Memories of Meetings With A Classic "Studio" Director
Rita Hayworth seems quite engaged with her director, Vincent Sherman,
while making "Affair in Trinidad."
Much forgotten today,
Sherman was a winner
By JIM BAWDEN
The term Studio Director certainly applies to Vincent Sherman, who labored long under the umbrella--and the "rules"--of a major movie studio and became one of the last survivors of Hollywoods Golden Age, winding up as a leading director of television series in the 1970s.
Tough and taciturn in person (as befits a former boxer), he was a man of great inconsistencies. His courtly Southern mannerisms disguised a working class background. He was a kid who grew up Jewish in the heavily segregated state of Georgia, which couldn't have been easy. A theatre fanatic, he deserted his beloved medium during the Depression years and never went back.
And this gruff, no-nonsense man eventually became known as one of moviedoms most skilled handlers of temperamental female stars, including three of the most difficult: Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Rita Hayworth
As a measure of his success with testy ladies, he had love affairs with all three of those troubling superstars.
I first encountered Vincent Sherman on the set of the 1980 made-for-TV movie "Bogie," about Humphrey Bogart, who had been one of Sherman's close pals. And we met again later when he was directing the miniseries "The Dream Merchants."
On yet another occasion, Sherman invited me to lunch at a Fatburger joint right across the street from the Universal lot. Still later. I went to his Malibu home when he was 89 and he showed me the play about President George Washington he was writing for Al Pacino, a show still unproduced after all these years.
Here are highlights of our conversations:
JIM BAWDEN: How did you first get to Hollywood?
VINCENT SHERMAN: It was in 1933 and I had a part as a hoodlum-gangster in "Counsellor-At-Law," which starred John Barrymore. Willie Wyler was the director and Barrymore was completely drunk most of the time. Willie might get only a few minutes a day of workable material. Bebe Daniels was the leading lady and she was often in tears. I had a contract that paid me by the week so I prospered. In my big scene, I scare a rich kid into going straight. He was (played by) none other than Dick Quine, who later became a director himself.
Then I did some Columbia Bs and drifted back to Broadway for the theatrical version of "The Good Earth" in 1935. Youve seen the movie? Well, Claude Rains had Munis part, Nazimova had Luise Rainers and I was a kind of thug. We had 300 Asians running around on stage, the biggest cast ever, Very exciting. But even when the theater was packed, it lost money. The attack of the locusts was something else, I must tell you. Patrons sometimes fled from the first rows. It seemed so realistic.
JB: But you were back in Hollywood by 1938.
VS: I had a unique Warners contract--to direct, write, and act. I never did any acting. Instead I co-wrote with Crane Wilbur the B flick "Crime School" with Bogart and the Dead End Kids. It was Warners' most profitable movie of the year. It didnt make the most money but was filmed in two weeks, so costs were lower than low.
Then I was assigned to write "B" scripts for Kay Francis. At $6,000 a week she was Warners' priciest star, but her box office had tumbled. Jack Warner publically announced he was dropping her to "B" films, but she refused to quit. Kay told me shed wash floors for $6,000 a week. I wrote one called "My Bill" (1938) that was better than any of the "A" movies shed been making. Another one, "King of the Underworld," had her paired with Humphrey Bogart and it made a fortune. Kay left the studio a wealthy woman but her days of top stardom were past.
JB: How did you get to direct the first time?
VS: Jack Warner called me into his office and said, I know youre a pal of Humphrey Bogarts. We have a problem with him. Hes such a limited actor he can only play gangsters. So, he offered me this Grade B horror epic "The Return of Doctor X" (1939) on condition I get Bogie to play the lead. I was apprehensive but Bogie wanted to break out of his rut and he took it and we had a balland made the damned thing in three weeks. It wasnt a remake at all of the 1932 film ("Doctor X"). I just used available talent, including Wayne Morris, Dennis Morgan, Rosemary Lane, Huntz Hall. I told Bogie to make like Boris Karloff and that did the trick. Jack was really trying me out to see if I could direct at all and better things ensued.
Sherman talked Bogart into
playing a horror character
in this 1939 programmer,
"The Return of Doctor X."
JB: For a time you did what were called "programmers"?
VS: "Saturdays Children" (1940) was a remake of a Pulitzer Prize winning play by Maxwell Anderson. Again I used studio players: Johnny Garfield, Claude Rains. But Olivia de Havilland balked at doing a remake and went on suspension, so we borrowed Anne Shirley from RKO. Claude could fill the screen with his talent, He was wonderful here and we did that one in three weeks, too.
What I remember about "The Man Who Talked Too Much" (1940) was the pathetic sight of Richard Barthelmess having to audition. Hed been Warners biggest male star until his contract expired in 1934 and he was making $4,000 a week. Now he made a grand total of $1,200 for his entire part! He was quite fine, by the way, as opposed to George Brent, who was my lead and was very lazy at the best of times. This one was yet another remakeof "The Mouthpiece." The cast again was the Warners stock players: Bill Lundigan. Brenda Marshall, John Litel. What bench strength we had in those days!
"Underground" (1941) was a tale of the evils of Naziism. Remember we were not yet at war with Germany! (It was filmed earlier.) And I remember looking out at the cast Id assembled and suddenly being taken aback that so many of the cast members were refugees from Nazi terrorism: Ludwig Stossel, Martin Kosleck, Egon Brecher. It just got to me and I wept a bit, I really did.
JB: Then you directed Bogart for the last time?
VS: Yesand no! "All Through the Night" (1941) used his gangster persona but now the bad guys were the fifth columnists. It was supposed to be a comedy and I had two of the best around in Jackie Gleason and Phil Silvers buried in bit parts. At that point we were still laughing at the Nazis. This was before we learned of the camps. Conrad Veidt was our heavyan amazing actor--but Judith Anderson was no lightweight and tried to dominate every scene they had together until he complained. This was the first movie Bogie made with Peter Lorre and not "The Maltese Falcon." I remember it opened six days before Pearl Harbor.
But the last time I directed Bogie was in "Across the Pacific" (1942). It used "The Maltese Falcon" gang in a story Johnny Huston dreamed up, but he had no ending, so six days before he was due to finish (directing the picure) he walked out and enlisted! He took me on a tour of the sets and said out loud, Kid, its your problem now. We cobbled something together, some crazy bit about Bogie turning hero but that one has always embarrassed me. Thank God I had no credit on it!
JB: Your first A picture assignment was "The Hard Way" (1943).
VS: It was based on Ginger Rogers and her mother, who dragged her into stardom. In the picture its a nasty older sister, Helen (Ida Lupino), and her supremely talented kid sister (Joan Leslie). Lupino fought like a tigress to get out of it. The first few days on set she was mean and testy. Then she looked at the rushes and saw something special was happening. Jack Warner loathed the early scenes showing the poverty that these two emerged from and he asked couldnt we make Ida just a little bit nice? No, that was the story. Jack Carson was wonderful as the small time vaudevillian Leslie marries later to betray. It was based on Gingers first husband, Jack Pepper, who was in a veterans' home by then, wasting away. Gladys George as the over-the-hill star Lupino cheats out of a part was memorable. Biggest problem was Joan--17 at the time with nary a nasty bone in her.
The film was box office but Jack continued to hate it and even campaigned against it at Oscar time. Imagine that! He told employee to nominate Joan Fontaine for "The Constant Nymph" and enough of them did to deny Ida a nomination. She was devastated although she did get the New York Film Critics Award. At the premiere Ginger rushed up to us and said, Why it could almost have been my story. But it was, Ginger, it was!
JB: How did you get "Old Acquaintance" (1943)?
VS: The movie was about to go into production, the director was going to be Teddy Goulding whod already directed Bette Davis in three pictures, including her first encounter with Miriam Hopkins ("The Old Maid"). And Teddy staged a diplomatic heart attack days before shooting, telling me he couldnt face those two battling broads again. I took over with all the sets up, the casting all accomplished. I basically used Teddys script and notations. And the first few days alone with Miriam everything was sweetness and light--were both Georgians, you know. When Davis arrived all hell broke loose. These two positively loathed each other. With Miriam it was a case of resentment that Bette was Warners Queen Bee and Miriam was winding up her contract. Miriam also told me she suspected Bette had been fooling around with her husband, director Anatole Litvak, on the set of "All This and Heaven Too."
At every turn Miriam tried to upstage Bette. She couldnt or wouldnt match her bits of business from the master shot to the close up. She did everything to distract Bette with odd gestures, flubbing lines. All the crew hated her posturing so much so that when the day came for Bette to slap her, Davis let loose with a real sucker punch. Miriams head wobbled and great gobs of tears appeared in her eyes and she fled to her dressing room. She booked off sick the next day saying she was feeling poorly. The film is all right, I guess, but so much of my strength went into the role of referee I feel it could be a whole lot crisper. At the end I went to Miriams dressing room to remonstrate and she had torn all the curtains apart and was nibbling at them in desperation. It was her last star role. Only (William) Wyler could control her and he later used her to great effect in "The Heiress" (1949) as the dotty aunt.
JB: I think "Mr. Skeffington" (1944) is one of your best movies.
VS: But it could have been greater with Ann Sheridan in the lead. Thats who I wanted. The part of the most beautiful woman of her day would have suited Ann but Bette (Davis) heard of it and demanded it and she was box office at the time. The sets were up but had been designed for Technicolor. Because of wartime restrictions, we had to shoot in black and white and that changed things. I warned Bette that the title was "Mr. Skeffington." Her part was longer than Claude Rains but she had to defer to him. When she did the makeup test for the scenes as an older woman who had suffered the ravages of diptheria, well, she came out with the same hideous greasy stuff later used as Baby Jane. I turned away and ordered her to tone it down!
On that one we sort of fell in love a bit, Her husband had died tragically but I was not about to leave my wife and kids. I also resented her bullying behavior. I refused her offer to direct "A Stolen Life ." It was her first as producer--and we never worked together again.
JB: Then you came to films with Ann Sheridan. What was she like?
VS: Completely different from her femme fatale image. She was bright, lively, opinionated, sheer joy, had terrible trouble with the men in her life. She wound up with George Brent at one point! Blah! She had this wicked humor the screen couldnt capture. Oh, (maybe it did) later in that movie with Cary Grant ("I Was A Male War Bride"). (Studio Head) Jack (Warner) said she was the studio vixen and that was that. In "Nora Prentiss" (1947) Kent Smith had the good part. Ann was just there radiating glamour. Ive never heard from anybody who ever liked it and I was stuck with Robert Alda in the second lead. He was all wrong and later became a big Broadway star. Oh, theres photography by Jimmy Wong Howe that makes the film almost watchable.
Then we did "The Unfaithful," which is a crude rewrite of "The Letter." David Goodis wrote it after he did "Dark Passage" and then he left L.A. in a huff. I thought this was an uneasy blend of the old womans pictures and film noir stuff. It just didnt work in my estimation, but we all tried really hard. We had problems with the censors who were enraged Ann might get away with adultery and not pay the ultimate price as Bette had in "The Letter." In my opinion Eve Arden stole her scenes, Lew Ayres looks uncomfortable. Its not a film I remember with affection.
JB: How did you get to direct Errol Flynn in "The Adventures of Don Juan" (1948)?
VS: I was scheduled to make "Johnny Belinda" with Jane Wyman. But Annie Sheridan so talked me up to Errol he demanded me for the "Don Juan" picture much against my will! Jean Negulesco took over "Belinda" and Jack so hated it he fired him the day filming ceased. It was released a year later and became this runaway hit. Meanwhile I was with Errol whose bloated features were truly scary. We had to use two makeup artists to paint out Errols facial lines. Errol told me his heart doctor said he had the body of a 90-year-old man and he was right! Hed come in in the morning completely blotto. It was sheer agony getting anything done. All his swordplay had to be doubled. One day he was so soused I plopped him in a great chair and had Robert Douglas continually walk around him, it actually made for an unusual scene.
Travilla did the costumes, which won the 1948 Oscar. Jack was hyping Viveca Lindfors at the time. I thought her gorgeous but very cold and she never hit it with audiences at that time. Max Steiner gave us a rousing scoreKorngold had signed for it but left for Vienna before completing his assignment. But the audiences never came. I think they figured it was just another revival. After al, Errol hadnt done swordplay since 1940. Because of cost overruns it lost a bucket and Errol never again made a Class A picture for Warners.
Ronald Reagan, left, gave one of his best performances in Sherman's "The Hasty Heart,"
but Richard Todd, right, got the Oscar nomination.
JB: How did "The Hasty Heart" (1949) come about?
VS: Jack Warner had all this money in England impounded by the Labor government during a sterling crisis. He had to use it up there so we shot "The Hasty Heart" on London soundstages, although the setting is equatorial Burma. In the worst winter of the century, snow banks everywhere, rationing, it was terrible. I sailed on the Queen Mary with our two stars, Ronnie Reagannice but shallow, very full of himselfand Patricia Neal, who badly needed a hit after "The Fountainhead." Ronnie was always bringing up bits of business to add to make his part bigger. I refused to change the script and, as a consequence, he never mentioned me in his book. Everybody else on that film gets thanked. But not the director.
But I still needed my Lachythe dour Scotsman who really is going to die. Found him in the studio canteen at the end of the bar. I said if that kid can act hes in and Richard Todd could act. He got an Oscar nomination. It was basically a filmed play, lots of talk, no action, but it worked quite well and I loved being away from the turmoil of Burbank.
JB: You made two pictures in a row with Joan Crawford.
VS: I think I understood that dame. She was 44 by then, very insecure. We used baseball lights, the same lights at night time baseball games, so strong they washed out all the lines. This was a gimmick first used at Warners for Ruth Chatterton pictures. In "The Damned Dont Cry," its really the story of Virginia Hill and Bugsy Siegel. Its a very violent picture. Joan gets kicked around, beaten upand she liked it! I think Joans age quite a charming matter. She could still model swim suits but women saw a new kind of vulnerability in her work and her box office was still strong. If there was a party scene, all the crew had to dress up, too, so shed be in the mood. After a crying scene shed cry for hours. She lived her parts, hadnt the technique of Bette. By the way, this was her biggest hit since "Mildred Pierce."
Both Joan and I were loaned to Harry Cohn at Columbia for "Harriet Craig" (1950), a remake of "Craigs Wife" (1936). It was about a woman completely entranced by the accoutrements of life. That was Joan. One scene had her polishing silver, then scrubbing the floor. She looked up and said, Im playing myself, right?
We rehearsed around a table for a week, then shot with multiple cameras, very quickly. Wendell Corey was the harassed husband and the cast was stacked with scene stealers: Lucile Watson, Allyn Joslyn, K.T. Stevens, who was Sam Woods daughter, Ellen Corby. I sent Jack a memo when I got home showing how Cohn had been open to our pre-rehearsals and thus we came in considerably under budget. But Jack raged that Harry would always be this gross lout!
JB: I'm not a big fan of "Goodbye My Fancy (1951).
VS: You think I am? It was a smash Broadway comedy with Madeleine Carroll and Sam Wanamaker. Fay and Michael Kanin wrote it and the lead was a sort of Helen Gahagan Douglas character. Now trouble ensued because Joan Crawford could not handle comedy. Like Bette, she was used to chewing over every syllable but in comedy you have to bat the lines out quickly. Thats why Eve Arden steals every scene. Bob Young was just plain dull as the college president and Frank Lovejoy wasnt right as the suitor-reporter. For some reason Joan fixated on newcomer Janice Rule and kept bawling her out until I stepped in.
I dont think Joan ever understood our theme of academic freedom It should be remade today with Meryl Streep and it would be a big hit. You know, Bette made a similar picture about freedoms, "Storm Center," but I think ours (was) better. What floored me on this one was Jack Warners memo there be no close-ups of Crawford because she was looking too leathery. He was trying to break her contract and succeeded after she then made a real stinker, "This Woman Is Dangerous." I told producer Henry Blanke, Im making this movie my way and a film without close-ups wont work. But it meant my days directing at Warners were over.
JB: You stayed pals with Crawford?
VS: In one interview she said in the Fifties she only had two OK directorsme and David Miller. And when she collapsed on the set of "Hush, Hish Sweet Charlotte" (1964) I rushed to her hospital bedside. She snapped, Im not really sick, sweetie, I faked it to get away from that damned bitch, meaning Bette. And she jumped naked out of bed and we made furious love on the divan.
JB: Give me your take on working with Clark Gable on "Lone Star" (1952).
VS: I had to take this. Assignments were drying up and Jack Warner lent me without really asking my permission. I was, of course, delighted to work with Clark but the cast had already been assembled, the sets were up. I was told by the producer to Hurry it up. And we had everything completed in about six weeks. Gable was still the gold standard as far as I was concerned but his box office had been slipping. The story of Texass birth should be exciting and Borden Chase had written such a cliche-ridden story. (MGM studio boss) Dore Schary was really cost-cutting by then, even more so than Jack Warner. Clark was in a contemplative mood and one day in his dressing room said right out, Vince, theyre trying to destroy me. And he was right. Eighteen months later they let his contract lapse. He was getting the top salary of $6,000 a week.
The picture never really jelled. I got to use a lot of MGM contractees. Did you know Lionel Barrymore and Beulah Bondi positively loathed each other. Both were such hams I really had to rein them in. Brod Crawford was a stupid actor, very quarrelsome, winning that Oscar (Best Actor of 1949 for "All the King's Men") went to his head. Ava Gardner had a real thing for the King even though she was running around with Sinatra by then. MGM reteamed them in "Mogambo," which was a huge hit.
JB: Then you went over to Columbia to direct "Affair In Trinidad" (1952) with Rita Hayworth.
VS: My Warners contract ended. No offer of an extension. Harry Cohn phoned all panicky saying Rita Hayworth was back from her Aly Khan liason and needed to work big time. We cobbled together this cheaply made virtual remake of "Gilda." Rita read the script and yelped, Wheres the story? Well, there wasnt any. It was all about Communist spies so Rita had to sneak peeks at various documents all in the aid of the Allied cause. But basically this was "Gilda" all over again and just to make the public sure of that we added her "Gilda" lover, Glenn Ford.
Ill hand it to Joe Walker. His photography sparkles, but Rita had aged a bit and Joe had to trot out those filters for the close ups. Rita kept asking why she couldnt have the lead in "From Here to Eternity," but Cohn knew her name could sell anything and thats what we gave the unsuspecting public. Alex Scourby got all the good lines. Why not? Rita danced as only she can. Shed toss her mane and the crew would howl like wolves. I succumbed, too, to that lonely, lonely lady. We had an affair. Im sure my wife knew but she understood. I think the film is a bit crazy but we made it under the most difficult circumstances.
Vincent Sherman as he
appeared in his later years,
still directing for television.
JB: Then you disappeared for five years. Explain.
VS: I was grey listed. Not blacklisted at all. The offers just dried up. I was never officially named or I could have sued. Cohn said I should rat on my old pals, Eddie Robinson and Johnny Garfield, who really were blacklisted. Not me. Im no Elia Kazan. I got all high and mighty and moved my family up to my ranch and had successes with my cows at market.
JB: Youre listed as director (uncredited) on 1956s "Defend My Love" with Martine Carol. Then you took over "The Garment Jungle" (1957) from Robert Aldrich.
VS: I was looking for work. I helped a bit on that Italian film. Then Bob Aldrich walked off "Garment Jungle" in a disagreement with Cohn. I think its a strong film and I finished the picture in the Aldrich style. There are no seams. I had a fine cast: Lee J. Cobb, Bob Loggia, Dick Boone. It was tough stuff. Forget all that guff about being a womans director, I shot in New York. Its hardly in the same category as "On the Waterfront," but its very close. By the way we were pro-union here and that would have been impossible even a year earlier.
JB: Then Zanuck hired you for "The Naked Earth" (1958)?
VS: Im guessing others had turned him down first. It was a sort of vanity thing for his then gal pal Juliette Greco. A very tough little French number. Zanuck had met her on the set of "The Sun Also Rises" (1958) and she was already thirtyish, not particularly attractive but with a vibrant personality. Completely misused in his films. We made this on location. Richard Todd was the nominal star. The cast included Finlay Currie and Laurence Naismith but it was hard directing her with Zanuck sitting right beside me, whispering another take just one more take.
JB: But how did you get back to Warners?
VS: So, Im back in London on post-production, walking through the Shepperton stiudio corridors for lunch, and who should come trotting up but Jack Warner. Vince old boy! he shouts and hugs me. No mention of the grey list. But now were best buddies again and he offers me "The Young Philadelphians"(1959) on condition it must be brought in under $1 million. And I took it.
JB: Paul Newman hates that one.
VS: I cant figure out why. OK, it was not top budget. Shot in black and white. But I compensated with a bright cast: Robert Vaughn won a supporting Oscar nomination. Alexis Smith I brought back to Warners for the first time in a decade. I persuaded Billie Burke to come out of retirement for a cameo. Robert Keith was Pauls father. It looked opulent because I used all those old Warners streets, redressed, and then Paul bought his way out of his contract. He went to Fox to make "From the Terrace." Same story, but in color. I think ours the better film.
JB: You stayed at Warners for a bit.
JB: My job was to make modestly budgeted A-BsB pictures with "A" pretensions. So Jack had something other than epics to toss at the theater owners. Despite color, "Ice Palace" was in that field. Jack begged me to take Richard Burton, whod made a string of stinkers for the studio. Could only stand there and declaim. Robert Ryan stole scenes and the gals were Martha Hyer and Carolyn Jones. A good, old fashioned weeper, nothing more. Max Steiners score blared away and it ran 143 minutes. So it wasnt really a programmer at all.
Then I turned to "A Fever in the Blood" (1961). I was obliged to use the stock company: Angie Dickinson, who is a sweetheart; Jack Kelly from "Maverick," Ray Danton from "The Roaring Twenties," Efrem Zimbalist Jr. from "77 Sunset Strip." I dressed it up with some stalwarts: Don Ameche, who was fantastic; Herbert Marshall, Jesse White. Look closely and you can spot Carroll OConnor, who later hired me for a TV movie remake of "The Last Hurrah." We knew our limitations but it was a nice packaged thing highlighting political corruption. Then I decided Id had enough of Jack Wartner and budget film making and I left again.
JB: Your last theatrical was the Debbie Reynolds vehicle "The Second Time Around" (1961).
VS: Debbie was very difficult. The story wasnt much. Andy Griffith thought it was his film. So there were arguments. I was the traffic director. And so I went back to the ranch and didnt work for four years.
JB: TV gave you another career.
VS: I started on a damned fine series nobody remembers--"The Long Hot Summer" (1965), did seven hour episodes that season and found the pace to my liking. So I went on, I did four episodes of "The Waltons" (1972-73) and that was painless. The guys (producer Frank Glicksman and partners) at "Medical Center" liked the kind of style I could add to an hour and I wound up doing 25 of those from 1969 to 1976. You know the score: a week of pre-production, planning the guest stars, looking at the location work, then seven days of shooting and another in the editing suite working on the directors cut. The best of the bunch was the two-parter"The Fourth Sex"(1975) starring Robert Reed, Salome Jens, Louise Sorel--all about a mans determination to have the then pioneering sex change operation. The CBS censor flipped and was on the set the whole time but this was very tasteful and Reed superb. To have the Brady father, well, that stopped all the arguments.
JB: So there you were over 60 and very hot again.
VS: I had the experience. I could cut corners and nobody could tell the difference. I did four episodes of "Baretta" (1976) because I could keep Robert Blake from blowing up, you know? And then I segued into TV movies. Old pal Carroll OConnor called me up to do the TV remake of "The Last Hurrah" (1977). We had 20 shooting days! And I delivered in 19. Then I got a frantic call: Ralph Nelson has walked off the set of "Lady of the House" in disgust. Leading lady problems. Can you jump in? I read the script, flew to Vancouver, told Dyan Cannon that I was tougher than she was and stick to acting and well deliver and she was suddenly very nice and it was in the can. I just had to do "Bogie" (1980) because Id known the guy. Heard that Betty Bacall was livid, but I knew him before Bacall and it turned out OK. And I did the miniseries "The Dream Merchants" (1980) with all those kids the two Morgans. Fairchild and Brittany, plus Mark Harmon and again it looked pretty good.
I told Fairchild in one scene, "Baby, give me that Barrymore scowl." She looked blank. Maybe she thought I was talking about Drew? Or was I getting too old for this kind of thing.
Those "Medical Center" guys were now making "Trapper John" and I did three of them and then I looked up one day and I was 77 and I said thats it. Id survived just about everything Hollywood could offer but old age gets to us all. Im proud of what I accomplished, resentful for the fallow years, but I survived all the bastards.
At Sundance, Oliver Stone comes up to me and starts raving about "The Hard Way." Im still here. Well, sort of here, Im now 89, you see.
(Vincent Sherman died in June, 2006, a month short of his 100th birthday.)
©2010 by Jim Bawden. This column first posted Sept. 6, 2010.
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