, whose first assignment this is, and one that he initially dreaded when he was told he’d have to work with Crawford.  But the results were exemplary and the aptly titled “Eyes” is at least as formidably written and executed a piece as “The Cemetery,” and one readily remembered by fans when asked to identify Night Gallery stories they most fondly regarded.  Once again though I have resisted including it in the run of the show when compiling my own favorite Night Gallery installments for the previously stated disclaimers.  The final pilot episode “The Escape” is set in 1965 Buenos Aires features Kiley, Sam Jaffe and Norma Crane, and it is a chilling tale of guilt and retribution.  As he delineated in the classic Twilight Zone show “Death’s Head Revisited”, there can never be an escape for a Holocaust war criminal according to Serling, and the punishment though horrifying is much deserved. (more…)

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