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Ginger Rogers

in Stage Door (1937)
Born Virginia Katherine McMath
July 16, 1911(1911-07-16)
Independence, Missouri, U.S.
Died April 25, 1995 (aged 83)
Rancho Mirage, California, U.S.
Occupation Actress, singer, dancer, artist
Years active 1929–1994
Spouse(s) Jack Pepper (1929–1931)
Lew Ayres (1934–1941)
Jack Briggs (1943–1949)
Jacques Bergerac (1953–1957)
William Marshall (1961–1969)

Ginger Rogers (July 16, 1911 – April 25, 1995) was an American film and stage actress, dancer and singer.

During her long career, she made a total of 73 films, and is noted for her role as Fred Astaire's romantic interest and dancing partner in a series of ten Hollywood musical films that revolutionized the genre. She also achieved success in a variety of film roles, and won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in Kitty Foyle (1940).

She ranks #14 on the list of AFI's 100 Years... 100 Stars.

Contents

Early life

Rogers was born Virginia Katherine McMath in Independence, Missouri, the daughter of William Eddins McMath, an electrical engineer from Scotland, and his wife Lela Emogene Owens (1891-1977), of Welsh ancestry.[1] Her parents separated soon after her birth, and she and her mother went to live with her grandparents, Walter and Saphrona (née Ball) Owens, in nearby Kansas City. Rogers' parents fought over her custody, with her father even kidnapping her twice. After the parents divorced, Rogers stayed with her grandparents while her mother wrote scripts for two years in Hollywood.

Ginger was to remain close to her grandfather (much later, when she was already a star in 1939, she bought him a home in Sherman Oaks, California (5115 Greenbush Ave) so that he could be close to her while she was filming at the studios).

Several of Rogers's cousins had a hard time pronouncing her first name, shortening it to "Ginga".

When Rogers was nine years old, her mother married John Logan Rogers. Ginger took the name of Rogers, although she was never legally adopted. They lived in Fort Worth, Texas. Her mother became a theatre critic for a local newspaper, the Fort Worth Record. She graduated later from Fort Worth's Central High School, known since not long after her graduation as R. L. Paschal High School.

As a teenager, Rogers thought of teaching school, but with her mother's interest in Hollywood and the theatre, her young exposure to the theatre increased. Waiting for her mother in the wings of the Majestic Theatre, she began to sing and dance along to the performers on stage.

Vaudeville

Rogers' entertainment career was born one night when the traveling vaudeville act of Eddie Foy came to Fort Worth and needed a quick stand-in. She entered and won a Charleston dance contest which allowed her to tour for six months, at one point in 1926 performing at an 18-month old theater called The Craterian in Medford, Oregon. This theatre honored her many years later by changing its name to the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theatre.[2]

At 17, Rogers married Jack Culpepper, a singer/dancer/comedian/recording artist of the day who worked under the name Jack Pepper (according to Ginger's autobiography,she knew Culpepper when she was a child as her cousin's boyfriend). They formed a short-lived vaudeville double act known as "Ginger and Pepper". The marriage was over within months, and she went back to touring with her mother. When the tour got to New York City, she stayed, getting radio singing jobs and then her Broadway theatre debut in a musical called Top Speed, which opened on Christmas Day, 1929.

Film career

1929-1933

Rogers' first movie roles were in a trio of short films made in 1929—Night in the Dormitory, A Day of a Man of Affairs, and Campus Sweethearts.

Within two weeks of opening in Top Speed, Rogers was chosen to star on Broadway in Girl Crazy by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin, the musical play widely considered to have made stars of both Ginger and Ethel Merman. Fred Astaire was hired to help the dancers with their choreography. Her appearance in Girl Crazy made her an overnight star at the age of 19. In 1930, she was signed by Paramount Pictures to a seven-year contract.

Rogers would soon get herself out of the Paramount contract—under which she had made films at Astoria Studios in Astoria, Queens—and move with her mother to Hollywood. When she got to California, she signed a three-picture deal with Pathé, which resulted in three forgettable pictures. She landed singing and dancing bit parts for most of 1932 and was named one of fifteen "WAMPAS Baby Stars". She then made her screen breakthrough in the Warner Brothers film 42nd Street (1933). She went on to make a series of films with RKO Radio Pictures and, in the second of those, Flying Down to Rio (1933), she worked with Dolores del Río and again with Fred Astaire.

1933-1939: Astaire and Rogers

The announcement of the Astaire-Rogers screen partnership - from the trailer to Flying Down to Rio

Rogers was most famous for her partnership with Fred Astaire. Together, from 1933 to 1939, they made nine musical films at RKO Flying Down to Rio (1933), The Gay Divorcee (1934), Roberta (1935), Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Swing Time (1936), Shall We Dance (1937), and Carefree (1938), The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939) and a tenth The Barkleys of Broadway (1949) was made later at MGM, and in so doing, revolutionized the Hollywood musical, introducing dance routines of unprecedented elegance and virtuosity, set to songs specially composed for them by the greatest popular song composers of the day. To this day, "Fred and Ginger" remains an almost automatic reference for any successful dance partnership.

Croce, Hyam and Mueller all consider Rogers to have been Astaire's finest dance partner, principally due to her ability to combine dancing skills, natural beauty and exceptional abilities as a dramatic actress and comedienne, thus truly complementing Astaire: a peerless dancer who sometimes struggled as an actor and was not considered classically handsome. In fact, some have playfully argued that Rogers was Astaire's superior in dancing since she had to duplicate his moves under more difficult conditions as in the famous description "Backwards and high heels." Regardless, the resulting song and dance partnership enjoyed a unique credibility in the eyes of audiences. Of the 33 partnered dances she performed with Astaire, Croce and Mueller have highlighted the infectious spontaneity of her performances in the comic numbers "I'll Be Hard to Handle" from Roberta (1935), "I'm Putting all My Eggs in One Basket" from Follow the Fleet (1936) and "Pick Yourself Up" from Swing Time (1936). They also point to the use Astaire made of her remarkably flexible back in classic romantic dances such as "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" from Roberta (1935), "Cheek to Cheek" from Top Hat (1935) and "Let's Face the Music and Dance" from Follow the Fleet (1936). For special praise, they have singled out her performance in the "Waltz in Swing Time" from Swing Time (1936), which is generally considered to be the most virtuosic partnered routine ever committed to film by Astaire. She generally avoided solo dance performances: Astaire always included at least one virtuoso solo routine in each film, while Rogers performed only one: "Let Yourself Go" from Follow the Fleet (1936).

Ginger with Fred Astaire in the film Roberta (1935).

Although the dance routines were choreographed by Astaire and his collaborator Hermes Pan, both have acknowledged Rogers' input and have also testified to her consummate professionalism, even during periods of intense strain, as she tried to juggle her many other contractual film commitments with the punishing rehearsal schedules of Astaire, who made at most two films in any one year. In 1986, shortly before his death, Astaire remarked: "All the girls I ever danced with thought they couldn't do it, but of course they could. So they always cried. All except Ginger. No no, Ginger never cried". John Mueller sums up Rogers' abilities as follows: "Rogers was outstanding among Astaire's partners not because she was superior to others as a dancer but because, as a skilled, intuitive actress, she was cagey enough to realize that acting did not stop when dancing began...the reason so many women have fantasized about dancing with Fred Astaire is that Ginger Rogers conveyed the impression that dancing with him is the most thrilling experience imaginable". According to Astaire, "Ginger had never danced with a partner before. She faked it an awful lot. She couldn't tap and she couldn't do this and that ... but Ginger had style and talent and improved as she went along. She got so that after a while everyone else who danced with me looked wrong."

Rogers also introduced some celebrated numbers from the Great American Songbook, songs such as Harry Warren and Al Dubin's "The Gold Diggers' Song (We're in the Money)" from Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), "Music Makes Me" from Flying Down to Rio (1933), "The Continental" from The Gay Divorcee (1934), Irving Berlin's "Let Yourself Go" from Follow the Fleet (1936) and the Gershwins' "Embraceable You" from Girl Crazy and "They All Laughed (at Christopher Columbus)" from Shall We Dance (1937). Furthermore, in song duets with Astaire, she co-introduced Berlin's "I'm Putting all My Eggs in One Basket" from Follow the Fleet (1936), Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields's "Pick Yourself Up" and "A Fine Romance" from Swing Time (1936) and the Gershwins' "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" from Shall We Dance (1937).

After 1939

Ginger Rogers' feet and hand prints at Grauman's Chinese theater

After 15 months apart and with RKO facing bankruptcy, the studio hired Fred and Ginger for another movie called Carefree, but it lost money. Next came The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, but the serious plot and tragic ending resulted in the worst box office receipts of any of their films. This was driven, not by diminished popularity, but by the hard 1930s economic reality, that production costs of musicals...to begin with, significantly more costly than regular features...continued to increase at a much faster rate than admissions. Everyone agreed it was time to stop.

Both before and immediately after her great dancing and acting partnership with Fred Astaire ended, Rogers, now on her own and one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood, starred in more than a few very successful dramas and comedies. Stage Door (1937) demonstrated her skillful dramatic capacity, as the loquacious yet vulnerable girl next door, a tough minded, theatrical hopeful, opposite Katharine Hepburn. In Roxie Hart (1942), which served as the template for the 2002 production of Chicago, starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger, she played a wise cracking wife on trial for murdering her husband; the neo-realist Primrose Path (1940), where she played a thinly veiled prostitute's daughter, directed by Gregory La Cava; Tom, Dick, and Harry, a pleasing 1940 comedy where she dreams of marrying three different men; I'll Be Seeing You, an intelligent and restrained war time weepie with Joseph Cotten; La Cava's Weekend at the Waldorf (1945), where she played an ordinary girl sucked into the lives of a wealthy family; and especially the sharp and highly successful comedies: Bachelor Mother(1939), where she played Polly Parrish, a shop girl who is falsely deemed to have abandoned her baby; and Billy Wilder's first feature film: The Major and the Minor (1942), where she played a woman of three ages; rounded out the finest decade of her acting career. Her greatest skills were as a comedienne, and, as a master of the deadpan and the sidelong glance, she became well established as one of the major actresses of the screwball comedy era.

In 1941, Ginger Rogers won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her starring role in 1940's Kitty Foyle. She enjoyed considerable success during the early 1940s, and was RKO's hottest property during this period. However, by the end of the decade, her film career was in decline. Arthur Freed reunited her with Fred Astaire for the last time in The Barkleys of Broadway (1949) which, while very successful, failed to revive Rogers' flagging career. Commentators of the time were keen to remark, somewhat unkindly, that the 1949 film highlighted how much the elfin girl of the 1930s had disappeared, to be replaced by a robust framed, athletic woman.

She continued a gradual decline in the 1950s, as parts for older actresses became more difficult to obtain, but still scored with some occasional solid films. She starred in Storm Warning (1950), with Ronald Reagan and Doris Day, the noir, anti Ku Klux Klan film by Warner Brothers, and in Monkey Business (1952), with Cary Grant and Marilyn Monroe, directed by Howard Hawks. In the same year, she also starred in We're Not Married!, also featuring Marilyn Monroe, and in Dreamboat. She played the female lead in Tight Spot (1955), a mystery thriller, with Edward G. Robinson. Then, after a series of unremarkable films, she scored with a great popular success, playing Dolly Levi in the long running Hello, Dolly! on Broadway in 1965.

In later life, Rogers remained on good terms with Astaire: she presented him with a special Academy Award in 1950, and they were co-presenters of individual Academy Awards in 1967, during which they elicited a standing ovation when they came on stage in an impromptu dance. In 1969, she had the lead role in another long running popular production of Mame, from the book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee, with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in the West End of London, arriving for the role on the Liner QE2 from New York. Her docking there heralded the maximum pomp and ceremony at Southampton. She became the highest paid actress in the West End, up to that time. The production ran for 14 months and featured a Royal Command Performance for Queen Elizabeth the Second. The Kennedy Center honored Ginger Rogers in December 1992. This event, which was shown on television, was somewhat marred when Astaire's widow, Robyn Smith, who permitted clips of Astaire dancing with Rogers to be shown for free at the function itself, was unable to come to terms with CBS Television for broadcast rights to the clips.[3]

From the 1950s onwards, Rogers would make occasional appearances on television. In the later years of her career, she made guest appearances in three different series by Aaron Spelling; The Love Boat (1979), Glitter (1984), and Hotel (1987) which would be her final screen appearance as an actress.

Personal life

Rogers was an only child, and maintained a close personal relationship with her mother throughout her life. Lela Rogers (1891–1977), was a newspaper reporter, scriptwriter, and movie producer. She was also one of the first women to enlist in the Marine Corps, founded the successful "Hollywood Playhouse", for aspiring actors and actresses on the RKO set, and was a founder of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals.

Rogers' mother "named names" to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and both mother and daughter were staunchly anti-communist. Unlike her mother, however, Rogers cultivated quite cordial relations with many Democrats, including the equally staunchly anti-communist President Harry Truman, who held a "Ginger Rogers Day" for her at his library in Independence, Missouri, their shared home town. In addition, Rogers was invited several times to the White House of President Ronald Reagan, her co-star in Storm Warning. As a strong supporter of a president who fought his own Republican party to negotiate with Mikhail Gorbachev to aid in the ending of the Cold War, she lived to see the collapse of communism.

Mother and daughter had an extremely close professional relationship as well. Lela Rogers was credited with many pivotal contributions to her daughter's early successes in New York and in Hollywood, not to mention contract negotiations with R.K.O. In her classic 1930s musicals with Astaire, Rogers not only was paid less than Fred (who also received 10% of the profits), but also less than many of the supporting "farceurs". This in spite of her pivotal role in the films' financial success. This was personally very grating and insulting to her, and had an effect upon her relationships, especially with director Mark Sandrich....which prompted the famous sharp letter of rebuke from producer Pandro Berman to Sandrich, which Rogers deemed important enough to publish in her autobiography. Like many actresses of the time, Ginger Rogers fought hard for her contract and salary rights, and for better films and scripts. She also found it necessary to fight for respect and dignity as an actress, and against the type casting as just a "dancing girl" that came with the territory in the studio system of the era. She succeeded in all these endeavors.

Rogers' first marriage was to her dancing partner Jack Pepper (real name Edward Jackson Culpepper) on March 29, 1929. They divorced in 1931, having separated soon after the wedding. She married again in 1934 to actor Lew Ayres (1908–1996). At a time when Rogers' career was skyrocketing and Ayers's career faltering, they separated and were amicably divorced (to Rogers' regret) seven years later.

In 1940, Rogers purchased a 1000-acre (4 km²) ranch in Jackson County, Oregon between the cities of Shady Cove and Eagle Point. The ranch, located along the Rogue River, supplied dairy products to nearby Camp White, a cantonment established for the duration of World War II. While not performing or working on other projects, she would live at the ranch with her mother.

In 1943, Rogers married her third husband, Jack Briggs, a Marine. Upon his return from World War II, Briggs showed no interest in continuing his incipient Hollywood career. They divorced in 1949. She married once again in 1953, a Frenchman, Jacques Bergerac, 16 years her junior, whom she met on a trip to Paris. A lawyer in France, he came to Hollywood with her and became an actor. They divorced in 1957, and he soon remarried actress Dorothy Malone. Her fifth and final husband was director and producer William Marshall. They married in 1961, and divorced in 1971, after his bouts with alcohol, and the financial collapse of their joint film production company in Jamaica.

Rogers was good friends with Lucille Ball — a distant cousin on Rogers' mother's side — for many years until Ball's death in 1989, at the age of 77. Ball did not seem to share Rogers' political views, but evidently still valued her friendship, as did Bette Davis, a Democrat who also did not share her political views....but had in common with Rogers, a close maternal relationship. As early Hollywood feminists, all three shared a common interest in directing and producing. In fact, Ginger Rogers starred in one of the earliest films co-directed and co-scripted by a woman: Wanda Tuchock's Finishing School in 1934. Rogers finally directed the musical Babes in Arms off-Broadway in Tarrytown, New York, when she was 74 years old. She appeared with Lucille Ball in an episode of Here's Lucy on November 22, 1971, where, with Lucie Arnaz, Rogers gave a demonstration of the Charleston in her famous "high heels".

Rogers maintained a close friendship with her cousin, actress/writer/socialite Phyllis Fraser (whom she aided in a brief acting career), but was not Rita Hayworth's natural cousin as has been reported. Hayworth's maternal uncle, Vinton Hayworth, was married to Rogers' maternal aunt, Jean Owens.

In 1977, Rogers' mother died. Rogers remained at the 4-Rs (Rogers's Rogue River Ranch) until 1990, when she sold the property and moved to nearby Medford, Oregon. Her last public appearance was on March 18, 1995 when she received the Women's International Center (WIC) Living Legacy Award.[4]

For many years, Rogers regularly supported, and held in-person presentations, at the Craterian Theater, in Medford, Oregon, where she had performed in 1926 as a vaudevillian. The theater was comprehensively restored in 1997, and posthumously renamed in her honor, as the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater.

Rogers would spend winters in Rancho Mirage and summers in Medford. She died in Rancho Mirage on April 25, 1995 of congestive heart failure at the age of 83. She was cremated; her ashes are interred in the Oakwood Memorial Park Cemetery in Chatsworth, California, with Lela's, and just a short distance from the grave of Fred Astaire.

Portrayals of Rogers

No film portrayals have been made of Ginger Rogers, most likely because Fred Astaire stipulated in his will that no film representations of him were to ever be made. As Rogers' career history is inevitably linked to Astaire, it is unlikely an accurate portrayal could easily be made of her on film.

  • No portrayal was made of her in The Aviator (2004), in spite of the fact that many of her fellow actresses who, like her, dated Howard Hughes, were portrayed. According to Rogers' autobiography Ginger: My Story, published in 1991, Hughes was very intent on marrying her, and had proposed to her, until she discovered his infidelity and broke off the engagement.
  • Likenesses of Astaire and Rogers, apparently painted over from the Cheek to Cheek dance in Top Hat, are in the Lucy in the Skies section of The Beatles film Yellow Submarine (1968).
  • Rogers' image is one of many famous woman's images, of the 1930s and 1940s, to feature on the bedroom wall in the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, a gallery of magazine cuttings, pasted on to the wall and created by Anne and her sister Margot while hiding from the Nazis. When the house became a museum, the gallery the Frank sisters created was preserved under glass. Rogers' image is one of the larger and more prominent, which clearly indicates her global and mass appeal amongst the young of the time.
  • A musical about the life of Rogers, entitled Backwards in High Heels, premiered in Florida in early 2007.[5][6]
  • Rogers was the heroine of a novel, Ginger Rogers and the Riddle of the Scarlet Cloak (1942, by Lela E. Rogers), where "the heroine has the same name and appearance as the famous actress but has no connection ... it is as though the famous actress has stepped into an alternate reality in which she is an ordinary person." The story was probably written for a young teenage audience and is reminiscent of the adventures of Nancy Drew. It is part of a series known as "Whitman Authorized Editions", 16 books published between 1941-1947 that featured a film actress as heroine.[7]

Quotations

About Rogers

  • "Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels."[8]
  • "She had guts." Fred Astaire's description of Rogers from his autobiography Steps in Time.
  • "The hardest working actress I ever knew." Fred Astaire's description of Rogers' discipline and willingness to work, from Steps in Time.
  • "Ginger was brilliantly effective. She made everything work for her. Actually she made things very fine for both of us and she deserves most of the credit for our success." Fred Astaire to Raymond Rohauser, Film Curator of the New York Gallery of Modern Art, at the San Francisco Film Festival, in 1966.[9]
  • "Believe me, Ginger was great. She contributed her full fifty percent in making them such a great team. She could follow Fred as if one brain was thinking. She blended with his every step and mood immaculately. He was able to do dances on screen that would have been impossible to risk if he hadn't had a partner like Ginger - as skillful as she was attractive." Edward Everett Horton to Dick Richards.[9]

By Rogers

  • "I loved Fred so, and I mean that in the nicest, warmest way: I had such affection for him artistically. I think that experience with Fred was a divine blessing. It blessed me, I know, and I don't think blessings are one sided". Dick Richards in "Ginger: Salute to a Star", quoting Rogers from Francis Wyndham's story about Ginger Rogers, in London's "Sunday Times Magazine".
  • Responding to reports that she and Fred were "unfriendly" towards each other: "That's pure bunk. I adored Fred. We were good friends. Our only problem is that we never aspired to be any kind of a team. We didn't want to be Abbott and Costello. We thought of ourselves as individuals. We didn't intend to be another Frick and Frack." Then she said after a pause and with a smile. "But it happened anyway, didn't it? And I'll be forever grateful it did". Ginger Rogers, quoted in "Leading Couples", by TCM's Robert Osborne, p. 11.

Filmography

Features

(*): performances with Fred Astaire

Short subjects

  • A Day of a Man of Affairs (1929)
  • A Night in a Dormitory (1930)
  • Campus Sweethearts (1930)
  • Office Blues (1930)
  • Hollywood on Parade (1932)
  • Screen Snapshots (1932)
  • Hollywood on Parade No. A-9 (1933)
  • Hollywood Newsreel (1934)
  • Screen Snapshots Series 16, No. 3 (1936)
  • Show Business at War (1943)
  • Battle Stations (Narrator, 1944)
  • Screen Snapshots: The Great Showman (1950)
  • Screen Snapshots: Hollywood's Great Entertainers (1954)

Television

References

  1. ^ Notable American women: a biographical dictionary completing the twentieth ... By Susan Ware
  2. ^ "Facility History". Craterian Ginger Rogers Theatre. http://craterian.org/facility.html. Retrieved 2009-04-19. 
  3. ^ Wharton, Dennis (1992-12-18). "Astaire footage withheld from Honors". Variety (magazine). http://www.variety.com/article/VR102225?categoryid=13&cs=1. Retrieved 2009-04-22. 
  4. ^ Biography Women's International Center. Retrieved 2009-10-20.
  5. ^ Playbill News: Sold Out Florida Stage Run of Ginger Rogers Musical Gets Added Performances
  6. ^ Backwards in High Heels: The Ginger Musical
  7. ^ Whitman Authorized Editions for Girls, accessed September 10, 2009
  8. ^ The line originated in a 1982 Frank and Ernest cartoon as "Sure he was great, but don't forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, backwards... and in high heels." On the internet and in many publications the line is incorrectly attributed to Faith Whittlesey (see "List of Websites That Have Attributed Thaves' Line to Whittlesey". Google. http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&rls=en-us&num=100&newwindow=1&q=%22Faith+Whittlesey%22+%22Ginger+Rogers%22+-incorrect+-incorrectly+-%22Bob+Thaves%22+-%22Ann+Richards%22&aq=f&oq=&aqi=. Retrieved 2009-07-25. ) or Rogers herself. Ann Richards popularized the line by using it in a [Ann_Richards#1988_Democratic_National_Convention|speech] but she credits Linda Ellerbee with giving her the line, and Ellerbee credits an anonymous passenger on an airplane with giving her the line (see Keyes, Ralph (2006). "The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When". St. Martin's Griffin. p. 77. ISBN 0312340044. ). The official Ginger Rogers website attributes the line to Thaves.
  9. ^ a b Ginger - Salute to a Star, p. 162.

Bibliography

  • Fred Astaire: Steps in Time, 1959, multiple reprints.
  • Arlene Croce: The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book, Galahad Books 1974, ISBN 0-88365-099-1
  • Jocelyn Faris: Ginger Rogers - a Bio-Bibliography, Greenwood Press, Connecticut, 1994, ISBN 0-313-29177-2
  • Hannah Hyam: Fred and Ginger - The Astaire-Rogers Partnership 1934-1938, Pen Press Publications, Brighton, 2007. ISBN 978-1-905621-96-5
  • John Mueller: Astaire Dancing - The Musical Films of Fred Astaire, Knopf 1985, ISBN 0-394-51654-0
  • Ginger Rogers: Ginger My Story, New York: Harper Collins, 1991

External links








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