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Monday, June 28, 2021

Always Out To One-Up The Past

 When Did Movies Stop Being "Better Than Ever!"?

Whatever our last attraction did, our next can do better, spew from studios always on alert for fresh money over/above what we spent with them a season before. Will Honky Tonk (1941) top Boom Town? That was for you to determine after paying to see one, then after twelve months, the next, which of course is promised to top the first. Same for 25 years later Thunderball, Here Comes The Biggest Bond Of All!, which had slight-more truth in advertising, for ads did not propose Thunderball as a “Best” of Bond, merely a “Biggest,” which it actually was, but who of us exiting cinemas in 1966 could/would say Thunderball surpassed Goldfinger? But forget Goldfinger, at least until it came back the following year with Dr. No. The Bonds had to swim like sharks or die, each poised to K.O. the last because to do otherwise might spell decline for the series. The Spy Who Loved Me had not spoke out of turn when declaring, It’s The Biggest. It’s The Best. It’s Bond. And Beyond. We were at least spared exclamation marks. This was by all account rebirth for 007, all knowing peril Bond faced for previous and pathetic two, The Man With The Golden Gun and Live and Let Die. I for one had sworn off the series, Golden Gun seen a first time in 1977 courtesy HBO on a tube small as a bread box, accommodation good as such refuse deserved. Not paying heed to modern marketing, I wouldn’t know if recent superheroes propose advance upon the last, assuming one can be distinguished from the other. None of such promotion is new. We were always assured that Movies Are Better Than Ever, question being, Did We Truly Believe It? Each innovation bespoke triumph to shade what went before: Talk, Width, Depth, idols but momentarily worshipped, the base question an eternal one: Had movies improved, or was there a point beyond which we could no longer be impressed?

Most think nickelodeons were dismal setting for first steps film made toward daylight that is cinema today. If theirs was wretched flicker, mute and overstated, why did millions jam into storefronts to watch? Best way to learn is by examining what a nickel bought in 1912. I tried two subjects, picked from random, The Voice of Conscience and In a Garden, both from Thanhouser, on You Tube and available on DVD. Neither are regarded special. I never heard of them before loading the disc. Must admit to quirk of mine that make these single-reel subjects so enjoyable … they are like fables a wise sage might tell if one has fifteen minutes to listen, glimpse on life, people, aspects of humanity that never change. Are we too far beyond such basics to pay heed? Fact they compel makes me wonder if movies overall are materially better than in 1912. But why start there: Name ones to surpass even earlier The Great Train Robbery or A Trip To The Moon, in their day or since. Here’s what nickel shows had that we since lost: Total immersion in action on the screen, the “hypnosis” effect Frank Woods wrote about. I pay rapt attention to The Voice of Conscience and In a Garden, never mind snacks brought along for accompany, these ignored in deference to drama onscreen. Any four folks in a frame will play out that many conflicts at once as viewer eyes dart from one to another, foreground to often deep background. 1912 cameras did not guide emphasis as in close-ups or edit to what we “should” notice, idiot-proof viewing not yet in place, duty ours to focus where it counts, interpret for ourselves where events are headed. I like demand that nickelodeon shorts make, and will not be convinced that initial audiences were anything but fully up to meeting each narrative challenge. Do stories end as expected? Sometimes maybe, as often not. Refreshing was this era before cliches were baked in. Pocket dramas throw me curves like nothing made afterward when films settled down to rote. I so often will say, “Are they really doing that?” and yes in most instance, they are.

Much would change in the name of progress. Nickelodeons did not last, as who needed nickels when there were dollars to be had? Purpose-built auditoriums saw to that, but it took longer movies to make a night out seem worthwhile. Tinkly keyboards gave way to orchestras. Dress was optional, but more and more you’d be noticed where not clad to expectation. Straight line from fish markets to the boxoffice were being erased. This was naked grab for a better class of patronage, and it worked. New York’s Strand opened in 1914, a features-only policy now that longer forms were embraced. Gone was day of plopping into five cent seats to while away an hour before struggle of life recommenced at home or on streets. Organized interests went seriously after serious money. Was more taken away than was giveth? Informality as nickelodeons knew it was among early casualties, more expected from of Strand viewership than ones what ate peanuts and shucked shells as they watched. We had a steak house where this was part of lure … drop at leisure, we’ll clean your mess. Well, by mid-teens, theatres were all through being messy. Movies as big business looked to Broadway, a model close as any for what they sought to be. Trade-offs were applied, give this, take away that, and hope the loss would go unnoticed. Goal was to increase mass from a developing mass audience, to which add respectability a family trade implied. Freshness and fun, plus tickets a fraction of legit, made cold calculation easy to overlook, but had screen content improved? Certainly it was more polished. A 1915 exhibitor would no more run a 1909 subject than lie down in front of a streetcar. Discard of the old began here, clear decks, what was new was better just for being new.

“Classical Narrative” as guiding principal revved up films as they became more industrialized. Pretty soon you could chart movement/pace of movies like a railroad schedule. That was good to extent of assembly lines being good, so long as they got product out, which they had to for insatiable demand to be met, the movie habit becoming more habitual. Idea was less to make exceptional photoplays than to avoid ones that were really bad. Bland acceptance was the goal sought, drumbeat of movies always on the march, always on an upswing, what went before buried to avoid honest comparison. I remember on the porch when my mother casual-said that movies were best, at least much better, around 1949, our conversation circa late-60’s. I took her words to heart and redoubled effort to see what 1949 offered, not so easy where black-and-white was ruthlessly pushed aside in favor of color to service everyone’s new home set. Again, the big broom. New is so often callous to old. They were already ridiculing nickelodeon shorts in the 20’s, with invite to laugh, almost insistence on it, whenever one surfaced as novelty or for jeering purpose. This is part-why so little survives. Why preserve a thing to be spat at? Worse was talkie arrival to plunge whole of prior achievement down skunk holes. Talk about transition … this was tear-down of what was past to greet an all too uncertain future.

And how those early talkies got a bum’s rush once kinks were ironed out! I checked a Blu-Ray of 1929-30 Our Gang shorts. Frightful. How did anyone watch Small Talk, let alone over and over, when Channel 3-Charlotte had it on a 60’s loop? But we were taught to respect elders, including those captured on film in dawn day of sound. A lot of favorites in the late 20’s were no longer favorites once they talked. So much of what went down was unutterably cruel. Imagine how John Gilbert felt once ice was under him. Patrons were encouraged to discard much of what they once loved. Silents were for saps, or those unreasonable enough to still want them. Many declared movies to have truly arrived with talk. Now they would compete with the stage on fully equal terms. Such was Hollywood’s economic mastery that they stole actors from Broadway with impunity. You now could argue that Movies Are Better Than Ever and be believed across boards. No one who wanted to stay in the business could plead otherwise. Whatever of an audience thought outside this box, or microphone, could satisfy mute preference elsewhere, maybe sit home staring at their radio without turning it on. Here was revolution everybody had waited for. Radio, public address, and long-since telephones made film with talk overdue, a vast improvement over everything that had gone before. Let silence go meekly out … we would not be bothered by it again.

Lay a 1931 release beside one from 1939. The difference is astonishing, like a steam engine beside the Super Chief. I asked Conrad Lane if he knew a year wherein movies really seemed better than ever. He said that for him, 1939 came a closest. Things like The Wizard of Oz, Gunga Din, and especially Gone With The Wind, suggested a whole new game, or art form, was afoot. GWTW was, for his generation, filmgoing at a new summit. If there had ever been anything finer, then show us, all of 30’s to that point mere growth years, a reach for levels Hollywood now could grasp. Polish alone seemed to bear this out. Warners tried recapture of 1954's reissue success of Little Caesar with The Public Enemy (both from 1931) by test ballooning The Roaring Twenties with Smart Money (1939 and 1931 respectively). The latter pair failed, and I wonder if that was due to contrast so alarming, The Roaring Twenties a chrome-plate model of formula efficiency, Smart Money a hopeless creak made so by mere eight years that had passed between it and The Roaring Twenties. Movies, especially “A” ones, had taken on a soulless sheen, perfection something audiences presumably wanted … until they got it. Wine too fine can be indigestible. An All This and Heaven Too or 1940's Waterloo Bridge told stories pre-coders might have woven in half the time with twice as much verve. Can too high gloss blind? Hollywood output was better only in a surface sense, “production values” well-named for giving what seemed a greater value for our admission dollar. To be overproduced was often an asset. You’d not reserve a seat for less than a leviathan to look at. Being respected became preferable to being enjoyed. Crowds trance-walking out of For Whom The Bell Tolls were less banqueted than bludgeoned. If this was movies being better, what would a future bring?

Collector/historian Marty Kearns used to cart 16mm prints to old folk homes during the 70/80’s where he would set up a screen and give shows he thought residents would enjoy. Being as how seniors, and a lot of others, carp always that movies aren’t as good as they used to be, Marty figured they would want 30/40’s fare. No, they chose 50’s, not so long ago at the time and in fact more a coming-of-age era for Marty than for elder crowd he played to. Proof again that lots don’t like film to go back too far even in their own lifetime (cue my mother’s dismiss of Gone With The Wind after taking me to the ’68 reissue). Conrad tells of residents to a man/woman in his retirement facility saying movies were not like they used to be, but would they necessarily want to re-watch movies they used to watch? Seems everyone that lived since 1900 got around to declaring that films aren't what they were. Guess this comes under umbrella of ultra-stating the obvious, but who wants movies, or any aspect of life, to stay a rigid same? (Don’t answer, no doubt lots do, including me sometimes). I’ll opt for status quo in terms of keeping alive, and past that, minor accommodations like continued electricity and Internet not fritzing out.

With war’s end came a year (1946) where grosses, if not quality, set a higher than ever bar. Trouble was sensed by those that knew returned service personnel had things on their mind other than going to shows. Gilbert Seldes said we’d grow out of films by age 20 --- it had always been that way --- by the late 40’s, you’d think everybody had just turned 20. An experience for Conrad summed things up so far as illusion of movies improving, let alone being best-ever. He went to see Whispering Smith in early ’49, was put way off by plummet from standards earlier set, distance since fine westerns like Dodge City, Stagecoach, and Jesse James a yawning chasm despite only ten years gone. So concerned was Conrad that he wrote an article detailing the malaise, submitted it to Collier’s, but how many mags, especially those reliant on industry ads, bit hands that fed them? Much rode on what age you were when movies became meaningful. Chances are a boy turning twelve in 1948-49 found Whispering Smith plenty swell, as what did he know from Dodge City? Conrad by then was eighteen, sensed movies headed down, rather than up, slopes. Hope sprang eternal, however. He’d not be one of those who dropped films in favor of other recreations. Conrad cheer-led for This Is Cinerama, inveigled friends to join him on four at-least occasions when he saw it in Frisco. If “Better” was defined on wow factor alone, then Cinerama was the show to beat, even if it was less movie than circus attraction. The studios tried getting in front of 50’s slump by allied flag-raise of “Movies Are Better Than Ever,” joint millions spent to put across that doubtful message, at least to counter conviction that no, they were actually worse than ever. Either way, most of whoever went in good old days weren’t going anymore, movies, if an urge, one to be satisfied on new-acquired TV’s.

Did anyone exit Bwana Devil with renewed hope for movies? Cinemascope and stereo were a jolt to senses, but Fox rental figures at record highs from late 1953 and through ’54 gave way to ice formed by 1955. Few kidded themselves that films would do more than tread water, if that. Old movies were showing up on television to show up new movies. Great films were referred to in past tense. Attitude adjustment came in spades that was nostalgia for how we were entertained better back in respective day. Local channels said outright that Movies Were Worser Than Ever, Chicago’s WGN initiating a long-run series (1975-1985) frankly called “When Movies Were Movies,” as in they really were not anymore. Shifts in style with the 60’s, deepening in the 70’s, alienated many accustomed to sameness. For them, oldness was comforting, younger folk caring less if movies swam or sunk. Priorities were changed, and who could you blame for that? Seemed my own peer group was more into rock concerts or hemp harvesting. Friend at college: Hey John, want me to pick you up a dime bag on the frat hall upstairs? Me: Heck no, Roy. $10 is 7.69% of $130 I need for a bootleg Black Cat on 16mm!” So really, who was the odd duck here? Certainly not Roy. Whether movies were better than ever was no longer a point worth debating, for who felt strongly either way? Anyone who loved film carved out their own preferred era and stayed within it. For me, it was silent, or 30/40’s. By the 80’s, I sort of let in the 50’s, the 60’s barely OK because I had seen a number of those first-run. Hard to recall a last time watching anything from the 80’s, and whatever has been revisited after that, well, I forget. In the end, it is all so personal, and who can be expected to defend a stance based upon that?

Monday, June 21, 2021

Slow Climb Classics Sometimes Were


Sabrina the Soundtrack Of My Life

Billy Wilder lived ninety-five years, talked a blue streak through most of them. That’s how we know so much about his films, especially back-of-camera gossip and lore. Imagine if Michael Curtiz had lived to 95 … or Tod Browning … or W.S. Van Dyke. Wilder was accessible. He also signed posters and lobby cards when fans presented them. He was said to be cynical, but admirers who figured to know his heart said Billy was a frustrated romantic. We can assume as much from music he chose for films if not situations and dialogue. Sabrina is a two-hour compendium of “American popular love songs,” which, according to co-writer Ernest Lehman, Wilder “loved.” We may assume he hand-picked them. Most were Paramount-owned. Isn’t It Romantic was practically a theme song for the studio, being used constantly as background when not featured vocally. Music is foregrounded more in Sabrina than any other of Wilder films. Only Some Like It Hot gets as much out of pop tunes, in that case used to emphasize a period setting (the late 1920’s). There was a limited-edition Sabrina soundtrack issued in 2013, 1000 copies only. I bet it sold out in record time. Recording label “Kritzerland” surely underestimated demand there would be. Only one I found at Ebay wants $158. Amazon does not list it at all. When CD’s are gone, they are really gone. Beside songs there was scoring by Frederick Hollander, who arranged all of music, his interpretation a best the numbers ever sounded. Hollander was German-born, made initial splash cleffing for 1929’s The Blue Angel, including that film’s signature tune, Falling In Love Again. He would write a lot more songs for Marlene Dietrich. Wilder probably knew Hollander from Berlin days.

One of Those Speaking-Volumes Stills

There is such a thing as knowing too much of a film’s background. Many survived besides Wilder to speak of Sabrina. Conflicts rife on the shoot spilled early and often into press. Appears from yellowed columns that Humphrey Bogart began the tiff. He was often indiscreet to scribes, giving them oats they then shot from guns. No one liked trouble aired from working sets. It suggested instability that could undermine business. Bad publicity was sometimes plain bad. Bogart gave Wilder and William Holden grief, and suggested newcomer Audrey Hepburn couldn’t act (“she’s alright if you don’t mind twenty takes”). Bogart was freelance and spoke his mind the more so. He got $200K for Sabrina to Holden’s 80, Hepburn’s 25. Here was star power sometimes cruelly used. Much as I like Bogart, some who had to work with him did not. Wilder actually had to break up a physical clash between Holden and Bogie. Latter would “needle” friends, foes alike. Wilder had the German accent and Bogart teased him for it. The director finally had enough and told Bogey/Bogie off in front of cast/crew. Tension was real on sets already hot and confined. I don’t know how people stood such environs all day, sometimes months, at dreary shooting. Basic problem for Bogart was being second choice to Cary Grant, who almost did Sabrina, then didn’t. Who wants to be at a place where folks would rather have someone besides you? Star egos were tender enough without such further insult. That $200K was got the hard way. Bogart did sit for the “Gala Hollywood Premiere” on 9/22/54, and we could wonder what he thought of the finished product. “Sabrina --- for God’s sake,” he said whenever the film was mentioned afterward, according to Richard Gehman in a mid-sixties Bogart bio.

Bogart had flair for comedy, to my estimate did not do enough of it. Had he lived, we would have seen more along light line (a proposed next before Bogart got sick was Melville Goodwin, USA). “Linus Larrabee” is in many ways more the real Bogart than “Humphrey Bogart” characters steeped in crime or chasing criminals. It certainly reflects his own privileged upbringing. I am satisfied Bogart works better as Linus than Cary Grant would have, in part because Grant’s Linus, being Grant, would be the eternal charmer at heart, so of course he would have the girl once his mind was set even slightly upon it. With Bogart, there is real question to his interest, or not, in Sabrina. We wonder if Sabrina will indeed sail to Paris alone, or with brother David (Holden), Linus unshackled now to complete the plastics merger. Bogart had reason to be concerned about Sabrina's unfinished script, and whether Wilder might tilt it at the end so that Holden would “get the girl” per Bogie’s oft-expressed anxiety. Linus had to be considerably rewritten once Grant was out and Bogart in. Wish we had an early draft to see all the differences. I like how Bogie/Linus is confident enough to woo Audrey/Sabrina with every expectation of winning her, a same assurance he applies to his sugar deal with the Tysons. Linus is never awkward in his pursuit of Sabrina as he pretends, being bold enough to kiss her at a tennis court assignation she meant to have with Holden/David. Offscreen Bogart was said to have much aplomb with women, especially in earlier years, according to observer Louise Brooks. He did need to be carefully photographed by 1953 (when Sabrina was shot), age 54 looking way more on that ravaged countenance. For glimpse at reality of by-then Bogart face, look at unprotected way he was captured in Beat The Devil, released a same year as Sabrina.

Audrey Hepburn may be a most remarkable instance of sudden stardom the 50’s, or any other decade, gave us. Roman Holiday had not yet been released when Sabrina began production, yet she as a major name is fait accompli. Wilder admitted to “worshipping” her. She seemed upon US arrival to be everyone’s kind of waif woman, or was it gamin, elfin, princess? There was no product with which to compare her, Leslie Caron a closest if one had to find parallel. Here was one of those rare occasions when public embrace was an absolute given. Wilder did close-ups on Hepburn no previous lead lady of his had been accorded. Bogart noticed and did a righteous burn. Holden took billing below her to no evident indignation. He and Audrey had an affair during Sabrina that went undetected, even by Wilder, who was surprised years later when an interviewer tipped him off. More people see Sabrina than most movies so old because Audrey Hepburn is in it. I do not know if the lure of her for college-age women is as strong as twenty years ago when I campus-ran Sabrina. In those days, we could have put over Green Mansions or The Nun's Story so long as she was promised with them. We must ask then, if not Hepburn to fascinate still, then who? Of gone actresses, I cannot think of one who really sustains, would draw viewership for herself, and apart from whatever dated film is on view.

Why Not Her?

Seems to me the Marilyn Monroe thing evaporated long ago. One could pose a question, as in why Hepburn, and not, say, Grace Kelly, who was certainly as big, maybe more so, than Audrey at an apex. Kelly had advantage also of capping her career by becoming a real princess, so you’d think some sort of cult status would have traveled in her wake. I found a Liberty ad from 1956, more lavish than customary, our local theatre staging a “Grace Kelly Festival” to commemorate the upcoming Royal wedding (MGM even did a short subject revolving around that event). A slew of revivals were booked to cover a week’s time: The Country Girl, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, Mogambo … the Liberty, thanks to a product split with up-the-street Allen Theatre, had exclusive access to product out of Paramount and MGM, so the Kelly group was easily got. If Grace Kelly woke up a small berg like ours, then how come she fell to posterity’s footnote? Always hard to reckon, let alone predict, was public acceptance of a star, alive or dead. If Audrey Hepburn had a rival among past female leads, at least in present-day estimation, I’d like to know who that actress/personality might be.

Writing Sabrina appears to have been a nightmare. Ernest Lehman lived long and told lots, first how he was brought in behind Samuel Taylor, whose source play Wilder pretty much scrapped to do what he knew could be better (and it undoubtedly was). Question: Has anyone seen Taylor’s Sabrina Fair performed on stage? Lehman came on as pressure of a start date loomed, he and Wilder writing barely ahead of cameras. A few days saw them fallen behind, the director having to contrive means by which they could steal hours necessary to compose dialogue. Result was stress to land Lehman flat on his back and under a doctor’s care. He said Wilder lived on black coffee and cigarettes, this an ordeal Lehman was not experienced or equipped for: “At times our health broke down for the effort.” Wilder’s back tended to go out when his nerves got taut, Lehman “crying uncontrollably” as pressures mounted. Sabrina went this way to a finish. It’s amazing how smooth the picture plays when you read what these people endured to make it. So is movie creation a life to be envied? Possibly we are better off just enjoying shows like Sabrina, rather than taking responsibility for writing, direction, or ask Bogart … acting. These people deserve all of accolades they ever got.

Does Sabrina exert a same appeal as before? I went to a New York revival house pairing with The Caine Mutiny around 1985. Sabrina got laughs long since faded for me. There is such a thing as numbing oneself through repetition. How pleasing it was to hear an audience bring a seemingly moribund thing to lusty life. Happiest surprise was the finish, Bogie/Linus embracing Audrey/Sabrina to bring forth a roar of approval from the ’85 crowd, applause drowning outro music and Paramount logo to my almost tearful reaction. If there is ever another full house for Sabrina (or anything), I would like to be there to see how they take it. Something tells me things might not be quite the same. Was also at point of saying that Sabrina never really qualified as a Bogart “cult” movie, but there hasn’t been a Bogart cult for generations now. Harder to believe, given current conditions, that there ever was. Would aspects of Bogie be “problematic” for students now afraid to cheer him? Here has come increasing fate of all old films. When even TCM puts store stock in modern “perspective,” you know a Classic Era’s future is dire. Old as Sabrina now is, it’s refreshing how Wilder and team celebrated what was plenty ancient then. Walter Hampton (at left), lion of Broadway, a Hamlet from turn of a century, is prominent as Larrabee patriarch, and Francis X. Bushman, another eternal profile, chiseled to the last, is welcome in support. “Maude Larrabee” Nella Walker was in vaudeville, part of a comic duo. And these people were not so “forgotten” as we tend to imagine. Glad as I always am to see them, imagine how 1954 viewers felt, many recalling faces first-hand from long-ago stages. What made a Classic Era classic was combine of cherished old with refreshing new, elders helping in no small way to put over those more recent-arrived to the game.

Speaking of “old” played for fun, there is Linus and his portable phonograph with Yes, We Have No Bananas to entertain Sabrina aboard his ketch. The song dated to 1923, was “a world-wide smash hit” according to music historian Ian Whitcomb, “the archetypal patchwork industrial folk song, entirely without feeling.” People eventually treated Bananas as a joke, as if how could anyone have embraced a fool tune like this? For Sabrina purpose, Bananas stands for Linus’ carefree college days before he settled down to family business. Sabrina thinks it is a newly popular hit she has missed for being out of the country at cooking school. Wilder would use silly freak numbers to comic effect again in One, Two, Three (1961), where “Itsy Bitsy, Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” was used as a torture device by Soviet operatives. Yes, We Have No Bananas works as amusing counterpart to timeless standards throughout Sabrina, some of which, however, were too recent to be “timeless” quite yet. I’d like to think they became so for being used in Sabrina: Isn’t It Romantic (1932), I Don’t Want To Walk Without You (1941), I’m Yours (1930), My Ideal (1930), Dream Girl (1948), others. Paramount presumably still owns most of them. I played other versions of each on You Tube and elsewhere, but none sounded so good as how Frederic Hollander arranged them, and Para performers executed same, my bias admittedly for having played the lot in my head since I first saw Sabrina, January 14, 1967, on NBC Saturday Night At The Movies.

Watch a thing enough and you’ll pick it to bare bones. Any favorite, no matter how much a favorite, still has Wait a Minute moments, where you think, should this really be happening? Within Sabrina there are at least three such stops for me. For instance, should Linus, by way of demonstrating his bulletproof plastic, do so by firing a pistol three times directly at it? Could a ricochet not wound, even kill, he or onlooking David? I’d call this a comedy device with serious implications, that is, if I chose to take it serious, which I obviously have tendency to do. Then there is Sabrina writing a suicide note clearly meant to be taken in earnest, sliding it under her father’s doorway as he sleeps. Off to Paris the next day, the self-offing not fulfilled, her envelope and content not mentioned, even as we assume “Thomas Fairchild” (John Williams) must have discovered it. Was he too tactful to mention the matter, or had Sabrina made such empty threats before? Finally there is Oliver Larrabee and his recalcitrant bottle of olives. He can’t get to a last one to garnish his martini, despite pounding the bottle on Linus’ desktop and pulling the paper clip off a vital contract to pry it out. Frustrated Linus finally seizes the bottle from his aged father, shatters same on the desk edge, growls “Eat it!” as he pushes the olive into the old man’s mouth. This moment always startles me, not only in its disrespect for an elder, but for fact Bogie/Linus may be inserting shards of glass in addition to the olive, being careless, alarmingly aggressive, in the doing. Was this Bogie himself venting over burden of being stuck in Sabrina?
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