Cinema and aviation are quintessential enterprises of the modern era. Alison McMahon, in her study of pioneering filmmaker Alice Guy Blaché, refers to film and flying as “the industries of motion” and notes their closely linked development, particularly in France: “In some cases the same inventors worked on both . . . The combination of interest in spectatorship, projection of images and flight characterized many men of science of the day” (McMahan, pp. 1-2). Early twentieth-century mass media hailed both as triumphs of technology, surrounding them with discourses of science, sensation, sexuality and spectatorship that further intensified with aviation’s role in the First World War.
Cinema and aviation also both contributed to changes in how people perceived the world, and their place in it, because both were part of ongoing rearrangements in “the organisation of the look in the service of consumption, and the gradual incorporation of the commodified experience into everyday life. . . .” (Friedberg, p. 2). Anne Friedberg lists nineteenth-century machines (including bicycles and steamships) and architectural features (arcades, department stores) that helped mobilise the gaze (pp. 2-3). She traces how the “mobilised gaze” becomes the “shopper’s gaze,” bound up in consumerism through its interconnections with the “social behaviours involved in the examination of goods on display (shopping) and the experience of ‘foreign’ spaces (tourism).” “Commodified visual mobility,” she writes, “became a global standard of modernity” (Friedberg, p. 4).
The intertwined nature of early aviation and cinema can be explored through a series of encounters with aviators experienced by Australian silent movie actress Louise Lovely. While both aviation and cinema can be understood in terms of the much discussed visual nature of modern life, Lovely’s experiences also demonstrate that visceral reactions to aspects of modernity can impact on dimensions of identity.
For the purposes of this paper, gender is the aspect of identity that is explored, with Judith Butler’s concept of the performativity of gender providing a theoretical base. If gender is made up of repeated “acts, gestures, enactments” (Butler, p. 136), then, in a time of cultural change, the bodily habits that constitute gender will also change. The transformations, experienced somatically, form a kind of physical shock in themselves. Mass entertainments repeat the new bodily habits, naturalising them both visually and viscerally.
The visible signs of modernity were widespread by the beginning of the twentieth century, and were immediately linked with bodily sensations. “A sense of disorder and fragmentation” resulted from the visual chaos of crowded and chaotic cities. As early as 1903, sociologist Georg Simmel saw connections between “the sensory foundations of psychic life” and the “intensification of nervous stimulation” created by the tempo and contrasts of urban life. Modern life was characterized by some commentators as being full of “nervous stimulation, stress and bodily peril” (Simmel, in Singer, pp. 61-62).
Commercialized mass entertainments associated with urban life and industrialisation were of a type not previously known: “Modernity ushered in a commerce in sensory shocks. The thrill emerged as the keynote of modern diversion” (Singer, p. 91; emphasis in original). Lyn Kirby notes: “Equating technological destruction with both pleasure and terror, the ‘imagination of disaster’ says volumes about the kinds of violent spectacle demanded by a modern public, and the transformation of ‘shock’ into eagerly digestible spectacle”. In 1895, the Lumieres’ audiences are rumoured to have flung themselves to the floor in fear of the oncoming rush of a filmed train coming into the station; but so quickly was the “shock” commodified and enjoyed that, by the following year, train collisions were deliberately staged and filmed. Such was the fascination that thirty thousand spectators attended the first such staged collision, and two people were killed by the smash (Kirby, p. 60).
Not long afterwards - in 1911 - the hunger for entertainments of “technological destruction” had resulted in a genre of plane newsreels: “When a flying machine plunged into a group of dignitaries assembled to watch the beginning of the Paris-Madrid race in May 1911 and killed the French Minister of War, moving picture shots of the accident were on view in Paris’s cinemas the same afternoon . . .” (Wohl, p. 276). Airborne stunts were filmed for spectacular movies in post-First World War Hollywood. Wharton Bros., for example, produced a feature, A Romance of the Air (Franklin B. Coates and Harry Revier; 1918), starring aviator Lieutenant Bert Hall as himself.
The interconnections between aviation and cinema spilled off-screen as well. By late 1918, Cecil B. DeMille had opened two airfields, and he started the “first scheduled commercial airline passenger service . . . in the world” in May, 1919 (Ronnie, p. 105). Thomas Ince was another filmmaker with aviation interests, establishing an “airdome” at Venice Beach, California. Stunt pilots there entertained the beach crowds, and stunted for movies at Inceville.
Thus, although both cinema and aviation were presented as spectacles for mass audiences, their effects went beyond their public appeal to the eye. Because both were commercially involved in “the imagination of disaster,” they shared “the culture’s fixation on the sensory intensity of modernity” (Singer, p. 66).
“Lulu, Lulu, Lulu,” Louise Lovely’s mother - Madame Carbasse-Alberti - screamed. “That thing could have fallen!” (Lovely, p. 51). Lovely was 19 years old the first time she flew, on 10 May 1914. Still known as Louise Carbasse, she became one of the first Australian women to fly in a sea plane. The Farman HydroAeroplane belonged to Lebbeus Hordern, of the prominent Sydney department store family. French aviator Maurice Guillaux, pilot for Carbasse’s flight, had come to Australia along with the hydroplane, to assemble and test it for Hordern (Hordern, pp. 321-322).
Guillaux made a number of flights in Australia. In his own Bleriot - also imported - he became the first in Australia to loop-the-loop the following month. The Sydney Morning Herald reported the reaction of the invited audience:
Two thousand feet in the air something streaked across the heavens like a huge dragon fly. It swung round and round, poised for a minute, and then suddenly dropped perpendicularly towards earth, like a meteor. But before reaching the ground it resumed the horizontal, and skimmed over the heads of the crowd so close that many screamed and others threw themselves to the ground. (“In the air.”)
The newspaper characteristically combines the discourse of sensation with that of science’s triumph over natural forces: “Guillaux defied the wind as he now proceeded to defy the law of gravitation”. But approximately six weeks after Louise Carbasse’s ride in the sea plane, a serious accident smashed the Bleriot “to matchwood” and left the pilot with “clothes torn to shreds . . . a deep gash across his right cheek, and blood . . . flowing freely from his nose and mouth”:
So sudden was the accident that the crowd was dumbfounded, and it was not until willing helpers had unstrapped M. Guillaux from the wreckage, and carried him across the course, that it found its voice. M. Guillaux feebly waved his hand in response. (“Guillaux injured”)
But how was it that Carbasse was in the hydroplane, anyway? She was, at the time, an actress and vaudeville performer who had been appearing on stage since she was nine years old. Her French-Swiss mother, Madame Carbasse-Alberti, ran boarding houses in Sydney, and had raised the girl on her own. Madame appears to have been a friend of the French Consul, M. Chayet. Indeed, the consul was one of the first to fly in the sea plane: Guillaux tested it alone first; then took its owner, Hordern; then the Consul (Parnell & Boughton, p. 22).
“I need someone to go up in the plane with me to try it out,” Guillaux is reported to have said to Madame Carbasse-Alberti. “How about Madame letting Louise come with me? She wants a bit of publicity?” (Lovely, p. 51). Perhaps Guillaux himself wanted publicity, for he was in the process of setting up a flying school at Ham Common (Parnell & Boughton, 21). “So my mother said, ‘alright,’ without thinking,” said Lovely:
and then I flew all over Manly, I remember distinctly . . . the hydroplane landed right at the side of the yacht and I got in there, but I was only a kiddie, you see, and I mixed with all the older people and everything, and I thought, “Oh, it’s like Christmas”. (Lovely, pp. 51-52)
The potential dangers of this Gatsby-esque adventure did not occur to Madame Carbasse-Alberti until the next day: “Lulu, Lulu, Lulu . . .”
Although flying was seen as a male domain, the tradition of pilots taking women aloft began early, when flight pioneer Wilbur Wright spent four months at Auvours in France during 1907-8. In addition to prominent male passengers, he also took “several carefully chosen women. His purpose was to demonstrate that flying machines could be safe when handled by an expert operator” (Wohl, p. 35). Aviation’s danger was held in tension with the commercial possibilities of the plane. There was, therefore, a need to convince people of its safety, even for - or especially for - women. Significantly, risk-taking took on a provocative significance when females - the child-bearers - were exposed to the same kinds of dangers as men. Women in the air - even as passengers, swept off their feet by male pilots - re-emphasized the dangers of falling, physically and morally. When Guillaux flew in Australia, he took at least one other young woman besides Louise Carbasse in the seaplane. As he circled Double Bay with Bessie Mulligan of Albury, Guillaux - “ever alert for publicity,” as a much later newspaper story put it - suggested she kiss him. “Hundreds of onlookers with binoculars broke into the 1914 version of wolf whistles at the duration and the intensity of the kiss” (“French ‘aeronaut’”).
Guillaux returned to his home country when war broke out. As a member of the French Air Force, he was killed on May 21, 1917, in a crash while on a test-flight (Carroll, p. 32).
“Do you know, someday I hope to be able to fly back to Australia,” Louise Lovely announced five years later, in 1919. By then, the former Louise Carbasse was a Hollywood star at Fox. She had been in Hollywood since 1915, had undergone a makeover that enhanced her resemblance to Mary Pickford, and had been re-named “Lovely” by Universal Studios. Her statement was made in an article in the Australian journal Picture Show:
All along I’ve been dying to be an aviator, or I suppose I should say aviatrix, and now my dream is coming true. I have just ordered a big biplane for my very own use . . . I am taking instruction in aviation from the Los Angeles Flying School, and guess I’ll be holding a pilot’s certificate by the time my own ’plane arrives . . . just you wait until I come sailing out to Aussie in my own little ’plane, and capturing the prize of £10,000 which Tom Ince is offering for the first aviator to make the flight. Wouldn’t I feel proud if I could! (“Louise Lovely writes”)
The prize that Lovely mentions was to be awarded for the first flight from the USA to either Australia or Japan. However, the trans-Pacific crossing was “a technically hopeless venture at that time, given the limitations of aircraft development and the huge over-water distances”; eventually Ince’s prize was withdrawn (Mackersey, p. 45).
But even if the journey were possible, Lovely’s attempt would have run contrary to the gender-specific conception of aviation. This view of flight is emphasised in a 1923 interview with Mary Pickford. When her daredevil brother Jack, in his plane, “just clear[s] the roof of a big glass stage,” her reaction shows the emotional “work” expected of exemplary (that is, responsible, nurturing) womenfolk:
I looked at Miss Pickford as I heard a half-suppressed sob. Tears were streaming down her face. Her body was shaken with a veritable paroxysm of agony. Suddenly she clenched her hands and held her arms in the direction in which the ’plane had disappeared.
“Oh Jack, oh Jack,” she sobbed, “you promised you wouldn’t”.
Then she turned and ran into the bungalow and threw herself on the couch in her dressing room, crying her heart out. (Talbot, p. 13)
Women who did go up in the air often transferred “feminine interests” to the new environment. Francelia Billington, who played opposite barnstormer Ormer Locklear in the film, The Great Air Robbery (Jacques Jaccard; 1919), advised that: “Silk hose are the most uncomfortable things a girl can wear in a plane . . . Within a few months no woman will consider her wardrobe complete without at least one flying costume (Ronnie, p. 137).
As for female pilots, it was generally considered that women:
were temperamentally unfitted to fly because they were prone to panic and lacked the physical strength to deal with emergencies. Besides, flying was dangerous, and women had no right to risk their lives . . . Consequently, many male aviators were reluctant to give women flight training or to sell them airplanes. (Wohl, pp. 279-280).
There were female aviators, of course, for example, screenwriter Jeannie McPherson (Cecil B. DeMille’s longterm collaborator). As early as mid-1913, forty qualified female pilots were flying in eight different countries (Wohl, 312). However, the female aviator was a contradictory figure. Although “the high-flying female body in space” is “a thrilling and emancipatory icon, an instance of the gendered sublime, of progress, of modernity, and freedom,” paradoxically the “active and dangerous” nature of flying gave it a “symbolic virility” that made female aviators like Amelia Earhart “transgressive” (Russo, pp. 24-25).
Louise Lovely insisted at the end of her long life that she had been sincere about her desire to fly - “I got the urge to do it but I never did” - but also admitted that the story about buying her own plane had been, in part, just publicity (Lovely, pp. 50-51). So why had Lovely made the announcement of her intention to become an “aviatrix”? Possibly, it was a strategy to add the sheen of modernity to her increasingly dated Pickford-esque star persona. Lovely’s body, in contrast with Amelia Earhart’s streamlined, moderne and boyish physique, was repeatedly filmed as girlish and in need of rescue. Thus Lovely’s claim to be studying for her pilot’s license was a bold statement that contrasted with her established star image by communicating messages about the desirability for a woman to master technology, display fearlessness, be independent, and have a healthy bank account - in short, to be in control. Yet the frilly, feminine aspects of her star persona were illustrated by one of the photographs accompanying the article: Lovely, with long ringlets, holds two cute baby goats. The contradictory nature of text and images reveals Lovely’s paradoxical position, straddling two competing definitions of womanhood as both helpless screen heroine and daring, self-sufficient, modern working woman.
The week after Picture Show reported Lovely’s flying ambitions, another short item appeared: “Louise Lovely . . . sent a cable to Harry Hawker congratulating him on his attempt to cross the Atlantic, and his rescue” (“Twinkles”). Hawker, a record-holding Australian aviator, along with his co-pilot McKenzie Grieve, were presumed lost when they disappeared during a west-east flight in response to the Daily Mail’s £10,000 prize for the first Atlantic crossing. They were rescued by a Danish ship with no wireless, so their safety went unreported for a week (“Hawker and Grieve”). Hawker was killed - an air accident, naturally - two years later.
Death, flying and masculinity were closely connected from the beginning: the first aviation fatality occurred in 1908, when Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge was killed while a passenger with Orville Wright (Wohl, p. 23). However, the deadly nature of flying added to, rather than detracted from, the appeal of flight:
The risk of death was the price that had to be paid for heightened emotions - what one prewar French woman aviator called the “intoxication of flight”. Indeed, some argued that the possibility of death was ultimately what gave meaning to flight, which was nothing but a metaphor for our longing for higher forms of being. (Wohl, p. 255).
By 1915, because of their association with wartime death and annihilation, the figure of the pilot had transformed from “sportsman” into “flying ‘ace’, an airborne knight armed with a machine-gun who jousted in the sky” (Wohl, p. 203). Reflecting the “Romantic agony” that connected sex with death, the sexual aura surrounding aviators intensified during the war, enhanced by photographs of youthful flying heroes that were widely distributed (Huppauf, p. 109). “Women were reported to be especially receptive to their charms”, writes Robert Wohl (p. 244).
Despite the publicity of the pilot’s wartime role, when the US finally entered the war, its pilot training proved inadequate for the kinds of flying that were necessary in combat: “The belief that stunt flying was unnecessary - coupled with a fear of unorthodox flying - produced fliers relatively worthless when they reached the battleskies of France” (Ronnie, pp. 35-36). Veterans returning to the United States from European combat were accused of “stunting” when they attempted to teach “the realities of combat flying,” and instructors were warned they could be court-martialled (Ronnie, p. 36).
One of the best known of the US flying instructors, Lieutenant Ormer Locklear, had not seen combat but had gained a reputation for pushing the limits, becoming for instance “the first aviator to attempt jumping from one ’plane to another while in flight” (“Locklear”). His motivation, he claimed, was to demonstrate that a plane with added weight on the wings - such as a machine gun - could still be controlled and manoeuvred (Ronnie, p. 36).
When the war ended, out-of-work fliers like Locklear survived by barnstorming the USA. These air shows incorporated stunts like wing-walking and plane-changing. So popular - and numerous - were these entertainments that trade journal Billboard published a calendar of aviation events (Ronnie, 53). Public interest was based on morbid curiosity: Locklear’s stunts in Toledo were apparently so hair-raising that they “caused hundreds of the spectators to turn away their heads, in fear of a fatal accident to the flyer” (“Air leaper”).
In early August 1920 - a year after Lovely declared she would soon be piloting her own plane - she was making The Skywayman (James P. Hogan). Her co-star and love interest in the film was barnstormer Locklear in his second film. Her appearance with the well-known real-life daredevil can be seen as bestowing modernity on Lovely in the same way as her claim of flying lessons. Even though her film role didn’t require her to pilot the plane herself, there was nevertheless the updating, hi-tech effect of footage of Lovely in a plane. There were also publicity images that showed her in a long leather jacket, contrasting with the lace frills in which she was usually shown.
The Skywayman told a convoluted story about a flying ace (played by Locklear) who had returned from the war with his memory lost. Stunts included a plane wrecking the steeple of a school; the aerial pursuit of the jewel thieves; and a plane-to-plane leap. During filming, Locklear appeared to be under some stress, at one stage accusing Lovely of doubting his skills and taking her on a frightening “joyride”. “I’ll show you I’m a damn good flier,” he said, performing “a number of spins, loops, dives and near fatal collisions with the earth”. Apparently, Lovely gave no hint of “feminine” panic:
She had determined during the reckless flight not to give Lock the satisfaction of knowing how frightened she really was. She even managed to walk firmly away from the plane, after graciously thanking him for the “enjoyable excursion,” without giving evidence of the terrific tattoo her knees were playing against each other. (Ronnie, p. 251)
But while shooting the final scene of the film - a dangerous night shoot that the director would have preferred to shoot day-for-night, using the new panchromatic film (Ronnie, p. 243) - Locklear and his co-pilot “Skeet” Elliott, were killed. Louise Lovely was first on the scene: “Panting and out of breath, she had outrun everyone” (Ronnie, p. 276). Before the fatal flight, Locklear had been overheard saying to Elliott, “Somehow or other, I’ve a hunch I ought not to fly tonight,” to which Elliot responded with a taunt encompassing age, gender and sexuality: “Come on old-timer. It’s too late for you to start getting old maid ideas” (Ronnie, p. 271).
Moralising comment is frequently directed at those who risk the dangers of gravity (Soden, p. 15), but early critical reports of Locklear’s death were quickly replaced by praise. A New York Times editorial on the accident was titled “The risks were not recklessness”:
it is only natural that the death of two particularly skilled and courageous aviators, while performing “stunts” for the benefit and profit of a moving picture company, causes a regret with which is mingled something of resentment that lives so valuable should be lost in serving such an end . . . it would be rash as well as unkind to say that they were madmen. That they certainly were not, and it is exactly such men as they on whom depends the improvement in the noble art of flight.
Publicity for The Skywayman also glorifed the men. In Australia, for example, a review of the film in The Lone Hand called Locklear a “scientist of the air,” and added that the film demonstrated “what Locklear had always held, namely, that his daring exploits above the clouds, were not performed in bravado, but for the good of mankind” (December 1 1920, p. 46).
Also watching as Locklear and Elliot crashed was not-yet-famous Australian war pilot, Charles Kingsford-Smith, who had come to California in 1919, “so short of money that he had to sell his only suit and travel in uniform” (Mackersey, p. 44). Ince’s prize for the first Pacific crossing tempted him, but he couldn’t find the necessary sponsors. He then took on:
a suicidal job . . . in the Sacramento Valley driving wild ducks off the rice fields . . . Photographs of the aircraft after these sorties show the wings, fuselage and pilot draped in startling fashion with feathers, blood and viscera. (Mackersey, p. 46)
After a stint in a “flying circus” - and a “bad crash” - he turned his hand to stunt flying at Universal, but was almost killed performing his first (and last) stunt (Mackersey, p. 46). In a posthumous “autobiography” based on his diaries, Kingsford-Smith spoke of his time as a “wing walker”:
The people who attended those exhibitions were too bloodthirsty for my taste. They wanted too much for their money . . . They wished to see a body or two carried off the field, and I did not want to be the body. (Kingsford-Smith, pp. 19-20)
In the literal act of falling, Freud saw an unconscious desire of giving up bodily equilibrium, which was an expression of sexual fantasies. So, too, were dreams of falling. “Their interpretation, when they occur in women, offers no difficulty, because they nearly always accept the symbolic meaning of falling, which is a circumlocution for giving way to an erotic temptation”. (Soden, p. 118)
Louise Lovely is particularly critical of Locklear when she speaks about him in her oral history. “Skeet was the man that took the brunt of everything,” she says:
He did it all, really, but Ormer Locklear took the honour and glory of it . . . you find that in every walk of life there’s always one that’s a little bit ahead and takes all the brains of the other, . . . and the other one does all the work. (Lovely, p. 49)
When she describes how the accident happened during the shooting of The Skywayman, she blames Locklear’s amorous adventures:
Locklear was the kind of “lover boy” . . . the girls used to run after him and everything, and Viola Dana, she was a Metro girl . . . Well, they were friendly . . . he used to show off to her . . . this day they were to go up and, of course, Ormer was late, as usual, because he was with her . . . a nice little girl she was, though . . . So Skeet said, “Oh, I can’t wait for him. I’ll take the plane up today” . . . And he took it up and it was a bad day, a nasty day, one of those with the wind blowing and . . . And I saw this plane coming down and all of a sudden it hit ground and I said, “Oh,” I said, “something’s happened to Skeet”. Sure enough, Skeet was dead. (Lovely, pp. 49-50)
Lovely’s harshness regarding Locklear is uncharacteristic. The prevailing tenor of her oral history is “loveliness”; note how she carefully says that Viola Dana - although publicly stepping out with the married Locklear - is “a nice little girl”. And, although Lovely’s memory is customarily accurate, she gets several important details wrong. Although Locklear was apparently late for the shoot (Ronnie, p. 271), both Locklear and Elliott were killed in the accident. Furthermore, the crash happened during night filming, not during the day.
The warmth with which Lovely speaks of Elliott, combined with her criticism of Locklear, suggests that she was close to him, even though there is no evidence that they actually had an affair. She was married, for one thing, and specifically denies the possibility. “Skeet was the most marvellous person,” she says, mentioning his “Southern accent,” and swiftly adding that there was “nothing between us but just friendship” (Lovely, p. 49). Nevertheless, their relationship had a particular intensity that still existed nearly sixty years later, when Lovely was interviewed.
The commercialisation of the thrill means that tragedy is easily exploitable, and gives an extra frisson to entertainment:
Less than a week after the [Locklear/Elliott] crash, Barr’s Illuminated Aerial Circus debuted at the Pickering Pleasure Pier over Ocean Park in Santa Monica. The promoter for the illuminated night-flying aerial circus advertised that the pilots would do loop-the-loops, nose-dives, and tail spins, enthusiastically assuring thrill-seekers that “the same stunt that caused Locklear and Elliott to meet death is a nightly feature.” (Ronnie, p. 287; my emphasis)
The Fox studio, too, capitalized by announcing that “10 percent of the profits of this picture is to be given to the family of Locklear and his pilot”. Yet almost twelve months later, Locklear’s widow found it necessary to mount a court case before she received $4,900 from Fox.
This article has considered only one dimension of identity, that of gender, but during this period, other dimensions of identity were also redefined as people adjusted to their changing environment. In the modern world, not only did both cinema and aviation look exciting, they also created heightened sensations. Both the look and the feel were commodified as thrills, and the public arenas of mass entertainment and the mass media intersected with private, embodied experience. As individuals endeavoured to make sense of the fast-paced, heterogenous and fragmented experiences of modernity, their identities were jostled by visceral reactions to new entertainments, new technologies, new commercialized ways of seeing. Body types, gestures, and dress styles changed to reflect new activities, new situations, new modes of transportation, and helped solidify new performances of identity, such as gender. For men, concepts of masculine heroicism were affected by the glorification of the skills, daring and wartime nationalism demanded by aviation, and then commodified as entertainment. And, as Louise Lovely’s experiences show, being a modern woman involved changes to bodily experiences as well as outward, visible changes. Engagement with the “sciences of motion” demanded enactments of womanhood that were different to the enactments familiar in the Victorian era. A leather aviator jacket both looked and felt different on the skin than did feminine frills, for example. And, of course, a Victorian woman would have no conception of how it felt to be taken for a joyride in a plane, let alone pilot one herself. Thus it can be seen that these visceral experiences alter subjectivity, as they impact on one’s sense of oneself. Although modernity, with its frequently discussed focus on spectacle, changes what the world looks like and how people perceive it - it also reaches deep inside, and changes how it feels to be living in that world.
Furthermore, the process of change carries with it the potential of revealing the constructed-ness of gender:
If the inner truth of gender is a fabrication and if a true gender is a fantasy instituted and inscribed on the surface of bodies, then it seems that genders can be neither true nor false, but are only produced as the truth effects of a discourse of primary and stable identity. (Butler, 137)
So what happens when women perform masculinity, such as when they invade men’s domains - the workplace, the electoral roll, public spaces or aviation - or cut their hair short or wear “masculine” leather jackets? Does enacting masculine performance make these women men? Or make men more womanly? Certainly, anxieties around gender roles were deep-seated during the early twentieth century. At the same time, it could be suggested that the possibility of identity tumbling into free-fall formed an aspect of modernity’s dangers that provided exhilarating thrills and shocks.
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