B-Movie Review – The Gypsy Moths

The Gypsy Moths

Released: August 28, 1969
Run Time: 107 minutes
Genre: Drama/Action
Production: John Frankenheimer/Edward Lewis Productions Inc.
Country: US

Burt Lancaster as Mike Rettig
Deborah Kerr as Elizabeth Brandon
Gene Hackman as Joe Browdy
Scott Wilson as Malcolm Webson
William Windom as V. John Brandon
Bonnie Bedalia as Annie Burke
Sheree North as Waitress
Carl Reindel as Pilot
Ford Rainey as Stand Owner
John Napier as Dick Donford
Patty Plenty as Topless Dancer

Produced by Hal Landers, Edward Lewis,Bobby Roberts
Cinematography: Phillip Lathrop
Film Editing: Henry Berman
Art Direction: George Davis, Cary Odell
Costume Design: Bill Thomas
Production Management: Jim Henderling
Sound: Franklin Milton, Tom Overton
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Stunts: J. David Jones
Writers: William Hanley, James Drought (novel)
Director: John Frankemheimer

Synopsis: Barnstorming parachutists come to a small Kansas town, to perform parachute jumps, and break some hearts, in this genuinely bad movie.

But it has Burt Lancaster in it !

A lot of very good films came out in 1969, ‘Easy Rider’, ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’, ‘Midnight Cowboy’, and the way movies were made had changed. Movie makers latched on to a movement or ideology that was shaping America. So why not make a movie about the up and coming sport of parachuting?

It’s got:

Burt Lancaster (‘Elmer Gantry’, ‘Airport’, ‘Field of Dreams’, winner of an Oscar™) !

Deborah Kerr (‘From Here to Eternity’) !

Gene Hackman (‘Bonnie and Clyde’, ‘The French Connection’) !

Scott Wilson ( ‘In Cold Blood’, ‘Junebug’, ‘The Walking Dead’) !

And directed by John Frankenheimer (‘The Manchurian Candidate’, ‘Birdman of Alcatraz’)!

With a cast like that, what could possibly go wrong ? Well, first of all, it is about parachuting/skydiving, I am guessing the ‘Pan – American Badminton Congress’ forbid the producers from exploiting their sport into a silly, shameless movie. Or the International Tiddley Winks Federation’ refused an offer of tens of dollars to be represented on film. I am not saying that parachuting is a waste of time or anything, but making a film centered around the sport can be rather difficult. I mean, how many of you readers have seen a film about people who parachute for a living? They filmmakers did base the film on a book of the same name, written by James Drought, who (you guessed it) was a paratrooper in the Army.

As it turns out, the best part of the whole movie is the parachute jumps that the stuntmen make and film. They are good. The cinematography is great for the jumps, but the rest of the film suffers, as it seems to be shot on Super 8 film. Beyond that, the acting is wooden, the dialogue is clunky and seems to be written by a newspaper reporter. The plot angles all over the place, and there are scenes from out of nowhere that just pop in and out of the movie. So after all that, are you ready to take a look at ‘The Gypsy Moths’? Let’s jump in !

We start, naturally enough, in an airplane, a white airplane with red trim and N22418 painted on the side. Two skydivers jump out and plummet towards earth, now a third person. After going through a stunt high up in the air, they open their chutes with a BANG. These are the main characters from the movie, Mike (Lancaster), Browdy (Hackman) and Malcolm (Wilson). As the plane flies over the airfield below, we see the name of the town painted on top of the hangars, we are in rural Bridgeville, Kansas. Lancaster lands first, as he opened his chute very close to the ground. After landing, Wilson berates Lancaster for being “Too damn close!”, which Burt replies “We gave them a show”. Regardless, the large crowd in the bleachers are on their feet cheering non-stop for these daring, parachuting stuntmen. Two young kids are seen helping pull in the chutes and staring at the camera.

Opening titles and music accompany the scene of the three men traveling down the highway in an old car and small trailer. They seem to travel quite a way, when they pull into the next stop on their performing itinerary . They must have traveled in a circle, as the town is also called Bridgeville. They pull over to a fruit stand that also sells root beer out of a barrel. Very strange observation here, the man who runs the stand is shown sitting in a chair napping as the guys pull up. On the sleeping man’s chest is an open magazine with the cover blurred out. Well, I just had to find out why in the hell they needed to blur out the cover, so I searched the web and came up with the closest answer being that it was some sort of porn magazine (which wouldn’t show full nudity on the cover, and yes, there is some nudity in the film), or it was a kiddie porn mag with a photo of a nude 7 year old boy breastfeeding from a nude woman. Yech…. I mean why include that in the film? The film was rated ‘M’, which in the day was a step above an ‘R’.

So the skydivers get out and drink some root beer and we get the true sense of the shallow characters that inhabit this film. Lancaster is the grizzled, yet likable veteran jumper who talks evenly and seems to have a ability to take it all in and adjust to any situation. Hackman is the other veteran jumper, who also is the outgoing business side of the traveling skydiver entrepreneurship. Lastly is Wilson, the ‘new’ guy who seems to question everything, whether it be the vets or the whole notion that what he is doing is making any sense. As they stumble through this movie, it becomes obvious of a couple things. First up is that skydiving is dangerous, very dangerous, and that safety is important above everything else. Second is the hint that the director told them to take everything about this film very seriously and to act accordingly, which they do to the most annoying degree. Anyway, the talk at the root beer stand is about the expected crowds and they just sort of argue through the scene.

Hackman now is at the airstrip talking to the ‘new’ pilot, and checking out the ‘new’ plane they are going to jump from. Funny thing is, it is the same pilot and plane from the other ‘Bridgeville’ city they left earlier in the movie. The plane even has the same number (N22418) on it. I thought maybe I missed something and went back to the beginning of the movie, thinking maybe the plane belongs to the skydivers. But that doesn’t make sense, as they could just load the plane and fly to the next show. And the dialogue between Hackman and the pilot clearly indicates that they have never met and the plane is supposed to be different than the first plane in the film. Whatever… Lancaster and Wilson are in the hangar making posters for the show, when Wilson says he is from the town of Bridgeville (although he doesn’t say if it is the first or second Bridgeville). He mentions his Aunt Elizabeth and Uncle John. Hackman and pilot are in the plane flying over the town, Hackman throws out handbills advertising the upcoming skydiving performance. Meanwhile, Wilson is on the phone with his relations and gets permission to stop by for a visit.

The guys leave to go to the aunt and uncle’s house, when the discussion turns to the stunts that they will be doing in the show. Hackman asks Lancaster if he is going to do ‘IT’, ‘IT’ being the ‘Cape Jump’ Stunt. The tension mounts as we wait to hear what the ‘Cape Jump is all about, then the tension fizzles out as the car is pulled over by a cop. They next appear in court for littering (handbills from the plane), in front of a wise ass judge. They pay a fine of $50 and proceed on. I don’t know why the director needed that scene, all it did was interrupt the ‘Cape Jump’ explanation that everyone is dying to hear about. Will the ‘Cape Jump’ secrets ever be revealed?

So after the exciting and thrilling first 20 minutes of the movie played out, we now are bewildered and perplexed by the 2nd act which is truly terrible. I don’t really know if the script is following the book, or if the screenwriters just made stuff up, but this part of the movie is just awful. It meanders around and falls flat from uneven scenes, to scenes that are just confusing, stupid and unnecessary.

The guys pull up to a very nice Victorian house on a very nice street. Wilson runs up to the door and is greeted by the lovely and classy Deborah Kerr, she plays Aunt Elizabeth, and she smiles a painful grin, and that is the last time anyone in this household smiles. Lancaster and Hackman are invited inside as we meet Uncle John (William Windom) and the inside of a very nice Victorian house. Kerr gets the group some tasty lemonade as the skydivers and Windom carry on a conversation that has about nine words total. Awkward…. Kerr mentions that it is the 4th of July weekend and it is hot outside and wants to open a window, Windom says that opening a window only makes it hotter. Electrifying conversation like that comes to a complete halt when Lancaster leers at Kerr as Windom watches from his chair as he smokes his pipe and wears a long sleeved shirt and tie in his hot house. The leering by Lancaster is retuned by Kerr as we watch in complete befuddlement as to what in the hell is going on. They have known each other 20 seconds and the sexual heat is turned up to hot, boiling hot, scorching hot.

Windom tells Kerr she is late for her ‘meeting’, so she excuses herself, when Windom takes the pipe out of his mouth, and suggests she take one of the guys to the ‘meeting’ to give a talk on the fabulous and riveting sport of skydiving, Lancaster volunteers. Lancaster and Kerr drive off as Hackman looks on, Wilson meanwhile is given the chore of putting the skydiving gear in the garage out of the way of approaching rain (what happens when there is no garage handy?). On the drive to the meeting, Kerr and Lancaster discuss the thrill, danger and excitement of skydiving in a monotone and boring conversation. At the meeting, Lancaster exhibits his true acting style by giving a talk on skydiving that is both interesting and informative, even as a viewer, I learned a bit. Then we return to the inescapable bad flick that follows.

Cut to a school band room, where a middle aged high school band director is directing the band. He is portrayed as a highly obsessed, cartoonish character, who wants the clarinets ‘just right’. He is sweating profusely in his long sleeve shirt, tie and buttoned up sport jacket, while he has a lit cigarette in his hand. He berates the poor students who are also sweating buckets in the room. It appears to be hot (it is the 4th of July weekend in Kansas). This scene makes absolutely no sense, is overacted, and is actually filmed worse than the rest of the movie. The band director acts like he is an escaped lunatic who just snorted a couple lines of some good drug. And then…Cut !

After getting the equipment put away in the garage, and sweating rivers without a shirt on, Wilson puts on a long sleeved shirt and heads back into the house. He is greeted by some sweet piano music and meets the sweet piano player, Annie (played by Bonnie Bedalia, her film debut, and the only actor in this film who stands out. I remember her from “Then Came Bronson” among many other roles, she is also Macaulay Culkin’s aunt). Wilson and her strike up a conversation where we learn she is a border at the house, and is going to college.

After the women’s meeting is over, Lancaster and Kerr are alone in the room while he folds and packs the chute. Out of complete nowhere she asks “Why do you have contempt for me, for everyone in this town?”. This just comes flying out her mouth and it is ridiculous, because it is not shown in the film so far how Lancaster feels about anything really, well, except how dangerous skydiving is and how you got to be safe blah blah blah… And the fact is that even Lancaster looks at her like she just went off script. So does she hate him or does she want to get to know him better? I guess we will see later on or not.

Lancaster and Wilson talk about old times and Lancaster spiels on about ‘Appleton’ and the time he almost died. I was all set to hear the story, but the producers and writers decided otherwise and we move on to dinner in the weirdo’s house with Kerr and Windom. While eating dinner they talk about, what else, skydiving, and Windom asks about the most dangerous stunt they perform. It is, of course, the ‘Cape Jump’ that only Lancaster is allowed to do. Why only Lancaster? Hell, you will never find out watching this movie, Lancaster spends the whole dinner ogling that hot, 48 year old Kerr sitting across from him. And Windom sits there, sees this going on, and does nothing. And on top of that, the ‘Cape Jump’ is still an unexplained mystery it seems the movie doesn’t want you to know about. After eating their food, the three jumpers glide out the door to get a beer at a nice quiet tavern down the road.

Oh brother…    IN!… YOUR!… FACE! tassels being twirled in a sleaze dive bar, in a almost absurd attempt to introduce some nudity into the movie.  A stripper with tassels does the tease while the Lancaster, Hackman and Wilson trio watch intently as they order drinks. Hackman takes on the heavy pervert persona as he hits endlessly on the waitress (played by Sherree North). The dancer/stripper/tassle spinner is  Patty Plenty, whose claim to fame is pretty much this performance in this movie, my impression is someone owed her a favor and casted her for payment. The whole scene is laughable from start to finish as Lancaster and Wilson almost seem to refuse to want to be part of this horrid acting, the two soon excuse themselves and leave. As they walk down the street, the now infamous and unexplained ‘Cape Jump’ is once again discussed, with still no tangible lead on what it is all about. Lancaster goes back to Kerr’s house while Wilson, I imagine, is driving out to surprise the Clutters.

Lancaster stands outside the Kerr house as he watches moths (obviously very fake moths) flitter around a lamp post light at the Kerr residence. With that scene we have a title – The Gypsy Moths, bravo. The house is dark as Lancaster and Kerr meet in the kitchen. The talk is of politeness, being subtle and direct, and they head out the door for a walk as Windom stands at the upstairs window, and watches them leave for a romantic moonlit walk. I always wondered how Windom’s character could stand without being in the possession of a spine. Kerr drones on with a ‘poor me’ story from 20 years prior which explains her dreadful acting up to this point in the film. Seems she was jilted and is now in an unhappy marriage. Lancaster listens intently as only he can, and they head back to the house. Wilson and Bedalia have a nice conversation and almost hold each other’s hands before they part, as the scene fizzles out. Hackman, on the other hand, has scored a date with North and they weave drunkenly down the avenue to her place for Kinky 101.

Lancaster has been there all of 24 hours as he and Kerr are naked on the couch banging away. A nude scene. With Lancaster and a 48 year old Kerr. It sounds just awful. It looks the same. Why in the world we needed to see Ms. Kerr’s sagging breast is beyond me. Why she agreed to do this is beyond me. Why it was even proposed as a scene is beyond me. I’ve seen worse, but this is just unnecessary IMO. So those two are pounding the couch as Windom, Wilson and Bedalia are in the house also, just ready to catch them in the act, how naughty !!!

Hackman and North are in bed taking a break from the torrid sex, she’s asleep as he mumbles on about how he is not going to do this forever ( the skydiving or the whoring around?), and that he has other plans. Back to the sex couch as Lancaster looks dreamily at the ceiling as Kerr saws some logs in the wet spot. Now there is rain and thunder which means the skydivers may have to cancel, oh no ! Kerr retires to her bedroom as we watch Windom laying on his side, eyes wide open, blank look on his face… He knows… For added comedic relief, we see Hackman, presumably the next morning, at a church service, praying to God with a very worried look on his face. Is this to symbolize the heavy stress and scariness of being only hours away from tossing oneself from an airplane? Or a plea to the Almighty for forgiveness in being in such a pointless movie?

Lancaster and Kerr reunite in the garage as Lancaster arranges the trailer, Kerr informs him that he is not the first guy she has cheated on her husband with. So now we find out that she pretty much sleeps with anyone passing through, skydivers, circus folk, salesmen, what a slut ! Lancaster asks her to leave town with him (he has known her about 2 days) and she refuses. Lots of discussion and hugging and crying.  Now on to the kitchen where the discussion among the three jumpers is about being scared to jump or something. A pissed off Hackman punches Wilson and the fight ends. Kerr walks in and things settle down as the pre jump jitters reverberate in the room. Lancaster though is calm as a cucumber.

Back to the high school band practice room. The middle age band director looks like he has been on a three day caffeine/nicotine/cough syrup binge as he is soaked in sweat, smoking his cigarette and has removed the jacket and undone his tie. He has that extreme look of intense concentration on his face as he leads the band. The kids in the band are wearing sunglasses inside as they beat the drums and toot the horns. Again, this scene of the band practice makes no sense and is really annoying bad acting.

JUMP DAY ! We head to the airport which is in a flurry of activity, people are pulling in to watch the show, chutes are getting prepped, an ambulance shows up and is told to light the lights and sound the siren for special effects, an old portable record player is handed to the guy in charge of the PA system and told to play a record. The excitement and drama builds as we speculate on the stunts to be performed, and especially anticipating the much talked about, but little known ‘Cape Jump’. Lancaster, Hackman and Wilson exit the hangar to much fanfare as they ride out on the wings of the plane, waving to the crowd. Two young kids from the previous skydiving show, in a supposedly different town, at the beginning of the film, are there helping out the guys, in the same clothes, which leads to the conclusion that all the jump scenes and airstrip scenes were filmed at the same place, even the audience looks the same. Windom and Bedalia are seated together, but Kerr refuses to attend, she would rather spend her time looking at the wall at home, dreaming of a better life, and a better movie to be in at this point. It is July 3rd, hot, and Windom is dressed in his suit and tie in the full sun as are others in the crowd. The local strippers from the sleaze bar are cheering Hackman on, but fortunately they left the tassels and sparkle panties at home.

The guys give the young pilot a bunch of instructions on what to do, but it seems to be the same pilot from before so it is a waste of film as the pilot should already be prepared. With the stands now full, the plane and the skydivers take off. In the air it looks like they have switched pilots, I don’t know if it is the hat and sunglasses, but it appears to be a different person, at least 10 years older.

CUT THE ENGINES !!! They jump and open the chutes to a loud bang. They land. The crowd goes wild. The jumping scenes are actually quite well done as we now have relieved the cast of any acting duties and we watch the stuntmen do their stuff. I must add that even though the filming of the jumps was quite well done, it’s basically the same thing over and over with a bit of a twist in each jump that no one from the ground can really see. Now we are lead to believe that the crowd sits in the hot sun as the plane lands, picks up the guys, and takes to the air again six different times. Between jumps we see Windom has now put on an overcoat so he can savor the searing heat even more. Quick shot of Kerr in her kitchen as she contemplates doing the dishes or downing a pint of Smirnoff™. She silently and pointlessly stares into space as the movie drones on.

The last jump by the skydiving team is the ‘Cape Jump’. Finally we are allowed into the secret rituals and instrumentations of this extremely dangerous stunt. The tension builds as Hackman, on the ground, pumps up the crowd into near hysteria as Lancaster boards the plane and leaves the ground. We see in intimate detail the preparations that Lancaster must take to formulate his plan of attack to make this jump the thrill of peoples lives, the jump they will talk about for the rest of their simple existence . He is seen putting the buckles and straps in just the right place, the drama unfolds as he gingerly steps onto the strut outside the plane. He ignites a canister of red smoke that is attached to his shoes, leaving a trail for the rednecks below to follow as he does the one jump that only he is allowed, by whoever, to do. And he jumps !

OK. I was actually ready to see a cape, but what is shown is pretty foolish. Lancaster has what appears to be ‘Batman’ wings attached to his arms which flap behind him as he free falls. For all the buildup to this moment, it is a major letdown. I figured at least it was a stunt that would allow him to maneuver freely through the air, gaining altitude and making sweeping turns to the cheers below. In reality it is a cheap costume, that is worn for no reason other than to draw in the crowd to believe that they will see something special. Close ups of Lancaster hanging by a rope in front of a blue sky screen are presented with him looking up, down, over here, over there. As he approaches the ground, Hackman is yelling “Pull it!”, as shots of the crowd show the townsfolk gazing upward, just like they were told to do by the director. Everyone is surveying the action as Lancaster gets closer and closer to the earth. When is he going to do the stunt? When is he going to pull the ripcord? The blood boils in the stress and heat of a Kansas Sunday afternoon as Lancaster comes falling down in his stupid grade school getup.

With a huge thud, Lancaster plows into the ground at 200 MPH, and of course dies. No chute opens, no spectacular stunt has been shown. The crowd is horrified as only they can be in this movie. Not one woman or child screams, cheerful music is playing, the spectators run over to look at the mangled body and stand around waiting for the director to please sober up and tell them what to do besides looking foolish in a foolish film. And now, after an afternoon of clear skies and calm winds, it starts pouring rain on the whole mess. Hackman is telling the bemused extras in the film to “Get out of here!”, and they kinda, sorta, scatter a bit for good effect. Wilson stands there crying for his mentor, and then pops a chute (which I gathered later on was Lancaster’s) to see if it was in proper working condition, it pops on the ground, so I guess it must have worked. Wilson stares a good ‘thousand mile’ stare, and a small grin emerges, as the ambulance carrying Lancaster pulls away, running over his now muddy parachute on the ground. This, I assume, was either a symbolic, unknown metaphor in the movie, or just ‘out to lunch’ writing and filmmaking. You decide…

I pretty much just laughed at what I saw. Nothing in the film indicated remotely that Lancaster was suicidal, after all the safety checks and such, it would appear the chutes were properly set up, and the jumpers themselves were well qualified to be doing what they were doing. So why the death scene played out in front of the crowd of men, women and especially children? I mean, why would a guy purposely commit suicide in front of a crowd in which kids were watching? Wouldn’t that be pretty traumatic? If you are looking for an answer in this recap of why that happened, I’m sorry to disappoint, as I have no clue, as I am sure the filmmakers didn’t either. So the whole ‘Cape Jump’ stunt was just a misrepresentation, the main characters are all scared at the tremendous dangers they face in the sky, to ease the pain they endure by being skydiving purists, they must live life to the fullest on the ground by breaking up marriages and whoring around in strip bars. And then the idiots kill off the main character in the most horrible fashion, while the mob of extras shuffle around looking at the mangled corpse in the mud, waiting to be paid for their trouble at being in this kooky film.

Back at Kerr’s house, the remaining cast is gathered and it is now pretty grim. Hackman is looking for a way to pay for Lancaster’s ultimate betrayal. He needs to cough up the dough for the funeral and burial. How about another ‘Cape Jump’ stunt the next day, July the 4th, we pass the hat around and get the suckers from Bridgeville, Kansas to cover the damage? Kerr mentions that all the people in town are going to the big parade down the main drag on the 4th. More somber talk as the ‘Cape Jump’ dangers are mentioned another ten times in relentlessly inane dialogue. It is settled thats what will happen, as the now two main subjects of the film decide who will be courageous enough to do the ‘Cape Jump’. You can almost hear the knees knocking together as Wilson and Hackman are running this scenario through their tiny, misfiring brains. Of course my main question was, “Do they actually have another ‘Cape Jump’ outfit to wear?” Or are they going to wear Lancaster’s now bloody and tore up death suit? And after spending three or more hours watching the guys parachute out of a plane, and one of them actually dying in the effort, would the same people even bother to watch again the very next day? And take the kids? Let’s face it, you got to be pretty morbid to show up for that.

Before the big finale, we see yet one more time how a movie can be totally derailed as the school band continues rehearsing, now at night, on a football field, as the deranged band director supervises another meaningless practice that has nothing to do with this movie so far. Then its on to the dragging Wilson/Bedalia romance as they tune in the radio and finally find out that they can kiss each other. No nude scenes here as we are now watching the band once again in full band regalia marching down Main Street to start the parade. For some reason the idiotic band director is also the drum major, with a baton, I always thought that one of the students were given that position. It appears that the school band is the only thing to see in this parade as there is no one else around in the parade. After they turn a corner to meet the masses of appreciating fans, the band director realizes that nobody has come to see the parade at all. What is up? Yep, the townspeople deserted the time honored 4th of July parade to go watch the skydivers take another stab at getting this movie right. So now we know the meaning of the completely moronic band scenes. All that for a simple answer.

Same airfield and crowd as before. Since I have a DVR, I can go back and compare the two scenes, they even got the same lady sitting on a blanket out front of the stands with her kids. I imagine every single shot of the stunts was done in the same location over the course of a few days, and that the crowd shot was all done on the same day to split up later on to represent the separate days shown in the film.

Wilson steps up like a true skydiver and says he will do the ‘Cape Jump’, much to the relief of Hackman who now starts telling him how to pull it off. Dead silence from the crowd and announcer as Wilson gets the courage to climb on the plane. As he climbs into the sky higher and higher, we see Lancaster as he was getting ready to jump, then Wilson, back to Lancaster…. Finally he jumps with the red smoke and the Batwing Halloween costume. He falls further and further as the crowd cranes their necks upward in anticipation of his performance. “Pull it!”, Hackman yells, “Pull it!”… At the last possible moment he pulls the ripcord and floats down to a crowd gone crazy with relief. They gather around taking fake photos of the new town hero, as Hackman offers congratulations on still being alive. Wilson just stands there, wide eyed and dumbfounded by his mortality and new found fame.

Back at the house, Wilson, Bedalia and Hackman chat a bit before Wilson and Hackman leave in the car. Hackman drops off Wilson in the middle of the night, somewhere not made clear to us, while Hackman says he is moving on, maybe go west, yeah, west is where he wants to go. They say their goodbyes and then we get one last visit to the Kerr household, where in dramatic fashion she tells Windom that yes, she did the hanky panky with Lancaster. Windom seems not to care as Kerr slowly walks up the stairs to her anti-depressant meds, buds and a bong.

Wilson is apparently at a train station, and he is the only one there as the train pulls into the station, which is not unusual as it is a freight train, not a passenger train. He walks toward the train with his suitcase in an attempt to tell us, the viewers, that he plans on boarding for greener pastures somewhere. I’m sure the railroad dicks escorted him out of the yard pretty fast, probably landing a few well placed blows across his person. Maybe he will even consider going back, reconnecting with Bedalia, and his goofy aunt and uncle. The End….

Terrible movie to be enjoyed over and over. The main cast went on to greater glory in other films except Patty Plenty, the tassle spinning dancer, who became a porn actress and even now has a website of her own.

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