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FRANK BORZAGE: SOUND FILMS (1929-1959)

by Robert Regan
FRANK BORZAGE: SOUND FILMS (1929-1959) by Robert Regan
WORK IN PROGRESS In his most fully realized films, the private world that Borzage’s lovers inhabit is invaded, and the lovers are tested, by War, Depression, Naziism, and even Death. Their greatness comes from their transcendence. Thus, the opening title of Street Angel, “Souls made great through love and adversity” characterizes his work succinctly. All our critical wordplay pales before that phrase and, of course, the films themselves. The silent film seems to have been the perfect medium for the fullest expression of Borzage’s sensibility. If few of his talking pictures reached that unbelievable level of intensity that makes those last… Read more

WORK IN PROGRESS

In his most fully realized films, the private world that Borzage’s lovers inhabit is invaded, and the lovers are tested, by War, Depression, Naziism, and even Death. Their greatness comes from their transcendence. Thus, the opening title of Street Angel, “Souls made great through love and adversity” characterizes his work succinctly. All our critical wordplay pales before that phrase and, of course, the films themselves. The silent film seems to have been the perfect medium for the fullest expression of Borzage’s sensibility. If few of his talking pictures reached that unbelievable level of intensity that makes those last four silents a unique quartet of masterpieces, few films by any director in the first decades of sound were able to do so. The best of Borzage’s talking pictures are brilliant reworkings of his concerns and style in the terms and manners of the cinema of the thirties and forties, producing nearly a dozen more masterpieces. In the fifties, the modes of the post-war films and the new styles of acting came near to defeating him, but China Doll emerged as a powerful Borzagian film, if curiously not quite of its time.

See FRANK BORZAGE: SILENT FILMS (1915-1929).


They Had to See Paris 1929

It was no accident that Fox assigned Borzage to direct the first sound film for of their new acquisition, Will Rogers; they were friends who belonged to the same aviation club and played on the same polo team. Rogers was a unique show business phenomenon of the era. The “home-spun philosophy” and political commentary of his rambling monologues made him popular on Broadway, on radio, and in syndicated newspaper columns. Though this may sound like Orson Welles, Rogers affected an artlessness that reached many levels of American society.

The film, a satire of bourgeois pretense, juxtaposing plain, straightforward American ways with the sophisticated manner of Europe, has more mobility than most of the earliest sound films. Rogers, in addition to improvising his lines, tended to wander about the room when acting, so Borzage had microphones all over the set, allowing for some discreet camera movements. Although They Had to See Paris was quite well-received by audiences and reviewers (it was on the New York Times ten best list that year), it is a pleasant if not particularly memorable film. It was not until Liliom that a movie looked like a Borzage again, and it was not until A Farewell to Arms that the director reached the heights of his last four silent films.

Song o’ My Heart 1930

Again Fox assigned their top director to build a film around a new and expensive star acquisition, the Irish tenor John McCormack, at that time the most popular singer in the world. Borzage, his wife, and his crew all traveled to McCormack’s home in Ireland where they shot a few scenes, including two of the many songs that were the raison d’etre for the film. The director also brought a few actors back home, including eighteen year old Maureen O’Sullivan for the first role of a long career. Her second film, though shot later, was released before.

The Irish village, built on the Fox lot, might remind a viewer of the earlier John Ford films Hangman’s House and The Shamrock Handicap but, except for a few scenes of banter between Ford regulars, J.M. Kerrigan and J. Farrell McDonald, Borzage lays on the blarney a bit more lightly than his fellow Iriishman, but the he was only part Irish. There are a few more signs of the Borzage sensibility here than in They Had to See Paris, with its plot built around a thwarted love in the past and an attempt to separate the juvenile leads. The agent of this negativity is Emily Fitzroy who had played a similar stern, unbending character in Lazybones. The beautiful Alice Joyce, who had starred in the director’s Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting five years earlier, played the last of her more than two hundred roles as McCormack’s lost love and the mother of O’Sullivan. Her final image on the screen is a memorable shot of her sitting by a window where she dies as outside the leaves fall from a tree.

Song o’ My Heart was shot twice, in 35mm by Chester Lyons, and in 70mm Fox Grandeur by J.O. Taylor. The latter version is still lost.

Liliom 1930

Many of Borzage’s previous films, including 7th Heaven and Street Angel, had been based on stage plays and some, particularly the latter, had a highly stylized art direction. Liliom, unlike any of his earlier films, looks like theatre, sounds like theatre, and feels like theatre. The stylization of Harry Oliver’s sets here never seem like places where real people live. But then, the highly theatrical tone of the acting, again unlike anything else in Borzage, does not produce real people. This film does have its partisans, but I find it the least effective of the films that the director obviously cared about. Furthermore, it is an extremely distasteful story. “It felt just like a kiss”. Indeed!

Doctors’ Wives 1931

After Liliom did so poorly, the Fox studio, going through a financial crisis at the time, held Borzage and their other directors on a tight leash. Among his projects that were cancelled were two films that were to be shot in the bichrome Multicolor. One was to have been The Man Who Came Back with Gaynor and Farrell. This was later made by Raoul Walsh in monochrome. Doctors’ Wives has felicitous camera movements, an interesting telephone motif, and young Joan Bennett’s best performance before she reached her thirties, but it’s main weakness as a Borzage film is the one dimensionally written male lead played as well as possible by Warren William. There will be more successful Borzages with a medical background in the future.

Young As You Feel 1931

Another assignment for Fox, this Will Rogers vehicle is a variation on They Had to See Paris with a few amusing scenes. Rogers insisted on bringing back the irrepressible Fifi D’Orsay.

Bad Girl 1931

Borzage’s sixth sound film was not expected to turn out particularly well. Though based on a popular and sensational novel by Vina Delmar and a Broadway dramatization which had been a breakthrough for Sylvia Sidney, it’s story of a young working-class woman (not “bad” by any but the most puritanical definition), dealing with pre-marital sex, aversion to motherhood, and abortion had defeated the attempts to adapt it by at least five other studios which had optioned the property, even in the pre-Code era. At first, Borzage refused the assignment, but accepted when it became clear that the studio’s lack of concern for the project would give him relative freedom to develop it as he wished. So, confined to a budget of $100,000, a shooting schedule of 21 days, and a cast of relative unknowns, the director discarded much of Delmar, added a number of personal touches, and created his first truly Borzagian talking picture. Furthermore, it became extremely popular, making well over a million, and earning Borzage his second Oscar.

James Dunn, in his first feature film, was the director’s second choice after young Spencer Tracy who would be playing a similar character in Man’s Castle two years hence. Dunn, however, is very good, and the picture embarked him on a long career as leading man in the thirties and character actor in the forties and fifties. His Best Supporting Actor Award in Elia Kazan’s first film A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was well-deserved.

Sally Eilers, said to have had “saltier” language than even Carole Lombard, had appeared in over a dozen small parts and unbilled bits, including Sunrise, The Crowd, and Howard Hawks’ Fazil. Although her performance here is exceptional, her career never quite took off and, by the end of the thirties, she was working in the Bs, most notably Edgar Ulmer’s 1945 Strange Illusion. As had been the case with many players before Bad Girl and afterwards, Sally Eilers did her very best work with Frank Borzage. The young man making a pass at Eiler’s character here is played by her younger brother Bud in his only film appearance.

After Tomorrow 1932

The Depression intensified the relevance of the travails of the young couple, and area that Borzage had covered, sometimes in a humorous vein, during the silent era in The First Year, Early to Wed, and The Nth Commandment. This variation on the theme was to have reunited Gaynor and Farrell with their best director, but at the time she was holding out for some choice of her material. Farrell made the picture with Marian Nixon, like Sally Eilers in Bad Girl, hardly in a class with Gaynor, but rising to the occasion under Borzzage’s direction. She did well with two smaller parts in John Ford’s Pilgrimage and Doctor Bull, but retired in 1936 and was married to journeyman director William A. Seiter for thirty years.

Young America 1932

Borzage’s first film dealing primarily with children looks forward to No Greater Glory two years later. Don’t look for any chemistry between Spencer Tracy and Doris Kenyon. Though they have top billing, their characters aren’t as important as the boys. They are played by Tommy Conlon and Raymond Borzage, the director’s nephew who is said to have auditioned for, and won, the part under a pseudonym. Tracy’s turn was coming the following year in Man’s Castle.

After seven years at Paramount, four of them very good indeed, Borzage was anxious to rid himself of long-term contracts, but he was committed to one more film. For a while, he was connected to several projects: A Modern Hero which later became G.W. Pabst’s only American film, Gold Star Mothers which was filmed by John Ford as Pilgrimage, and Noel Coward’s Cavalcade eventually filmed by Frank Lloyd and winner of a Best Picture Oscar. The seriousness with which Fox management considered this last project promised the extreme interference that Borzage wanted to avoid, and he backed out. Among the offers made to him at that time were one from Mary Pickford which he would accept after one from Paramount which he could not refuse.

PARAMOUNT PICTURES

A Farewell to Arms 1932

Ernest Hemingway hated this, the first film adaptation from his writing. Not having seen it did not prevent him from loudly and publicly venting his spleen. According to the N.Y. Daily News, when Paramount planned a private screening in Piggott, Arkansas (Yes, the town that 25 years later would be the location for Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd !) where the writer was living at the time, he wired them, “Use your imagination as to where to put the print, but do not send it here.” It is not known where he put the $80,000 that he received when he sold the rights.

Truth to tell, if or when Hemingway did see the film, he would have found that it only retained his book’s marketable title, the story’s main situations, and some of its dialogue. As Mordant Hall wrote in his N.Y. Times review, “It is Mr. Borzage rather than Mr. Hemingway who prevails in this film.” In his context, this does not appear to be complimentary. However, there are many who consider A Farewell to Arms to be Mr. Borzage’s first masterpiece of the sound era, and Mr. Hemingway’s novel to be rather dated and sophomoric. The book is about futility and despair, and the film is about the transcendent power of love.

The 1929 novel had been adapted for Broadway by Laurence Stallings, the author of What Price Glory?, where it was directed by Rouben Mamoulian who would soon be working for Paramount himself. The subject matter, pre-marital sex, illegitimate birth, desertion, and a less than favorable view of the Italian Army was problematical, even in the pre-Code years, and had defeated previous holders of the option, Warner Brothers and MGM, but Paramount, a studio accustomed to working in a more sophisticated mode, felt that they could handle it. As with 7th Heaven five years earlier, everyone in Hollywood wanted to be in this one. The talk at first was of Frederic March and Claudette Colbert, but De Mille grabbed them both for The Sign of the Cross. Then Gary Cooper and Nancy Carroll were scheduled to play under the direction of Richard Wallace, but after the studio replaced Wallace with John Cromwell, the leads went to Cooper and Ruth Chatterton.

When Borzage dropped out of Cavalcade at Fox, Paramount made one of those amazingly astute decisions and hired him for A Farewell to Arms. He wanted Eleanor Boardman, but at the suggestion of Irving Thalberg, the studio borrowed Helen Hayes from MGM. Cooper was somewhat intimidated by Hayes who was considered then and for many decades to come the First Lady of the American Theatre, but Borzage had faith in Cooper and insisted that he was the right man for the part. Both stars were nervous about the difference in their heights, and in the film, there are few shots of both of them on their feet.

Paramount gave their all to the film. The budget was $900,00 (the average at the studio was $300,000), and a generous eight weeks was provided for shooting. Charles B. Lang was the cinematographer, and the art director was Hans Dreier who designed twelve films for Sternberg and ten for Lubitsch. Everyone did their best work.

Helen Hayes, who tended to be a bit “stagey” on the screen, delivered her most natural and subtle film performance here. Nearly sixty years later, she wrote in My Life in Three Acts, “Never working in film have I felt as comfortable with a director as with Frank Borzage, who had a wonderful gift for intimacy: he knew how to get inside an actor’s heart and mind, and that rapport gives a special glow to his films.”

For a 1938 reissue, about ten crucial minutes were cut, and a shot of a wedding ring was added. Practically all of the Public Domain DVDs currently available are based on this short version. The dvd recently (2012) released by Kino is virtually complete and essential for this masterful film.

The tree outside the window here is reminiscent of that in Alice Joyce’s death scene in Song o’ My Heart. Is it significant that in this film the leaves do not fall?

MARY PICKFORD COMPANY, UNITED ARTISTS

Secrets 1933

As the movies settled into the sound era, Mary Pickford’s tremendous popularity was waning. After the financial disasters of The Taming of the Shrew and Kiki, she decided on a remake of Secrets which Borzage had made in 1924 with her rival, Norma Talmadge. The director and screenwriter Frances Marion made a few improvements, like eliminating the flashback structure, but stuck to the three-act, three historical period form. Pickford was at her best in the middle section where the couple are western pioneers, but Leslie Howard is a most unlikely cattle man. She gracefully retired after this one.

HOLLYWOOD SCREEN GUILD, COLUMBIA PICTURES

During the winter of 1931, a production company was formed by Frank Borzage, Cecil B. De Mille, Lewis Milestone, and King Vidor. The Hollywood Screen Guild would provide for its principals a greater creative freedom than was common in the film industry. However, by 1933, three of the big four had gone their separate ways, leaving Frank Borzage Productions the only surviving element of the Guild. The director needed studio facilities and a releasing organization, so an advantageous deal was made with prestige-seeking Harry Cohn of Columbia. The two Borzage films were to be Man’s Castle, based on an unpublished play, and The Paul Street Boys (later retitled No Greater Glory) from a 1907 novel by Ferenc Molnar, best known as the author of Liliom. The scripts would be written by Jo Swerling who had worked with Frank Capra, the star in Columbia’s crown. The Art Director would be Stephen Goosons who three years hence would create Lost Horizon‘s Shangri La. The cinematographer was to be Joseph H. August, a John Ford regular and a friend of Borzage’s since the early days at Inceville.

Man’s Castle 1933

Columbia publicity claimed that they were considering many actors for the male lead, including Gary Cooper, James Cagney, Paul Muni, and Ralph Bellamy. The truth, though, is that this was the role that Borzage had promised his friend Spencer Tracy some years back. He did, however, test 125 women, among them Anita Louise, Zita Johann, and Sally O’Neill before choosing 20 year old Loretta Young who had made an impression in Heroes for Sale and Zoo in Budapest. The chemistry between these two players was so strong as to make them the most Borzagian couple since Gaynor and Farrell. The Depression-set story of the couple’s transcendence of his fear of commitment and her fear of life has echoes of 7th Heaven, but is an archetypal thirties film, just as the earlier film signified the twenties. Another heavily censored film, even in the sometimes choppy prints available at present, it is one of Borzage’s greatest films.

“Afraid of a baby, the most natural thing in the world, you big fool. They’re born all the time. And if they happen to be men-kids, they just never grow up. They just keep reaching for the clouds and listen to the train whistles…. Even birds can’t fly all the time.”

Tracy’s commitment-avoiding character dallies with Glenda Farrell who brought so much to so many movies, particularly in the thirties. She was almost always a tough, fast-talking dame; it is said that she could clearly articulate 390 words per minute. About a mile from where I live in Putnam County New York is The Glenda Farrell-Henry Ross Nature Preserve.

“No one in the movies had prettier eyes!”
Jean Georges Auriol, L’Intransigeant, 1934.

In Borzage’s films the characters really kiss.

No Greater Glory 1934

For the second and last production of the Hollywood Screen Guild, Borzge could not have chose a property less likely to attract an audience. An allegorical drama on militarism and war with a cast almost entirely of adolescent boys, it was both hailed and condemned by both the right and the left. Reminiscent in tone and intent of Ernst Lubitsch’ s equally uncharacteristic antiwar drama The Man I Killed, it can be seen as a prologue to the director’s anti-fascist “trilogy” which began with his next film Little Man, What Now?. It was being said some years later, after the War, that Borzage was the victim of blacklisting. Ironically, this was not true; ironically, because he had indeed been what the anti-communist fanatics called a “premature anti-fascist”. His attacks on the rise of Nazism preceded by at least five years those of any other American filmmaker.

“There has not been a finer, more tender or better made motion picture turned out in some time than director Frank Borzage’s No Greater Glory. It has everything the critics of motion picture smut could ask for, and what does the public do? It lets a fine picture become a box-office klunk. That’s one reason why the producers don’t gamble on more such fine pictures. When they do, the public fails to support them.”
Frank Capra, Chicago Tribune, 1934.

UNIVERSAL PICTURES

As a, rare, for the time, free-lance director, Borzage next signed a one picture deal with the other second rank studio. Like Columbia, Universal was hit hard by the Depression and was pretty much kept alive at the time by the monsters of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Their desired prestige was provided by John Stahl, James Whale, and the recently critically acclaimed All Quiet on the Western Front. The first project that studio head Carl Laemmle, Jr. offered to Borzage was the first sound version of the already classic musical Show Boat. There were many delays in the pre-production of this important property, and something else was sought for Borzage, Show Boat eventually being directed by Whale.

Little Man, What Now? 1934

Whale had been promised Little Man, What Now?, from an internationally successful and topical novel by Hans Fallada, but Universal’s new star slated for the lead, Margaret Sullavan, admired No Greater Glory and insisted on Borzage. This began a creative relationship that brought out the best in director and actress. Little Man, What Now?, the first American film to depict and criticize the rise of Nazism, though without calling it by name and thereby damaging the still valuable market in the Reich, became another of the director’s best films of the thirties.

WARNER BROTHERS

The contract that Borzage signed with Warner Brothers provided for three films in two years and the freedom to make one film per year elsewhere, and he would be paid more than any other artist on the lot, except for Mervyn LeRoy who, after all, was the son-in-law of studio head Jack L. Warner. It sounded promising up to a point; the director would make “films of the highest type and character as is practicable, having due regard to the efficient and economic operations of Warner Brothers’ business.” The studio’s extreme frugality, combined with the joint activities of the freshly armed Production Code and the Catholic Legion of Decency, did not really promise a comfortable working environment.

Flirtation Walk 1934

After kicking around a few projects, including Napoleon with Edward G. Robinson, Borzage’s first film for Warners turned out to be one of the least promising genres: the military-putting on a show-musical. Beginning at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii (scene of From Here to Eternity), then shifting to the US Military Academy at West Point NY (the viewer might think that a John Ford film had been substituted), Flirtation Walk is far from being the worst of its type. Even with the burden of the eminently forgettable Ruby Keeler, possibly the least talented and least attractive leading woman of his career, Borzage keeps things moving smoothly. Uncharacteristically for the director, the most interesting relationship is that between Dick Powell and Pat O’Brien.

Auteurism in the thirties? A reminder in the original trailer that there were better movies. But what do I know? Flirtation Walk was the box office champion of the year and it was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar!

Living on Velvet 1935

Universal offered Borzage Magnificent Obsession, but Jack Warner wouldn’t let him go, and John Stahl directed it. As a consolation, Warners offered Borzage A Tale of Two Cities with Leslie Howard, and Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street. Neither film was made, but his next film was one of the best he did at that studio.

As is frequently the case in Borzage, the woman here (Kay Francis) is stronger than the man (George Brent). After an absolutely stunning depiction of love-at-first-sight in purely cinematic terms, the concentration is on the pressures straining the relationship. In the script, Brent dies, and Francis ends with the stable and reliable Warren William. Since the latter’s contract was due to end imminently, Warners insisted on an ending that built up Brent’s Star power, an ending that could have been pure Borzage if the director had been planning it all along. As it stands, it appears tacked on, marring a fine film with the two leads doing their best work.

Stranded 1935

In early 1935 several projects were discussed for Borzage, including Page Miss Glory which became one of Marion Davies’ better sound films in spite of Mervyn LeRoy, and Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers with Edward G. Robinson which fell by the wayside. In the director’s next film, reuniting Francis and Brent, the leading man is considerably more aggressive than than in Living on Velvet, sometimes rather distastefully. As admirable as is his dedication to his work, building San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, his disregard, even contempt, for her job with the Traveler’s Aid Society is crass, even for the time. The situation is interesting, but not satisfactorily resolved for the final embrace. The dramatic climax involving a labor dispute shows Borzage as neither anti-labor nor anti-management. The heavy is a crooked agitator selling “protection”.

Shipmates Forever 1935

This one could be called Flirtation Walk Joins the Navy. It’s that original, but Borzage does manage to give a bit of depth to the Dick Powell Ruby Keeler courtship and makes her close to human. Incidentally, William Randolph Hearst had moved his Cosmopolitan Productions to Warner Brothers. This was Borzage’s first Cosmopolitan film since The Nth Commandment in 1923.

PARAMOUNT PICTURES

Desire 1936

After The Devil Is a Woman, Marlene Dietrich’s final film with Josef Von Sternberg, Paramount promised her Ernst Lubitsch for director. He chose for her a remake of a 1933 German film starring Brigitte Helm called Die schonen tage in Aranjuez and cast Gary Cooper who had been quite effective with her in Morocco. Dietrich insisted on her friend John Gilbert for the second male lead. Shortly before shooting began, he suffered a heart attack, and just after shooting was completed, he died at age thirty-six. His daughter said in 1978, “Marlene was incapable of resisting Gary Cooper. When my father discovered the truth he fell apart and didn’t stop drinking until the day he died.”

In the meantime, Adolph Zukor appointed Lubitsch Head of Production, effectively removing him from exercising his directorial skills. At Dietrich’s request and Copper’s total agreement, Paramount borrowed Borzage from Warner Brothers. There has been some debate over the years as to how much of Desire is Lubitsch’s and how much is Borzage’s. The former had chosen the subject, cast the leading players, and supervised the writing of the script (as also did the latter). Otherwise, Lubitsch directed a day and a half of retakes after Borzage had begun working on Hearts Divided. The result is Code-provoking Frank Borzage comedy with a positive Lubitsch influence. Herve Dumont sees the influence as mutual and suggests that there are signs of Lubitsch in History is Made at Night and signs of Borzage in The Shop Around the Corner.

The Code-contravening end of the film may seem a concession, but Borzage has set it up perfectly and it is a result of his sensibility.

While visiting London in 1937, Dietrich was approached by Joachim von Ribbentrop, Foreign Minister of the Thousand Year Reich, and invited to return to Germany where her avid fan, the Fuhrer would establish her as her the leading light of the industry. It is said that her response was unprintable, and Desire was the last Dietrich film shown in the country of her birth until 1945.

Hearts Divided 1936

Back at Warner Brothers, Borzage began work on a remake of Alan Crosland’s 1928 “part-talkie” Glorious Betsy about the love between Jerome Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother, and the American Elizabeth Patterson. In the meantime, Hearst had pulled his Cosmopolitan Productions from MGM where the coveted Marie Antoinette had been promised to and was made with Norma Shearer. He planned a rival production at Warners, but Jack Warner, citing the cost of such a project, convinced him that Borzage’s film would be preferable, also fitting in with Hearst’s almost obsessive desire to see Marion Davies in historical costumes. As the director had feared back in the twenties, the interference was unbearable. To accomodate the casting of Davies’ friend Dick Powell, songs were added, and the script offered little opportunity to display the star’s remarkable sense of humor. Except for one absolutely stunning tracking shot just before the fade-out, it’s all pretty tedious.

Green Light 1937

What turned out, blessedly, to be Borzage’s last film for Warner Brothers appears to have been his own choice. However, the anxiety felt by management over adapting a best-seller by Lloyd C. Douglas (Magnificent Obsession, Disputed Passage, The Robe, and _The Big Fisherman) increased their meddling with the director’s plan, resulting in a film that just misses, yet still very popular at the time. It is most interesting in that it is Borzage’s first film in which religion, as opposed to spirituality, plays an important part.

On the left is cinematographer Byron Haskin who later directed some interesting films; Borzage looks down on the hospital bed that appears frequently in his work, this time occupied by Spring Byington being taken seriously by her director for one of the few times in her long career; on the right is Errol Flynn, here the doctor, but later to be the patient himself.

History is Made at Night 1937

UNIVERSAL PICTURES

His Butler’s Sister 1943

The Borzage touch imparted to this Deanna Durbin vehicle more grace than its slim material may have deserved. Aided by cinematographer Elwood “Woody” Bredell (Pantom Lady, The Killers), His Butler’s Sister is one of only two Durbin films with any cinematic interest, the other being Robert Siodmak’s noirish Christmas Holiday of the following year. Durbin, a classically trained Judy Garland, was an extremely popular teenage star whose modest musicals are said to have saved Universal from bankruptcy in the thirties. Now at 21, she was making a smooth transition to adult roles and was the highest paid woman in the US. Never comfortable living in the limelight, at 27 she left the film business and moved to France where she still lives (November 2011).

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