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Wednesday, May 29, 2019

A Class Goldwyn Western For 1940

The Westerner a Merge of Fact and Fancy

Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan with Lillian Bond as Lillie Langtry

Sort of a John Ford western directed by William Wyler, The Westerner is cattlemen v. homesteaders, Gary Cooper a wanderer caught in middles. The picture was acknowledged at the time as being stolen by Walter Brennan, who was given Best Support Oscars as a matter of course from the mid-thirties through this one, which was remarkably his third win. Odd that Brennan starred so seldom. Maybe it was discussed and he said no, preferring support in name, but the lead in outcome, as was largely a case here. By the fifties and into sixties, Brennan would headline TV, plus some Disneys, one I saw where he had a dual role (The Gnome-mobile) opposite the Mary Poppins kids. Surprising too that Gary Cooper never worked with John Ford. Surely they met, knew one another. I read that Selznick wanted Ford to use Cooper in Stagecoach at a time when DOS was mulling support of the western, but Ford stood fast for John Wayne. Cooper not associated with Ford is to me like anomaly of Gable missing parlay with Howard Hawks (they were friends in a motorcycle club), or Cary Grant missing Billy Wilder (offered Sabrina, he turned it down). Roads not taken, to history’s regret.

Cooper with Doris Davenport
Wyler tries to keep The Westerner austere under Goldwyn circumstances, excess pushing at edges but averted in favor of character and engaging talk between folks that engage us, in this case Cooper as title man, Brennan as colorful Judge Roy Bean, and a girl (Doris Davenport) who came, appealed (still does), then dropped from films after an auto mishap where her legs were crushed, says IMDB, sad if accurate. She lived till 1980, all that walking with a cane. It can be a downer to dig deep into old Hollywood, but then all of life deals grief, not just movie lore. William Wyler had done westerns at director beginnings, knew the dirt/dust, stages fist work here as if back in silent saddles where he got start. Where a bad hombre is needed, he brings on Tom Tyler, always refreshing to see in A’s, even if briefly. The Westerner goes 100 minutes, a skosh long for a yarn known well even to relative non-fans of outdoor setting. It is personalities that rule, notably an uncertain friendship between the Cooper and Brennan characters. The actors would pair again, be offscreen chums; in fact, Brennan hosted a TV Coop salute shortly after latter’s death in 1961. That hour has turned up nowhere since, or has it? I’ve looked without success.

Cooper was majestic astride (ask horses he rode, or actresses). There are gallop inserts in The Westerner that seize the breath. Crying shame he didn’t do more westerns when at a peak. Postwar ones are good, sometimes better, but by then, we knew Coop was suffering in the saddle, health concerns making hard sits the harder. There seemed too a sadness about him, or was it downer tone of High Noon, Man Of The West, The Hanging Tree, others that dealt grim hands? Discount The Searchers, and John Wayne in the 50’s seems jubilant beside GC. I went harsh on Cooper some posts ago by saying he shouldn’t have done Deeds for its piling on aw-shucks mannerisms. A book Richard Griffith wrote called The Movie Stars says Frank Capra, and earlier Ernst Lubitsch, taught the actor those “tricks” he’d use from there on, often to detriment. Seems to me that Capra did much a same thing with Clark Gable on It Happened One Night. Both actors differ pre, and then post, Capra. Before him, they register simpler, leaner, more real somehow. Or maybe it was advantage of precode and freedom it allowed. There can be agreement at least, that Frank Capra exerted great influence upon all of players he worked with.

The Westerner Still Filling Theatre Dates in 1951

The Real Lillie Langtry
Pleasing with The Westerner is Cooper again laconic, less mannered, cute traded for Yup-nope he’d be kidded for, but which in final accounting works best for him. Long parts of The Westerner do without dialogue (inc. Coop to his shock waking up in bed, Brennan’s arm around him). Roy Bean is dangerous enough for there to be tension to their pal-ship, Wyler building to effective showdown finish. Bean/Brennan’s consuming fan-love for Lillie Langtry makes for a moving fade where they finally meet. Factual backstory of Bean/Langtry reveals truth, at least in spirit, of much that is dramatized here. Langtry’s career transcended Old West days; she’d even do vaudeville in later years. Alfred Lunt wrote amusingly of work with her in a fifteen-minute sketch, romantically paired even though she was 63, him 21. “Audiences were … somewhat bewildered,” he wrote, “Usually they began by thinking that I was her son … so it must have seemed a little odd to them when I suddenly began to make violent love to her. But they were really very nice about it all.” (Lunt shared this recollection with Billboard readers in 1936). The Westerner stayed popular, was reissued multiple times, and pretty much defined an evergreen. There is a DVD, plus HD runs at TCM with a Miramax logo at head and tail. Do they now own a chunk of Goldwyns, or just this one?

Sunday, May 26, 2019

1974's Screen and Snow Combination

A Silver River Thread Among NC Collecting Gold

I want to tell this while the memory is still intact, because as transcendent moments in collecting go, here was near a top. Road trips with collecting mentor Moon Mullins took us to Carolina byways I bet census takers never saw. You'd almost expect to pass Alvin York plowing a field. Who'd figure film gathered amidst woods too remote even for rural free delivery? Best I could figure, and as Moon confirmed, most of bounty was out of Charlotte exchanges, prints discarded or sprung out of trucks or depots. Scavengers took mostly what they could get. Why opt for a 35mm print of Utopia if there was any other Laurel and Hardy to be had? A miles-from-stoplight collector we met had it because that's what his supplier had, so take Utopia or leave it. I did, one chilled day in 1974, for $50 plus Tit For Tat, idea being that lowly Utopia was at least rarer, certainly in 35mm, than anything Blackhawk sold. Quest for Buster Keaton led to 35mm nitrate of admittedly tepid Educational shorts the comedian had made at low ebb, but who'd pass when the price tag was only $15 per? Long as stored prints didn't catch my parent's house on fire, I was OK.

Silver River came of a winter's drive to a small town once fully employed by the furniture industry, today a ghostly place long past 70's boom. We knew a collector there who was up a mountain largely inaccessible even when it wasn't snowing golf balls, which was what I drove through under Moon's direction. "This road (gravel) is too slick. Maybe we'd better turn back," to which he memorably replied, "If you want films, this is what you have to do to get them," a line I would direct in later years to neophyte collectors who shrank from challenge of the chase. It was Arctic-like trek as opposed to Amazon ease of access and slipping discs into player trays. Our hilltop friend had a purpose-built 35mm booth in the woods, clearing trees for the beam of light between it and a screen he made way for. The sight of this took icy breath away, a theatre cleared out of wilderness. Late afternoon and darkish clouds enabled our viewing of Silver River, an Errol Flynn western on 35mm, seen at downward pitch from the booth its owner had constructed, as perfect an angle for projection as any million-dollar venue could devise. The effect was ethereal --- Errol Flynn materialized through snow, and not the sort bad TV imposed. There had never been such a screening, at least for me (drive-ins came close perhaps, but they registered nothing like this). Of all events in collecting, here was by far a most memorable.

Maybe Ken had seen Silver River enough by then, for he turned the print over to me for $60 (backwood collectors were never hoarders --- they liked to keep stock on the move). Six reels in two canisters seemed a body's weight at least, and where oh where was space to keep them? Again, my parent's upstairs groaned under weight of film I would project there with assist of a military surplus 35mm projector that itself tipped scales at over 150. What exertion we went to for the sake of owning film and the means to watch them, but there was distinction in it, if not prestige of more tangible sort. Telling new-met classmates of old movies I owned was like raising a geek flag to full mast, or was it? How are those of us in the movie life perceived by others gifted with normalcy? Getting, then dragging, a 35mm print of Silver River through much of adult life was no bid for mainstream status, and only at places like Columbus (Cinevent) or Syracuse (Cinefest) would I be understood. Time dealt a vinegar hand to Silver River, finally junked after it stank up a friend's 35mm vault. The movie on TCM or Warner DVD is at least a souvenir as I then knew it, even as Silver River remains no great shakes, other than a customarily rich performance by E. Flynn and spirited-at-times direction by Raoul Walsh. I don't miss having it on 35mm, let alone physical effort of hoisting reels onto chain-driven meat grinder that was my old DeVry (they called it a "semi-portable," a real gasser considering size of the thing). Last query then: Does anyone continue to collect this cumbersome gauge, especially now that theatres don't even use it anymore?

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Screen Acting As Taught Early

Mae Marsh Shows How To ... For Silent Picture Players

I didn’t know until recently that Mae Marsh wrote a book called Screen Acting back in 1921. Now having read it, I’m put to wondering if any other silent era player took serious account of the profession they chose; I mean other than whatever they said to interviewers or wrote in memoirs. Marsh would seem to be an only one who gave vent to whole of a volume (129 pages, illustrated), her emphasis on screen performing, though she draws distinction between skill as practiced for a stage and that necessitated by movies. Some of prose dates, what of those times doesn’t?, but Marsh throughout Screen Acting tells what she learned before cameras up to veteran (for her) year of 1921. By then, she had been in films a decade (age 15 the start). Seems less remarkable to modern eyes until we realize that acting for cameras was then a recent application, ten years hardly enough to graduate past infancy, and here’s Mae Marsh filling a tall order of explaining it all to us.

The book is in the Public Domain and is everywhere, online and even audio-read on You Tube. Mae Marsh is known for work with D.W. Griffith, but did plentiful star parts afterward. DWG was a cult director, as in players following his lead like terriers let in/out of a kennel daily. Marsh credits his unerring eye for falsity in performance. He liked her to pull drama from past personal experience to shade work done in a present, like The Birth Of A Nation’s cabin siege where Marsh unexpectedly laughs rather than cries as doors are being kicked in toward she and a helpless Cameron clan. This was acting way ahead of teens curve, which to that add low-key work Marsh and Henry B. Walthall self-devised where he returns home to find her in a shabby dress festooned by scraps of cotton, a sister’s pathetic attempt to keep style stripped away by war and desolation. A great moment still, and Griffith let Marsh/Walthall develop and play it their way. Based on this book, maybe it’s time we recognize DWG as truest progenitor of the Method.

Screen Acting may be an earliest detailing of Griffith technique as told by one of his stock company in a book. Marsh addresses too the use, and sometimes overuse, of close-ups, and how some players abuse the privilege. She admits all actors crave them, but often neglect to tone down for cameras drawn near. To value of story, Marsh is clear: “Motion picture actresses prosper almost in exact ratio to the inherent worth of their scenarios.” Narrative matters, folks, then, now, always. Griffith sent Mae and others on “observation tours” to taste real life before trying to recreate it on screens. That included slums and “baby hospitals” (Marsh’s stop for prepping her Intolerance part). Acting must show, she said, “a thing as it is, not as we think it ought to be.” Modern technique? Sure looks that way to me, and bear in mind Griffith was applying it early as Biograph days, his followers like Mae Marsh doing so thereafter. She had a nice stay on top, did character work for talkies, was a small-part mascot at Twentieth-Fox for decades, same for John Ford as valued member of his thesping group. Mae Marsh lived till 1968, knowing well her worth, even if others were slow (still are) in recognizing pioneer strides her generation made in the art of film performance.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Being Alive in 1943 Probably Means You Saw It

The Human Comedy a Home Front Of Our Dreams

Firstly, what a title. Sounds like would-be majestic literature, importance writ all over it. Suppose someone may have suggested Andy Hardy Delivers Telegrams? Didn’t matter, The Human Comedy was a hit, a large one, as in $1.5 million profit. Here was absolutest proof of Mickey Rooney stardom. What a tumble he took after the war. No wonder Mick got a little cracked, redefining truculent at late-in-life autograph shows. Beg pardon, we’re about The Human Comedy here, and it’s about much more than Mickey, in fact it was all-caps Celebration Of American Life circa 1943, when outcome of a World War was by no means assured. Worry came with fun of showgoing then. Is that what makes movies of the time seem a little manic now? The Human Comedy ducks that, in fact aims for subdued, pastoral, thoughtful, all of things Hollywood came at reluctantly, if at all. Reason Metro made exception was prestige of Human writer, William Saroyan, a biggest literary noise of the day who was said to stack even with Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Faulkner, names we know better today than Saroyan’s. For MGM to score him as a screenwriter for hire was lassoing the moon, and they would bow deep in appreciation of it. The Human Comedy was Saroyan written for the screen, not a translation from text, though the author did what amounted to a novelization which flew up Best Seller lists just in time to be a Book-Of-The-Month selection with The Human Comedy movie at eve of release.

If I Can't Go Back and Attend the Astor, At Least I Can Keep On Posting Images Of It Here at Greenbriar

The home front was never so inviting, The Human Comedy’s small-town a nearest Heaven to be had this side of the Veil. Had anyone in uniform known life like this? And yet The Human Comedy proposes that they all did. Setting here is like a Carvel with no need of a Judge Hardy because there’d be no crime nor conflicts to resolve. Police are there mostly to bring lost little boys home to Mother. The Human Comedy held that we must protect such way of life with all the fight we had. Postwar noir would supply bitter antidote, that a possible reason why The Human Comedy won’t be revived outside TCM broadcast. Had you told folks in 1943 that this Greatest Of All Motion Pictures would become so obscure, they would have reacted like devil horns were sprouting from your head. The Human Comedy had as much to do with wartime reality as Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs, and there was its strength --- this is what we wanted the struggle and surely-to-God outcome to be. So what if it is as remote as pyramids now? The Human Comedy needed a nationwide suspension of disbelief in 1943, and presumably got it. None but Metro could have woven such reassuring tapestry, and no matter the fantasy, a need was met. Of course there are bathos, emotion like syrup out of Vermont trees, but there is magic too that can overcome barrier of our most cynical selves. Save your view of The Human Comedy until a next Up With People moment. Surely we still have those, if not in such abundance as audiences in 1943.

Director Clarence Brown with Author William Saroyan
Army camp scenes, focused on Van Johnson as Marcus Macauley, the brother sent to serve, are all kinds of ludicrous, and I wonder if soldiers of the time mocked, or went tender, for them. This is a doting mother’s idealized notion of what military life is like, being a time of heightened emotion, as in lives at stake, many lives, so let's surrender to The Human Comedy and films like it (but wait, there were no films quite like this one). Johnson serenades canteen pals with homey tunes, as well because there’s not a juke box in sight. In fact, The Human Comedy shuns swing in any capacity, its pristine setting devoid of taint modern fashion would impose. There is also song aboard the troop train, church songs, which all of personnel enter into. Marcus has a buddy named Toby George whose orphan status makes him an almost Holy Man, or Boy, in search of family he might call his own. Toward that, he co-opts the Macauley’s to disturbing extent, his decision to love and eventually marry Bess Macauley (Donna Reed) based on a photo in Marcus’ wallet. Creepiest element is Marcus accepting the plan on face value. Long memories could evoke Henry B. Walthall swoon over Lilian Gish posed on a daguerreotype from The Birth of a Nation. At least Walthall kept the crush to himself, Toby doing an opposite in blabbing that he’ll go home with Marcus and take his seat at the family table. Even the loss of Marcus in combat won’t deter Tobey, who heads right to the Macauley's for a finish, expecting to enter and be embraced, which he does/is at Homer’s invite. Worse still is Homer carrying the telegram reporting his brother’s death, which he now wads up and throws away (Is he not going to inform his family?). I wonder if 1943 viewership was as nonplussed by this as me. Of all things in The Human Comedy, it sits most uneasily now.

Book and Film Go Hand-In-Hand

Hometown girls are right and virtuous, on-leave soldiers their counterpart for gallantry. A “pick-up” of Bess and her neighbor friend by a trio of G.I’s amounts to nothing but a shared trip to see Mrs. Miniver, frisson not apparent in 1943 supplied by Robert Mitchum as one of the guys (others are Barry Nelson and Don DeFore). There is no thought of improprieties beyond a chaste kiss the boys get when they part from girls they’ll have no access to again. Far from frustrated, they leapfrog (yes, leapfrog) down the sidewalk and back to camp. All this Eden is overseen by those who’ve departed, not just to war, but to eternal reward, which in this case amounts to coming back home and monitoring progress survivors make. Here was reassurance for those who had lost dear ones. Wartime’s benign ghost cycle could fill a dissertation, perhaps already has. In this instance, it is Ray Collins as father Macauley, materializing for us, but not family members he visits. The dead are not gone in The Human Comedy, maybe not even dead for all of participation they enjoy. If it all seems formless, be advised that this was intent, from a start and throughout making. Director Clarence Brown and staff writers had pared down Saroyan’s script, but kept essence to avoid pic-formula. The Human Comedy was a lofty venture that did a colossal click, and when had that happened before? I think a lot of Meet Me in St. Louis’ uncluttered story and tempo were enabled by success The Human Comedy had.

Maybe Metro needed trimming for excess hubris (review ads gushing praise), because here came James Agee and critic elites who pooped The Human Comedy for every valid reason, but their notices read like sour milk (“Most of my friends detest it,” said bubble-resident JA). Agee could love-hate a movie to insensibility, ours, that is, for following him. I still enjoy Agee, his a prose to aspire to, but he can sure knock foundation from under a favorite. Just remind yourself that he was seeing all this stuff new and not yet absorbed into sacred canons. Agee admits to fright of tearjerkers, aware that the rest of us are “too eager to be seduced.” That there are “unforgivable lapses of taste and judgment” is a given ---possibly even remotest hicks sensed that. Agee said the only sound performance came from Jack Jenkins, the five-year-old who plays Ulysses Macauley. Agee adored movies, but was always frustrated that they couldn’t be his idea of better. He was sorry to see “unfortunate young man” Mickey Rooney cast in the leading role, but took all actors to task for representing a tradition that was “worse than dead.” So how could studios be expected to fix a problem vast as that? “Why did they bother to make the film at all,” he asks. “Why, for that matter, do they bother to make any?” You could ask why pic personnel would even bother coming to work if they followed Agee. Cash register attendants fortunately did, as note crowds to the Astor; word was they lined up even in driving snow. We have it easier (but less vivid) what with The Human Comedy on TCM in HD, and there is a DVD from Warner Archive.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Bring Back Blockbusters ...

What a 1950 Exhibitor Could Request ... and Get

Mutiny Revived for 1957 Dates
The best showmen were not averse to risk. Harry Brandt was such a showman, July-August 1950 being instance of his taking bit in teeth to revive a pair of way-back oldies and triumph with them. Brandt explained himself in “very expensive” ads he ran in the New York Daily News for a double-bill of Mutiny On The Bounty with A Day At The Races, these dated 1935 and 1937, respectively. “When I was planning the best film show anybody could see, I made a list of the ten most spectacular dramatic pictures and the ten funniest comedies,” wrote Brandt in his “double-truck” display (a pair of facing pages in a newspaper or magazine, with content that stretches over two pages). “Here is a show that stacks up with the best films they are making today,” to which Brandt added a money-back guarantee in the unlikely event audience members disagreed with him. Brandt, controlling Broadway’s venerable Globe Theatre, along with numerous other venues, was no stranger to reissues. He had lately seen success with Chaplin’s City Lights, and so knew value of top-tier encores. Getting MGM permit to use two of their past hits was surely a cinch, few exhibs so strongly positioned as Harry Brandt (he was, among other things, president of the Independent Theatre Owners Association).

A 1962 One-Sheet for Races Reissue
Further incentive for Metro was Brandt and the Globe as test lab for what might be a national spread for Bounty/Races. Let him throw dice, spend for promotion (the Motion Picture Herald figured Brandt laid out upwards of $5,000, maybe as much as $8K, for the Daily News splash), then take the fall should his combo crash. Except Harry Brandt did not fail. In fact, he had “a best opening stanza in many weeks,” $25K of “smash” business, according to Variety. The bill opened in July 1950 and stayed for six weeks, “a surprisingly big, long run for oldies,” according to the trade. Receipts for each frame are worth noting: After that first week of $25K came $15K for the second, $12K in a third, $11K the fourth, then, and surprisingly, back up to $12K in the fifth week. Sixth and final frame took $8,500. Credit for this went in large part to the films, naturally, but there too was high energy Brandt poured into promotion. Not only the imaginative ads, but the Globe marquee and front to dazzle passer-bys. MGM distribution was convinced --- they put Mutiny On The Bounty and A Day At The Races out nationwide. If Harry Brandt made a hit of such relics, couldn’t anyone? The answer would be hard reminder that one man’s success at selling might not translate to another.

Half-Sheet, and Below, a 30X40, for Mutiny's 1957 Bring-Back

First obstacle: The combo ran over four hours, both pictures unusually long (Mutiny at 132 minutes, Races 111). This meant fewer programs, less audience turnover per day. Also missing was the kind of handling such product needed, and Brandt knew how to apply. You couldn’t just toss these on the board and expect them to move. Had Harry Brandt traveled with the show and supervised each stop, then flow of gravy might have run from the Globe’s boxoffice to each stop thereafter, but Brandt had neither time or inclination to follow MGM’s caravan, being independent, and very independent-minded. He had conceived the notion, now let them run with it. In this case unfortunately, most of runners stumbled, Variety’s key date evaluations going thus: slim, slow, weak, a best report indicating “better than expected” biz. It took skill to move atypical merchandise, and however popular Mutiny and Races had been, they were still from 30’s stock and had to be sold anew to a fresh generation. The scheme could work, did work, four years later when New York’s Holiday Theatre, managed by Mike Rose, paired Little Caesar with Public Enemy to sensational response. That combo had juice to thrive from coast-to-coast. Here then, was proof that not all such ventures were created equal --- for each Caesar/Enemy sock, or She/Last Days Of Pompeii, a 1949 mop-up reported previous at Greenbriar, there were fizzles like Mutiny On The Bounty and A Day At The Races, which however deserving of wide business, just couldn’t rate it, largely because they didn’t have selling acumen like Harry Brandt’s to see them across a finish line.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Fashions and Fraud in '34

Fashions Of 1934 Is a New Twist On Old Cons

Bill Powell has a new racket. He’ll steal dress designs and put knock-offs on the street ahead of legit importers. Evidently there was a rush to get ahead of rivals at intro of French fashion to US buyers, an exotic concept as how many moviegoers in 1934 could afford simplest gingham, let alone Paris creations? For Powell to bamboozle this crowd was nobody’s idea of crime. They deserve a trim just for indulging such fool luxury. Warner con men were careful to prey upon those who had too much to start with, and underserving of half that. It was a matter of small crooks doing in worse crooks. Audiences enjoyed Powell, Cagney, Lee Tracy, as ambassadors for have-nots, seizing a high life from the idle rich. An awoke Code dropped curtains on that, but hard-won cynicism gave up less easy. Go-getting, as in climb past the other guy by whatever means, was too ingrained for movies to drop. A Too Hot To Handle in 1938 kept precode philosophy in play, the me-first principle still an easiest for viewers to connect with.

What Women of Means Might Wear, or Aspire To Wear, in 1934.
Powell’s idea is sound enough to make me wonder if it might actually have worked in 1934. Here was eternal hope that Depression films dangled before their public. However broke you were, it would take but a single sock idea to turn tides. We all have in us the resource to get rich, or so the movies promised. Powell in Fashions Of 1934 is never without a scheme to get back in chips. Imagine how reassuring such a character was when folks had barely enough to sustain. There was never a giving in to waves by precode swimmers. Even carted to jail, they’d not get there for knowing a trick or two to get loose, and yield a check for thousands in the bargain. 78 minutes in any case was too brief to indulge self-pity. Would a William Powell work as therapy for those who’d otherwise throw in towels? He surely puts a spring in my step. All obstacles seem lowered in the face of Bill’s example. Are there films today so cheerful as Fashions Of 1934 and kin?

Everything it seems, was a “racket,” a word we scarcely hear now. Has everyone realized that honesty is a best policy? I think not. Is mine a cynicism bred by precode watching? Powell pulls his flim-flam topper by selling a boatload of diseased ostrich feathers. What sort of weed were writers smoking to come up with that? Still, there is plausibility to Powell ploys. He and designing partner Bette Davis buy an old book from a Parisian street vendor that shows attire as worn through history. She then updates and adapts fashion from past eras to current styles, which struck me as an inspired notion, for 1934 or now. Maybe I picked a wrong profession, because this one looks plenty creative and rewarding. Fashions Of 1934 would double nicely with Cover Girl or Funny Face. Note ad at left where the theatre exhibited styles on stage with the movie. Amusing wind-up to Fashions Of 1934: Powell and Davis finally marry, them approached on shipboard by an inventor with another million-dollar idea, which Bette makes Bill turn down, that is, quit chasing money, in 1934. Now there’s prosperity having turned a corner and back again. Would that those watching at the time have had life the same. Fashions Of 1934 is available on DVD from Warner Archive, and TCM played it recent in HD.
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