The Mummy’s Curse

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“Bloomin’ Ada!” as my Mum would say. I have been tagged with a meme, using the parlance of our times. Next thing you know I’ll be participating in flash mobs and Anne Summers parties and other symptoms of this age we live in. I have been tagged by the Self-Styled Siren, who runs my favourite blog on classical Hollywood cinema (and occasional other subjects too) so I guess that means I have to comply. The meme (I’m not explaining that one: go pound on Professor Richard Dawkins’s door) requires me to list twenty actresses, and originated here. The idea is that they should be your twenty favourites — the Siren wisely narrowed that to twenty actresses whose mere presence in a film would be enough to make her watch it, and she’s hinted that she expects “classic choices”, so I’m guessing that tends to eliminate Little Nell, Daisy and Violet Hilton, Buck Angel or even Maria Montez. As well as this woman.

But I still feel  the need to whittle further, both to avoid repeating the Siren’s excellent list (I’ve just started on the THIN MAN films, and Myrna Loy is much on my mind), and to impart a unique something-or-other to the proceedings. I note that most of the actresses being selected are extremely beautiful, and since if I were to choose twenty actors, they might include numerous fellows I don’t actually admire physically, I thought it would be interesting to choose twenty actresses who… how shall I put this? Must find a classy and gentlemanly way of saying it.

Twenty actresses whom I would always be glad to see in a film, although I have no real desire to “do” them.

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1) Margaret Rutherford. I’m appalled to realise that I’ve had THE BEST DAYS OF YOUR LIFE for over a month now without watching it, and after spending ages trying to source a copy. Rutherford, who George Harrison, back in his Beatles heyday, would choose if challenged to name a favourite actress, had a face rather like a very old man’s neck, but was both a dexterous eccentric comedian and a powerful tragedian, as witness her speech at the end of Orson Welles’s CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT. She exemplifies what I’m talking about here, since sexuality didn’t really play much of a role in her art or life: apparently she and her husband both referred to lists of instructions — crib sheets —  to see them through their honeymoon night, so ignorant were they of matters erotic.

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2) Agnes Moorehead. Not so sure here, since I never bought the idea that Agnes was ugly, and the warmth and admiration I feel for her is akin to romantic love, so maybe, under the right circumstances… but sexiness wasn’t part of her screen repertoire, which included all kinds of genius qualities, including the ability to throw hysterical attacks so convincing that terrified studio execs demanded retakes on both MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS and THE TRUE STORY OF JESSE JAMES, to make her less effective. (It might seem perverse for studios to demand such a thing, but I suspect studio interference is nearly ALWAYS based on a desire to make films less effective.)

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3) Margaret Hamilton. A very different actress, but with a parallel to Moorehead in that both were typecast as spinsters and crones at an age when they could have been playing ingenues, had nature arranged things differently. The Wicked Witch isn’t in enough films, but over the decades she did enough obscure work that her appearances are often a surprise, as in the Sean Connery heist film THE ANDERSON TAPES. I always get very excited whenever she turns up, like a small child experiencing his first mouthful of cocaine.

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4) Una O’Connor. Usually delivered in small doses, which was probably wise — her shrieking performances in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and THE INVISIBLE MAN might conceivably appear irritating if overextended. (You think?) But I just saw Renoir’s astounding THIS LAND IS MINE, where she keeps an impressive lid on it for most of the show, only allowing those deadly lungs free rein at one key moment.

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5) Spring Byington. Utterly fabulous actress, often excelling in warm-hearted, matronly roles, but check out her bone-chilling nastiness in DRAGONWYCK, which I maintain she steals from under everyone else’s noses. The point where her character is inexplicably forgotten about by the plot is the point where the movie loses interest for me, even as a tired rehash of REBECCA.

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6) Speaking of that film, Mrs. Danvers herself (strangely impossible to picture MR. Danvers, I find), Dame Judith Anderson, deserves a mention. Often called upon to inject menace or else matriarchal might, she turns her hand ably to comedy in René Clair’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE.

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7) I’m on shaky ground again with Ethel Waters, because I do think she’s beautiful, and always appealing, warm and engaging (in contrast to her knife-wielding offscreen behaviour!), and I wouldn’t like to think I’m shoving her into some character actor Siberia just because she’s heavy. But CABIN IN THE SKY allows ample opportunity to compare and contrast her with Lena Horne, and then certain subjective truths become inescapable. My love of Ethel is entirely platonic. My love of Lena is entirely otherwise.

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8) Irene Handl. When you have a figure as beloved in old age as Irene Handl, once in a while you get the urge to see what she was like when young. But with Irene Handle, youth appears to have been a condition she never experienced. A brilliant eccentric player, she forged an unlikely career, given her unusual appearance, but she always made an impression, even in the smallest role, because she was incapable of leaving a part without fully investing it with life. So she could quite often make more impact in thirty seconds than the stars did with the rest of the film.

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9) Kathleen Freeman. You know this one? Always saying “He’s such a nice boy,” in Jerry Lewis movies. Lewis is generally brilliant at casting his supporting players, and he knew he was onto a great thing with Freeman.

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10) Dandy Nichols. Able to effortlessly take the manners and mores of social realism, 1960s style, and flip them into farce. Has a great moment in THE BED-SITTING ROOM, looking uncomfortable on a horse. That should be enough for anyone.

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11) Katie Johnson. She’s in other films, but it’s for THE LADYKILLERS she’s remembered. So old and frail at the time that she failed the insurance exam and had to be replaced with a younger actress, who promptly dropped dead, so Katie got the part in the end, and a good thing too. Her combination of physical fragility and steely moral certainty is exactly what the film needs.

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12) Flora Robson. I saw her interviewed on TV when I was a kid and she was pretty old, and the interviewer kindly said that she had grown more beautiful with age, while the glamour girls could only fade. It’s kind of true, but what an amazing career she had with her big Rondo Hatton face — it no doubt kept her from many parts, but she was able to command some corkers. And actually, her flirtation with Errol Flynn in THE SEA HAWK is entirely charming and credible.

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13) Marie Dressler. DINNER AT EIGHT is actually kind of a yawn for me, but I do love her spectacular double-take when Jean Harlow says she’s been reading a book. Anybody who does a gigantic double take is tops with me.

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14) Thelma Ritter. Her presence here at number 14 makes it VERY clear, I hope, that this list is in no particular order.

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15) Esther Howard. A little obscure here? But SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS fans will know her as the randy widow Joel McCrea flees, jumping out the widow’s window rather that submitting to her wiles. Which is to say, sexuality is a part of the Howard repertoire, but it’s a comedy version, and what’s most important about her is her overbearing “charm”, deployed to very funny effect in HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO and about a hundred and fifty other films and TV shows. I’ll even add one not listed among her credits on the IMDb: WHAT A WAY TO GO!

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16) Megs Jenkins. One of my favourite larger ladies in British films, as seen in GREEN FOR DANGER and THE INNOCENTS. Her appearance is sort of Kathy Bates-like, but she has an incredibly beautiful and unusual voice, and I feel all warm and snuggly whenever I hear it. I would probably trade one of my less necessary limbs in exchange for about 1000 hours of Megs reading audio-books.

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17) Renee Houston. Had to have one Great Scot on the list. Renee was very pretty in the ’30s, but wasn’t making any films I’ve seen, so I know her from her later roles as battle-axes, drunken baggages and generally rambunctious females. She generally inspires a loud cheer in my household when her name appears in the credits, as it does in TIME WITHOUT PITY.

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18) The alarming Gail Sondergaard. I have no excuse for it, but I actually like her dragon lady yellowface stereotype turn in THE LETTER. And she’s terrifying in CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY, without seeming to try.

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19) Patricia Collinge. Cinema’s greatest mum, apart from mine, that is, who can be seen briefly from the back in extreme longshot in my short film CRY FOR BOBO, and who recently complained that I’d made her look dumpy or something.

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20) Aline McMahon, but then actually I do think she’s extremely beautiful and under the right circumstances, if I were a younger man, etc…

And twenty who do fill me with indecent cravings:

Louise Brooks, Clara Bow, Annabella, Joan Blondell, Myrna Loy, Olivia DeHavilland, Paulette Goddard, Veronica Lake, Ava Gardner, Joan Greenwood, Gene Tierney, Natalie Wood, Claudia Cardinale, Shirley MacLaine as Fran Kubelik, Britt Ekland if I’m honest, Susannah York (I’m coming to believe she makes an even better Julie Christie than Julie Christie), Jeanne Moreau, Genevieve Bujold, Maggie Cheung, Charlize Theron… I could go on…

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46 Responses to “The Mummy’s Curse”

  1. Re Una O’Connor in “This Land Is Mine”, I recall reading a personal letter from her to a friend of hers (a British stage critic), and complaining about how another British critic, dismissed Renoir’s film all too easily: she had really looked forward for a good reception of the film, as she was playing a relevant, larger than usual part.

    She’s riotous in “Witness for the Prosecution”!

  2. Yes, I was at one point going to list one classic perf per actress, and Witness would have been Una’s. Although I’m fond of her non-verbal work in Cluny Brown too.

    Which reminds me — no Sara Allgood? What was i thinking?

    I would have included Elsa Lanchester for her later work, except that I find the young Elsa very very interesting…

  3. Fabulous list!. That’s Myrna in Love Me Tonight that you’ve posted at the top, just after she says “Yes!” when asked “Could you go for a doctor?” I adore her swan song as Alan King’s secretary in Just Tell Me What You Want.

    Here’s the great Kathleeen Freeman as the immortal Phobe Dinsmore. I also adore her Julia Child send-up in Gremlins II:The New Batch She was working right up until the very end, knocking ’em dead nightly in the Broadway musical adaptation of The Full Monty.

  4. What a great post. Where do I begin? So glad you included Esther Howard. To me she’s not obscure at all, since she had plum roles in both Murder My Sweet and Born To Kill. I especially enjoy her as the laughing, jovial beer lush in the latter, reveling in Elisha Cook’s flirtations, calling her “glamour girl”. And you know, I was thinking of mentioning Aline McMahon, until I found her at the bottom of the list. Aline shows up much later in her career in Anthony Mann’s Man From Laramie, which I happened to watch right after Heroes For Sale. Also worth mentioning is Blanche Yurka, so fierce in The Tale of Two Cities, and again so in Mann’s The Furies.

  5. Aline’s great in Laramie. “You’re a mean old woman!” protests Jimmy Stewart. “Ugly, too,” she replies, affably. She’s the bright spot in Cimmaron also.

    I don’t know Blanche, so that’s something to look forward to.

    I’d forgotten about Freeman in Innerspace as well, which is a great character perf. Kudos to Joe Dante for seizing on people like Freeman and Kevin McCarthy.

  6. And Hope Emerson, so good in so many things, Cry of the City, Thieve’s Highway, House of Strangers, and her unforgettable performance in Cromwell’s Caged, pitted against Agnes Moorehead’s benevolent warden.

  7. And Adam’s Rib, if I’m think thinking of the right person. Yes, she’s impressive as hell.

    Always thought a movie with a big prison matron type as lead character could be interesting. For some reason I was always interested in the big woman who leads Geraldine Fitzgerald away at the sort-of end of Uncle Harry.

  8. Don’t forget Ruth Donnelly.

    And Mona Washbourne.

  9. Gale Sondergaard! Oh, I would have attended more than a few party meetings to win her favor. She should have gone on my list… and I even got to see her perform once.

  10. Ah, Mona came so close to making the list, and I can’t really justify her absence. She’s quite incredibly in Night Must Fall, not to mention The Bed Sitting Room. The expression on her face when throwing crockery at harry Secombe — what IS that expression? It has no name.

    Arbogast, I’m well impressed! What did you see Gale in?

  11. Here’s Ethel (with a tap assist from Pearl Bailey’s brother Bill.)

  12. I loved Una O’Connor in Cluny Brown: To many people that see the film, she’s like the embodiment of all mothers-in-law in the universe.

    Of young Miss lanchester I have seen one of the shorts that HG Wells wrote for her, and… yes, she’s very interesting, but the sad thing is that there was not a lot of surrealistic pictures like that (in which she fitted perfectly) in the making back in her day. Charles would champion her casting to whatever producer hired him for a film, but, for some reason, only Irving Thalberg was wise enough to realize that it was good for both if Elsa to be working in a film, rather than stay at home while Charles worked.

  13. If only Sternberg had thought to find a role for Elsa in I Claudius, that film might have been finished!

    I’ve seen Bluebottles, which she’s sensational in. A great natural silent clown. And she’s fantastically alluring and glamorous in The Ghost Ghoes West, I think. And then there’s The Bride. Gotta love the Bride!

    Time I watched Cabin in the Sky again…

  14. It’s one of Minnelli’s very best. Not only did he create on-screen magic, he was largely responsible for the off-screen magic that kept Ethel from killing Lena.

    And I’m not being metaphorical.

  15. Dame Judith Anderson – one time Vulcan.

    Irene Handle – co-star of Tenpole Tudor and Metal Mickey.

  16. Yes, Irene is the missing link between Mickey and the Sex Pistols, also St Trinians and Baker Street.

    I just recently realised: Edinburghers = Vulcans. Glaswegians = Klingons.

    A vague plan has been hatched to watch something Christmassy with friends — maybe I can sidetrack them onto Cabin in the Sky. It’s got Heaven in it, that’s quite Christmassy!

  17. Don’t forget Duke Ellington and His Band.

  18. I also enjoy Rex Ingram as Mephisto Jnr.

  19. Love the way Rex took his hair and twisted it up to make his devil horns, a nice touch.

  20. I ought to do that. Gerard Philippe achieves something similar in la Beaute du Diable, and it’s very fetching.

    Hmm, I tried it, but it was more like Ferris Bueller in the shower when I did it. Only, like, older and fatter.

  21. There’s nothing sexier than Irene Handl saying ‘”would you like a bit ‘o’ cake”
    in The Rebel. I expect that isn’t obscure enough for this here blog but I just wanted to second (third) the Handl inclusion..
    Plus I still owe you The Final Programme on DVD david, do you still need/want that one??

  22. Irene’s plenty obscure for some of our American readers, Matt. (Welcome, Matt! Matt Wand, ladies and gentlemen!) I should probably have pointed out that her name is pronounced Irene-y, since that’s not obvious.

    My favourite Irene line is in PLOSH (Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes): “Ooh, will somebody please move this vie-lin?” (violin)

    No, I’m now up to speed on The Final Prog, as you can see here, somewhere. I even managed to get Aphrodite, Fuest’s Euro sex romp, which I’ll be writing about sometime. I just need his early Brit comedy, whose title I forget. All I remember is Dennis Price plays a washing machine salesman or something.

    If you were able to supply any obscure soundtracks, I’d be well up for that though.

  23. ” I suppose my rooms in the basement?”
    ” no! your rooms in the attic……. its the privvy thats in the basement ”

    I can’t do a convincing scots accent in text OR in Voice.. but PLOSH is a fave from childhood and to this day..

    as for soundtracks, i don’t have so many obscure ones in ‘real’ formats like vinyl.. Maybe most obscure is music by Leith Stevens for THE INTERNS, but I’ve never seen the film and don’t know if its worth commenting on here..( have you??) up to my eyeballs in Bollywood soundtrack vinyl but again not something to comment on here..

    I have been trying to earbend Tony Oxley about Giorgio Gaslini and his soundtrack to antonioni’s La Notte as I really love the tape-collage music in the opening titles ( great opening ) but I can’t believe its actually by Mr Gaslini given most of his mild mannered jazz output. Oxley played with him & Jean-Luc Ponty many years ago, Not got an answer yet..
    will certainly hunt for the Fuest sex comedy,, I love Balchs Horror Hospital ( no! I can’t explain why either ) and would never have known about Bizarre/Secrets of Sex if it hadn’t been for yr blog…

  24. AHA!!
    I see the Fuest comedy you mean must be ‘Just Like a Woman’ (1967) the description says Clive Dunn plays a Mad Prussian Bauhaus Architect!!! now that I would pay money to see….

  25. I saw Gale in a production of The Royal Family at the Ogunquit Theater back in the late 70s. I don’t know who else was in it – probably Carole Shelly (she was in everything – but that particular venue was great for seeing old movie stars tread the boards. I got to see Kurt Kazner and David McCallum in The Mousetrap, John Raitt in I Do, I Do and Sandy Dennis as Maggie the Cat in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Yes, you read that correctly… Sandy Dennis!

  26. Wow. Love Sandy Dennis. Could have put her on this list, actually, except that under the right circs…

    Some interesting soundscape work referenced in my next Forgotten column — a Jerry Goldsmith score with sampled dialogue, from 1968!

    We can easily see all these crap sexcoms like Confessions of a Lapsed Methodist and whatnot, but appallingly, there’s no way to see Fuest’s and Joe McGrath’s entries in that debased genre.

    Never seen The Interns, but I do enjoy hearing soundtracks from films I don’t know. The imagination kicks in. Have been grooving to Basil Kirchin lately.

  27. I would like any comments by me read in an Irene-y Handl-y voice if poss,
    I’m not mad keen on all the Kirchin Band stuff that Mr Trunk has been bringing to light BUT Basils Worlds Within Worlds was a v. early bargain bin £1 purchase for me and the mix of slowed down recordings from a swiss autistic child hospital and other massively slowed down instruments is a worthy score to any Horror film, check mr B. Eno on the Sleeve notes claiming Basil has invented a ‘new instrument’ ?????? hmmm, slowed down tape recordings in 1973.. maybe Mr Eno had taken one too may memory erasing drugs to eradicate the Voice of Mr Ferry from his cranium??
    If you can ‘groove’ to mr Kirchin then you will certainly be able to watusi to ‘Toss Me a Scalpel’, ‘Plasma, Scotch and?…’ OR ‘I’m Inhibited’ from this INTERNS soundtrack. Judging from this Blog, soundtracks to Films that D. Cairns Don’t Know will be a mighty hard trick to pull…

  28. God, that all sounds fanTABulous. Please put me down for copies, I will find a way to repay you in movie madness.

  29. No Edna May Oliver, but my favorite list so far.

  30. Good thought! I am about to watch her last performance, in Duvivier’s Lydia. (When I say “about to” I mean “sometime in the next twelve months” — but I’m looking forward to it!)

  31. I’m so glad you mentioned Patricia Collinge. My favorite of her mother performances is The Little Foxes, in which she plays a mom in the family from hell who somehow managed to spawn Dan Duryea. I’ve been working my way through the Alfred Hitchcock Presents DVDs and Patricia Collinge makes a couple of appearances. I perk up when I see her name in the credits.

  32. Collinge is the Stamp of Quality. Can’t go wrong.

    Duryea is a favourite Idiot Son character in Little Foxes, he’s a man entirely withouit positive qualities, unless you count a certain low animal cunning, and this makes him almost oddly endearing at times, if vile.

  33. Superb list! So many favorites and a great reminder of a few ladies I haven’t thought of in a while. I would echo the inclusion of Sara Allgood, Mona Washbourne and Edna May Oliver as well and would like to say a word for Margaret Dumont as well. True, she was one-dimensional, but what a hilarious dimension it was! As for Susannah York being a better Julie Christie than Julie Christie, I feel that there’s more than enough room for both and if someone can make more please do!

  34. I’m just getting into Edna May — Lydia is a superb film, and I plan to write something on it immediately.

    Margaret Dumont is an ICON and should be on all lists, including lists of favourite WWII fighter planes, citrus fruits and cow-bell manufacturers.

    As to York and Christie, it’s astonishing that Britain produced two so natural and beautiful blondes in the space of a few years — and none since who can compare. Although I do think Samantha Morton’s amazing, but she doesn’t fill me with the same yearning.

  35. My list of lovely ladies would include Yelena Kuzmina, Setsuko Hara, Carole Lombard and Isabelle Adjani.
    Peter

  36. Oh, Lombard would certainly be on mine. Especially for Swing High, Swing Low and Hands Across the Table. Adjani is incredible-looking, and can certainly freak out with the best of them, but wouldn’t be on my top list of actresses.

    Kuzmina — I saw By the Bluest of Seas in New York, but mainly remember the crazy guy in the seat behind swearing at me. I do have The New Babylon though, so I should watch that. Fantastic face!

    Hara is wonderfully warm and appealing.

  37. Yes, I saw Lombard recently in Hands Across the Table. It’s a lovely film. A subtle and sexy film.
    The only film I have seen Kuzmina in is By the Bluest of Seas. It is a favourite film. One film I would like to see her in is Duel, which was made in 1961 and is based on the Chekhov story. I love Chekhov adaptations. Speaking of which, a favourite Chekhov film adaptation is Sirk’s Summer Storm. It is my favourite Sirk.
    I like Adjani in Elaine May’s great film Ishtar. I am a fan of May’s work. I love A New Leaf.
    Another sensual actress is Winna Winifried. She appears in Renoir’s La Nuit du carrefour. She never appeared in many films. I would love to know what became of her.
    Peter

  38. As I say, if there’s any way you can supply a copy of La Nuit de Carrefour, I know lots of people who are ulcerating to see it.

    Acquired Summer Storm from one of those people — still to watch it. Glad to hear it’s a good one. And finally got a copy of Ishtar recently.

    The film that takes most advantage of Adjani’s rare gift for hysteria is Possession, a truly bizarre experience. I’ve undertaken to write something about its director, Zulawski.

  39. Have you even written anything on Luc Besson’s Léon? It’s a film I like a lot.
    Peter

  40. I don’t MIND Leon… it’s probably the one Besson film I’ve seen that I can stand. But his horrible horrible Joan of Arc film puts me off seeing any more… If I liked some of his other work I’d revisit Leon and maybe get more out of it. But as things stand, his is not a sensibility I get along with, alas.

  41. Since you mentioned Carole Lombard, I cordially invite everyone to visit my classic Hollywood community, dedicated to her life and times and the people she knew and worked with:

    http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/

  42. Ha! Stunning list–I always enjoyed more of the character actors/actresses far more than the actual stars of the movies..soo- I def. see where your coming from..
    Although, I may be byist considering she’s my favorite actress, but I might just knock Agnes Moorehead right off this list…only because I’ve alwaysed admired her so much and find her to be very attractive. ;)
    Fabulous job though!

  43. Perhaps Moorehead should have the status of Chaplin: as Jean-Pierre Melville said, “you don’t put Chaplin on lists.”

  44. The wonderful Mary Wickes, Edna May Oliver, Gladys Cooper, Mildred Dunnock, Mildred Natwick, Beulah Bondi, Billie Burke and Elsa Lanchester should be added to the list.

  45. Oh yes, especially the Mildreds. I actually fancy the young Elsa, though, so she belongs on both lists.

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