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Bette Davis:
None But the Lonely Heart


Murielle Joudet

 

 

Funny business, a woman’s career. The things you drop on your way up the ladder, so you can move faster. You forget you’ll need them again when you go back to being a woman. That’s one career all females have in common – whether we like it or not – being a woman. Sooner or later we’ve all got to work at it, no matter what other careers we’ve had or wanted. And, in the last analysis, nothing is any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed – and there he is. Without that, you’re not a woman. You’re something with a French provincial office or a book full of clippings – but you’re not a woman. Slow curtain. The end.

– Bette Davis as Margo Channing in All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950) (1)

 

 

 

 

1. Davis commented: ‘The public, the critics, even my friends thought they could recognise me in these lines’.

A young painter, Kate Bosworth, is spending the summer in Martha’s Vineyard. There, she meets Bill Emerson, the lighthouse keeper’s assistant. Kate and Bill fall in love. One day, her twin sister, Patricia, arrives unexpectedly. During a misunderstanding that she strives to maintain, Bill mistakes Patricia for her sister and begins courting her, until Kate arrives and reveals the fraud. While Kate is gentle and considerate, Patricia is seductive and devious. Patricia seduces Bill, Kate steps aside, and they marry. The day of the ceremony, during the bouquet toss, Kate happens to be in the first row. Patricia tosses it in her direction but, rather than catch it, Kate moves away coldly, letting the bouquet of white flowers land at her feet. This short, expertly restrained scene from A Stolen Life (Curtis Bernhardt, 1946) contains a summary of Bette Davis’ destiny in film, at once robbed and robber, old maid and ambitious woman – it suffices to refer to the French titles of her films (eg., La Voleuse for A Stolen Life).

 

If women’s films continued to be made well after Hollywood’s Golden Age, (2) the label ‘woman’s picture’ disappeared with classicism and its genres – to which it belonged, just like crime films, musical comedies and westerns. We find it difficult, however, to consider the woman’s picture an entirely separate genre. Its existence seems to be justified only by the female audiences it was supposedly bringing into theaters and its far too close relationship shared with what we may call life. The woman’s picture would therefore be a Hollywood mirror held up to its audience, stripped of the artificiality that confers genres with their sense of being autonomous worlds, their capacity to refer back to themselves alone, to their own skies. Stanley Cavell’s work testifies very well to this exemplary, moral dimension we readily attribute to woman’s films. He mixes what he calls the melodrama of the unknown woman or the comedy of remarriage with a philosophy of moral perfectionism inherited from Emerson and Thoreau. His greater moral than formal interest in the genre, and his preference for relying more on lines of dialogue than shots, is perhaps due to the woman’s film being a talky genre (crime films and westerns being devoted to silence), where the primacy of the script over mise en scène is regularly affirmed.

 

 

 

 

 

2. Some examples: Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970), Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), Otto Preminger’s Such Good Friends (1971), Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1974), John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence (1974), Robert Altman’s Three Women (1977), Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman (1978) …


Here’s an idea: the woman’s picture is a Hollywood genre with its own codes and conventions, but one which functions in opposition to the other genres. It must move away from genre in order to reach it. The purity of the writing in westerns and crime films makes them function on a subtractive logic: the more that is removed, the more the essence of the genre seems to be reached. A true woman’s film is instead always deviated, disfigured and sick, always at odds with the idea of a fulfilled destiny. A good woman’s film is a failed quest, a duel where the nice sheriff gets himself killed, a series of detours delaying the final goal: the fulfillment of a destiny.

 

Just like the duel and sense of honour in westerns, or the crime to be solved and the femme fatale in the film noir, the idea of destiny is one of the script conventions of the woman’s picture, the main stakes whose fictional depths only serve to manifest a truth of mise en scène, script, performance and emotion. It remains to be seen why destiny is only feminine. Perhaps in Hollywood a woman becomes and a man is. What would a man’s destiny be? Something a little more fixed, a little less novelistic (The Novel of Mildred Pierce, The Novel of Marguerite Gautier, as the French titles tell us), engaging his identity more than his existence. What most resemble masculine woman’s pictures are movies such as The Lost Weekend (Billy Wilder, 1945) and The Man with the Golden Arm (Otto Preminger, 1955), where men who have fallen into drugs or alcohol attempt to rediscover what they were: a musician, a writer. An identity is lost and found, but is always waiting for us. A destiny can be stolen. It is a story waiting to be inhabited, like a train we take or a date we make, and which other women can take in your place. A woman can steal your date, your man, your child, or your destiny – and it will only be theft in your own eyes.

 

The woman’s film navigates around this crushing injunction that consists in having to be a woman and having a destiny. The markers of a woman’s destiny circulate freely, demonstrating an extreme plasticity: child, husband, work and parental bonds have never been as mistreated and twisted as in the most beautiful examples of woman’s pictures. Children may be exchanged for money, belong to another woman than their mother, a mother may hate her child. Every configuration is possible since it is, precisely, about manipulating concepts inherent to a genre – a mother becomes, then, far beyond all realism, a simple becoming-mother. A major woman’s film is one that reduces these realistic themes (having a man, having a child, having a job) to the state of a pure, fictional and malleable unit that is stirred into an endless number of possible equations – to the point of delirium.

 

There is the destiny of the front page girl: frenetic montage of a series of front pages announcing society gossip – engagements, marriages and rumoured romances of all kinds. Warner, the studio with which Davis was under contract for 17 years, was associated with this realistic, urban style where the events of a life are spread across a documentary background. Then there is the considered austerity of the novel in which destiny – less flashy, more profound – seems to take control of itself in anonymity. The risk for a woman is in confusing the frenzy of successive front pages with the turning of the pages of a novel, in confusing life with an imitation of life.

 

We must know to run at the same speed as our destiny, or else it will be lost. Davis is someone who – through gluttony or renunciation – always loses sight of it.  The ambitious woman is early, the old maid is late – Davis systematically plays both. Late: A Stolen Life, Dangerous (Alfred E. Green, 1935), The Old Maid (Edmund Goulding, 1939), Old Acquaintance (Vincent Sherman, 1943), All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950), Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942), That Certain Woman (Edmund Goulding, 1943), The Corn is Green (Irving Rapper, 1945), A Pocketful of Miracles (Frank Capra, 1961). Early: Jezebel (William Wyler, 1938), The Little Foxes (William Wyler, 1941), The Letter (William Wyler, 1940), In This Our Life (John Huston, 1941), Mr Skeffington (Vincent Sherman, 1944), Beyond The Forest (King Vidor, 1949), Payment on Demand (Curtis Bernhardt, 1951), What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich, 1962), The Scientific Cardplayer (Luigi Comencini, 1972). The list goes on. Transposed into another genre, an old maid is like an alcoholic sheriff facing his need for courage or a major reporter having to solve a crime with one leg in a cast. We never think better than when sick. Wounded, tired characters are always reflective in regards to what we demand from them, they draw out the underlying false facts hidden in a situation. If a good woman’s picture is already in great health when it is sick (whereas a sick crime film or western is the beginning of the end), Davis, a sick woman, coincides with her genre.

   

This destiny is, first, inscribed on a face that is uglier and more interesting than any other. She says so herself in her memoir, This ‘n That: ‘And there is no question that the glamour actresses made Hollywood the famous place it is today. The glamorous actresses at the time were Jean Harlow, Rita Hayworth, Joan Crawford, Lana Turner, Hedy Lamarr and, of course, Marilyn Monroe. The nonglamorous types, in which group I included myself, were Hepburn, Tracy, Cagney, Fonda, Bogart. The nonglamorous types were all from theater and had been brought to Hollywood at the beginning of talking pictures. At present, Hollywood may lament the lack of stars as glamorous as those I have just listed’. (3) The skeletal and cerebral beauty of Katharine Hepburn reminds one of the bulging and mischievous beauty of Bette Davis. One became the queen of the intellectual screwball comedy; the other the queen of the sickly melodrama. Ugly ducklings in more conventional genres, the nonglamorous types created and invented films capable of accommodating them.

 

 

 

 

3. Bette Davis, This ‘n That (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1987), p. 138.


At 20, Davis had a devilish baby face, with small rings around her eyes. An ugly doe, we might say. In 20,000 Years in Sing-Sing (Michael Curtiz, 1932), her voice is still shrill and whiny, she gesticulates and overacts constantly. Bette Davis the actress is not quite there yet. Later, she bases her acting on a form of weary rectitude; in this early phase, she makes noise as if to prove herself. We can easily imagine her running between auditions and living with roommates in a kind of remake of Gregory La Cava’s Stage Door (1937). Or as a city girl, like those who in film noir disappear and get themselves killed by slimy guys who promises them the stars – like in Lloyd Bacon’s dull Marked Woman (1937).

 

An actress possesses her true face around 30. Young, she does not yet have it, and does not know that she’s preparing to have it. Old, she does everything to get it back – the ravishing 30s where the face and body are saturated, full of health and vitality. An old, male actor ages like leather, he has no point of equilibrium to find since he is assured of the permanency of his face. His luck is that in ageing, an actor’s face is unveiled: free from all youth, we make out what suffices to constitute his face. An actress can only lose herself in losing her radiant 30s. She must then accept the chaotic succession of her multiple skins. This inescapable alteration, this absence of a facial substratum, hides the turbulence of femininity, its capacity to lose everything and the possibility for disfiguration – mirrors and disfiguration are often strictly feminine themes in cinema. Extreme case: Elizabeth Taylor always tried to make the red of her lips, the piercing blue of her eyes and the ebony of her hair permanent, in an attempt to draw attention away from her flesh which was withering monstrously around her. An actress must, then, find on her own face points of anchorage and stability that will maintain the youthfulness of the entire face – often, she is the last one on whom the illusion works, caught as she is under her own narcissistic spell. Bette Davis is the actress who most played with the impossible stability of the face. Instead of maintaining an impossible stability, she simply dissects it, and does so from a young age.

 

At 27, in Dangerous, Alfred E. Green’s film inspired by the life of Jeanne Eagels, she plays a former glory of the stage who is wallowing in alcohol, convinced she brings misfortune to everyone who comes near her. She has a romance with an old admirer, who handles the re-launching of her career, but she ends up renouncing this love, deciding to care for her first husband, who is disabled because of her. In 1939, in her early 30s, she acts successively in Edmund Goulding’s The Old Maid and Michael Curtiz’s The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. In Goulding’s film, she gives up her life as a mother after having an illegitimate child with her sister’s ex-fiancé. In Curtiz’s film, she is an inhuman, ugly, old queen (having a portion of her head and her eyebrows shaved for the role), who has a destructive love affair with the Earl of Essex, played by Errol Flynn. The great, theatrical purity of this work makes it one of the most emblematic examples of a Davis film: at the heart of a behind-closed-doors love story, the bodies are present to each other but the love is doomed. At 30, Davis is playing roles of 50 and 60 year old women worn out by love and the experience of life. The precision of the dialogue is equaled only by her cold heartedness – giving Davis a nasty, indifferent quality that constitutes one of her major registers as an actress.

 

Bette Davis has this step-mother side of Walt Disney queens: straight silhouette standing at the top of a staircase, eyelids lowered like a cat watching and preparing to attack, her hands alone betraying her plotting. It can be fun to watch Davis’ hand gestures, signs of nervousness as well as rigidness. Behind her back, on her neck, arms hanging at her sides or in front of her, she moves her fingers frenziedly while her body remains stiff. It’s surprising to learn that the evil queen in Snow White was modeled on Joan Crawford, when such maleficent rectitude was already fully present in Davis.

 

The two women did not like each other. A man Crawford stole from Davis was at the origin of the conflict. In her final, very bad film, Wicked Stepmother (Larry Cohen, 1989), Davis, in fact, plays a stepmother who makes her stepdaughter’s life hard. In a shot showing a portrait of her younger self, we can make out Crawford in the photo, as if one went all the way into the details of a B movie to tease the other. Her woman’s picture rival, Crawford never wanted to give up her glamour, essentially playing the Hollywood game that consists in being a housewife or broke waitress without bearing the traces on oneself. Davis assumes physically the social status, the love life, and the age of her characters, always adding a last touch to her ugliness and decrepitude, as others do with their beauty. Stanwyck and Crawford in aprons are always already women in the process of being satisfied, and who await to be so. Like fairy tale princesses, even in rags they bear the light of their destiny on their faces. We can look for exceptions. Olivia de Havilland, her great friend, makes herself ugly in the very beautiful To Each His Own (Mitchell Leisen, 1939). In Stella Dallas (King Vidor, 1937), Stanwyck approaches disfiguration when she plays a woman who, wanting to be cute, does not realise that her outfit is ridiculous and that everyone is making fun of her. Here again, there is an excess of power manifested in her costume, a vital supplement that feels awkward.   

   

In her memoirs, Davis explains the reticence of the studio and Robert Aldrich concerning her makeup during the production of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?: ‘I decided to do my own makeup for Baby Jane. What I had in mind, no professional makeup man would have dared to put on me. One told me he was afraid that if he did what I wanted he might never work again. […] I felt Jane never washed her face, just added another layer of makeup each day’. (4) The problem was pretty much the opposite with Crawford: ‘Where the producers were uneasy about how outrageous I wanted Jane to look, they had a problem of another kind with Joan. It was a constant battle to get her to not look gorgeous. She wanted her hair well dressed, her gowns beautiful and her fingernails with red nail polish. For the part of an invalid who had been cooped up in a room for twenty years, she wanted to look attractive. She was wrong’. (5)

 

In The Old Maid, Davis first appears young, her complexion fresh and her face surrounded by curls. Midway through, her face transforms, weakens, her hair becomes white, and there is no makeup on her eyes. This exaggerated transformation is not only a matter of ageing: it corresponds to a thwarted destiny. It is also life that has slowly escaped from a body, a destiny that has not been attained, and a future that will no longer happen, that freezes upon contact. While everything was potentially there, everything has disappeared: the loved man and the cherished child. A woman’s picture is perhaps the story of a woman looking to place her energy, at the risk of losing it. Davis becomes the aunt of her illegitimate daughter who she cannot publicly claim and therefore renounces her love. Little by little, her sister (Miriam Hopkins) takes her place as mother and Davis, in the role of the bitter aunt, makes her child hate her. During a painful scene, Hopkins orders the girl to kiss Davis last when she’s leaving for her wedding night, in order to make her understand that she has meant much to her in spite of their dispute. Davis is taken in by this orchestration and thinks she’s found her daughter again.

 

4. Ibid., p. 137.  

 

 

5. Ibid., p. 138.

 

 

 

 

 


Several times and in several films, the affront returns: a character asks if Davis is really a woman. This must mean, it would seem, someone who knows how to live and to love. If everything suggests that, in Hollywood, Davis is not a woman, it is because she is not related to men, as she suggests, but perhaps related to witches. A woman’s picture with Davis is, first of all, about a witch lost in a love story: she tests her compatibility with this love and gets caught by the irony of fate. A witch, a queen and an old maid are all more or less the same thing for Davis. The three are a mixture of ice and fire; the three cannot experience love, and seem to have a heart of stone. In Davis’ roles, deep within these women thwarted in their love, there is one last corner of triumphal solitude that does not evaporate in contact with men. A solitary corner that is like a secret, forged in material that will never burn, especially not in love. A silent secret that a woman carries deep within herself and that she feels without naming it ­– the same secret that explains the solitude of the sheriff who does good but leaves it for others. If the couple possesses the secret of romance, the old maid possesses the secret of her refusal.

 

In Sherman’s Old Acquaintance, she forms a friend duo with Miriam Hopkins. Jealous of her friend’s writing career, Hopkins leaves her family life to write romance novels. Each, then, leads a writing career: one in a popular register, the other in an intellectual register. Davis refuses the advances of Hopkins’ husband and dates a man who is younger than her. (6) In just a few scenes, a relationship between a woman older than her lover by two decades has never been so tenderly and intelligently depicted – he tells her she is beautiful and that girls his age don’t interest him; she accepts his love painfully, knowing it is doomed by the age difference. In the lapse of time she takes to respond to his marriage proposal, he falls in love with her best friend’s daughter, as if Davis, through her hesitation, has foreseen the two young people meeting. In opposition to nascent love, with Davis it is necessary to invent the expression of ‘dying love’ – meaning the pleasure Davis procures in witnessing this slow death or provoking it. Even in a love story as conventional as Dark Victory (Edmund Goulding, 1939), we must count on an important, extremely Davisian detail: young, beautiful and in love, we know, nevertheless, that she is doomed to die at the end of the film.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6. In her personal life, Davis was, for a long time, the mistress of Hopkins’ husband, director Anatole Litvak.


In Old Acquaintance, the two women writers end up sitting on a sofa drinking champagne, the men of their lives far behind them, each one thinking of a possible next novel bearing the film’s title. A solid title, like the two women’s friendship, but equally like the friendship Davis seems to intend for herself at moments, that which confers her autonomy of heart and authority of mind. This familiarity a person can have with herself, entirely contained here in her very precise way of lighting a cigarette – we might say she pushes others away to have a bit of space to herself. With regards to the cigarette, Davis writes: ‘Later I discovered that for a performance a cigarette is a marvelous prop – sometimes for emphasis, sometimes for anger. For so many things. What emotions you can convey merely by putting one out’. (7) There is an unforgettable shot in A Stolen Life where, lying on the bed, the twin sisters experience their last moment of complicity. The one lights the other’s cigarette: Bette Davis lights a cigarette for Bette Davis. In this light that is favorable to feminine secrets – as if the scene were seen through a veil of tulle – a dream of absolute solitude is realised.

 

 

 

 

 

7. This ‘n That, p. 90.


At 32, she also makes herself older in one of the genre’s masterpieces, Rapper’s Now, Voyager. The transformation is done in reverse: this time, the old maid becomes a lady of the world – her face hidden by the large brim of her hat – and she embarks on a ship to her new life. At 36, she is completely disfigured by illness in Mr Skeffington, a two and a half hour, long-winded romantic film following the path of a couple played by Davis and Claude Rains – the actor with whom she preferred working, as she writes in her memoirs. Mr Skeffington tells the story of a capricious woman who marries out of self-interest and leads a dissolute existence before ending her life with her husband – blind and battered – back at her side after escaping from a concentration camp. Illness takes from her what remained of her youth: very thin hair, pale, wrinkled skin, bulging eyes. A beautiful woman who is lost to illness and, moreover, adds layers of makeup over her misfortune. Davis was 36, her face plastered with makeup, a hair’s breath away from collapsing, but she looks 20, even 30 years older. 

  

All throughout her career, Davis’ face is composed of successive layers, each one revealing an age, a state of becoming. She removes or adds them depending on the film. At 36, again, she turned down the role of Mildred Pierce for which Crawford won an Oscar (in Curtiz’s 1945 film), instead choosing the role of Miss Moffat in Rapper’s The Corn is Green. In it, she plays an old teacher fighting to open a school in a small mining town in Scotland. Warner was against such a young actress playing the role of a woman over 50; to narrow the gap, Davis wore a gray wig and put on weight. This very pure movie is characteristic of Davis’ masterpieces: the script’s big twists and turns allow, paradoxically, for great emotional clarity. It is often after two hours of a film, during its final seconds, that the woman’s picture truly becomes a tearjerker. 

   

Of Davis, what we most remember are female duos – rarely duos formed with men, as in All About Eve, where she experiences a complicit, intellectual love with Bill Simpson (Gary Merrill), a director younger than her. In real life, she was married to Merrill for ten years, and this film in which they acted together haunted the couple. Davis writes: ‘He wanted me to be Margo Channing’. (8) When she ran into Joseph L. Mankiewicz a few years later, having once never stopped pestering him to make a sequel, she ended up saying: ‘You can forget about the sequel, Joe, Gary and I played it and it didn’t work’. (9)

 

If All About Eve is the culmination of Davis’ career, that is because it is the story of a decline enveloped in a classic, vigorous form. A film about an actress saying goodbye to her youth through the intermediary of an annoying, young rival. Eve Harrington (Ann Baxter), an extremely ambitious groupie, is just a younger version of Margo Channing, whom she has to shed like a layer of skin. (10) In the first part of the film, Margo feels threatened by Eve, who seems to want to steal her life, her career and her friends. But no one around her understands the reason for her fear, until Eve’s true, malevolent intentions are proved. It is only the consequence of Margo’s fear of ageing, the face of a private crisis, a theft that no one sees but her. Most terrible is Channing’s false triumph over her rival and the final shot of an admirer who introduces herself into Eve’s room to offer her services to her. Behind Eve, the groupie contemplates herself in her mirror with multiple reflections, holding in her hands the award Eve has just been given ­– barely at the peak of glory, an actress waits to be replaced, the life cycle catching up to everyone.

 

 

 

8. Ibid., p. 185.  

9. Ibid., p. 186.  

 

 

10. We could consider Cassavetes’ Opening Night (1977) as a remake of All About Eve, completing the expression of the idea of the double.

 


What allows All About Eve to remain not entirely lost in the shadow of its actress’ moods is that, before being the portrait of a woman, it is the portrait of a group of friends braving everything that is falling apart. But it is also a movie that picked up its actress at the right moment, when she was leaving Warner and could no longer find worthwhile roles – the role of Margo Channing was first reserved for Claudette Colbert, then in bad health. In Davis’ filmography, Mankiewicz’s film seems like a painful trick. For the first time, she seems to undergo what, until then, she had been preparing to play. Young, she enjoyed making herself older and uglier, in the manner of a child for whom it is easy to be everything. Now old, her roles of ageing women touch her personally, they grasp at her skin. Furthermore, the race against time is pursued and finds its resolution in the hysteria of two films made with Aldrich, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?alongside a Crawford who still plays divas in a wheelchair – and then Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), with her accomplice de Havilland, Crawford having turned down the role. (11) A little earlier, in 1961, in Capra’s film A Pocketful of Miracles, we find Davis extremely poor and having to make her daughter believe she belongs to New York high society. In Baby Jane, Davis plays a ten year old girl trapped in the body and sick mind of a woman over 50. We find again here the makeup from the production of Mr Skeffington. Davis dances in her living room, her hair braided, wearing her childhood dress – convinced that her career as a child star might be re-launched.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

11. The initial title was supposed to be What Ever Happened to Charlotte? but Davis, considering this too awful, refused to act in it unless this was changed.


Davis recounts how, at the end of her life, she was touring the big cities in the United States for a series of conferences, where excerpts from her films were projected and audiences could ask her questions. During one of these events in Boston, Davis was stopped by a man she recognised as the first boy she had kissed. Surprised and horrified to find him so changed by time, she concluded: ‘I agree with Thomas Wolfe – you can’t go home again. This can also apply to people’s memories. And that was my regret in seeing Francis Young. In doing so, I lost the memory of the first boy I ever kissed, in particular, his beautiful brown eyes’. (12) Davis realises here the paradoxical secret of an actress’ youth – and perhaps the law which her own filmography obeys as well. Ageing consists in creating a discontinuity, in disappearing between two faces in the manner of this unfortunate Francis Young. It is always people we do not see for long periods of time that appear to us to have aged the most – conversely, through a heightened continuity effect, we only age in the eyes of others. After more than a hundred films, the spell is broken, and Davis concludes: ‘In this respect, I may be fortunate. Friends are not surprised when they see me years later. They have kept up with me as I have grown older on the screen’. (13)

 

To act against time and destiny, the blows of men and the claws of women by anticipating their ravages, and accepting to wear their exact mark on her face: this is what a 20, 30 or 40 year old actress had fun doing in Hollywood in woman’s pictures that, in their most beautiful moments, leave in their wake streaks of tears and stars. Such is the marvelous final line in Now, Voyager: ‘Don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars’. Davis demands the stars act: continuing to shine in the distance well after having burned out.

 

 

This text first appeared in Trafic, no. 88 (Winter 2013). Translated from the French by Ted Fendt, and reprinted with permission.

 

12. This ‘n That, pp. 97-98.  

 

 

 

13. Ibid., p. 97.

 

 


from Issue 6: Distances

   


© Original French text Murielle Joudet 2013.
English translation Ted Fendt & LOLA 2015.

Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.


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