Monday, July 29, 2013

The Mirror Prank



The Schwartz Brothers performed the famous mirror routine during an international tour in 1912 and, in their wake, film adaptations of the routine were produced by at least three companies - Solax, Cines and Pathé. The Solax film, which I discuss in The Funny Parts, was a Alice Guy Blaché film called His Double (1912).


His Double (1912)

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The Pathé film was a Max Linder comedy called Max on the Road to Matrimony (1913). Last year, I watched the Linder film as part of a work print of a new documentary by Elio Quiroga. I do not wish to comment on anything in the documentary until it has its official release. That leaves it for me to discuss the third and final film of the bunch. The Cines film, Kri Kri domestico (1913), turned up on YouTube a few months ago.

Kri Kri domestico presents an intriguing variation of the mirror routine. Our comic hero, Kri Kri (Raymond Krau), has no good reason to pretend to be another man's mirror image. He is not trying to thwart a romantic rival, or escape a lunatic, or steal state secrets, or hide the fact that he broke his employer's dressing mirror. Kri Kri, an envious servant, simply wants to play a prank on the master of the house (Gildo Bocci). Comedies that were centered on a prank, whether playful or malicious, were common in the early years of film.

Kri Kri domestico's mirror routine stands out mostly for its clever payoff.  Just the fact that the film offers a payoff is remarkable since most versions of the routine have no clear resolution.  All that happens is that the hoax is exposed and the scene ends.  But Kri Kri domestico provides an interesting twist.  The rich man, who relies on his dressing mirror to tell him if he looks well, is engrossed with his "reflection" while he attires himself for a formal reception.  He has no need to examine the physical items that he is handling as he perfectly trusts what he sees transpire within the frame of the mirror.  He believes that he is dressing in formal wear, including a top hat and black dress jacket, because this is what he sees happening before him.  But Kri Kri is in fact putting on the man's fine clothing while the man is left to put on Kri Kri's clothing - a white sports jacket and an ill-fitting bowler. It is the prince and the pauper changing places, expect the prince is unaware of the switch.  The man is later humiliated when he shows up to the reception in his shabby garb.

Kri Kri domestico (1913)

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Mismatched hats create a discrepancy between Groucho and faux reflection Harpo in the classic Duck Soup version of the mirror routine. The hats are different in style and color. The color contrast could not be more distinct - one hat is white while the other is black.


The same light and dark contrast was applied earlier to the jackets in Kri Kri domestico. It brings to mind a negative exposure image.


The black and white jackets and the mismatched hats may have been elements of the original stage version of the routine. Now, with Duck Soup, these elements merged into one. Kri Kri domestico ends the same way that Max Linder ends his second adaptation of the routine.
 
Max Linder in Seven Years Bad Luck (1921)

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Let me now offer a few more recent versions of the mirror routine.


Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966)

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The Nutt House (1992)(dubbed in Russian)

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Sister, Sister ("The Meeting," 1994)

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The Vicar of Dibley ("Celebrity Vicar," 1998)

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 The Olsen Twins on Saturday Night Live (2004)



This is the only version I know that involves a busty clone.

Repli-Kate (2002)

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Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties (2006)

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I recently wrote about a routine in which Buster Keaton appears to be meticulously cleaning a window but it turns out the window frame is missing a glass pane and Keaton is cleaning nothing but air.  Keaton later applied the same premise to a mirror routine in Sherlock, Jr. (1924).

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Other versions of the mirror routine can be found in these earlier posts.

http://anthonybalducci.blogspot.com/2010/06/14-versions-of-mirror-routine-that.html

http://anthonybalducci.blogspot.com/2012/02/citizen-kane-loses-his-pants.html


Additional note

Alice Guy Blaché's His Double featured the first known version of the mirror routine to be recorded on film. A precedent for other classic comic business can be found in a variety of Blaché films. I cannot watch the filmmaker's The Drunken Mattress (1906), which features a woman struggling to carry a mattress up a flight up steps, without thinking of Laurel & Hardy struggling to carry a crate up a flight of steps in The Music Box (1932).

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What's Black and Blue and Yellow All Over?



No one would expect the tired, bloated cast of Grown Ups 2 to risk bruises, sprains and broken bones to produce spectacular physical comedy.


But we are fortunate to have the computer-animated characters of Despicable Me 2 keep alive the lively and bumpy tradition of silent film comedy.

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When I saw Despicable Me 2 in a theater, I heard the audience laugh loudly after our comic hero pointed a garden hose at an annoying woman and blasted her in the face with a forceful stream of water. The hose gag has a long tradition in film history. It was, in fact, the very first film gag. Its auspicious screen debut can be found in The Sprinkler Sprinkled (1895).

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For decades, the comic greats found this simple gag to be highly useful.

Stan Laurel in Hustling For Health (1919)

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Laurel and Hardy in Towed in a Hole (1932)

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Despicable Me 2 is filled with vastly imaginative content. Take, for instance, this muscle-bound masked villain riding a shark into a volcano.


But, believe it or not, the audience did not react as enthusiastically to this business as they reacted to the old hose gag.


Later, a little yellow minion switches on a high-pressure fire hose and is sent with the hose flying through the air.

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This is an old routine that was performed by a number of comedians, including Buster Keaton, Jerry Lewis, Laurel & Hardy and Lupino Lane.

Lupino Lane in His Private Life (1928)


Laurel & Hardy in Duck Soup (1927)

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The unconscious woman routine also turns up in the film.

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The most memorable versions of this routine were performed by Buster Keaton and Harry Langdon (See The Funny Parts), but Chaplin struggled to lift and carry an unconscious woman years before either Keaton or Langdon in A Night in the Show (1915).

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The multiple clones routine and the evil ice cream truck routine are also featured in the film.

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Additional note

To be fair, Grown Ups 2 did include one slapstick scene.  Here it is:

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This clip actually uses more CGI than anything in Despicable Me 2.

Lupino Lane similarly went speeding through traffic inside a runaway tire in Howdy, Duke (1926).  I apologize for the poor quality of this clip.

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The Dangers of Tropes



The efforts of Hollywood writers to condense the various aspects of a marriage into a compelling three-act structure has, for decades, brought forth a frustratingly distorted and misleading characterization of marriage. This wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't that many people look to the movies to understand the world around them. My warning to these people: Movies lie.

The subject of marriage in film is explored extensively in Jeannie Basinger's I Do and I Don't: A History of Marriage in the Movies.  Before I purchased this book, I made a point to check out the reviews on Amazon. One reviewer found the book infuriating. Another thought it was "grim reading." Neither blamed the author because it was clearly the subject matter that had stirred up their bad feelings. Marriage is a sensitive subject, but Hollywood's ham-handed treatment of marriage has been anything but sensitive.

Before Midnight, which is a truthful and insightful study of marriage, is a rare exception to the hopelessly inept marriage films that have come out of Hollywood in the last hundred years. It is, far and away, the best film ever made about this combustible union of husband and wife. The relevant issues are laid out clearly, genuinely and, most of all, painfully. Tomas Hachard, a critic for the Los Angeles Review of Books, summarized the film's message as follows: "A movie that tells us, while piercing holes through a fairy tale, that if love is to be more than just commitment, we must still commit to love." For certain, neither love or commitment is as important to marriage as a husband and wife's commitment to love. Most people believe that we have no control over love. They remain steadfast in their view that a person cannot, in any way, help who they love. They are apt to shrug nonchalantly when they speak of an acquaintance who has fallen in love or fallen out of love. But they are plainly wrong. When we wed, we vow to sustain our love for our partner. The love between a husband and wife is a solemn duty. The marital vow is best known for the phrase "to love, honor and obey." People have even greater trouble with the vow's "obey" part as they equate obedience with slavishness. But this pledge to obey simply means that a person agrees to set aside ego and self-interest and submit to this other person. If both parties in a marriage practice humility and deference, neither party can truly become subjugated to the other.


Ego has certainly driven a wedge between the couple in Before Midnight. In our modern world, men and women are self-important creatures. Marriage may be too mundane and restrictive for these sort of people. Too many people make the mistake of carrying on as if they are the star of their own personal Hollywood production, which is not a practical way to go through life. Life is real while movies, as I said before, are lies. At one time, the working title for my gag history book was Lies that Buster Keaton Told Me.

For decades, Hollywood pounded it into our heads that news reporters were sleazy (The Front Page, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Citizen Kane, Ace in the Hole) and then they pounded it into our heads that that news reporters were noble (All the President's Men, The China Syndrome, The Parallax View, Killing Fields).


At one time, consumers of films and television were told that the jock was a hero. Wally Cleaver was a jock. His parents were proud of him. His little brother looked up to him. His friends held him in high esteem. He was, in every way, a good guy. He showed up for every practice and he worked hard to succeed. He cooperated with teammates and did what his coach told him to do. In contrast, the coach had little use for the clownishly inept and unruly Eddie Haskell, whose role on the team was restricted to handing out towels.


But then a new trope was created. Now, according to Hollywood, the jock was a villain. The jock was, to everyone's dismay, a bully and a jerk. The unruly clown was the hero. I call this the wedgie era of cinema.


 To my knowledge, the earliest jerk jock was Flash Thompson, 
who tormented Peter Parker in the Spider-Man comic book.


Unfortunately, tropes alter the way people see the world. A trope may start out as a convenient tool for a lazy writer, but it soon becomes a form of propaganda. The nerds vs. the jocks became a political and ideological battle between intellectualism and athleticism. It became an argument in favor of the socialist idealists and in opposition of the fascist "men of action." In other words, it became nonsense that some people swallowed whole. I personally admire intellectuals and athletes. I favor the cooperation of different groups as opposed to conflict and competition. But films are about conflict and competition. It is for the same reason that marriage is portrayed in films as a battle of the sexes. I worry that this self-destructive battle has spilled over into real life.

Jesse Cataldo, critic with Slant, wrote of the Before Midnight couple, "Unmarried but united by children and a host of mundane responsibilities, the former trans-Atlantic soul mates are now a committed couple, no longer just a theoretical entity ready to be activated for another round of flirty debate. They have history and obligations, in addition to a growing sense of conjugal exhaustion, feelings made to seem even more prominent by the looming ruins of the film's Greek setting." That's what marriage is. It is history and obligations. . . and, oh yeah, diapers. It is not as juvenile, suspenseful, or enchanting as films usually make it out to be. It is not about drunken bachelor parties or lavish wedding receptions. It is not about the world recognizing or validating a couple's love for one another. That is the perspective of a person who imagines himself in a movie and is waiting to hear the audience applaud. The vital parts of our existence, such as our marriage and our job, are personal commitments that do not need to be announced to the world.

Let's talk about jobs. The notion of a career was inflated to absurd proportions by the films. It was no longer enough for a man to work hard on a job so that he can earn a steady income to support his family. Careers came to the fore, causing the simple idea of a job to be obliterated. Careers give a person an identity, inspire their dreams and ambitions, and provide them with value. But isn't this really something that writers latched onto for the purpose of telling a good story? After all, writers have to find a way to clearly define a character. A character can be instantly defined in a film by his occupation. A character needs goals. Career ambitions translate into simple and distinct goals. A character needs to achieve a heroic victory in the end. Getting a contract with a new client or winning a promotion is a great curtain-closing victory. The difference between a job and career has been discussed extensively online. One writer claimed that, unlike a job, a career has a significant impact on society. Another writer said that a person puts time and energy into a job in return for money while a person puts his heart and soul into a career. That is self-important rubbish. A job is work with a paycheck. A career is work with a narrative. We walk through life as if we are characters in a movie. That, frankly, is stupid. Howard Beale said it in Network (1976): "You're beginning to believe the illusions we're spinning here, you're beginning to believe that the tube is reality and your own lives are unreal. You do. Why, whatever the tube tells you: you dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube, you even think like the tube. This is mass madness, you maniacs. In God's name, you people are the real thing, WE are the illusion."

We are imaginary heroes in our own lives. We script our dialogue on Facebook. Party affiliations have become the white hat that we don in our daily showdowns in Internet forums. Draw, pardner! We have transformed ourselves into media figures.

My grandparents were too busy with their many obligations to go to the films. My grandfather owned a fruit stand. He was out of the house early in the morning to buy fruit at the farmers' market. At night, he watched the first half hour of the Ten O'Clock News before he went to bed. That was the extent of his television viewing. My grandmother watched The Mike Douglas Show while she cooked dinner. She once sat down with me to watch The Dean Martin Show. She affectionately referred to Martin as "that bum." She showed no other interest in television. My father, who worked multiple jobs, also never had much time for television. He once heard me down in the basement laughing my head off at an episode of F Troop. He came to see what I thought was so funny, but he didn't stick around for more than five minutes. I don't know what to make of people who watch a large amount of television and then spend hours talking about what they saw in online forums. That much television is bound to distort your perspective and generally rot your brain. I admit to having viewed more than my share of television, which explains the poor state of my own brain.

I love movies, don't get me wrong, but I know the difference between life and art, entertainment and propaganda, and enjoyment and overindulgence. A well-known saying is "History is written by the victors." A more accurate assessment of the situation is that history is written by the writers. God protect society from the lazy writers and their foolish tropes.

Avanti, Ridolini! (aka Larry Semon, Italian Style)



A television syndicator, La Miniatura Film, sold a package of Larry Semon comedies to Italian television in the 1950s. It is not unusual for a syndicator to make changes to entertainment product as part of their packaging. Usually, though, the changes are limited to the removal of footage or alterations in the closing and opening credits. La Miniatura made a point to add music, sound effects and dialogue to Semon's comedies to make them more palatable to young people unaccustomed to silent comedy. Semon's voice was provided by Tino Scotti, a comedian similar in many ways to Semon. Here is a clip of Scotti in the boxing comedy il tallone di Achille (1952).

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It is appalling to imagine one of Buster Keaton's carefully crafted silent films with dubbed dialogue. It would be an outright desecration to hear Harold Lloyd muttering to himself as he climbed the skyscraper in Safety Last! (1923). But this added feature somehow works in the context of Semon's wild and woolly comedies.


Passing the Buck (1919)

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Semon was credited in these films under his Italian nickname, Ridolini (derived from the Italian word "ridere," which means "to smile"). Scotti's assertive voice complements Semon's swagger. The comedian was certainly a swaggerer. He might be short, ugly and dimwitted, but he always displays an abundance of confidence. He will never shy away from the heftiest villain or the prettiest girl. The villains, heroines and just general bystanders express awe and admiration by calling out "Ridolini!" whenever he shows up. These dubbed cries make the character come across as a celebrity in his own crazy comedy world.


Horseshoes (1923)

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Whether Semon's fans approve of the dubbed dialogue or not, they should be grateful to La Miniatura as the company preserved several Semon comedies that would not otherwise exist today.




Additional note


Italian comedian Febo Conti regularly portrayed Ridolini on his sketch comedy show.

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Theatre Etiquette



As many theatergoers, I have suffered the indignity of having snacks rained down upon his head by the reprobates who hang out in the balcony. Stories of disorderly theater patrons can be traced from the 1500s to present day. Mira Felner wrote in a 2006 essay "The World of Theatre: Tradition and Innovation": "In his own time, Shakespeare’s plays were performed before a rowdy audience who booed, hissed, cheered, conversed, ate, drank, and even threw food at the performers, offering one explanation for the rat infestation in theatres of the period. Many believe that the open roof of the Elizabethan playhouse was a means to let the stench of food, drink, and unwashed bodies escape."

In 1833, a German nobleman shared his indignant observations of the English theater with the North American Review. He wrote, "The most striking thing to a foreigner in English theatres is the unheard-of coarseness and brutality of the audiences. . . English freedom here degenerates into the rudest license and it is not uncommon, in the midst of the most affecting parts of a tragedy, or the most charming cadenza of a singer, to hear some coarse expressions shouted from the gallery in a stentor voice. . . It is also no rarity for someone to throw the fragments of his goute, which do not always consist of orange-peels alone, without the smallest ceremony, on the heads of the people in the pit or. . . with singular dexterity into the boxes."

This rowdy behavior was ripe for comic treatment by 1903, at which time the Karno Company lampooned ill-mannered theater patrons in their "Mumming Birds" sketch. The sketch was later recreated on film by a number of comedians.

Let the food droppage begin.


Charlie Chaplin in A Night in the Show (1915)

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 Larry Semon in Between the Acts (1919)

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Buster Keaton in The Play House (1921)

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Larry Semon in The Show (1922)

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Sing, Clown, Sing!



It is not possible for a comedy routine to survive for hundreds of years without being highly adaptive and, trust me, a routine has passed the stringent test for adaptability if it has been performed effectively by comedians as unlike as Harold Lloyd and the Three Stooges. The Stooges' clowning was, without a doubt, different from the tidily constructed comedy presented by Lloyd. Looks, alone, could tell you that these were entirely different species of funnymen. Lloyd looks like a normal, upright fellow.


And this is how the Stooges look.


The Stooge characters, who lack enterprise and forethought, have very little in common with the clever, bespectacled go-getter made popular by Lloyd. It makes it especially complicated to take a routine performed by a single comedian and adapt it to an insanely oddball triumvirate of comedians. Yet, many time-tested routines were performed by both Lloyd and the Stooges. Of course, some of the comic business shared by these men was simple, standard stuff.

Are Crooks Dishonest? (1918) 

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The Ghost Talks (1949)

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A scared reaction is a scared reaction. But, other times, their joint routines were more elaborate. Take, for example, the gramophone routine. Early versions of the routine were featured in Polidor's Gramophone (1912) and Canned Harmony (1912). The plot of Canned Harmony is set into motion by the rebellious daughter of a music professor. The professor insists that the daughter marry a gifted musician, but the daughter has fallen in love with a man lacking in musical ability and is willing to deceive her father to gain his consent to marry. The father is enthusiastic to meet his daughter's suitor because he expects the man to demonstrate his mastery of the violin. The daughter, who has carefully planned the meeting, operates a hidden gramophone as her suitor pretends to play.


Canned Harmony (1912)

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The father realizes only moments before the wedding that he has been duped, but he cheerfully allows the ceremony to continue. 

A similar scenario turned up forty-one years later on The Abbott & Costello Show ("The Music Lover," 1953). Of course, the scene has several of Abbott & Costello's burlesque touches. This time, the father (Raymond Hatton) is not as engaged by music as he is by a smelly loaf of salami.  Also, the routine does not end on a happy note.

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For Harold Lloyd's The Non-Stop Kid (1918), the plot of Canned Harmony was altered to make the suitor the driving force behind the hoax. In this reconfiguration, the daughter is reduced to a decidedly passive role. Mr. Wiggle (William Blaisdell) insists that his daughter (Bebe Daniels) marry noted music professor M. T. Noodle. Lloyd, who is attracted to the daughter, knocks the professor unconscious so that he can impersonate the man at the Wiggle family's tea social. When called to sing before the guests, Lloyd persuades a sympathetic butler (Snub Pollard) to play a gramophone in a hidden alcove while he pretends to sing. 

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Lloyd's charade ends when the real Professor Noodle shows up to the party. The father chases Lloyd out of his home, but Lloyd manages to double back for Miss Wiggle. In the film's closing moments, the couple summon a taxi to elope.


The plot of Canned Harmony was given a more modern slant in the Stooges' Micro-Phonies (1945). A daughter (Christine McIntyre) rebels against her father, Mr. Bixby (Sam Flint), not to marry an eager suitor but to pursue a singing career. As usual, the Stooges accept a job although they lack the prerequisite skills to accomplish the job. This time, the boys have to do more than pretend they know the business end of a wrench. Curly, dressed in drag, poses as singing sensation Señorita Cucaracha to perform at a swank party hosted by Mrs. Bixby. The plan is for Curly to lip-sync to a record playing on a hidden gramophone, but Moe gets angry with Curly and impulsively breaks the record over his head. McIntyre steps forward to help the Stooges. She hides behind a curtain and sings while Curly mouths the words. The ruse is exposed, but Mr. Bixby is so enchanted by his daughter's singing that he sets aside the misgivings he has about his daughter's career ambitions.

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A unique twist on this premise was provided in The Ladykillers (1955). The daughter has been replaced by a gang of thieves, the disapproving father has been replaced by a disapproving landlady, and the suitor has been replaced by bagloads of stolen banknotes.

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Additional note


Raymond Hatton, who played Hillary Brooke's father in the Abbott & Costello scene, was a veteran character actor who had appeared in nearly 500 films. Hatton first achieved popularity when he was paired with Wallace Beery for a series of military comedies - Behind the Front (1926), We're in the Navy Now (1926) and Now We're in the Air (1927). Hatton played a slickster opposite Beery's sap. The team of Beery and Hatton was, as this basic description suggests, a precursor to Abbott and Costello. It was bad luck for Costello to have gotten himself caught between Abbott and Hatton, neither of whom would hesitate to dupe or generally abuse a person as gullible as he was.

Beery and Hatton made seven feature films between 1926 and 1928. 


Behind the Front (1926)




We're in the Navy Now (1926)

  



Now We're in the Air (1927)




 Fireman, Save my Child (1927)



Partners in Crime (1928)



 The Big Killing (1928)



Wife Savers (1928)


Hatton later starred with John Wayne and Ray Corrigan in the Republic Pictures series The Three Mesquiteers.

Wyoming Outlaw (1939)


I will close today's blog post with a clip from Abbott & Costello's Hit the Ice (1943).

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