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Director: Émile Cohl
Release Date: 1909
Rating: ★★
Review:

Monsieur Clown chez les lilleputiens © Émile Cohl‘Monsieur Clown chez les lilleputiens’ is one of Cohl’s experiments in puppet animation.

Unfortunately, puppet animation never became Cohl’s forte, and this film shows Cohl’s limited fantasy when using this technique, which is disappointing when compared to the wild, limitless surrealism (avant la lettre) of his drawn films.

‘Monsieur Clown chez les lilleputiens’ just shows a clown performing some tricks for an audience at a circus. The clown performs tricks with an elephant, a black dog, a chair, a horse, and a female acrobat. The film knows only one setting and one camera point, and there is little to laugh. The best gag is when the clown pulls an enormously long thread, only to reveal that the thread is attached to a miniature horse.

Watch ‘Monsieur Clown chez les lilleputiens’ yourself and tell me what you think:

 

‘Monsieur Clown chez les lilleputiens’ is available on the DVDs ‘Émile Cohl – L’agitateur aux mille images’

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Director: Ben Sharpsteen
Release Date: October 23, 1941
Rating:  ★★★★
Review:

dumbo © walt disneyAlthough released before ‘Bambi’ (1942), Dumbo is essentially Disney’s fifth feature film (or sixth, if you take ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ in account).

The production on ‘Bambi’ in fact had already started in Disney’s golden age, when only the sky seemed the limit. But the disappointing box office results of costly ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Fantasia’ (both 1940) and the cut-off from foreign markets due to World War II completely changed the financial outlook of the Disney studio.

New projects were to be cheaper and simpler than the highly ambitious ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, ‘Pinocchio’, ‘Fantasia’ and ‘Bambi’. ‘The Reluctant Dragon’, of course, was the first result of this new policy, but ‘Dumbo’, too, is a product of this new era. Luckily it was very successful at the box office, but sadly, only six weeks after its premiere World War II hit the United States itself, and suddenly the Disney studio was faced with entirely new problems…

‘Dumbo’s origin lies in a little book by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl, which has been completely eclipsed by Disney’s film. The first plans were to make into a short, but Joe Grant and Dick Huemer expanded it to feature length, even if barely. Clocking a mere sixty minutes, ‘Dumbo’ is the shortest, simplest and most direct of all Disney features. Its story is extremely straightforward, and sets in after a short setting introduction. When the film climaxes, with Dumbo’s first triumphant flight, the film has only four minutes left. In no other animated film things are rounded up so quickly in the end. It’s as if Dumbo’s success is way less interesting than his sorrow. Even the loss of the ‘magic feather’ provides only a few seconds of stress. A contemporary animation film would certainly expand this story idea with more predictable results.

With this lean story, the studio perfectly managed to focus on the character of little Dumbo (or Jumbo jr., which is his real name) himself. With his over-sized ears the adorable little elephant soon becomes the laughing stock of the circus, and when he ruins an act, he’s treated as an outcast. Even worse, when his mother tries to defend him, she’s locked up in solitary confinement, which means that Dumbo is separated from his mother. The relationship of Dumbo and his mother forms the heart of the film, and their scenes together, animated by Bill Tytla, excel in charm and tenderness. Especially Dumbo’s visit to his locked up mother is an emotional highlight, and the reunion of mother and son forms a pinnacle of emotional animation. Unfortunately, the studio knew too well that this was the case, and this scene is enhanced with a sentimental song, a crying Timothy, and shots of other animals and their cubs. This tendency of overdoing sentimentality has become a major problem in American animated features ever since. All this elaboration was unnecessary, as the simple interplay between mother and son clearly is marvelous enough to steal the heart of the greatest cynic.

Surprisingly, Dumbo, despite being the main protagonist of the film, doesn’t speak. In fact he hardly makes a sound, except for a few blows and hiccups here and there. His silence is countered by the talkative little mouse Timothy, who’s introduced after twenty minutes, and who, from then on, carries the film forward. It’s Timothy who acts as the little kid’s first helper, after his mother has been taken away, it’s Timothy who manages to get Dumbo in his first act, it’s Timothy who takes Dumbo to his mother, and it’s Timothy who helps Dumbo finds his real talent. Although much smaller than Dumbo, Timothy clearly is a much more confident character, speaking with Ed Brophy’s tough New York accent, and taking on guys bigger than him. He certainly is a marvelous character, and one of the best friend characters in any animation film. Nevertheless, with his arrival the film loses some of its show-don’t-tell-quality, which it has in its first scenes. For example, the building of the circus, and the scene in which Dumbo and his mother play hide and seek are prime examples of telling a story without words or any commentary.

However, Timothy is not the only great character in the film. There’s for example a gentle stork, voiced by Sterling Holloway, in his first Disney assignment. Holloway would become Disney’s all-time favorite voice actor, lasting until the 1970s. This stork takes his duty very seriously, insisting on singing happy birthday for the newborn. Also noteworthy is Casey Junior, the train. He is Disney’s first anthropomorphized train since ‘Mickey’s Choo-Choo’ from 1929, and only given a few short scenes, but these are delightful enough to make him one of the stars. ‘Casey Junior’ gets more footage in ‘The Reluctant Dragon’. Moreover, that film reveals how he speaks.

Then, of course, there are the other elephants, all female, and acting like a bunch of narrow-minded gossiping ladies. It seems that already before the arrival of Dumbo his mother is somewhat of an outcast. She clearly fits in less well in their petty little group. Rarely an uglier bunch of vile females hit the animated screen.

Even more memorable are the five crows who find Dumbo and Timothy up in the tree. These crows are clearly stereotyped blacks, but luckily they are actually voiced by blacks, except for their leader, who is voiced by Cliff Edwards (better known as the voice of Jiminy Cricket in ‘Pinocchio’). And luckily they don’t show any abject stereotyped black character traits like being dumb, slow, lazy, fearful or addicted to gambling. Instead, they look like a bunch of fun-loving characters, and they help little Dumbo in the end. Animated by Ward Kimball, these crows are given a song-and-dance routine that has a wonderful jazzy air to it, even if the music hardly hasn’t.

The humans in ‘Dumbo’, on the other hand, are very anonymous. We only get to know the face of the Italian ringmaster, other characters only appear in silhouette or in greasepaint. During the circus building scene the workers are kept completely faceless, making the viewer focus on the work of the elephants, including Dumbo.

The music is very supportive to the story, and the songs hardly stop the action, if at all. Somehow the songs from Dumbo have become less classics than from ‘Snow White’ or ‘Pinocchio’. This is a pity, for composers Oliver Wallace and Frank Churchill and lyricist Ned Washington have produced a very inspired score, which matches the colorful scenes perfectly, with ‘Casey Junior’ and ‘When I See an Elephant Fly’ as major standouts.

And then, of course, there’s the pink elephant scene. This scene forms the break between Dumbo’s misery and triumph, and it’s the only scene to show real experimentalism (although one must admit that the circus building scene, with its strong angles and expressive staging is a very impressive example of cinematic expressionism). Directed by Jack Kinney, the wildest of Disney’s directors, it’s in fact the most surreal scene in studio animation since Bob Clampett’s ‘Porky in Wackyland’ (1938). Of absolute beauty is the elephant ballet, painted only in outlines. The scene knows a great deal of metamorphosis, a rare feat in Disney animation since ca. 1933. It’s a welcome return of one of the most powerful tools of animation. Some elements of the Pink Elephant scene hark all the way back to the boogie men sequence from the Silly Symphony ‘Lullaby Land’ (1933). In is turn it influenced later surreal sequences in e.g. ‘The Three Caballeros’ (1944) and ‘Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day’ (1968).

In all, ‘Dumbo’ is a charming little film, with a lot of heart. Its cuteness never gets in the way, and its leanness makes it more accessible than any other Disney feature. What ‘Dumbo’ may lack in astonishing experimentalism, is compensated by a lot of color and delightfully playful animation. It’s by all means a little gem that can easily stand the test of time.

Or can it? As the years go by, ‘Dumbo’ may become less and less acceptable. It already contains a newspaper headline gag that makes it a clear product of the war era (‘Dumbombers for home defense’). Then there are the stereotyped crows, which certainly have become more problematic since then. Add the pink elephant scene, in which Dumbo (a little kid!) in fact gets drunk. I predict a time in which this scene will not be accepted anymore by the “politic correct”. And finally, there’s the circus setting itself. With the advent of television, the circus has known a steady decline, and in the 21st century the idea itself of animals performing becomes less and less acceptable. All these factors are a real threat to the film, and if we’re unlucky it will finally receive the same fate as ‘Song of the South’ (1948), which is virtually banned from life, leaving us with the dreary photo-realistic remake, which will be released on March 29 this year.

This would be a pity, for the original ‘Dumbo’ is great entertainment, and a prime example of what great animation is all about.

Watch the original trailer for ‘Dumbo’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Directors: John Foster & George Rufle
Release Date:
 January 6, 1933
Stars: Tom and Jerry
Rating: ★★
Review:

Tight Rope Tricks © Van BeurenTight Rope Tricks’ is a pretty plotless film in which Tom and Jerry visit a circus. They even perform themselves, dressed as acrobats.

The short consists mostly of unrelated gags, but the finale gives the short a nice twist, reusing a lion and an elephant from earlier gags. Also featured is a girl singing with a very Betty Boop-like voice on the tightrope. According to Tralfaz this voice was done by Margie Hines, who had previously voiced Betty Boop. In the end we watch Tom and Jerry flooding the lions, and escaping on the elephant, with the girl on their side.

As always in Van Beuren’s Tom and Jerry films, the animation is terrible: part is still a relic from the silent era (it doesn’t help that some animation is recycled from cartoons from 1930), and all animation is completely devoid of weight. The designs, too, are unappealing and inconsistent. Especially the animal designs are downright poor. Tom and Jerry were anything but on a winning streak.

Watch ‘Tight Rope Tricks’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Tom & Jerry cartoon No. 19
To the previous Tom & Jerry cartoon: Pencil Mania
To the next Tom & Jerry cartoon: The Magic Mummy

‘Tight Rope Tricks’ is available on the DVD ‘The Complete Animated Adventures of Van Beuren Studio’s Tom and Jerry’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: January 16, 1932
Stars: Betty Boop, Koko, Bimbo
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

Boop-Oop-a-Doop © Max FleischerIn ‘Boop-Oop-a-Doop’ Betty Boop works at the circus as a lion-tamer and as a rope-dancer.

We watch her in a sexy performance on the slack-rope. During this performance we can see the circus-master growing with lust, and back in her dressing room he tries to harass her. Luckily, Koko saves here, so he “couldn’t take her boop-oop-a-doop away“.

This is the first short to co-star Koko and Betty. Koko had returned to the animated screen in ‘The Herring Murder Case’, and he’s clearly comfortable in the circus setting of this short. Interestingly, it’s Koko who is Betty’s lover in this cartoon, not Bimbo. Bimbo’s role is reduced to being a peanut seller in a running gag. Koko’s career in the sound era was short-lived, however, and was to end already two years later with ‘Ha! Ha! Ha!‘ (1934).

‘Boop-oop-a-doop’ is an entertaining short, full of catchy music. For example, on the slack-rope Betty sings ‘Do Something’, a song associated by the singer who inspired her character, Helen Kane, who had recorded it in 1929. The two versions are indeed surprisingly similar, and it is not hard to see why Kane, whose own career had been in a steady decline, sued the Fleischer company on May 4, 1932.

It may very well be that this cartoon alone triggered that event. It at least should have been quite some evidence for Fleischer’s piracy, but after a case of two years, judge McGoldrick saw it otherwise. It’s rather difficult to understand now how the Fleischers could have won. Not only does Betty Boop sound like Kane, her looks are also strikingly similar. Indeed, according to her animator and creator Gram Natwick she was modeled after Helen Kane when conceived for ‘Dizzy Dishes‘ (1930). However, Betty’s grotesque, and rather ugly appearance in her earliest cartoons must hardly have given that fact away. Moreover, in her following films both Betty’s voice and looks were both subject to change. Only by the time of ‘Boop-Oop-a-Doop’ Betty really started to look like her source of inspiration…

Anyway, for a detailed account of the trial, see Trafalz’s excellent blog post on the subject.

Watch ‘Boop-Oop-a-Doop’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Boop-Oop-a-Doop’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’

This is Talkartoon No. 31
To the previous Talkartoon: Any Rags
To the next Talkartoon: The Robot

Directors: Harry Bailey & John Foster
Release Date: September 28, 1930
Stars: Milton Mouse, Rita Mouse
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Circus Capers © Van Beuren‘Circus Capers’ features Milton Mouse and Rita Mouse, Van Beuren’s Mickey and Minnie-like mice, whose resemblance to Disney’s originals is so striking, it’s pure plagiarism.

The Van Beuren Studio comes nowhere near Walt Disney’s high quality standards, however, and ‘Circus Capers’ can be used as a good counter-example to show how good contemporary Mickey Mouse cartoons (e.g. ‘The Shindig‘, ‘The Chain Gang‘ and ‘The Gorilla Mystery‘) actually were.

In ‘Circus Capers’ Milton (pseudo-Mickey) is a clown, while Rita (pseudo-Minnie) is an acrobat riding a horse. An evil circus master shoots Milton away as a human cannonball, meanwhile courting an all too willing Rita. When Milton discovers this, he’s heartbroken, and sings “Laugh Clown Laugh” from the 1928 musical of the same name. However, when the circus master becomes too insistent, Rita flees from him, back to Milton, who gives her the raspberry, making her pass out.

‘Circus Capers’ is hampered by primitive, crude animation, unsteady designs, and odd staging. Its curious story is enjoyable, however, for the real Mickey and Minnie would never behave like Milton and Rita, who seem to be their cruder cousins.

Watch ‘Circus Capers’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Circus Capers’ is available on the DVD ‘Uncensored Animation from the Van Beuren Studio’

Director: Ben Sharpsteen
Release Date: August 1, 1936
Stars: Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, the Orphan Mice, the Little Seal
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Mickey's Circus © Walt DisneyIn ‘Mickey’s Circus’ we watch Mickey and Donald perform in a circus for a pack of orphan mice.

Most of the time goes to Donald and his trained seals. Only after six minutes Mickey joins in again, struggling with Donald on the slack-rope, while being troubled by the orphan mice.

‘Mickey’s Circus’ was the last cartoon to feature the Orphan Mice (apart from the remake of ‘Orphan’s Benefit from 1941), until their unexpected return in ‘Pluto’s party‘ from 1952. It’s also the first Disney short featuring a cute little seal. Similar seals would reappear in ‘Pluto’s Playmate‘ (1941), ‘Rescue Dog‘ (1947) and ‘Mickey and the Seal‘ (1948).

Watch ‘Mickey’s Circus’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 87
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Alpine Climbers
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Donald and Pluto

Director: Jiří Trnka
Release Date: 1951
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

The Merry Circus © Jiri Trnka‘The Merry Circus’, is puppet-animator Trnka’s try at cut-out animation.

The film shows that Trnka was a master in this technique as well: the animation is superb: the sense of weight, muscular tensions and balance is nothing less than stunning. Moreover, the cut-outs seem to float in mid-air, casting wonderful shadows on the background.

Unfortunately, the film’s subject is not that interesting. We watch circus artists perform, among them two sea lions juggling, a girl on a horse, three trapeze acrobats and an acrobat bear balancing on a chair on a bottle on a glass. Even though some of the shown tricks are quite improbable, the only truly surrealistic act is the fish on the slack-rope.

Despite the lack of story, the film is an enjoyable watch: its visual design is beautiful and poetic, its animation fluent and convincing, and its circus atmosphere well-captured. ‘The Merry Circus’ may not be Trnka’s best film, but it’s only the high quality of some of his other films that makes this one second-rate.

Watch ‘The Merry Circus’ yourself and tell me what you think:

http://veehd.com/video/4587370_Jiri-Trnka-The-Merry-Circus-Vesely-Cirkus-1951

Director: Robert McKimson
Release Date:
 December 12, 1951
Stars:
 Bugs Bunny
Rating:
 ★★★
Review:

Big Top Bunny © Warner BrothersFive years after his first Bugs Bunny cartoon, ‘Acrobatty Bunny‘ (1946), McKimson returns to the circus setting.

This time Bugs is the new acrobat partner of an egotistical star acrobat bear called Bruno. This “Slobokian bear” is not a good sport and tries to get rid of Bugs, but of course, the reverse happens.

‘Big Top Bunny’ is better than ‘Acrobatty Bunny’, but it still suffers: it’s worn down by the high amount of rather unfunny dialogue and its slow pace. Nevertheless, the cartoon builds up nicely, and its best gags come in last: first there’s a great cycling gag, then there’s a superb gag in which Bugs and Bruno compete in the most daring high diving act. This is quickly followed by the frantic finale in which Bugs disposes of the bear once and for all.

Watch ‘Big Top Bunny’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Big Top Bunny’ is available on the DVD set ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Vol. 1’

This is Bugs Bunny cartoon No. 86

To the previous Bugs Bunny cartoon: Ballot Box Bunny
To the next Bugs Bunny cartoon: Operation: Rabbit

Director: Charles Nichols
Release Date:
 April 7, 1950
Stars:
 Pluto, Butch, Dinah
Rating:
 ★★★★½
Review:

Wonder Dog © Walt DisneyIn ‘Wonder Dog’ Pluto tries to impress Dinah, but she’s in love with ‘Prince, the wonder dog’, a circus dog featured on a poster.

Pluto imagines himself to be a circus dog too, but his attempts all fail, much to the amusement of a watching Butch. When Pluto nags Butch, and the latter chases him, he accidentally and unwillingly turns into the acrobat he wanted to be, gaining Dinah’s love once more.

‘Wonder Dog’ is a wonderful cartoon, with some great comedy. Its story, by Bill Peet & Milt Banta, has a surprisingly natural flow, without becoming cliche. Like ‘Pluto’s Heart Throb‘ from earlier that year it illustrates that the trio of Pluto, Dinah and Butch could inspire some excellent comedy. Unfortunately, ‘Wonder Dog’ marks Dinah’s last screen appearance, after a mere four cartoons.

Watch ‘Wonder Dog’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Pluto cartoon No. 35
To the previous Pluto cartoon: Pluto and the Gopher
To the next Pluto cartoon: Primitive Pluto

Director: Clyde Geronimi
Release Date: February 6, 1948
Stars: Goofy
Rating: ★★
Review:

The Big Wash © Walt DisneyIn ‘The Big Wash’ Goofy tries to wash his unwilling circus elephant Dolores (or Dolorious as he calls her).

‘The Big Wash’ was Clyde Geronimi’s last cartoon and his only one in the Goofy series. In the years to follow he would concentrate his directing skills on feature films, with the exception of two short specials, ‘Susie, the Little Blue Coupe’ (1952) and ‘The Story of Anyburg, U.S.A.’ (1957).

‘The Big Wash’ is not really a highlight in Geronimi’s career. Like ‘Foul Hunting‘ from the previous year, it uses the original Goofy character and Pinto Colvig’s voice, and, like in the former cartoon, this results in a slow, boring and remarkably old-fashioned film. The short is cute, but terribly unfunny, especially when compared to most other Goofy cartoons or contemporary entries from other studios.

‘The Big Wash’ was the last cartoon to feature the Goofy character as it was developed in the thirties. In his next cartoon, ‘Tennis Racquet‘, Goofy was not only once again voiceless, he was also redesigned, making him more fitting to the post-war era.

Watch ‘The Big Wash’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Goofy cartoon No. 22
To the previous Goofy cartoon: They’re Off
To the next Goofy cartoon: Tennis Racquet

Director: Robert McKimson
Release date: June 29, 1946
Stars: Bugs Bunny
Rating: ★★
Review:

Acrobatty Bunny © Warner Brothers‘Acrobatty Bunny’ is director Robert McKimson’s first Bugs Bunny cartoon. It’s not his best.

When a circus moves in, it disturbs Bugs Bunny’s quiet home life. When he wants to complain, he encounters a lion and the rest of the cartoon consists of his battle with this animal.

Bugs seems in less control than he normally is and their battle is not very funny. McKimson would bring Bugs back to the circus in the more successful ‘Big Top Bunny‘ (1951).

Watch ‘Acrobatty Bunny’ yourself and tell me what you think:

http://ulozto.net/live/x2MQDJj/bugs-bunny-acrobatty-bunny-1946-avi

This is Bugs Bunny cartoon No. 38
To the previous Bugs Bunny cartoon:  Hair-Raising Hare
To the next Bugs Bunny cartoon: Racketeer Rabbit

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date:
 August 26, 1942
Stars:
 Superman
Rating:
 ★★★
Review:

Terror on the Midway © ParamountIn ‘Terror on the Midway’ Lois is reviewing something as mundane as a circus, when a small monkey accidentally releases a titanic gruesome gorilla.

The gorilla follows her, while Superman’s busy putting other animals back into their cages. He rescues Lois and captures the gorilla, but it remains unclear how he stops the fire that has started, too.

‘Terror in the Midway’ is one of those fortunate Superman shorts without a villain (see also ‘The Arctic Giant’ and ‘Volcano‘ from the same year). However, it also shows Fleischer’s ambivalent realism: it contains some generic Fleischer thirties children designs, which by 1942 really look old-fashioned, but there are also some rare close-ups of Lois and Superman, which add to the drama. The staging, too, is superb, with some spectacular shots.

The gorilla looks like a typical King Kong-like monster, despite the fact that its model sheet was partly based on rotoscoped movements of real gorillas. Apparently, Bambi-like naturalism was wasted on the Fleischers animators.

Terror on the midway gorilla modelsheet © Max Fleischer

gorilla modelsheet from ‘Terror on the midway’

Unfortunately, ‘Terror on the Midway’ would be the last Superman cartoon made by the Fleischer studios, before Paramount stole their crew to form their own Famous Studios. Indeed, it was the very last film the Fleischer brothers made together, ending an era that had begun 27 years earlier.

Watch ‘Terror on the Midway’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Superman film No. 9
To the previous Superman film: Volcano
To the next Superman film: Japoteurs

Director: Abe Levitow
Release Date: March 3, 1966
Stars: Tom & Jerry
Rating: ★
Review:

Jerry-Go-Round © MGM ‘Jerry-Go-Round’ is staged at a circus: Jerry helps a circus elephant, who in turn protects Jerry from Tom.

This rather dull and unfunny cartoon marks the debut of animator Abe Levitow as a Tom & Jerry director. It is not a success. Levitow was an experienced director: in 1959 he had directed several Warner Brothers cartoons, and at UPA he had directed Mr. Magoo television specials, and the studio’s second feature, Gay-Purree (1962). Yet, this experience is hard to detect in ‘Jerry Go-Round’: both the designs, the timing and the animation are inferior to those in the cartoons directed by Chuck Jones himself.

Watch ‘Jerry-Go-Round’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Tom & Jerry cartoon No. 146
To the previous Tom & Jerry cartoon: Jerry, Jerry Quite Contrary
To the next Tom & Jerry cartoon: Love, Love My Mouse

Director: Winsor McCay
Production Date: ca. 1918-1921
Stars: Flip
Rating: ★★
Review:

Still from 'Flip's Circus' featuring Flip and BabyWith ‘Flip’s Circus’ Winsor McCay returned to one of his stars from ‘Little Nemo in Slumberland’.

This is a short and unfinished film featuring Flip performing tricks in a circus, a.o. with a large hippo-like animal called Baby. The film does not have much of a story, and is undoubtedly the weakest of McCay’s surviving films, despite the high quality of the animation.

Watch ‘Flip’s Circus’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Flip’s Circus

This is Winsor McCay’s seventh film
To Winsor McCay’s sixth, unfinished film: Gertie on Tour
To Winsor McCay’s eighth film: Bug Vaudeville

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