Hope you like Jam’ Inn too…

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‘It is a wretched affair.’

Such was Daphne du Maurier’s verdict on JAMAICA INN, which must have left her anxious about what Hitchcock would do to her Rebecca. But at the time Hitch embarked upon this project for producer Erich Pommer (whose projects at UFA had done much to inspire the Hitchcock style), his first American movie looked like it was going to be TITANIC — an ill-omened project for a director who was going to have to sail across the Atlantic to make it. A more promising augury was the name of Pommer’s company: Mayflower.

Hitch blamed JAMAICA INN’s problems on Pommer and Charles Laughton, “two very difficult men,” and upon compromises forced upon the film by censorship. Du Maurier’s novel had to be ammended because the BBFC wouldn’t allow a clergyman to be a villain, which if you think about it points to the kind of insidious class prejudice that has always lurked behind film censorship: it was perfectly OK to have a villainous priest in the novel, which provoked no outrage, but in films, which are seen by those who don’t read books, such a concept was suddenly deemed dangerous.

My viewing experience got off to a shaky start when I belatedly found I didn’t possess a copy of the film — one of the perils that could jeopardise Hitchcock Year at any moment (reminder: we are watching all of Hitchcock’s films, one a week, for a year). Then I found my old VHS, which turns out to be a Rohauer Collection copy which means old Raymond R has been up to his old tricks and spliced a couple of hideous new title cards on front of the print. But apart from that, it seemed to be intact, apart from a disturbing moment when Laughton is bearing down on ingenue Maureen O’Hara and some seriously weird continuity suggests he’s attempted something unspeakable which the censor has frown upon. But they can’t censor the glint in his eye, as he once boasted.

I was kind of dreading this film. Even Charles Barr can’t find much to be enthusiastic about in English Hitchcock, my bible for this part of Hitchcock Year (every Hitch buff needs to acquire a copy). I first saw it with my late friend Lawrie, and we actually thought it was underrated. Then I watched it with Fiona, priming her for something better than its reputation suggests, and we both found it worse than even its reputation suggests. And that was only a year or two ago, so seeing it again seemed like a potential ordeal. On the other had, seeing it again after running every previous extant Hitchcock movie (I’m still annoyed that LORD CAMBER’S LADIES, his sole credit as producer for another filmmaker, is not available, and of course it’s tragic that THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE is lost) seemed like it might offer fresh insights or pleasures.

The movie can be enjoyed on at least one level: as a valediction to British cinema. At the time of THE LADY VANISHES, Hitch knew he wanted to move to America, but had not clinched a deal. By the time of JAMAICA INN, the emigration was virtually certain, and Hitch stuffs the film with actors from his previous work. Barr counts eleven, but with the aid of the IMDb I’m able to make it twelve. Given the patchy credits available for Hitch’s early films (who are the kids playing Nova Pilbeam’s brothers in YOUNG AND INNOCENT? We don’t know) it’s almost certain there are more.

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Frederick Piper had been the smutty milkman in THE 39 STEPS, the kindly, smithereened bus conductor in SABOTAGE, and a bit part (unspecified on the IMDb) in YOUNG AND INNOCENT — I’d guess a customer at the greasy spoon cafe.

A. Bromley Davenport was in LORD CAMBER’S LADIES, and George Curzon popped up in YOUNG AND INNOCENT and THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. William Fazan was a juror in MURDER! and also played a bit in YOUNG AND INNOCENT. Aubrey Mather was the greengrover in SABOTAGE, who suggests that Oscar Homolka has been showing films that are “a little too ‘ot!”

Basil Radford had an avuncular pert in YOUNG AND INNOCENT before achieving immortality as one half of Charters & Caldicott in THE LADY VANISHES. Leslie Banks, a slightly unsuitable hero in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, makes a suitable villain here.

The impression that Hitch is strolling down Memory Lane with his casting here is strengthened by the reappearance of Mr. Memory himself, Wylie Watson from THE 39 STEPS.

Emlyn Williams, intriguing and underused in this film, had contributed as a writer to THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, a role that hadn’t even gotten him introduced to Hitchcock. Edwin Greenwood was likewise better known as a writer (and director), and had contributed to the scripts for THE MAN WHO and LORD CAMBER’S LADIES.

Marie Ault, uncredited here as a coach passenger, had played major roles in THE LODGER (as the landlady) and THE RAT, an early Ivor Novello film upon which Hitch and Alma worked together.

John Longden had been of service to Hitchcock since BLACKMAIL, in which he’s the leading man. He provided a cameo in ELSTREE CALLING, was one of only two non-Irish players in JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK, and was a supporting cast member in THE SKIN GAME and YOUNG AND INNOCENT. Here he’s uncredited as the coachman, but he’d continue to play small roles for Michael Powell — it’s his voice you hear at the beginning of A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH — the greatest thing Longden ever did as an actor. “This is the universe…”

Clare Greet was the fortune teller in THE RING, the mother in THE MANXMAN, a juror in MURDER!, a conspirator-in-bloomers in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, and Sylvia Sidney’s cook in SABOTAGE, all colourful roles that enhanced the world of Hitchcock’s films. She’s also in LORD CAMBER’S LADIES, but she goes all the way back to NUMBER THIRTEEN, Hitchcock’s first, lost, and probably never-completed short. JAMAICA INN was her last film.

So this really is a sort of compendium of Hitchcockian bit-part players. If he’d managed to cast Gordon Harker it wouldn’ve been perfect: CHAMPAGNE and THE FARMER’S WIFE are two of the few Hitch films not represented above. RICH AND STRANGE, DOWNHILL, EASY VIRTUE, NUMBER 17, WALTZES FROM VIENNA, SECRET AGENT and the two German productions are the others. Mostly films Hitchcock had problems with, either because he didn’t like them, or they flopped. Throw in Percy Marmont and Hitch himself and nearly every Hitch film could’ve been represented here.

And the valedictory aspect of the film is strengthened by the fact that I don’t think anoy of these actors, to whom Hitch had been quite loyal, ever worked with him again. Of all the people in this movie, ironically it was only Laughton who returned, in THE PARADINE CASE.

The preceeding passages are dedicated to Diarmid Mogg of The Unsung Joe, the interweb’s finest resource for bit-part player stories.

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A young girl from Ireland (Maureen O’Hara) comes to stay with relatives in Cornwall and uncovers a gang of wreckers, led by the local squire (Charles Laughton).

A digression on the art of wrecking: Interestingly, I once heard that there’s no evidence that wrecking — the deliberate luring of ships onto rocky straits for piratical purposes — ever took place. Since I can’t imagine any crime being conceived without there being somebody loathsome enough to carry it out, I have to assume that wrecking simply isn’t practical. Of course, you could crash a ship that way — my old friend Lawrie was on a boat in WWII and they accidentally lined up, not on the harbour lights as they thought, but on the lights of a moving car. Ended up in the middle of a coastal road. But maybe the problem is getting to the cargo after the ship has foundered. If the ship is sinking, you’re not going to manage it. If the ship isn’t sinking, the crew will likely stay aboard and cause you problems…

Running the movie for the third time, I was really  impressed by it. Perhaps you have to notice and be annoyed by all the things that are wrong with it in order to get past that and appreciate its considerable virtues. The things that are wrong with it include ~

An unsuitable leading man. This kind of thing had plagued Hitchcock throughout his British period. The UK talent pool was just not that full of suitably dashing male leads, and actors were often chosen who had succeeded in the theatre, where the requirements are a bit different. Here we get Robert Newton, who would have been fiercely compelling as a vicious wrecker, but is somewhat muted as a dashing secret agent. He’s just too repellent, physically, even though his nose is not yet fully radioactive with booze. In any case, the hero plays third banana to the heroine and the villain in this one, so I guess top stars would not have been attracted to the part.

Implausibilities. These seem more bothersome in a period romp than they would be in a nightmarish contemporary thriller. When conjuring a historical world onscreen, it seems to help if the filmmakers pay attention to niceties, and Hitch certainly damages the credibility of the characters by having Newton foolishly allow his rowing boat to drift away, or by letting O’Hara escape a crowd of bandits just by sneaking off when their backs are turned.

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The gratuitous. In a fairly tight film (even if marred by too many escapes and recaptures) it’s a surprise when the film pauses to allow a captured young wrecker throw a fit of hysterics. “I’m too young to hang!” He’s a character we haven’t even noticed before. What’s he doing here? One can only assume he was somebody’s boyfriend.

Declining tension. In a complex plot of cross and double-cross, the most satisfying ending is the one which, like the famous climax of NORTH BY NORTHWEST, wraps things up neatly. But JAMAICA INN spends an unconscionable amount of time in the third act having the heroes repeatedly win — first the menacing Leslie Banks (I admired his ability to hurl trunks upstairs) is converted to the cause of good, and then killed. Then the wreckers are rounded up. Now all that’s left is to catch Charles Laughton, who has conveniently gone mad. He’s abducted Maureen, and intends to whisk her to the continent, but that won’t do, you see  — a climax depends upon imminent peril, not longterm possible jeopardy. Consider: supposing Laughton succeeds and takes Maureen away with him. What then? At some point in the future, she may escape. Our palms remain dry.

Trapped aboard ship by the military, Laughton aims his flintlock at O’Hara. This is more like it. But he soon abandons this plan and climbs the rigging. Now O’Hara calls for the men not to shoot, because Laughton is insane and not responsible. Are we supposed to be rooting for Laughton at this point? The big chap leaps to his death and —

–t he other great observation Charles Barr makes is about the ending of this film, comparing Barbara Harris’s wink at the end of FAMILY PLOT, the final Hitchcock movie, with the last gesture of JAMAICA INN — Horace Hodges, as Laughton’s butler, stares at his fallen master and shakes his head sadly. Both gestures are intended more for the audience’s benefit than for anyone else in the movie, and so if we take Hodges’ shake as Hitchcock’s comment on his British period, or at least this movie, it becomes an amusing and cynical put-down by the departing master.

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But, weighed against the above weaknesses are many notable strengths, from the Germanic design (the Inn seems to be melting in the rain) to O’Hara’s perf, for which the word “feisty” would be all too inadequate (she barely flinches when Emlyn Williams tears open her top [Emlyn Williams? Are you sure?]) and of course Laughton himself. 

Although ~ the great man’s makeup never really stopped annoying me. Both he and Banks sport thick dirty eyebrows which aren’t where they ought to be, and Laughton’s strange plastic forehead meets his owl’s beak nose in a big wrinkle which creases up in moments of high emotion and then stays like that when he relaxes. It’s a film of queer makeups. Emlyn Williams’s five O’clock shadow just looks like somebody’s turned the brightness down on his chin.

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But the actual acting from Charles defies his ludicrous appearance, and dialogue wiz Sidney Gilliat (in sadly his only job for Hitch apart from the sublime LADY VANISHES) provides “Sir Humphrey Pengallon” with some fine fruity speeches. When Banks tells him of the sailors who were butchered to facilitate the theft of some plush fabric, he retorts, “Well what have they to live for, poor scum, you were right to put them out of their misery. Look at this exquisite stuff, worth the miserable lives of a thousand rum-rotten sailors, perfection of its own kind. That’s all that matters, Merlyn, whatever is perfect of its kind. I’d transport all the riff-raff in Bristol to Botany Bay to save one beautiful woman a single headache. Something you don’t understand, never will. Because you’re neither a philosopher nor a gentleman.” Laughton’s phrasing is magnificent, running sentences together, as I’ve tried to suggest in my transcription. Also, he makes the speech while sauntering around the room, caressing the fabric and then holding his arms aloft as if to either flex his biceps like a bodybuilder or dance the tarantella. It’s arresting.

Along with the things that are right and the things that are wrong with the film (and the bad things are mainly in the last third, which explains why people tend to remember the film with such slight affection), there are the things which are not wrong with it. Hitchcock was concerned that revealing Laughton to be the villain would surprise nobody, and he’s right. But he solves the problem nicely — Sir Humph is practically introduced as villain, a debauched nobleman calling for his “figurine” (not sure I can explain that one — you just have to see it). Hitch then plays the dramatic irony for all its worth, as O’Hara and Newton put their faith in Sir H and he stabs them in the back at his leisure.

The rich supporting cast also offers many pleasures. Marie Ney gets the most emotional scenes, as Banks’s put-upon wife. Intriguingly, the absuive relationship is neatly mirrored by Laughton’s interactions with his long-suffering butler. The wreckers are a fabulous assortment of swine and psychopaths, with Salvation Watkins (Wylie Watson), the religious zealot and career criminal, getting many of the best lines, and Mervyn Johns and Morland Graham also effectively grotesque. Emlyn Williams is really striking, even with the strange dark-glowing designer stubble and an accent that fluctuates from the Welsh valleys to Cornwall by way of Bow Street.

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JAMAICA INN, I’ve come to realise, is no disgrace. Through Maureen O’Hara (by far the toughest Hitchcock heroine), we could write about Hitchcock getting in touch with his Irish roots again, and through Laughton we could examine issues of class in Hitchcock. Laughton is also the first major character in a Hitchcock film who looks somewhat like Hitch, and possibly something could be made of that. But I’m content to remark that the film has a lot more on its side than I had previously thought.

21 Responses to “Hope you like Jam’ Inn too…”

  1. david wingrove Says:

    I’ve always been afraid to watch this film, mainly because I enjoyed the Daphne du Maurier novel and had always understood the film was a complete travesty. The two things I found most striking in the book were…

    – the villainous clergyman

    – the lesbian subtexts (a recurring theme in Daphne’s writing)

    …and I couldn’t imagine how either of these would fare in a British film of the 30s. Still, I do need to steel myself and watch it at some point.

    Any idea what Maureen O’Hara thinks of this film? She’s still a feisty lady at 90-odd, and I’d love to know what she has to say.

  2. Have you ever read Emlyn Williams’ book on the Moors Murders, “Beyond Belief”? it’s quite something. As I turst you knowformNight Must Fall Williams had a thing for serial killers, having fallen in love with one in his younger days.

  3. Does the first volume of Williams autobio deal with this amour fou? If so, I must get ahold of it.

    I read Beyond Belief as part of my research for a serial killer script. Incredibly compelling stuff. While Williams’ interest may not have been “pure” (how can we ever be sure) the book has a strong moral focus that shuts out undue salaciousness. And it’s brilliantly written.

    I’ve never seen the play performed but I’m very keen on Night must Fall, both movies encourage career-high perfs from their psycho leads. If I could travel back in time I’d love to see Williams play the part.

    Hitch’s film alas contains NO villainous clergyman (but we get Laughton’s randy squire) and NO lesbian subtexts (between whom?), so once you know not to expect them, maybe you can enjoy what’s there, a bit. Although given how heterosexualised Laughton and Williams’ characters are, you might find that a bit tiresome too.

  4. Am I alone in thinking that that Emlyn Williams photo, designer stubble and all, resembles Prince (or whatever the “Purple Rain” maestro is called this week)?

    I seem to remember its being alleged, also, that O’Hara took on a certain “Psychopathia Sexualis” glow in the latter scenes where she’s within Laughton’s clutches. As to whether that’s true or not … it’s been too long since my last viewing for me to say.

  5. “The Artist formerly known as Emlyn.”

    The scenes where Laughton takes O’Hara away with him, bound and gagged, with the intention of marrying her in France (where bound brides are seen as parfaitement normale) have a certain kinky edge, but I don’t think O’Hara is a willing party to any suggestiveness.

  6. David W., I wrote this film up a long time and touched upon O’Hara’s opinion of it, which wasn’t high despite her very great regard for Laughton and her knowledge of Hitchcock’s genius. She said, basically, that Hitchcock was phoning it in. (You can read the whole thing at the link.)

    David, your post on this is a good deal more perceptive, generous and thorough than mine. I had loved Jamaica Inn in girlhood and was a bit irked it didn’t transfer very well to film. It’s quite a sexy book and you’re right, Newton is hopelessly miscast.

  7. I like your piece, I think all your points are justified. I’d only read a little quote by O’Hara on the film, and what Gloria had told me. Hitchcock seems to have been dismayed by Laughton’s whole approach (a bit like Sternberg before him), which was fairly unique in those pre-method days. “He said to me, ‘I’m going to play this scene like a little boy who’s wet his pants.'”

    As for phoning it in, it’s definitely not prime Hitchcock, but then he often seemed disengaged on the set, having done his work beforehand. Many reports have him nodding off before a take, throughout his career. Joel McCrea even talks of him snoozing DURING a take. “Cut!” yelled Joel at the end. “How was it?” asked Hitch, stirring lazily. “Best in the picture!” declared McCrea. “Print it!” cried Hitch, fully satisfied.

    This may not be 100% true…

  8. david wingrove Says:

    The lesbian subtexts in the novel JAMAICA INN are far less pronounced than those in REBECCA (what isn’t?) and centre mainly on Mary’s disgust at the sexual hold her uncle seems to have over her aunt. At several points in the book, she fantasises about running off with her aunt and living as two free women together – untainted by the company of men!

    Hardly Mrs. Danvers, I know…but it will have to do.

  9. Well, I guess that’s still there in the movie, but it doesn’t read as lesbian subtext. I think the best way to enjoy the movie is to forget the book, if possible. Or to never have seen it. Fiona, who watched it a while ago right after reading the book, hated it.

  10. Thanks for the dedication, and the roll call of actors is excellent! I may steal the approach at a later date…

  11. You’re welcome. Feel free!

  12. Kudos for your heading, groan-inducing as it is. Your punning-headings make me smile, David. Bob Marley AND Laurie Anderson now. I had friends in The Sunday Post who used to vie with each other to see how many song titles they could shoehorn into football match report headlines (“St Johnstone rock this town”).

    What next? I challenge you.

  13. I’m quite pleased with the title of my upcoming review of Red Eye, but you have to read the piece for it to make sense. That’ll probably go out next week. Need to get a good title for my Rebecca piece. I reject “Things to do in Danvers when you’re dead” and “Now is DeWinter of our discontent.” Not sophisticated enough for a man of my taste.

  14. Thanks for the great post, I’ve been reading and re-reading it, and then reaidng it again. There’s one funny thing about Pommer: being the father of film expressionism -of sorts-, it seems that he had a very difficult time with Hitchcock, to the point that Laughton had to soften Hitchcock by mentioning that Pommer was a refugee (he wasn’t exaggerating: Pommer left Germany with practically just his clothes on: all his money was held back in Nazi Germany, without him having a chance to recover it)

    I must thank you again for keeping a balance between the participants: I am a great fan of Hitchcock’s work, and over the years I was dismayed that whenever Jamaica Inn was discussed by critics, it was generally a session of Laughton-bashing: one point being the changes in the original story, which were not prompted by Laughton, but by censors. In other circumstances, Laughton would have sent the censors to fry asparagus -as we say here-, but the previous Mayflower films had not worked well in the box-office, and JI was Laughton and Pommer’s last bet to save the company (even though JI’s eventual benefits actually went to CL and EP’s financial partner, John Maxwell), therefore, if censorship could hinder the film’s distribution, they had no option but avoid the troublesome points of the story. I wonder, though, why censors had no trouble whatsoever with the naughty bondage bits of business by the end of the picture…

    The sad thing is, that even though JI was more successful than its Mayflower predecessors, it didn’t save the company from shutting its doors: Laughton and Pommer were financially saved by a job offer from RKO: If Laughton returned to work in the USA in 1939 it wasn’t because he didn’t like working in English films, but because, heck, he had to cope with debts first.

    Re Emlyn Williams (the artist formerly known as George ;p), it’s likely he got his part because of his connection with Laughton: they had been friends since 1929, when they both acted in O’Casey’s “The Silver Tassie” (in fact, Emlyn was a sort of a bit-parter then, and he got promotion thanks to Laughton).

    Re leading men: Well, there’s Robert Donat who could have been good as the cover agent! He had worked with Hitchcock and was a good friend of Laughton… But possibly he was busy at the time doing Mr. Chips.

    And last but not least, Sir Humphrey looks to me like one of the many acting attacks Laughton launched against the Upper Classes he had suffered as an student in a Public School… Even though, as Pengallan, CL was every bit the aesthete.

    OK, not to get too long with this… I’ll probably have to make a post about it sometime soon (there’s a priceless anecdote by Charles’ brother, briefly referred to by Simon Callow). I hope that you and Campaspe won’t mind me linking to yer blogs there ;D

  15. By all means!

    I get the impression — looking at stuff like old Superman comics — that often kinky stuff like bondage & sm imagery was simply not recognised as sexual by the censors, and so escaped cutting.

    Donat and Hitchcock always wanted to work together again, but Donat was much in demand, and rather indecisive, so it kept failing to happen. The leading man role here is not a very enticing one, being secondary to both the heroine and the villain.

    Hitchcock certainly was class-conscious too, as a lower-middle class boy with a public school upbringing (a lot like Laughton) — certainly the movie seems to have invented Sir Humph as aesthete and snob supreme. Screenwriter Gilliat had a rep as something of a leftwing firebrand in those days, too (he later turned more conservative, possibly as a result of having to fight the unions as a producer-director).

    You’re right re the Laughton-Williams connection. Quite recently, they had both starred in Sternberg’s abortive I Claudius, with Williams amazing as a “slightly sissy” Caligula. Also Hitchcock, an avid theatre-goer, may have seen Williams onstage — he himself had made an O’Casey adaptation.

    I’ve never seen Pommer’s only film as director, The Beachcomber, starring Laughton…

  16. CL and AF have even ANOTHER link, and maybe more defining: they were both schooled at Jesuit schools. I must have a photo of both when they were working in JI, and it’s pretty a “separated at birth” image. As for the differences, Hitchcock seems to have been straight (if rather twisted about it), also young Alfred must have been fatter than young Charles (it was his extra weight which kept him from being conscripted, while Charlie found uniforms of his size and was eventually sent to teh front)

    The Beachcomber/Vessel of Wrath is quite interesting, a bit of “The African Queen” before its time, and one of the rare occasions in which Elsa Lanchester had an actual leading role in a film.

    The only copy I’ve seen of Beachcomber is an old american VHS release which had obviously been transferred from a 16 mm copy, and not a very good one (there were sudden cuts here and there): I hope to watch a good copy of the film sometime.

    As for naughtiness in old comics escaping censorship, there’s an amazing amount of blogs which (part or full-time) are devoted to catch awkward moments in old comics: sometimes it’s just a pannel intentionally taken out of context, but then there are a lot of them which are pretty in context and quite surprising to watch today. The innuendo about Batman and Robin is a web classic

  17. Moral guardian Frederick Wertham (who once interviewed a guarded Hitchcock) wrote slaveringly about the Batman-Robin relationship as a “homosexual’s dream of domesticity.”

    I think I might have a copy of The Beachcomber about somewhere, I wonder how good/bad it is.

    Hitch seems to have ballooned at some point around the time he entered movies — there are pictures of him as a relatively willowy youth with a fuzz of moustache. I blame on-set catering.

  18. Hum… Your statement about the looks of younger Alfred just got me doubting. The information on him not being conscripted because of “being too fat” I read in the Spoto biography on him and apparently comes from Don Alfredo himself. According to Hitchcock, he was sorely dissapointed and joined a volunteer Engineers unit to make up for it. Still, Henley was a Telegraph company: was it considered vital to the war effort? If so, it’s not unlikely a skilled worker in that field may have been spared.

    (I wonder if the story of being rejected because of his weight was made up later by AF)

  19. Just looked at one of my Hitchcock docs for confirmation. The moustache pic shows him already married and very portly. There’s a profile shot of his face from slightly earlier where he LOOKS thinner but you can’t be certain. I wouldn’t be surprised if he ballooned upon marrying Alma, as often happens. A certain relaxation, coupled with all those home-cooked meals…

    But more research is required!

  20. So be it!

    Unless the fat or lean youth of Don Alfredo is confirmed (or refuted), the one thin Hitchcock we can resort to is the one in the newspaper ad in “Lifeboat” ;P

  21. His weight does rise and fall over the years. He got fed up with it around the time of Shadow of a Doubt, leading to the diet immortalised in Lifeboat.

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