Created in 1921, “this short film, variously labeled a test reel, sample reel, or the series pilot, was made as a filler for Frank Newman’s local Kansas City theater chain, and is the only Newman Laugh-O-gram known to survive. It could scarcely be simpler. But the opening image of Disney himself, the portrait of the artist as a young impresario, has an uncanny feel to it. Disney begins his animation career with multiple pictures of himself, the live image sandwiched between two self-caricatures. We see him first as part of the comic title card, a wide-eyed innocent at his desk, his sleeves rolled up and papers flying from his pen. Then, the live-action Disney puts the title card into motion, scratching his head, lighting his pipe, and applying pen to paper. Meanwhile, over his right shoulder we notice another drawing of him (a jumbo version of his actual business card), a third version of Disney the hard-pressed cartoonist working at his office desk, while we see the results of all his work hanging over his left shoulder – four sequential drawings of a figure we’ll see animated at the end of the reel.

    Like all the Laugh-O-gram films made for Newman, this one was made by Disney single-handedly, and so provides a rare chance to see Disney’s own early animation style. This would change quickly, as Disney recruited friends to share the work. Here, though, completing each drawing on paper fully by hand (he had yet to learn the labor-saving techniques associated with cel animation), he in fact animates only the final sequence. If he tries to separate himself from the traditions of the lightning-sketch artist in his self-portrait, he immerses himself in them in the opening scenes, including the convention of showing his hand rapidly creating the drawings. In fact, it is a photograph of his hand, the hyperactivity of the artist recreated one last time through the magic of stop-motion.”

    Excerpt from Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies: A Companion to the Classic Cartoon Series by Russell Merritt & J.B. Kaufman

    Created in 1922, directed by Walt Disney and animated by Disney, Fred Harman, Rudolph Ising, and others unknown with camera by Red Lyon.

    Also released with a soundtrack by Sound Film Distributing Corp. (New York) and Wardour Films (England) under the title “Grandma Steps Out.”

    It was Walt Disney’s first short cartoon, and is a rendition of the traditional story. It’s considered Disney’s first attempt at animated storytelling and according to Disney, the film took the better part of 6 months to complete, and has all the earmarks of a first effort.

    “The result is a cartoon where drawings are reduced to thick outlines, figures posed either in profile or head-on, and movement depends upon a liberal use of cycles, repeat actions, and isolated body movements. Disney keeps the gags simple and avoids diagonal movement almost entirely (a notable exception has Riding Hood’s dog running towards us on the bias, where the dog is actually running in place, but the crude background is cycled back to an off-center vanishing point).

    Yet even in this first effort, motifs shoot through that he will develop and refine throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Most conspicuous is the creation of the comic contraption – in this case Red Riding Hood’s jalopy – part car, part rickshaw – with wheels made from grandma’s inedible doughnuts and power coming from a dog who is pushing while chasing a pair of frankfurters dangling from a stick. Later contraptions, inspired in part by Rube Goldberg and in part by Buster Keaton, will develop personalities of their own, such as a mechanical cow and racehorse, or a pig that opens out as a saloon. In the Laugh-O-grams, too, the ingenious homemade assemblage proliferates.

    So does his flair for jazz and jive. If the movement in Little Red Riding Hood remains simple and repetitious, Disney counters with dance movements that call out for syncopated musical beats. It starts with the matchstick-figure notes Grandma blows out of her postman’s horn, and continues with the dancing flowers Red Riding Hood stops to admire. Meanwhile, animated bits of dialogue shimmy or burst like bubbles. But, more generally, what distinguishes even this, the simplest of all Disney silents, is the quick pace and charm of characters being bounced, flown, chased, jiggled, and knocked around. Disney’s flair for timing and for creating characters with appeal, even when they are as generic as these, is perceptible from the start.

    Little Red Riding Hood was discovered by collector David Wyatt in a British flea market under the title Grandma Steps Out, retrofitted with a soundtrack. After Mickey Mouse had turned Disney into a household name, a fly-by-night company called Bollman and Grant found the Laugh-O-grams and, releasing them as Disney films, arranged for their distribution under new titles. In London, Wardour Films distributed the reels theatrically as “Peter the Puss” cartoons, capitalizing on the popularity of both Disney and Felix the Cat. This is the print, restored by the Walt Disney Company, that we are showing here.”

    Excerpt from Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies: A Companion to the Classic Cartoon Series by Russell Merritt & J.B. Kaufman

    Created in 1922, directed by Walt Disney and animated by Disney, Rudolph Ising, and others unknown, with camera by Red Lyon.

    Also released with a soundtrack by Sound Film Distributing Corp. (New York) and Wardour Films (England) under the title “The Four Jazz Boys.”

    “The leap from Little Red Riding Hood to The Four Musicians of Bremen is remarkable. Put into production almost immediately after his first Laugh-O-gram, Four Musicians puts on display what Disney has learned in the course of only a few weeks. The comic routines are more inventive, the action better staged, and the quality of the backgrounds dramatically improved. Disney is learning how to set up his gags and then build on them, rather than simply string them along one after the other. Disney was sufficiently proud of Four Musicians that when he created his Laugh-O-gram Corporation in May 1922, he listed this film – but not Little Red Riding Hood – as the company’s sole cartoon asset.

    In Four Musicians, the chase has been given a simple but effective structure. An underwater pursuit of a smart-aleck fish leads our hungry cat to a grinning swordfish, ready to dice the cat up with his sharpened sword-bill. The tables turned, the fish now chases the swimming cat, goosing it up to the riverbank, where the cat rejoins its friends. The chase expands. Outnumbered four to one, the single-minded swordfish calculates, and then races after all four of them, first into a hollow tree where the four are shot out of a branch like a cannon, then up a sapling where, thinking themselves safe on a branch, the Four emit a collective laugh. Pause. The shark thinks, then diligently razors his way through the tree. Laughter turns to panic as the Four tumble out of the tree over a cliff … and on to the next phase of their adventure.

    Although limited by his ongoing reliance on cycles and repeat actions, Disney has already started to insert personality bits for comic effect – giving the swordfish a fixed expression of grim determination, letting him pause to furrow his brow and think; setting up his encounter with the Four by introducing him as the merry swordsman sharpening his blade on a grindstone and gaily dicing a fish.

    Disney also develops his feel for dance and syncopation. What gets the cat into trouble is his clever idea of luring a jazz-crazy fish onto land with the music of the Musicians, and then braining it with a plank of wood. This is the closest the Bremen musicians ever get to perform, but the cat’s attempts to pound the dancing fish and the fish’s syncopated twists, spins, and leaps give the cartoon its most playful, prankish moment.

    Four Musicians still shows the limitations of the beginner. To audiences unfamiliar with the original Grimm Brothers story, the descent into the robbers’ hideout and the subsequent battle comes as a bolt from the blue, disconnected with anything that has come before. In Disney’s hands, the robbers have become an Austrian gangster army, complete with Tyrolean caps, a cannon, and black masks. To complete the Teutonic connection, the extended sequence of the cat flying around on a cannonball is vaguely reminiscent of Baron Münchhausen’s most famous exploit, but the final moment – the cat losing most of its nine lives – is pure Disney, an early version of one of his favorite gags.”

    Excerpt from Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies: A Companion to the Classic Cartoon Series by Russell Merritt & J.B. Kaufman

    Created in 1922, directed by Walt Disney and animated by Disney, Hugh Harman, Rudolf Ising, Carman “Max” Maxwell, Lorey Tague, and Otto Walliman, with camera by Red Lyon.

    The film was based on the British fairy tale and was released with a soundtrack by Sound Film Distributing Corp. (New York) and Wardour Films (England) under the title “On the Up and Up.”

    “Of all the rarities in this series, Jack and the Beanstalk is the rarest. This is the last of the “lost” Laugh-O-grams to be restored to view, discovered in the John E. Allen Collection, recently acquired by the Library of Congress. Even then, it turned up in the form of a nitrate negative, and required printing to safety stock before it could be projected. It will be unveiled to the public for the first time in this Giornate retrospective.

    And, happily, it’s worth the wait; this picture turns out to be a fascinating addition to the Laugh-O-gram library. If Four Musicians has raised the bar for pictorial richness in these films, Jack and the Beanstalk escalates the imagery to spectacular heights – literally. Storytelling becomes more assured in this film, with less repeat movement and more imaginative visual ideas that could take place only in the world of animated cartoons.

    The film becomes even more fascinating in the context of Walt’s career, for we know in hindsight that Mickey Mouse would be cast in the “Jack and the Beanstalk” story in 1933 and again in 1947. Now at last we can see Walt’s original approach to the story – and, characteristically, it’s nothing like the other two. Certainly Mickey’s beanstalk never carried him as far as Mars, nor did he acquire a pair of wings during his adventures. Jack’s comic stratagem in the 1922 film – painting a hole on the surface of a cloud, then tricking the ogre into falling through what is now a real hole – makes use of the kind of optical illusions that were not available to Mickey in later years. And the ogre, plummeting to earth at film’s end, falls into another “impossible” gag, which had appeared, in a different form, in Buster Keaton’s Hard Luck the previous year.

    A word about character design. Jack and the Beanstalk seems to inaugurate a deliberate practice of recycling characters from previous Laugh-O-grams, recast in new roles appropriate to the story. Here we see return appearances by both Little Red Riding Hood and her mother – or, at any rate, characters who bear a strong resemblance to them. The dog and black cat from the earlier films are also back, and, in fact, will go on to appear in all seven Laugh-O-grams. In the title role of Jack, Walt introduces a generic all-purpose “boy” character. In later entries in the series, the boy, girl, cat, and dog would coalesce into a kind of Laugh-O-gram “stock company.” Rudy Ising recalled decades later that Walt had created model sheets of these characters and that the animators had actually traced them: “It was sort of a fastidious thing to trace the characters, and keep the likeness.”

    Excerpt from Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies: A Companion to the Classic Cartoon Series by Russell Merritt & J.B. Kaufman

    Created in 1922, directed by Walt Disney and animated by Disney, Ub Iwerks, Hugh Harman, Rudolph Ising, Carman “Max” Maxwell, Lorey Tague, and Otto Walliman, with camera by Red Lyon.

    It was released with a soundtrack by Sound Film Distributing Corp. (New York) and Wardour Films (England) under the title “The K-O Kid.”

    Jack the Giant Killer “shows both Walt’s dizzying bravado and the dire state of his resources. It is, in some ways, the grandest of all his Laugh-O-grams, notable for its minutely detailed backgrounds, the proliferation of characters, the full range of gray tones in the drawings, and – above all – a fascination with atmospherics. He sets up his circus with three introductory scenes he would have thought extravagant and unnecessary in his earlier cartoons, sample side- show attractions that prepare us for our discovery of his admiring kid protagonists. Even more notable, the sea storm that carries Bobby and his friends – arguably the highlight of the cartoon – is a major breakthrough in Disney animation, a self-contained gem of special effects, most likely created by background painter Otto Walliman. When Bobby explores the island of Woof in Poof, each site reveals attractions more elaborate than the last, culminating in a demented trapeze act where a monkey tiptoes across a snake stretched across the necks of two giraffes.

    The animation, on the other hand, is stiffer, more wooden and more segmented than ever. It’s as though all the energy had been leached out of the action itself, reduced for the most part to jerky back-and- forth motions. Jack the Giant Killer may be the most vivid example of a practice Rudy Ising later described where animators simply traced the characters directly from Disney’s model sheets, and animated only the necessary body parts. The chases, especially when compared with his earlier work, seem dull and uninspired. The fixated, gleeful swordfish in The Four Musicians of Bremen who pursues the cat with such grim determination gives way to a dull copycat sawfish who simply goes through the motions of pursuit, animated against underwater backgrounds redrawn from the earlier film. The giants’ underground hunt for Bobby, painted on cels that would later be recycled in Alice’s Wonderland to fine comic effect, seems similarly anemic and drawn- out.”

    Excerpt from Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies: A Companion to the Classic Cartoon Series by Russell Merritt & J.B. Kaufman

    Created in 1922, directed by Walt Disney and animated by Disney, Hugh Harman, Rudolph Ising, Carman “Max” Maxwell, Lorey Tague, and Otto Walliman, with photography by Red Lyon with camera by Red Lyon.

    “This was one of the films discovered by Cole Johnson and David Gerstein at the Museum of Modern Art, hiding behind the unpromising title “The Peroxide Kid”. In this film the traditional story of Goldilocks and the bears remains more or less intact, but is augmented by a host of imaginative new touches. Among these is a cuckoo clock whose cuckoo performs an elaborate morning ritual before awakening the bear family – and who is then given the additional job of supplying eggs for their breakfast. The bears leave the house, not on foot, but on a bicycle built for five (and equipped with a handy duck, mounted on the handlebars, to serve as a horn).”

    “The “mother” character from some of the earlier films is back again in this one, as are the cat and dog, but the star, “Goldie Locks,” is not the generic “girl” character of the other Laugh-O-grams. Instead she’s somewhat taller, and of course has blonde tresses, which fly into the air whenever she registers fright. True to the traditional story, the bears chase her from their home – but, in their defense, her table manners do leave something to be desired.”

    “It’s worth noting that Walt’s inclination to present scenes of pictorial beauty, along with the laughs – a tendency that would show up in the earliest Silly Symphonies, and would culminate in scenes of breathtaking beauty in such features as Pinocchio and Fantasia – makes a modest appearance as early as 1922, in the opening scene of this film. Here it takes the form of a sunrise effect, as we fade in on a distant view of the bear family’s house in a pastoral setting, long morning shadows stretching across the countryside. In fact, the background paintings throughout the film set a new standard for luxury in the Laugh-O-grams, with a series of handsome landscapes, marked by billowing clouds and distant trees. In later years Hugh Harman credited this scenery to Otto Walliman, an animator who doubled as a background painter – and who may be the object of an in-joke in this film, as the bears perform their morning calisthenics to “Wallie’s Reducing Record”.

    Excerpt from Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies: A Companion to the Classic Cartoon Series by Russell Merritt & J.B. Kaufman

    Created in 1922, directed by Walt Disney and animated by Disney, Hugh Harman, Rudolph Ising, Carman “Max” Maxwell, Lorey Tague, and Otto Walliman, with camera by Red Lyon.

    Also released with a soundtrack by Sound Film Distributing Corp. (New York) and Wardour Films (England) under the title “The Cat’s Whiskers.”

    “By contrast with the “lost” Laugh-O-grams, Puss in Boots has been readily available for decades, widely disseminated on the 16mm collector’s market. For many viewers, indeed, it has come to symbolize the entire series, its delights representing the state of Walt’s talents and ideas as he launched his career.

    And Puss does make a worthy representative of the Laugh-O-gram years. By this time Walt and his co-workers had gained enough confidence to take great liberties with their source material, and little of the traditional story survives in this version of Puss in Boots. Instead we get a charming setting that combines a mythical fairy-tale kingdom with a 20th-century Midwestern small town, complete with a “Kingville Theater” and a “Kingville Gazette.” Gags are strictly up- to-date, referencing such popular 1922 phenomena as radio, “flapper boots,” and – best of all for today’s film enthusiast – silent movies. For the Giornate audience, the likely highlight of the picture will be the movie-theater scene, featuring a spoof of Rudolph Valentino and his 1922 hit Blood and Sand. (Note, too, the theater’s ad for a distinguished coming attraction: the Laugh-O-gram version of Cinderella!) Oddly, the Wardour sound reissue of the film removed these delightful scenes; only a glimpse of the movie-theater setting remained, and the continuity was rendered incomprehensible. The distributor may have felt that references to Valentino and silent movies would “date” the film for a 1930 audience. We’re fortunate indeed that the complete version of Puss has survived with these scenes intact.

    In this film the boy, girl, cat, and dog, all familiar from earlier titles, reappear and take their places as the four stock Laugh-O-gram characters. In addition, Puss introduces a King who will return in Cinderella. His bombastic personality makes him perhaps the strongest character in the series to date: on one hand he’s a fun-loving sport who enjoys an afternoon at the bullfight, but the very sight of his daughter’s suitor unleashes his ferocious temper and prompts him to heave statuary across the courtyard. (He’s also not overly concerned with decorum; after his first explosion of rage causes his royal robes to fly into the air, he’s in no hurry to replace them and spends much of the film running around in his underwear!) Note that the “nine lives” gag from Little Red Riding Hood and The Four Musicians of Bremen returns yet again in this picture. Walt evidently had a special fondness for this gag; as late as 1937 it can be seen again in the Mickey Mouse short The Worm Turns.”

    Excerpt from Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies: A Companion to the Classic Cartoon Series by Russell Merritt & J.B. Kaufman

    Created in 1922, directed by Walt Disney and animated by Disney, Ub Iwerks, Rudolph Ising, Hugh Harman, Carmen “Max” Maxwell, Lorey Tague, and Otto Walliman.

    Featuring Susie (as Cinderella), Jack (as the Prince), and Julius the Cat, here unnamed. Later reissued with a soundtrack by Sound Film Distributing Corp. (New York) and Wardour Films (England) in 1929/30 as a “Whoopee Sketches” (USA) and “Peter the Puss” (UK) cartoon, retitled “The Slipper-y Kid.”

    “Tentatively unearthed for the 1992 Giornate in the form of an abridged 16 mm print, now represented by a complete version in 35 mm from the John E. Allen Collection at the Library of Congress, Cinderella takes its place as one of the most enjoyable Laugh-O-grams. Its setting seems to be the same “Kingville” (a cross between a fairy-tale kingdom and small-town U.S.A.) that we’ve just seen in Puss in Boots; and the four stock characters are back again, as is the King. Cinderella is one of the Laugh-O-grams that tells its traditional story more or less straight – that is, allowing for such minor variations as Cinderella’s arrival at the ball in a chauffeured limousine, and a dance party for a gang of bears, interrupted by a bear-hunting Prince on horseback!”

    “Here again Walt and his co-workers indulge in an appealing pictorial effect – far more pronounced than the earlier sunrise scene in Goldie Locks – for Cinderella and the Prince’s silhouetted romantic interlude on the balcony. (Something about the romantic aspect of Cinderella’s story seems to have softened the hearts of the most satiric cartoon makers, even that of so ruthless a prankster as Tex Avery.) On a technical level we may also note the several long pan shots. Perhaps most remarkable is the lengthy bi-level pan just after Cinderella’s escape from the ball: as she runs through the streets, the buildings and the starry sky seeming to move in perspective behind her. Even working with a bare minimum of resources, the Laugh-O-gram crew achieve a striking pictorial effect in this scene.”

    “Of course this Cinderella is still built for laughs, and there are still plenty of gags, ranging from droll whimsy (the shimmying bears at the dance party) to outright slapstick (the “slipper,” discarded by Cinderella, that brains the Prince and knocks him out cold). Continuing the trend started in Puss in Boots, this film combines its sight gags with a complement of verbal humor: the stepsister’s self-help manual, “Eat and Grow Thin”; the non-sequitur invitation to the Prince’s ball; the inane question to an obviously injured character who has just fallen down a steep hill. And one of the benefits of this restored complete version is a wrap-up gag missing from the earlier print – revealing that, in this edition of Cinderella, Walt and company ultimately turned the romantic story on its head after all!”

    Excerpt from Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies: A Companion to the Classic Cartoon Series by Russell Merritt & J.B. Kaufman

    Created in 1922, Directed by Walt Disney, animated by Rudolf Ising with camera by Walt Pfeiffer.

    “Although Walt Disney is most widely known today for his theatrical films, his non-theatrical productions – training, classroom, and public- service films – were another important part of his career. In this dental-care picture, produced in Kansas City in late 1922, we see the beginnings of that educational tradition. And while the income from the educational Disney films would later be seen as merely a supplement to the box-office returns on his theatrical pictures, in 1922 the situation was reversed. By now it had become clear that the promised payment from Pictorial Clubs was never going to be made. Walt, desperate for some income to keep his little company afloat, accepted the offer of Kansas City dentist Dr. Thomas McCrum to underwrite a film that might encourage schoolchildren to take care of their teeth. Dr. McCrum proved more reliable than Pictorial Clubs, and Tommy Tucker’s Tooth became one of the few Laugh-O-gram ventures to return a profit.

    Most of the picture consists of live action, which was much faster and cheaper to produce than animation. Children from Kansas City schools were recruited for the cast, especially for the two lead roles of Tommy Tucker, who takes good care of his teeth and his general appearance, and Jimmie Jones, who doesn’t – until he learns better. The role of Jimmie was played by a youngster named Jack Records. Nearly seven decades later, by then retired from a career in medicine, Dr. Records recalled his early association with Walt Disney with great pleasure. He also observed a private irony: “I never had any idea, as I was doing this, what a career I would have as a patient of dentists.” Animated inserts do appear in Tommy Tucker’s Tooth, interpolated in the live-action scenes to illustrate principles of dental care. Today it’s especially interesting to observe these vignettes, which make their points simply and effectively. It’s not difficult to see Walt’s future as an educational filmmaker in these scenes. Meanwhile, in 1922, the film accomplished both its goals: it effectively promoted dental care for children – and continued to circulate in the Kansas City area for years afterward for that purpose – and, at the same time, provided Laugh- O-gram Films with some badly needed income. Four years later, by then ensconced in Hollywood but facing a lull between distribution contracts, Walt again turned to Dr. McCrum. The result was a second Disney dental-care film: Clara Cleans Her Teeth.

    Excerpt from Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies: A Companion to the Classic Cartoon Series by Russell Merritt & J.B. Kaufman

    Created in 1923, directed by Walt Disney, animated by Disney, Ub Iwerks, Hugh Harman, Rudolf Ising, Carman “Max” Maxwell, Lorey Tague, and Otto Walliman, camera by Ub Iwerks and Rudolf Ising, technical directing by Hugh Harman and Cameran “Max” Maxwell and featuring Virginia Davis (Alice), Disney, Ub Iwerks, Hugh Harman, and Rudolph Ising.

    “Unable to recover from the financial disaster of the Pictorial Clubs contract, facing bankruptcy, Walt made one last picture in an effort to save Laugh-O-gram Films. While some filmmakers in reduced circumstances might have rushed out a quick, cheap production and taken their chances, Walt went to the opposite extreme and produced the most lavish, delightful, imaginative film he could manage. All the lessons he had learned in the previous two years, all his enthusiasm for the future of animation, were concentrated in this last effort. The film was Alice’s Wonderland.

    Reversing the device that the Fleischer studio and others had already used, of inserting an animated character into a live-action scene, Walt pictured a little girl, filmed in live action, entering into an animated world. But he didn’t stop with this simple reversal; instead he paved the way with an elaborate opening in which the girl visited a cartoon studio, observed a highly fanciful vision of animators at work – a vision perhaps representing her own imaginative view of the real thing – and then, excited over this experience, went to bed that night and dreamed her way into Cartoonland. The girl was a local four-year-old charmer named Virginia Davis, and the studio was none other than Laugh-O-gram’s own office.

    The resulting film is an appropriate valedictory to Walt’s filmmaking adventures in Kansas City. For today’s viewer it remains a thoroughly charming film, as well as a precious historical record: in the studio scenes we get a glimpse inside the Laugh-O-gram offices, as well as an engaging performance by Walt himself, alongside Ub Iwerks, Hugh Harman, Rudy Ising, and the other artists. The Cartoonland dream offers the most elaborate action and crowd scenes Walt and company could devise, the distilled essence of all the Laugh-O-grams (including, in fact, some stock animation scenes recycled from Jack the Giant Killer). We’re doubly fortunate today that this ambitious effort survives practically intact – missing only the final scene in which Alice, like Goldie Locks (or Little Nemo), awakens from her dream by tumbling out of bed. If one supreme effort of creativity could have saved the Laugh-O-gram studio, Alice’s Wonderland would have done it.

    Today, of course, we know that it didn’t; the company declared bankruptcy, and Walt left Kansas City for California to try his luck there. But we also know that, if Alice’s Wonderland didn’t achieve its intended goal, it did achieve something even better. Using this film as a sample reel, Walt sold his first successful series of films, the Alice Comedies – and his Hollywood career was effectively launched. Virginia Davis, so captivating as Alice in this initial effort, relocated with her parents to Los Angeles and continued in the role. The black cat who had appeared in all seven Laugh-O-grams, and who also turns up in this picture, would evolve into Julius, Alice’s sidekick and Walt’s first long-running cartoon character. And one of the legendary filmmaking careers, which would reach heights no one could have imagined in 1923, was on its way – built on a foundation that young Walt and his friends had established in Kansas City.”

    Excerpt from Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies: A Companion to the Classic Cartoon Series by Russell Merritt & J.B. Kaufman

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