An Interview with Bret Wood
producer of The Man Who Laughs DVD for Kino On Video

by Paula Vitaris

   If Conrad Veidt fans ruled the world, what a wonderful world this would be: all of Veidtís extant films would be released on home video in meticulously restored editions. But, alas, we donít rule the world, so we rely on companies like Kino, which specializes in theatrical and home video release of classic, foreign and independent film, to do the job for us. Kino has been good to Veidt fans, releasing Contraband, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Waxworks on DVD (other companies have released DVDs of The Beloved Rogue, The Indian Tomb, Casablanca, and The Thief of Bagdad, and other versions of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, including David Shepardís excellent edition for Image).

   Recently, Kino fulfilled a long-time dream of Veidt fans, releasing on September 30 a title longed for by not only Veidt fans, but lovers of silent, horror and classic films in general. That title is Universal's The Man Who Laughs, which had remained frustratingly unavailable on home video, except for bootleg tapes that were not hard to find, but were often of questionable quality. Kinoís new DVD is a treasure trove, featuring a restored edition of the film courtesy the Cineteca del Comune di Bologna, the original Movietone score restored by Universal, and a host of extras, including a 15-minute documentary on the making of The Man Who Laughs, footage of Veidt at home in Hollywood with his family, a gallery of rare photos, memorabilia and publicity material; a comparison of the American and European versions of the film; an excerpt from the Italian version, with its hand-painted title cards; an excerpt from Victor Hugoís original novel; and a booklet essay by John Soister, author of Conrad Veidt on Screen.

   Veidt, one of Germany's most popular film stars, had been brought to America in 1926 to play France's King Louis XI in Warner Bros./First National's The Beloved Rogue. He then moved over to Universal, where he first made A Man's Past (now lost) and The Man Who Laughs. First released in 1928 as a silent, Universal pulled the film from theaters, and then re-released it later that year with a a synchronized Movietone score that included some sound effects. Its director, the distinguished German filmmaker Paul Leni, had previously worked with Veidt in Waxworks (1924), in which Veidt had given an unforgettable performance as the paranoid Russian czar Ivan the Terrible. To this day, The Man Who Laughs remains one of the finest examples of German expressionism transplanted to American film, and Gywneplaine, whose face has been surgically distorted into a permanent and horrible smile, one of Veidtís most acclaimed performances. Despite painful prosthetic make-up, Veidt gives one of his most powerful and eloquent performances, using his large, expressive eyes and his body language to convey the characterís emotion when the rest of his face cannot. The Man Who Laughs was a success and Veidt went on to make one more film for Universal, The Last Performance, directed by Paul Fejos. The Last Performance for the most part was released as a silent, but the talkie era had definitely arrived, and despite the prospect of playing the title role in Universal's production of Dracula, Veidt felt his heavily accented English would hinder his acceptance in American sound film. (Admittedly, his accent would not have been a problem for Dracula.) He returned to Germany, where he once again took up his place as a preeminent actor until he was forced to flee to England after Hitler and the Nazi Party gained control of Germany. Veidt acted in English for the remainder of his career, first in England, and then in The United States, until his death in 1943.


   The Man Who Laughs takes place in England in the 17th century. Gwyneplaine (Veidt) is the only son of an English nobleman, Lord Clancharlie, who was murdered on orders of King James II while Gwyneplaine was still a boy. Little Gwyneplaine is handed over to "comprachicos": underground gypsy surgeons who operate on children to provide freakshow performers. The comprachicos carve Gwyneplaine's face into a fixed, grotesque smile. Abandoned in a frozen wasteland, the boy rescues an orphaned baby girl, and then finds shelter with a carnival traveler and self-styled "philosopher" named Ursus (Cesare Gravina). Ursus and the two children form a family, and Gwyneplaine grows up to become a popular actor and performer known as "The Man Who Laughs." He loves Dea (Mary Philbin), the baby girl, now a beautiful young woman. Dea is blind, but her condition allows her to see what others cannot discern behind the distorted smile: Gwyneplaine's noble soul. When the current monarch, Queen Anne, learns that Gwyneplaine is the heir to the Clancharlie title and estates, he is dragged into a complex web of politics and intrigue that threatens to destroy his life and that of his loved ones.

   Bret Wood, producer of special projects for Kino on Video, oversaw the transfer of The Man Who Laughs for the new video edition. His other DVD productions for Kino include The Erich Von Stroheim Collection (Blind Husbands, Foolish Wives, The Great Gabbo, Queen Kelly and the documentary The Man You Loved to Hate), Griffith Masterworks, Keaton Plus, German Horror Classics (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Golem, Nosferatu, and Waxworks), The William Wyler Collection and many others. Bret is the writer/director of the feature-length documentary Hell's Highway: The True Story of Highway Safety Films, recently released on DVD. His other documentaries include Kingdom of Shadows, which explores horror film in the silent era, and Lon Chaney: Behind the Mask (both produced for Kino on Video). He is the co-author of Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Film (Midnight Marquee Press), and has edited two volumes of screenplays: Queen Kelly: The Complete Screenplay by Erich Von Stroheim and Marihuana, Motherhood & Madness: Three Screenplays from the Exploitation Cinema of Dwain Esper (both for Scarecrow Press). His film-related essays have appeared in Film Comment, Sight and Sound, Positif, Video Watchdog and Filmfax, among other publications.

A resident of Atlanta, Bret spoke about Kinoís new DVD of The Man Who Laughs during dinner at a restaurant half a block from the entrance to Emory University.

Q: Isnít this the first time The Man Who Laughs has been released officially on home video?

A: Right. Itís the legal premiere of The Man Who Laughs. Itís been around in some very inferior quality bootleg editions, but weíre proud that we finally got the official release.

Q: Why hasnít The Man Who Laughs been released on video before?

A: Itís a long story, mainly having to do with the difficulty of an independent video distributor getting access to studio films. A studio like Universal doesnít see a lot of value in releasing older films like The Man Who Laughs, because in their dollars and cents viewpoint, itís small potatoes. But for a small company like Kino, itís a great release. Itís something that we have been wanting to do for a long time. This is how it happened. A long time ago we picked up a documentary about William Wyler called Directed by William Wyler, and we didnít have anything to release it with; itís hard to release a one-hour documentary on a filmmaker by itself. As a favor, Catherine Wyler, William Wylerís daughter, asked Universal to give us two or three films to release with the documentary. Thatís how we got Counsellor-at-Law, The Good Fairy, and The Love Trap [all directed by Wyler and released on DVD by Kino]. Suddenly we had a relationship with Universal, which was a godsend. We asked them if theyíd be interested in continuing the relationship, and they said yes, and The Man Who Laughs was the film film on our list. The next movies on our list are Applause and Love Me Tonight [available November 25]. Weíre finishing up the DVDs of those two right now. We hope to delve very deeply into Universalís vaults and release a lot of other films like this that have never been out on home video before.

Q: The Man Who Laughs has certainly been one of the most wanted titles by fans of all sorts of movies -- silent film fans, horror fans, Conrad Veidt fans, and Paul Leni fans, for example.

A: Thereís been a big crossover. I didnít realize how significant a film it was in the history of German expressionism and in the history of the American horror film, until I saw it and started putting all these pieces together. Itís a crucial transitional film; its themes and look form a bridge between the silent form and the sound form of horror movies.

Q: Is that something that came out when you were working on the documentary?

A: I would attribute it to John Soister, who provided an essay which was a foundation for the documentary. The essay was too long for the documentary, so I took Johnís essay, boiled it down, and made a 15-minute distillation of some of the themes he wrote about.

Q: Thatís the essay that appears in its entirety on the insert of the DVD case.

A: Right.

Q: This sounds like a wonderful new relationship, because up to now Universal has been slow in releasing their old films, especially silents, on DVD. Not counting their classic monster movies, of course.

A: Yes, itís my understanding that they didnít maintain their films very well at all, and a lot of key Universal films survived in the format of Show-at-Home prints, which were 16mm prints marketed to collectors and hobbyists. The 35mm elements are long gone for films like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Von Stroheimís The Merry-Go-Round.

Q: After you had entered this relationship with Universal, and obtained permission to release The Man Who Laughs on DVD, what source material did you use for the DVD?

A: Thatís a long and tangled story. At first we were just going to take what Universal gave us, which is what we had done in the past, because they had the best material. And in this case we got some of the material in, and it was not pristine. While that was going on, we found out that the Cineteca del Comune di Bologna had done a restoration a few years ago. Their restoration utilized a print from the British Film Institute in London. We had dealt with the Cineteca in the past for our release of Waxworks. Weíve also gotten a lot of films that had been restored by LíImmagine Ritrovata, which was the lab that did the restoration work on The Man Who Laughs. So we knew their work and liked it, and thatís why we went with that version.

Q: What kind of source material was provided to you by Universal and Italy?

A: We received a Digital Betacam master from Universal, and a PAL Digital Betacam from Italy, which we had converted to NTSC. We have a place that does really good PAL to NTSC conversions. The only noticeable difference between a PAL to NTSC conversion and original NTSC is, in my eyes, that you don't get as many clean still frames in the PAL conversion. It has to do with converting the running speed; you get a lot of frames that are composites of two different frames -- like a double exposure -- instead of crisp individual frames. It is invisible to the naked eye when running at full speed.

Q: There have been some complaints about PAL to NTSC transfers, most recently with the Region 1 releases of the Warner Bros. Chaplin DVDs.

A: Yes, I've heard a lot about the Chaplin PAL-to-NTSC problems. Fortunately, we've been lucky in this regard. Some of our PAL-to-NTSC films include Nosferatu, The Holy Mountain, Waxworks, and The Golem, and we haven't gotten any complaints.

Q: What about the 4 percent time differential between PAL and NTSC?

A: We didn't slow down The Man Who Laughs because when you use a computer to slow down a film's speed you often get a little "jitter" in the image. Certain passages were slowed down very slightly in order to make the music synch points line up. Regarding the running speed, usually European theatres project at 25 fps but we specified that the film be transferred at 24 (actually 23.97 or something like that) because we wanted to make sure it matched the score.

Q: What kind of title cards were on the Italian print?

A: The print provided by the Cineteca di Bologna didnít have English intertitles; it had the original hand-painted Italian intertitles. They told us that that had the English intertitles, but when we got them, it turned out that they were not the originals. Some had been re-typeset. So then we had to find a print to provide the English intertitles to cut into the film. And for that we used a combination of Universal material and also a 16mm print we got from a collector. As you can see from the documentary, there are some slight deviations between the European cut and the American release. For the most part, theyíre the same film, theyíre just cut slightly differently, or there will be shots taken from a slightly different angle. There were a couple of brief scenes that were missing from the Italian restoration but we were able to get them from another print and put them back into it. Itís the Italian restoration plus two extra scenes, plus the original American intertitles.

Q: What were the two extra scenes that came from the other source?

A: The Italian version was missing a close-up of Barkilphedro [once King Jamesí jester, now a high-ranking servant of Queen Anne] kissing Duchess Josianaís foot. So we put that back in. Itís a pretty brief shot. Thereís another shot where Ursus is trying to keep Dea from learning that Gwyneplaine has been arrested, and pretends to introduce him to the audience, which really consists of the company's members. There's a very nice scene where Ursus first puts his hand on the part of the curtain that says "Man," and then puts his hand on another part of the curtain that says "Laughs." That was missing from the Italian version. It was a very nicely directed little moment, itís probably five or ten seconds, but it was important enough to put back in the film.

Q: So basically the Italians put back as much as they could and then you found these other two scenes in the American print.

A: Right. Also, when the Italians had done their restoration, they had someone compose an new score, because the original Movietone score no longer matched.

Q: That was the score composed by Gabriel Thibaudeau to accompany the restored film when it was screened at film festivals?

A: I believe so. We wanted to go back to the original Movietone score, which for the most part matched the film, since the European version is pretty much the same as the American version, but with some slight changes. Occasionally the audio would get out of sync, just by a little bit, and so we carefully made the music sync up with the picture. We did that by slightly shortening or slightly extending an intertitle to get a few seconds. In some cases, we slowed or slightly accelerated the pace of the music. We didnít speed up the film. We used every other way we could to get the film to sync up again.

Q: Was there any thought about putting Thibaudeauís new score on the DVD too?

A: Briefly, but it was not financially possible for us to do it, so we went with the original score. Also, Universal had put a lot of time into restoring the Movietone score. We werenít expecting them to do this, but when we said, "Okay, we need the audio," they said, "Well, itís going to take us three weeks because we want to do a really careful digital restoration." So that was a bonus. They cut out all the pops and scratches from the Movietone disc, and played with the levels to filter out some noise. Hereís a footnote to the story about the audio. There was one thing which I was really disappointed not to be able to use, merely because it would be difficult to show it off effectively so that people would know what it was. The Man Who Laughs is ten reels, and we had a duplicate music take with one of the reels. The duplicate was essentially the same music, but with some differences in the orchestration. I thought, do we put the duplicate audio as an alternative soundtrack just under that one reel? Ultimately I wound up not using it, because even though it was a neat thing to have, there were no great discoveries in it. You couldnít really illuminate the filmmaking process in any way; itís just the music, only slightly different. So unfortunately that didnít get used.

Q: After you obtained the material from Italy and Universal, did Kino perform any further restoration work to prepare it for DVD?

A: Other than combining all the elements, thatís about it. As far as cleaning up the image, we did re-do the opening credits that Universal had provided, because they were really dirty and scratchy. We did some video noise reduction so they would be a little cleaner.

Q: I was surprised to see the Universal logo with the little plane going around the earth.

A: Thatís not historically accurate. But Kino really wanted to put something on there to brand it as a Universal film, because generally Universal didnít use studio logos like that at that time. They would a couple of years later. So itís a slight embellishment. I think that we got that logo from our Old Dark House release.

Q: So basically you would say that the European version is every bit as good as the American version? Is there any major difference?

A: No, there isnít. I watched the two versions side by side to make sure we werenít missing anything. Even if we had gone with the American release, I would have wanted to borrow some things from the Italian version. For instance, the bathing sequence has some slightly different angles that are a little bit more revealing, and there was maybe another sequence where the Italian version had something that the American version didnít. But once we had almost assembled our version we found out that the Library of Congress has a really beautiful quality print of the American version. By that time we had done all the work for our DVD and it was pretty much finished, so we werenít able to use the Library of Congress version. I donít know that we would have been able to use that anyway. I guess we could have taken that version and then cut pieces of the Italian one into that version, but thereís no easy way or no definite way to do it.

Q: The Man Who Laughs was not a tinted film, was it?

A: As far as we could tell from documents from the time, it wasnít tinted. When in doubt, we usually tint, because people like tinted films better. But it was pretty clear that it wasnít tinted, and we wanted to observe that.

Q: Are there any plans for releasing the Kino version of The Man Who Laughs to theaters, like you did with the restored version of Metropolis?

A: No, just because all the work we did was on video, so there is no 35mm print that blends the American version with the European version the way we have.

Q: Tell me about the extras on the DVD.

A: Originally, I had planned to include a documentary called Kingdom of Shadows, which I had made for Kino a couple of years ago. Itís about 90 minutes long and it explores the origins of horror in silent films. It goes into German expressionism and even some D.W. Griffith films, Witchcraft Through the Ages, things like that. But we werenít able to include any clips from The Man Who Laughs when we made this two years ago. Since itís a history of the silent horror film without The Man Who Laughs, I proposed that instead of using Kingdom of Shadows, we create an original documentary focused strictly on The Man Who Laughs and save Kingdom of Shadows for another time. Thatís probably a better idea, because a new documentary allowed us to get into the making of The Man Who Laughs. Someday Kingdom of Shadows will come out on DVD.

   The extras also include a comparison of some of the scenes from the American version with the Italian version, which I did mainly to let people show the differences between the two. If youíre concerned about seeing the Italian version instead of the American one, you shouldnít be. Itís not so much a matter of content but of just slight difference in the form, the camera angles and the editing. I also wanted to give people a sample of the Italian intertitles. For a while we talked about recreating those in English. I was going to take the Italian titles, paint out the text, and then insert English text, but Kino wanted to go with the original American release intertitles. I think ultimately that is a good idea, plus it saved me a lot of work. But I did want to at least show some of the Italian titles, because theyíre pretty impressive.

   We also have home movie footage. We got that from Rusty Castleton, who is a film collector whoís provided a lot of film material to us over the years. It was originally produced as part of a documentary about German actors and European actors who had moved to America and now worked in the Hollywood film industry, showing what has happened to the cream of the German crop of actors. We used just an excerpt showing Conrad Veidt and his family. Veidtís only on film very briefly, but it was such a rare thing we wanted to have it in there. So even though he appears only briefly, itís nice to at least have a little snapshot of his world and to see him relaxing with his family and Greta Garbo and Emil Jannings.

Q: Where did you get the photos that make up the DVDís photo gallery?

A: Universal had very little material to share. They gave us a disc of photos, some of which were pretty nice. But we really went to the collectors, because that is where the best material is usually available with silent films. Thatís because the studios have not always archived their photographs and advertisements and other material. John Soister was first. He provided us with a lot of material and then we talked to TONICK Productions. The company name is an acronynm derived from the first names of Antonia G. Carey and Nick J. Palazzo, two collectors who are absolutely devoted The Man Who Laughs. They sent us a disc with a collection of photographs, ads, art work, and things fans had made over the years, like model kits. There was a great Man Who Laughs ring and latex masks. It's an incredible archive of The Man Who Laughs material. Unfortunately, we couldnít use it all. Besides Tonick, Werner Mohr, Jessica Rosner, Rubin Sherman, Joseph Yranski, and John Soister, through connections with someone in Germany, provided us with a lot of Spanish, Italian, Swedish and German advertisements for the film. Finally, we included some excerpts from the novel. I wanted to show the very different ending of Hugoís book.

Q: Unfortunately, an English translation of The Man Who Laughs is not in print anymore, although I found a copy in the library. It was quite a slog to get through, though that may be due to a rather old-fashioned translation.

A: It starts off well, and it ends well, but it gets all caught up in the politics of royalty. It's set in England, and Victor Hugo wanted to demonstrate how much he knew about the way English society works. Itís definitely a different ending, and I think J. Grubb Alexander, who adapted the novel to the screen, did a great job of whittling the story down to its narrative essence. I liked the movieís ending better than Hugoís ending.

Q: The unhappy ending in the novel does seem to come out of the blue.

A: Itís thrown in suddenly at the last minute. Oh no, the shock! And this long drawn-out death scene where sheís able to say good-bye and everyoneís able to savor the moment.

Q: About the documentary, how much material did you have to go through, how long did it take you to sort through all that and put it together, and how did you decide what to use? Did you want to make it longer than 15 minutes?

A: The documentary was supposed to be 20 minutes. That was my assignment, make a 20-minute piece. I made it the way I felt it should be made, leaving in all the relevant material. Some of the clips lasted a bit too long, so I shorted them to keep it moving. Much to my disappointment, it wound up being only 15 minutes, but I think itís better that way even though itís disappointing that itís five minutes shorter. But at least it moves along a little better and conveys the same essential information. It was pretty easy to decide what to go in there based on what film elements we had access to. Also, since I was working from John Soisterís essay, there were only so many directions I could go in. Certain things I wanted to definitely cover, so I pretty much knew in advance what I wanted to put in it. It was just a matter of keeping the pace going and recording narration that didnít have to spell everything out, in order to allow the clips to tell the story a little bit.

Q: Apart from basing it on Johnís essay, did he have any further input?

A: I sent him the narration script I had written and then he sent back a couple of comments. So he worked as an advisor.

Q: Was there any discussion about recording a commentary for the DVD?

A: We explored the possibility, but generally we donít do commentaries unless the director is available, which in this case was impossible. Occasionally we do make exceptions. For instance, our upcoming DVD of Love Me Tonight will have an audio commentary by Miles Kreuger, who is head of the Institute of the American Musical. We really havenít done any commentaries other than that for quite a while.

Q: Now that youíve seen the movie many times while working on the DVD, how do you feel about it personally and what do you like about it?

A: Iíve always loved The Man Who Laughs. I didnít realize how historically important it was until I learned a lot more about how it was made and the different people who were involved, and how much it really was one of the key films in establishing the Universal horror cycle. There are so many elements that influenced films like Frankenstein and Dracula and Tod Browningís work. You have to wonder if American films would have been able to capture the style of German expressionist films had it not been for someone like Paul Leni, who came here and re-interpreted German expressionist film in an American studio situation.

Q: What's your impression of Conrad Veidt?

A: Everyoneís great disappointment is that we donít know what would have happened if Veidt had stayed in the United States, because he certainly would have been at the forefront of Universalís films, especially if he had played the role of Dracula instead of Bela Lugosi. I donít know how official it was that he was going to be the lead, but based on how heíd been treated by [Universal founder and studio head] Carl Laemmle in the past, it seems pretty definite that he would have been Dracula. And it really makes one wonder, if Universalís Dracula would have been a lot more like the German expressionist films with Veidt in the role, because Bela Lugosi puts a completely different aura around the character than Veidt would have. Itís amazing to speculate what Dracula would have been like with the actor who played Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Your mind gets to spin when you think about the possibilities. Itís amazing that he was able to work within the constraints of the special makeup in The Man Who Laughs. Lon Chaney, for example, designed his own make-up and was able to tailor it for himself. He knew what he had to act around. He could do it in a certain way that he knew he could express himself, whereas Veidt had this very artificial smile put on his face. I donít know how much control he had over the design, but I would guess not very much. It would be a pretty big challenge, not merely to have to act with this frozen expression and with makeup thatís impairing the use of your mouth. Itís just a shame that he didnít feel comfortable enough to keep working in the American film industry at that time. But I can certainly understand his reluctance, because so many actors werenít careful about their image and just went along with whatever they were offered. I always respect someone whoís willing to step away from a great opportunity if they know itís maybe not the right thing to do. We can say, yes, he should have stayed in America, but in reality, he probably did the right thing, because he may have been a colossal flop as Dracula because his English wouldnít have been good enough and that could have ruined his career. You never know. So he did what he felt was right, and weíve got to back him up.

Q: Any more Conrad Veidt films coming from Kino?

A: If The Man Who Laughs does really well, we might release The Last Performance and The Last Warning [directed by Paul Leni], so you get a little bit more Veidt and a little bit more Leni. But because those films are so little known, we thought it would be stronger to come out with The Man Who Laughs, which is better known, in hopes that it does well and that it would encourage us to release more suspense-oriented Universal silents.

Q: What about some of the silents Veidt did back in Germany? A favorite of mine is The Student of Prague. And thereís a really nice restored version of The Hands of Orlac, for instance.

A: We donít have immediate plans for The Hands of Orlac, but the German silent films have been so popular and we love doing them so much that itís inevitable that weíre going to get around to doing some of Veidt's other films. One I want to do is Opium.

Q: That title has been restored, too.

A: Right. Itís one of the few exploitation films that still exist. We had actually considered The Hands of Orlac a few years ago before the rights reverted to Germany, but now that weíre on a good relationship with the German studios, itís back within the realm of possibility. Up until just a few years ago, all the German silent films were in the public domain, but with GATT, the German film industry was allowed to re-copyright its films if they could claim authorship. So suddenly all the great German films after 1922, say from 1923 onward, were re-copyrighted and suddenly films like Metropolis, The Last Laugh, and Faust, were owned by the studios again. But we managed to make deals with them and get rights to them. We even officially licensed films still in the public domain, like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu, as a goodwill gesture. We crusaded for years to get Metropolis. We finally got that and that was a really big hit for us. And that has allowed us to get a lot of lesser known German films, like The Holy Mountain starring Leni Riefenstahl. I love that one although it has not done particularly well. And we just got Tartuffe which is coming out as part of a Murnau box set [available November 11]. That set will also have a documentary about Murnau called The Way to Murnau. Itís a 35-minute documentary produced in Germany for which we translated and re-recorded the narration in English.

Q: What else is in the Murnau box set?

A: Mostly things that weíve already released Ė Nosferatu, Faust, The Last Laugh, the new disc of Tartuffe and The Way to Murnau, and we made a deal with Milestone to include Tabu. So weíve got all the key films until you get to Sunrise and City Girl which Murnau made at Fox, but you canít have everything. One day weíll work with Fox. That's our ambition, to slowly get in the good graces of all the major studios.

Q: We hope you do get in their good graces! Thank you very much for this interview.

A: Youíre welcome.

Read more about The Man Who Laughs and Kino's other releases at www.kino.com

 

Copyright © 2003 by Paula Vitaris.  All Rights Reserved.
Photos courtesy of Kino Video.



Published by Gilda Tabarez at GTabarez@aol.com.


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