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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. VII, No. 1
Spring, 1983



Eugene O'Neill's association with film has a long history. It probably goes back as far as 1912—the epochal year in O'Neill's life—when his father made a silent film of his perennial play The Count of Monte Cristo for the Famous Players Film Company.1 The intention of the two young film producers, Adolph Zukor and Daniel Frohman, was to make a five-reel adaptation of the Dumas classic; and they had great hopes that their work would be a critical and financial success. Unfortunately, this first foray into what the senior O'Neill called "the flickers" was marked with disagreement and disappointment two things that would plague O'Neill's own experiences with the medium. Prior to the release of the film, another version of the same work was distributed, taking some of the attention away from O'Neill's rendition. The younger O'Neill must have been aware of these events because during 1912 he was living with his family in New London, having returned with them from a nationwide tour with Monte Cristo.

However unpleasant the experience with the silent film might have been for his father, it apparently did not dampen O'Neill's own interest in the form—at least in the monetary rewards it seemed to offer. A familiar advertisement appearing in New London newspapers in 1912 promised that "We are selling photoplays written by people who never before wrote a line for publication."2 Although O'Neill, in a letter, called such writing "prostitution of the Art of Playwriting by Photo-play composition,"3 between 1912 and 1914 he made several unsuccessful attempts to sell scripts.

After 1914 O'Neill's interests and energies were directed elsewhere. From 1916, when Bound East for Cardiff was presented on the Wharf Theatre in Provincetown, to 1920, when Beyond the Horizon and The Emperor Jones brought him his first Pulitzer Prize and critical attention as the leading voice in American theatre, the Provincetown Players mounted eleven O'Neill plays. His emergence as a dramatist made him a likely source of scripts for the budding film industry, eager to capitalize on O'Neill's growing reputation. Although tentatively at first, Hollywood began to court a still receptive O'Neill.

If anything, O'Neill's enthusiasm for the film medium had grown since his early attempts at screen writing. In 1921 he saw Wiene's expressionistic film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. "Wonderful possibilities I had never dreamed of before," he announced after the viewing.4 He was equally enthusiastic when, eight years later in Paris, he saw and heard his first "talkie," Broadway Melody. In a letter to George Jean Nathan, he wrote that the new form "could set me free in so many ways." Yet O'Neill struck a sombre note when he added, "Not that the 'Talky' folks are ever liable to let me realize any of my dreams."5

These words were written in 1929, after O'Neill had already fought skirmishes over what some critics considered shocking material in The Great God Brown, Desire Under the Elms, and Strange Interlude. However, his interest in seeing his works reach the screen is indicated by his own attempts to alter what might be considered offensive sections of his plays in order to create acceptable adaptations. Two years earlier he had written screen treatments of The Hairy Ape and Desire Under the Elms, clearly attempting in both to delete any material that could be objectionable to a film audience. In the latter, for instance, he altered the original to make Abbie Putnam not the stepmother but the housekeeper in the Cabot home, removing both the seduction of Eben and the birth and subsequent murder of the child of this coupling. However, neither of the vitiated scripts was bought by filmmakers.6

He had already sold one play, Anna Christie, to Hollywood and had found the silent 1923 film, produced by Thomas H. Ince and starring Blanche Sweet, a "delightful surprise...remarkably well acted and directed, and in spirit an absolutely faithful transcript."7 In all, twelve films would be made of ten O'Neill plays—Anna Christie and Ah, Wilderness! receiving two treatments each—yet O'Neill would not find such satisfaction again in film versions of his works.8 By 1943, when he finally sold The Hairy Ape for the screen—without his own adaptation—he complained, "I didn't want to sell because I knew no one in Hollywood had the guts to film my play, do it as symbolic expressionism as it should be done, and not censor it into imbecility, or make it a common realistic stoker story."9 In the same letter he said, "I've never liked having distorted pictures made of my plays."10

For the most part, the history of O'Neill on film has been just that: a history of distortion, with Hollywood focusing on the conventional, mundane elements in the stories, deleting much of the visual and verbal power in the name of expediency and clarity, and either censoring or laundering the most symbolic and expressionistic elements so that they would fit into a realistic mode.

Two examples of the tendency to rework O'Neill plays are found in the Eugene O'Neill papers at the Barrett Library of the University of Virginia: the film treatments of O'Neill's dramatic monologues Before Breakfast and The Emperor Jones, both adapted by film director Dudley Murphy.11 They indicate the liberties taken with the original plays and, in the case of The Emperor Jones, the effects such alterations had on the resulting film.

In April 1929, Murphy, then a director with such credits as Confessions of a Co-ed and The Sport Parade, wrote the following interdepartmental memo to the heads of RCA Photophone:

In selecting Eugene O'Neill's [sic] "Before Breakfast" as material for a sound picture, I was intrigued by the possibilities for showing off-stage noises to note the action which is taking place.

I think it offers a very interesting chance to show the magnificent qualities of our device, and in making the picture I want to lay particular stress on the perfection of these offstage sounds. Properly done they will convey what is taking place outside the range of the camera. This coupled with the exploitive possibilities of Eugene O'Neill's name ... will make this a worthy experiment. It will be novel and powerful, possibly more of a prestige picture than a definite box-office undertaking.

In 1928 Strange Interlude had opened on Broadway and become a hit, eventually running sixteen months. It brought O'Neill's name to the attention of the general public more than his earlier successes had, and made him a potential financial draw for the fledgling talking pictures. The degree of fame—or perhaps notoriety—was indicated in 1929 when Groucho Marx, in Animal Crackers, referred to having "a strange interlude," assuming that his audience would understand the implied reference to O'Neill. This reputation explains Murphy's desire to produce a film with the O'Neill name—even if spelled incorrectly. As his letter indicates, however, he was less interested in the words of the now-famous author than in the peripheral noises that would test the new aural powers of talking pictures. Such an attitude underlines his film treatment of Before Breakfast—one that totally inverts O'Neill's characters, relationships, and intentions in the play. In the two scenes Murphy adds, he succeeds in writing a script diametrically opposed to the tone of the original.

Before Breakfast is not O'Neill at his best. It is an early work that was first performed by the Provincetown Players on their third bill of the 1916-17 season. It starred Mary Pyne as the shrewish wife and—in what has become one of its most notable features—Eugene O'Neill as the husband. All that is seen of the suffering man is his shaking hand that appears momentarily through a crack in the door.12 Since the husband says nothing in this two character drama, the work is classified as a dramatic monologue, spoken by the wife, who is alone on stage waiting for her husband to emerge from the bedroom before breakfast. O'Neill, in the stage directions, describes her as "slovenly" and "characterless" with a "weak and spiteful mouth."13 She sets up a vitriolic plaint about their financial troubles brought on, she says, by her husband's preoccupation with poetry. O'Neill makes her self-serving and whining, as she berates her husband for his work and goads him about his mistress, who is about to have a child. "And you can't get a divorce from me and you know it," she gloats as she creates a grotesque picture of their past marital life.14 There is no attempt on O'Neill's part to be evenhanded; his sympathies are totally with the disembodied male. Even the description of his hand is positive: "It is a sensitive hand with slender fingers."15 There is also no attempt at dramatic motivation or development, no depth to the depictions. The play is a tour de force, with the droning voice of the woman literally driving her husband to suicide.

In Murphy's adaptation, the play is skewed not toward the husband as O'Neill intended but toward the wife. Rather than a harridan, she is a pathetic, suffering creature, unable to understand her husband's poetry and outside his group of "Village types." In his emphasis on the bohemian setting, Murphy is trading on more than the O'Neill name; he is also pandering to public curiosity about life in Greenwich Village and the supposed eccentricities of O'Neill, the Provincetown Players, and others who were the subjects of articles in popular journals of the time.

Murphy adds two scenes at the beginning of the film to establish the sympathetic portrayal of the wife and the Village lifestyle that thwarts her. In O'Neill's play the action, as the title indicates, takes place "before breakfast." In the proposed screen treatment, it starts in the late afternoon of the preceding day. The scene is the same in both works: a cheap Greenwich Village flat. However, as he indicated in his letter, Murphy alters the atmosphere by including various sounds not present in the original. First, he introduces a sentimental song, playing on a cheap phonograph, which is to run throughout the picture. In counterpoint, in the first scene, he offers the monotonous hum of a sewing machine, upon which the wife is working when the action begins. The husband is first seen, seated at the cluttered kitchen table, writing "possibly a poem of E. E. Cummings from 'Is 5,'" Murphy suggests. Distracted by the noise, he is unable to concentrate and lashes out at his wife as he leaves the apartment. Instead of showing her insensitivity—as O'Neill clearly intended—Murphy portrays her as a victim, a sad figure who "stands helplessly with a little pathetic gesture of her hands" as he leaves the room.

The mood is intensified in the second added scene, set in a familiar Greenwich Village club, Romany Marie's. The scene relies on conventional, familiar, stock images of bohemian life. Murphy has a "greasy, long-haired guitar player," a table with "a candle which has been burning for years," the husband reading his poetry to "the sympathetic ears of two Village types," and all—but the poor wife engaged in "aesthetic conversation." When the guitarist stops playing, the wife delivers the following line, a paraphrase of which will be immortalized by another woman in another bar several years later: "Put a record on, Otto." As she lures her unwilling husband to the dance floor, "we can see her almost radiant happiness and contentment as she has him in her arms."

The two scenes provide a prologue to O'Neill's play. Murphy states that from this point on the film will follow the original script. To explain the discrepancy between the words the wife will subsequently speak and the characters that have been established in the added scenes, he indicates that she is to say her lines almost against her will, as if they are being wrenched from her. It is probably fortunate that the project was never completed.16 It is hard to imagine how the play as O'Neill wrote it, and the film as Murphy conceived it, could have been synchronized. Wrenching can go only so far.

One can guess why Murphy felt constrained to shift the sympathies from the husband to the wife. In 1929, the film audience and the critics would hardly have sided with a profligate husband and a pregnant mistress against a young wife, herself ensnared in a similar manner by a "Village type"—a son of a millionaire to boot—who did nothing but write poetry, especially the poetry of E. E. Cummings. The changes are examples of the filmmaker's need to alter questionable material, even to the point of resulting incongruity with the original, in order to make the final film conform to general societal standards. This is exactly the "imbecility" O'Neill decried.

Even as O'Neill wrote it, Before Breakfast is a weak play, a preliminary exercise for the great dramatic monologue he was to write in 1920, The Emperor Jones.l7 While Hollywood did not indicate interest in Jones when it was first mounted by the Province-town in 1933, in the flush of O'Neill's growing reputation after Strange Interlude and Mourning Becomes Electra, John Krimsky and Gifford Cochran bought it for the screen.18 It starred Paul Robeson in the role of Brutus Jones, featured Dudley Digges as Smithers, and was adapted by DuBose Heyward and directed by Dudley Murphy.

In the Virginia archives, along with the Before Breakfast scenario, there is an undated script of The Emperor Jones which says on the title page, "Treatment by Dudley Murphy, registered." It is not clear if this version of the film preceded the Heyward adaptation or if it could be an early Heyward working script, perhaps the one O'Neill first saw and approved when Heyward visited him in Sea Island, Georgia, prior to the filming of the work.19 In either case, the Murphy-credited work is appreciably different both from O'Neill's original play and from the film version that eventually reached the screen. It, like the film, reduces the "symbolic expressionism"—as O'Neill called the technique in reference to The Hairy Ape—to a flat, realistic rendering of the material, the fate O'Neill anticipated for his "stoker tale."

Murphy's treatment is shorter, less detailed, and less divergent than the later script, perhaps indicating the process that this film—and other O'Neill films—may have followed: from small shifts to more detailed alterations, moving further away from the original with each revision. Whereas in the completed picture Brutus Jones is given a very detailed biography, complete with family, friends, lovers, and sufficient motivation for each action, Murphy concentrates on universalizing the hero, making him not a specific individual but part of a general cultural ferment. Before the action begins, the camera is placed "low on a railroad track" running across a flat plain "such as exists between South Bend and Elkhart." From this vantage point, it captures the rapidly approaching image of the great train—the Twentieth Century Ltd.—roaring into focus. With a crescendo of sound, it roars over the camera, and there is an immediate lap dissolve to the interior of the train car where we find Brutus Jones, porter, who "with imperial bearing" listens attentively as he is schooled in the ways of modern success: double dealing corruption, and questionable activities. He is a good student of able teachers. By focusing initially on the milieu of deceit that spawned Jones, Murphy presents his hero as product of an era, the twentieth century, rather than as an example of a unique aberration of power. From this opening, Murphy moves the script to the interior of the Baptist church in Harlem, where Jones leads the singing with such power that he is given a contract to sing at Small's Paradise, the setting of Scene 3. It is in the back room of the famous Harlem nightclub that Jones gambles and engages in a fight that leaves a man dead. The following scene shows him, condemned to life imprisonment, working on a chain gang, the rhythmic bass of the nightclub drum replaced by the hammers that "beat a monotonous tempo on stone and steel." Jones refuses to follow orders and is about to attack a guard when there is another lap dissolve. Murphy indicates that the rest of the film will exactly follow O'Neill's original play.

This version is shorter than the one credited to Heyward, whose script provides a detailed—far too detailed—scenario of Jones's life after his escape from prison, leaving no possible lapses in the narrative unexplained: how Jones gets his leg chains removed, how he travels to the island sanctuary, how he meets Smithers, rises to power, cajoles the natives, eventually becomes installed as their king, and sows the seeds of his fall in his brutal handling of his subjects and in his self-created mythology of his invulnerability. John Orlandello, in his discussion of the film in O'Neill On Film, estimates that of the 72 minutes of playing time in the film, 45 minutes are given over to material O'Neill never wrote.20

The film begins with the sound of drums and the view of a native dance over the credits. Jones's primitive, superstitious nature and the locale of his kingdom are thus established. When he is first seen, juxtaposed to the congregants in the Baptist church, he is shown with a woman, a sign for the sexual motif that develops in the first part of the film. Heyward provides three women as love objects, two of whom engage in a fight over the attentions of Jones. Heyward also personalizes Jones's relation to Jeff, the man he kills in the gambling scene, the murder becoming less an impersonal act of anger than a personal vindication of a jealous squabble. Another change that Heyward makes in the script is in the prison scene, where Jones is given a motivation for attacking the guard: he has been asked to hit another prisoner and chooses, instead, to hit the guard. Heyward may have been conscious of the need in the 1930s to offer something other than simple oppression as motivation for a black to vent his anger on a white and the institution he represents.21

Although the unfilmed Murphy version takes fewer liberties with the original since it stops short of filling in all the holes in the realistic structure, it does share the final version's adherence to explanation, particularly to visual rendering of the expository suggestions made by Jones in the first scene of the play. By doing so, both screen treatments undercut O'Neill's work by loading it with concrete images, thus making the central visions of the forest flight mere flashbacks. Having actually shown the scenes Jones only alludes to in the play version, the film condemns the mental images--the heart of O'Neill's drama—to irrelevancies. In his notes to the script, Murphy speaks about the revolutionary new way he will show the visions of Jones's mind. Yet in the final version of the film, they are the weakest part of the work.22 Coming as they do so late in a film which has been uncompromisingly realistic in its detailed treatment of events, they seem almost ludicrous, bearing none of the terror and symbolism intended by the original. Robeson's fine acting would have made his mental disintegration believable if the director and script writer had chosen to let the play, as O'Neill intended, focus on the inner skullscape of the hero, instead of on the societal forces and personal biographical details that brought him to his dark night of the soul.

Just as O'Neill predicted when he commented on the similar fate that awaited his expressionistic The Hairy Ape, the experimental core was sacrificed in the name of cinematic realism. And as O'Neill also understood, such a dilution of his work bore a central irony. It was through the medium of film that he believed his greatest possibilities might be realized, since it provided a vehicle that could technically free him from the confines of the stage. Even with the almost magical qualities achieved by the addition of the dome to the miniscule stage of the Provincetown Playhouse, where The Emperor Jones was first mounted, the stage was hampered in depicting the nuances of Jones's states of consciousness, something O'Neill wished emphasized in production. In fact, the very stage directions of The Emperor Jones seem to have been written with the screen in mind. Edward Murray, in his book The Cinematic Imagination, points to such filmic techniques as quick dissolves, close ups and panning shots of terrain to indicate the cinematic eye of the playwright in the composition of the work.23 Often O'Neill mentions details—"eyes have an obsessed glare"—that a theatre audience would not be able to see.

With such built-in cinematic elements in the original, one would think that the transition from stage to film would be simple and swift. Ironically, Murray concludes that the very cinematic nature of The Emperor Jones precludes a successful transposition between media: "the play as a whole proved too theatrically stylized for successful picturization."24 He uses as proof the difficulties in the film version, particularly in the imbalance between the long realistic opening and the short expressionistic handling of the original play, tacked on at the end of the film. Rather than citing the distortions in form that occurred in the screen treatment of the original, Murray faults O'Neill for writing a play too "stylized" to allow for adaptation to film.

The O'Neill plays that can be best rewritten as film scripts, says Murray, are those that are solely of one mode, preferably realistic. He cites the example of Long Day's Journey Into Night, which he calls the most successful film of an O'Neill play. Since it is totally realistic—or at least so Murray assumes—it poses none of the problems Jones offered. A "mixed form," such as The Iceman Cometh would not make a good film, he says, precisely because of the need to blend realism with what he calls "philosophical abstractions." Murray wrote his book in 1973 and therefore did not have the opportunity of seeing the film version of Iceman, a version equally as successful as Long Day's Journey Into Night. The strength of that film does not lie in its adherence to realism over what Murray sees as allegory, but rather in its ability to capture the duality of the two spheres, as O'Neill intended.25

It is in a balance of styles that the tensions and power of an O'Neill play reside. Jose Quintero, the theatrical director who has often staged O'Neill's works on the American stage, recognized the centrality of the dual mood that must be captured in the direction of an O'Neill work:

Every time I have done any of his plays I have had a sense of existing in two entirely separate kinds of realities: the commonplace, photographic reality and the interior reality of fantasy. I think the struggle of these two realities—where the impossible can happen among the commonplace, where the figures become regal, monumental, and totally equipped for tragedy gives that unbelievable tension to his works.26

Unfortunately, film versions of O'Neill's plays have usually not sought the middle ground between reality and—to use Quintero's word—"fantasy." They have preferred the familiarity of the recognizable and the clearly explicable, thus undercutting the power in the original drama. When directors have dared to allow the tension to remain, successful pictures have been produced—as in the case of Long Day's Journey Into Night and The Iceman Cometh. When neutralized, the works have been a confusing hodgepodge of ideas and tones, as in the case of the film version of The Emperor Jones—and of Strange Interlude, made in 1932.

In all fairness to film directors, it must be mentioned that the nebulous balance of tones is not always something that one can will to happen; even with the best of intentions toward the original play, a director may find the balancing difficult. In the case of the film version of Mourning Becomes Electra, the direction and script were done by O'Neill's close friend, Dudley Nichols, who consulted with the playwright on the many revisions required to bring the six hour play to the screen in a three hour film.27 The results were mixed; the film does attempt to retain the brooding formal structure associated with its Greek motifs while placing the action in the realistic confines of Confederate America. Yet the assembled actors with varied backgrounds—Katina Paxinou, of the Greek theatre; Rosalind Russell, an American film star; and Michael Redgrave, an English stage figure—presented no consistent tone. Rather than pitching their performance to admit a balance between realism and an underlying formalism, each actor seems to be working in a different register. This disharmony, coupled with the abrupt shifts from the highly symbolic Mannon house to the realistic shots of the Boston wharf and environs, creates confusing effects and disjunctions, not the positive, tension-provoking ambiguity Quintero mentions, one that could create a "regal, monumental" quality.

When a film version of an O'Neill play goes awry, there is the tendency to do what Murray does, find fault in the elements of the original rather than in the nature of the depiction. An example of this failure to deal with the Hollywood product is seen in the reaction of Ray Bradbury to the screen version of Mourning Becomes Electra. He reports that when he was about to try his hand at a film script of Melville's Moby Dick he thought about the O'Neill film:

I had learned a good lesson which I remembered, because about two or three years earlier O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra had been made into a film at RKO.... Very interesting cast. A lot of different qualities. But it didn't work because they put the whole goddam thing on the screen. And O'Neill never works when you do all of him on the screen because it's too close to you; it's too intimate. You back off just like someone breathing in your face who's had too much onions or garlic the night before. They say, Boy is that real! That's too real.28

In a curious way Bradbury is right. What often comes to the screen in treatments of O'Neill's plays is too much reality. However, it is not the reality that O'Neill presented in his original works, but some watered down, patented variety, drained of its power and "fantasy," palatable for the mass audience. And if, as Bradbury suggests, it reeks, the smell may be one of violation, not of garlic.

—Linda Ben-Zvi

1 Louis Sheaffer, O'Neill: Son and Playwright (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1968), pp. 223-224. For the most detailed discussion of O'Neill and film, see John Orlandello, O'Neill on Film (Rutherford, N.J.: Farleigh Dickinson Univ. Press, 1982).

2 Sheaffer, p. 311.

3 Sheaffer, p. 312.

4 Louis Sheaffer, O'Neill: Son and Artist (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1973), p. 351. Hereafter referred to as S&A.

5 S&A, p. 351.

6 The Gelbs, in their biography of O'Neill, also mention an original script, Ollie Oleson's Saga, which O'Neill wrote in 1927. He called it "a comedy of sorts." For a discussion of O'Neill and film, see Arthur and Barbara Gelb, O'Neill (New York: Harper and Row, 1960), pp. 717-720.

7 S&A, p. 104.

8 The following O'Neill plays were made into films, the dates indicating the year of film release: Anna Christie (1923) Anna Christie (March 1930), Strange Interlude (September 1932), The Emperor Jones (November 1933), Ah, Wilderness! (December 1935), The Long Voyage Home (a combination of Bound East for Cardiff, The Moon of the Caribbees, In the Zone, and The Long Voyage Home) (October 1940), Mourning Becomes Electra (November 1947), Summer Holiday, a musical version of Ah, Wilderness! (June 1948), Desire Under the Elms (March 1958), Long Day's Journey Into Night (October 1962), and The Iceman Cometh (October 1973).

9 Quoted by Edward Murray, The Cinematic Imagination (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1972), p. 28.

10 S&A, p. 546.

11 To my knowledge no critic, including Sheaffer, has mentioned these documents.

12 For a discussion of Before Breakfast, see Sheaffer, O'Neill: Son and Playwright, pp. 351-352.

13 Eugene O'Neill, Six Short Plays: The Dreamy Kid/Before Breakfast/Gold/Diff'rent/ The Straw/Welded (New York: Vintage Books, 1951), p. 3.

14 O'Neill, p. 11.

15 O'Neill, p. 7.

16 Although Murphy ends his film treatment with the statement that rehearsals have already begun, with the actress Zita Johann playing the wife, there is no record that the film was ever made.

17 For a discussion of Before Breakfast as a dramatic monologue, an experiment leading to the writing of The Emperor Jones, see Travis Bogard, Contour in Time (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1972), p. 137.

18 S&A, p. 414. The Gelbs mention an earlier attempt by O'Neill to write his own screenplay of The Emperor Jones, although they say it had "come to nothing" (p. 718). For a discussion of the film treatment of The Emperor Jones, see Orlandello, pp. 51-65, and Murray, pp. 17-24.

19 Sheaffer reports that while O'Neill seemed pleased with the original film script that was shown to him by Heyward, he was dissatisfied with the final screen version. "However I wail not ... I got my money," O'Neill commented (S&A, p. 414).

20 Orlandello, p. 53.

21 For a discussion of the black reaction to the film, see Peter Noble, The Negro in Films (New York: Arno Press, 1970) and Jim Pines, Blacks in Films (London: Studio Vista, 1975). Noble says of The Emperor Jones, "To have a black man playing the star part in a film in which the white actors were of lesser importance was indeed something of filmic history. Indeed it was enough of a social revolution to make the film a financial failure" (p. 57).

22 Orlandello quotes several critical reactions to the film, most mentioning the weakness of the last part, particularly the handling of the visions (p. 59).

23 Murray, pp. 17-18.

24 Murray, p. 23.

25 For a discussion of both film versions, see Orlandello, pp. 131-161.

26 Quoted by Orlandello, p. 49.

27 For a discussion of Mourning Becomes Electra as a film, see Orlandello, pp. 103-115.

28 Quoted in The Classic American Novel and the Movies, ed. Gerald Peary and Roger Shatzkin (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1977), pp. 44-46.



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