The evolution of the music video, part I (1890s - 1940s)

Posted by Eric Brightwell, July 14, 2009 02:56pm | Post a Comment
Video and the Radio Star

I think it's safe to say that many, if not most, people seem to assume that music videos began with the initial broadcast of MTV on August 1, 1981. That first video, the Buggles' excruciating "Video Killed the Radio Star," came out in 1979, so what were they singing about? Were the Buggles prophets or were there videos before MTV?

For a long time, there have been musical numbers both in film and on TV. And hundreds of people have probably seen the PBS documentary about Soundies, where Michael Feinstein suggests that "an amazing forty years before MTV made its debut came a revolution in sight and sound." Hacktually, the marriage of music, advertisement and visuals within discrete shorts is almost as old as film itself and this, part one of The evolution of the music video, actually ends with Soundies.  

*cue the Ken Burns music*

1890s - The Kinetoscope

William Dickson, a Kinetoscope and a Kinetoscope parlor

William K.L. Dickson, one of the most important pioneers of early film, was working on the Kinetoscope, which played short films matched sound recorded on wax cylinder to film. In what to me is the first music video (filmed around 1894), Dickson plays "Song of the Cabin Boy" on the fiddle whilst two dudes grind suggestively.

Watching the videos required a pair of earbuds and looking through a tiny contraption not unlike the viewer on Spock's 23rd century science station. Constrained by technical limitations to decidedly short durations of around 22 seconds, they were impractical for all musicians (with the exception of maybe Wire and Anal Cunt). Whilst some video purists now suggest that this is the way videos were meant to be seen, at a nickel per view ($1.28 adjusted for inflation), it wasn't appealing enough to make them profitable.

This one isn't that far removed from Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights."

1920s - Phonofilm & Vitaphone, Ko-Ko Song Car-Tunes, Visual Music and Photophones


After a long, enjoyable silence, something resembling the music video appeared, this time on the big screen in 1922 with Lee De Forest's Phonofilms. On April 15, 1923, he showed a program of phonofilms at New York's Rivoli Theater.


Warner Bros
got in on the action with their Vitaphone films, beginning in 1926. Recording the music onto discs instead of directly onto the film (as Phonofilm had), they may've represented a step backward in terms of technology. Artistically, however, they moved light years beyond their predecessor's darkened stages or curtain backdrops by situating their subjects in decorated sets.


Beginning in 1924, Fleischer Brothers began making Ko-Ko Song Car-Tunes, which were, in addition to being precursors to music videos, were also precursors to karaoke. They were the first films to feature the "follow the bouncing ball" technique. In 1926, Phonofilm declared bankruptcy and the Fleischer's Red Seal followed. After joining forces with Paramount, the Ko-Ko Song Car-Tune was reborn as Screen Songs in 1929.

Visual Music


In 1928, Oskar Fischinger created a series of abstract films matched to music known as Studies and released through Electrola. In 1931, Universal purchased the distribution rights to Studie Nr. 5 and it was widely seen in theaters. The Wizard of Friedrichstraße made other movies that are, to me, amazing and seem to have no doubt influenced later musically-minded abstract filmmakers like Norman McLaren and Stan Brakhage.


Dudley Murphy had gained some fame in 1924, co-directing (with Fernand Léger) the dadaist film Ballet Mécanique, with Man Ray as cinematographer. In 1929, using RCA's Photophone process, he made St. Louis Blues, a two reel film that added the concept of illustrative narratives to music films and was followed by Duke Ellington's "Black and Tan Fantasy."

1930s - Seeing Sound


Mary Ellen Bute
was an experimental filmmaker from Houston who, beginning in 1934, began making what were billed as Seeing Sound. In many ways, they resembled and were no doubt influenced by Fischinger's Visual Music but used science and technology to determine the visuals.

1940s - Soundies


In 1939, the Mills Novelty Company invented a visual jukebox they called the Panoram. In 1940, they produced many "soundies" for the machines, which were usually found in bars and the like. Artistically, many had much higher production values than their antecessors in the 1920s.

Auroratones were created by British filmmaker Cecil Stokes for use in the treatment of mental disorders and featured pleasingly proto-psychedelic visuals often accompanying the music of Bing Crosby. 

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Asian-American Cinema Part I - The Silent Era

Posted by Eric Brightwell, May 3, 2009 03:00pm | Post a Comment
The first of a nine part series on Asian-Americans in front of and behind the camera


In the early days of west coast film production, there were few roles for Asian actors except as unflattering stereotypes or anonymous background work. Nonetheless, a small number pursued careers in front of and behind the camera, intersecting and influencing Hollywood's embryonic phase. Although most worked in near complete obscurity, two -- Anna May Wong and Sessue Hayakawa -- became veritable superstars. They still were virtually unable to find roles to their liking, since most of the lead roles (still usually degrading) went to actors in yellowface, a practice that continued long after blackface became taboo. Anna May Wong and Sessue Hayakawa used their earnings to attempt to improve opportunities for less famous Asians by creating more positive depictions, following black cinema's lead. However, with immigration restricted and laws preventing citizenship and property ownership, even the few rich, famous Americanized Asians faced considerable challenges.


In the silent era, most of the APA-related films were low budget, forgettable Chinatown mysteries and crude yellow peril thrillers but they do remain interesting for multiple reasons, including their reflection of changing American attitudes as well as as documents of the efforts of the country's second largest racial minority to break into a system who viewed them as subhuman at worst and as generally as exotic, inscrutable aliens at best.

It would be more than fifty years before the flourishing Asian-American cinema of today would become possible and profitable, following the amendment of immigration law, civil rights struggles, an influx of refugees and the subsequent growth of the Asian American population in the 80s/90s. But the valiant efforts of early Asian-Americans (and a few non-Asian Hollywood insiders like Thomas Ince and William Worthington) shouldn't be overlooked in their pioneering efforts to allow Asian Actors to play roles other than androgynous opium sots, waiters, tongs, dragon ladies and lotus blossoms.


Asian/Pacific Islander American actors of silent American Cinema

Ah Wing (not pictured) was born July 12, 1851 in China. He made eight films. He died February 27,1941 in Weimar, California.


Anna Chang was born in San Francisco around  and began singing on stage at age six. She made her debut film appearance in Hollywood with Two Little Chinese Maids (1929) and followed with Singapore Sue (1932). By 1941 she was back in San Francisco, headlining at the Jade Palace where she was billed as the "Chinese Princess of Song."

Anna May Wong (nee Wong Liu Tsong) was born January 3, 1905 in Los Angeles' Chinatown on Flower Street to second generation parents who ran a laundry. As a nine-year-old girl, she begged filmmakers for parts as they shot around downtown and was dubbed "CCC" (Curious Chinese Child). After she was cast in several films, she received top billing in The Toll of the Sea (the first film shot entirely in two-strip Technicolor process) and thereby became the first Chinese American movie star (and the first internationally known Asian American movie star).

Frustrated with the roles Hollywood offered Chinese Americans, Anna May Wong moved to Europe in 1928, where she was warmly received by critics. After making several films abroad, Paramount offered her a contract and the promise of lead roles.

Wong returned to the US in 1930, first appearing on Broadway in On the Spot. She continued working onstage and in Europe, still frustrated by Hollywood, especially after being denied a role in The Son-Daughter for being "too Chinese to play a Chinese." Although she continued to accept stereotypical roles, she was outspoken in the press about the need for positive portrayals of Chinese characters.

Wong's last two starring roles were in the Poverty Row anti-Japanese propaganda films, Bombs Over Burma and The Lady from Chungking, before she began accepting occasional roles on TV programs, including one written created especially for her, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, the first television steries with an Asian American star. She died in Santa Monica, California on February 2, 1961.

Bessie Wong (middle) with Lulu Wong (left) and Anna May Wong (right) -- (image source: Soft Film 軟性電影)

Bessie Wong
appeared in The White Mouse (1921) and Tipped Off (1923).

Bo Ling (Berenice Park) with James Hall (image source: Soft Film 軟性電影)

Bo Ling (real name Berenice Park) was born on December 18, 1908. Her sister was also an actress and singer, Bo Ching. The sisters were the children of Edward and Florence Park and grew up in Berkeley before moving to Los Angeles around 1926. The sisters formed a "three-gal act, singing, dancing, and playing piano and accordion" with fellow Vaudeville performer, Helen Wong Jean. She had roles in The Fifty-Fifty Girl,  Life's Like That, and Red Wine (all 1928); Golden Stairs; (1929), and International House and Myrt and Marge (both 1933).


Bo Ling and Bo Ching in Golden Stairs (image source: Soft Film 軟性電影)

Bo Ching (real name Winnie Park) was born on April 21, 1911. Her sister was fellow actress and singer Bo Ling. She appeared in Golden Stairs (1929) and Why Leave Home? (both 1929); International House, and Myrt and Marge (both 1933).

Charles A. Fang acted in 24 films, often as "Charlie Fang."

Duke Kahanamoku (nee Duke Paoa Kahinu Makoe Hulikohoa Kahanamoku) was born August 24, 1890 in Honolulu, Kingdom of Hawaii. He entered the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, the 1920 Antwerp Olympics and the 1924 Paris Olympics, winning medals at all for various swimming competitions. He is also famous for popularizing surfing. In 1925, whilst living in Newport Beach, he saved eight people from a capsized fishing vessel (17 died), using his surfboard to rescue them. He acted in fourteen films, usually playing a Hawaiian king. He died January 22, 1968.

Edward L. Park (image source: Soft Film 軟性電影)

Edward L. Park was the first Chinese-American to play Charlie Chan. He was born in San Francisco in 1876. His wife Florence was the mother of actresses Bo Ling (nee Berenice Park) and Bo Ching (nee Winnie Park) and acted as "Oie Chan." Edward Park worked as an interpreter at Angel Island before moving with his family to Los Angeles around 1927.

Etta Lee was born September 12, 1906 on Maui, Kingdom of Hawaii. She acted in fourteen films, playing both maids and slaves several times. She died October 27, 1956 in Eureka, California.

Frank M. Seki
 (not pictured) appeared in The Hope Diamond Mystery, The First Born and The Purple Cipher.

Frank Tokunaga (
aka Frank Tokawaja, aka Bunroku Tokunaga) was born July 7, 1888 in Japan. He married Japanese silent film actress Komako Sungata. After acting in 21 films, mostly in the US, he returned to Japan where he directed six silent films, with the intention of returning to America to further Japanese-American cinema. He died in 1967 in San Joaquin, California.

George Kuwa (ne Keiichi Kuwahara) was born April 7, 1885 in Japan. He was the first Asian-American actor to play Charlie Chan and acted additionally in 60 films. He passed away October 13, 1931, in Japan.

Goro Kino (also known as Gordo Keeno) was born June 2, 1877 in Japan. He acted in 17 films and he was one of the earliest Asian American actors. He died February 4, 1922 in Los Angeles.

Hatsu Kuma in a production of Tokio Blues (dated 1927)

Hatsu Kuma may've been Japanese rather than Japanese-American (I'm not sure). She made only known film appearance (alongside Anna Chang) in Two Little Chinese Maids (1929).

Henry Kotani (aka Hanoki aka Henry Katoni) was born in 1887 to Japanese immigrant parents in the U.S. At a time when few Asian Americans were employed in film crews, Kotani apprenticed at Jesse L. Lasky Company under "Papa" Wycoff, the "Father of Cameramen." Although he acted in only six films, he also worked as a cinematographer, produced, wrote and filled other roles in many films. In the middle of his career, he relocated to Japan, where he tried to introduce American cinematic flavor to Japan, insisting on directing in English, and never providing scripts to his his actors or crew. After directing six films which failed to find an audience, he returned to America where he died in 1972.

Iris Yamaoka was born in 1911 in Seattle. She appeared in six films; China Slaver (1929), Hell and High Water (1933), Pursued (1934), Petticoat Fever (1936), High Tension (1936) and Waikiki Wedding (1937).Yamaoka was interned at the Heart Mountain Relocation camp in Cody, Washington during World War II. She died, aged 49, on November 28, 1960 in New York City, New York.

Jack Yutaka Abbe was born February 2, 1895 in Miyagi, Japan. After acting in ten American films, he went back to Japan and directed 25 films as "Yutaka Abe." He died January 3, 1977 in Kyoto, Japan.

James B. Leong
(nee Leong But-jung, aka Jimmy Leong) was born November 2, 1889 in Shanghai, China. He became James Leong when he moved to the US at 24 in 1913. After attending college in Indiana, he found work as an assistant director and interpreter with Chinese extras for the likes of D.W. Griffith and Park Frame; he ultimately acted in 81 films. He died December 16, 1967 in Los Angeles.

James Wang was born in 1863 in China. In the US, he acted in 32 films. He died April 20, 1935 in Los Angeles.

James Wong Howe (ne Wong Tung Jim) was born August 28, 1899 in Guangzhou, China. His father moved to Washington when James was one, and he joined him when he was five. He bought a Kodak Brownie camera from a drugstore at the age of twelve. After moving to L.A., he worked as a commercial photographer but was fired when he was caught making fake passports. He got hired by the Jesse Lasky Studios' photography department for $10 a week, paid to pick up scraps of film. He next worked as a slate boy for Cecil B. DeMille. He first worked on a film as a cameraman in 1919, and then as a cinematographer in 1923, where he became known for his masterful use of deep focus and shadow. He began wearing a button declaring "I am Chinese," as did his friend James Cagney in solidarity. Due to anti-miscegenation laws, he couldn't marry his white girlfriend until 1949. He died July 12, 1976 in Hollywood.

Joe Sunn Jue (right) with actress Patricia Joe (Chow Kwun-ling) and cameraman Joseph Jue 

Joseph Sunn Jue directed his first film, the Cantonese-language Yaomo Zhi Yue (The Demon's Cavern) in 1926. It was the first film produced by Xue Pinggui quan zhuan (Chinese Educational Film Company), a company whose vice president was Jun You Jew, the director's father. In 1933 Jue went on to form his own film company, Grandview Film Company, in San Francisco.

Komato Sungata (Sunata) came to the US as five-year-old. She was described as the Japanese Gloria Swanson. Her first film role was as an extra in an Essany film at the age of fourteen. She met Japanese-American actor Frank Tokunaga on the set of a film and they married when she was nineteen. In 1923, the couple traveled to Japan, hoping to translate their experiences into Tokunaga-directed, Sungata starring films, with the desire of potentially elevating the quality of representations of Japanese in Hollywood.

Kunihiko Nanbu (also billed as "K. Nambu") was born November 29, 1890 in Tokyo, Japan. He acted in six films.

Lady Tsen Mei was born March 28, 1888 in Canton, China. She first found work with Betzwood Film Company in Pennsylvania. In The Lotus Blossom, for which she received top billing, she was billed as "The screen's first and only Chinese star." However, having acted only in that film, The Letter and For the Freedom of the East, her stardom never rivaled that of Anna May Wong. She died July 1985 in Norfolk, Virginia.

Louie Cheung (not pictured) acted in four silent films, A Tale of Two Worlds, The Concert, The Branding Iron and The Girl from Outside.

Misao Seki (aka M. Seke and not pictured) acted in eight films between 1918-1923 before moving to Japan where he acted in 17 more.

Mrs. Wong Wing
was born November 21, 1892 in China. She acted in eight films and died September 30, 1966 in Los Angeles.

Mr. Yoshida (not pictured) appeared in just three films, Domino Film Company's 1914 pictures, Nipped, A Relic of Old Japan and The Courtship of O San.

Olive Young (image source: Soft Film 軟性電影)

Olive Young was born June 21, 1907 in St. Joseph, Missouri. She moved to Shanghai and, as 杨爱立, began appearing in silent films in 1926 and was billed as "The Chinese Mary Pickford." Returning to the US she acted in Trailin' Trouble (1930), Ridin' Law (1930), and The Man Who Came Back (1931). She died suddenly, on October 4, 1940 (age 33) in Bayonne, New Jersey after collapsing in the dressing room of a night club where she'd just performed. 

Sessue Hayakawa
(nee Kintaro Hayakawa) was born June 10, 1889 in Nanaura, Chiba, Japan, the son of a governor/member of the samurai class. Although he wanted to join the navy, he was rejected because he'd ruptured his eardrum. Having thus disappointed his father, he attempted to commit suicide by stabbing himself in the chest over thirty times before being stopped.

Hayakawa subsequently studied political economics in Chicago before returning to Japan where he pursued a career on the stage in an acting company that returned him to the US in 1913. Spotted by Thomas H. Ince in a Little Tokyo production of The Typhoon, he was offered a movie contract. He appeared in The Wrath of the Gods and The Typhoon in 1914 and, on May 1, he married actress Tsuru Aoki.

In Cecil B. DeMille's 1915 film for Famous Players-Lasky, The Cheat, Hayakawa became the first Asian-American superstar (receiving $200,000 for a film at his height, driving a gold-plated Pierce-Arrow and, on one occasion, shrugging off a million dollar gambling loss in Monte Carlo), although the film was protested by Japanese-Americans who tried to prevent its re-release in 1918.

After the success of The Cheat, Hayakawa started his own production company, producing many films starring his wife and himself, earning on average $2 million a year and becoming an outspoken critic of stereotypical Asian roles. He then moved to Japan but failed to establish a career there. In France and the UK, he proved more successful.

Hayakawa returned to the US in 1931 and made his talkie debut with the other Asian-American film star of the day, Anna May Wong in Daughter of the Dragon. Like many silent actors, his speaking voice was supposedly not to the liking of audiences and he again returned to Japan and then France, where he made several more films and joined the French Resistance.

After World War II Hayakawa tried again to re-establish himself in Hollywood and appeared in several big films, including Tokyo Joe, Three Came Home and Bridge on the River Kwai. After the death of his wife in 1961, he returned once again to Japan where he became a Zen Buddhist priest and private acting teacher before dying on November 23, 1973 in Tokyo of cerebral thrombosis.

Sojin (ne Sôjin Kamiyama) was born January 30, 1884 in Sendai, Japan. After working on the stage in the Imperial Theatre in Tokyo, he moved to America. In the US, he married Ura Mita and had a son, Edward, in 1909. Beginning a few years later, he began acting in films, usually as a villain, but also as one of three Asian-American actors to play Charlie Chan. After 26 roles, with the advent of talkies, his accent proved an obstacle to getting further film work in Hollywood. After acting in a French film, he returned to Japan where he continued to act, notably having a part in The Seven Samurai. He died July 28, 1954 in Tokyo, Japan.

Tetsu Komai was born April 23, 1894 in Kumamoto, Japan. He acted in 64 films, almost always playing  Chinese characters. Though usually acting in lesser films, in 1932 he was singled out in a Time review of War Correspondant for his performance which was said to have risen above the sentimental material. He died August 10, 1970 of congestive heart failure in Gardena, California.

Tôgô Yamamoto was born November 4, 1886 in Yokohama, Japan. In 1930, after appearing in fourteen American films, he returned to Japan where he acted in sixteen more.

Tokuko "Taku" Nagai Takagi was born in 1891 in Tokyo, Japan and was the first Japanese to appear professionally in American film. In 1906, the 15 year old maid at the Bank of Japan married Chimpei Takagi, who returned to Japan from California after the Great Fire of San Francisco. After the two moved to the US, Taku appeared in four American films, The East and the West (1911) (as C. Taka), The Birth of the Lotus Blossom (1912), For the Mikado (1912) and Miss Taku of Tokyo (1912). All were made for Thanhouser Film Corporation, who were attempting to exploit the growing Japanese-American population. After the outbreak of World War I, the Takagi's returned to Japan where Taku died of a  cerebral hemorrhage in 1919 whilst on tour as a dancer.


Toshia Mori
(nee Toshiye Ichioka) was born January 1, 1912 in Kyoto, Japan. She came to the US when she was ten and acted in eighteen films. She was the only non-white person ever chosen to be a WAMPAS (Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers) Baby Star, in 1932. Baby Stars were young actresses felt to be on the cusp of something bigger. However, Mori's film career ended a few years later. She married a fellow Asian actor, Allen Jung. Toshia Jung, billed as Shia Jung (and leading to frequent confusion with the Shia Jung who acted in Chinese Tarzan films) acted in three more films, Charlie Chan at the CircusCharlie Chan on Broadway and Port of Hate, after which she retired from film. She died November 26, 1995 in the Bronx.

Toyo Fujita
 (not pictured) operated a theater in LA's Little Toyko. It was there, in a production of The Typhoon, that Sessue Hayakawa was noticed and propelled to superstardom. After Hayakawa began the pioneering Asian-American film company Haworth Pictures, Fujita acted in several films before he broke out into extra work for other studios, ultimately appearing in thirteen films.

Tsuru Aoki was born September 9, 1892 in Tokyo, Japan. She moved to Los Angeles with an aunt and uncle in 1903. She began her acting career on Toyo Fujita's stage in Little Toyko where she and Sessue Hayakawa acted sided by side. After being noticed by Thomas Ince, he placed her under contract. With a debut film performance in 1913's The Oath of Tsuru Sanshe became one of the first Asians to appear on screen in Hollywood. Afterward, she invited Ince to a play at the Little Tokyo theater she'd worked in for a performance of The Typhoon starring Hayakawa. Ince employed both actors in 1914's O Mimi San and the two actors began a relationship and married on May 1. Appearing in a total of 44 films, her career faltered as Hayakawa's rose and she retired from film to raise their two adopted children. After returning to film in 1960 and acting alongside her husband in Hell to Eternity, she died October 18, 1961 in Tokyo of acute peritonitis.

Yukio Aoyama (nee Massajiro Kaihatsu and not pictured) was born March 15, 1888 in Nagoya, Japan. After being schooled in Japan, he attended drama school in Chicago. He married Kuwa Kosaki and the couple had five children. In addition to acting in seven films, he was an editor of the Japanese Daily News for five years and a drama critic and writer. He also acted on the stage and worked as an assistant or technical director in over sixty films. In 1934, he owned the Oriental Costume Company in Hollywood and worked on The Japanese Movie Magazine. He died December 11, 1939 in Los Angeles.

Willie Fung was born March 3, 1896 in Canton, China. Despite acting in 128 films (probably more than any other Asian-American actor of the silent era), he almost always played unnamed characters. Despite little information available on him, just looking at his credits illustrates the reasons for Asian actors' frustrations with the Hollywood system. In 24 films he played a restaurant employee, in six he played a servant and in three, a laundryman. When he was named, he played a character named Wing three times, Wang four, and Wong ten! He died April 16, 1945 in Los Angeles from coronary occlusion.

Other Asian-Americans who appeared in at least one Silent Film era film include: Hoo Ching, Lee Gow, Lin Neong, and Tom Hing 



1914 - The Ambassador’s Envoy, The Courtship of O San, The Curse of Caste, The Death Mask, The Geisha, The Last of the Line, Mother of the Shadows, Nipped, O Mimi San, The Oath of Tsura San, A Relic of Old Japan, Star of the North, A Tragedy of the Orient, The Typhoon, The Vigil, The Village 'neath the Sea and The Wrath of the Gods

1915 - The Cheat, The Chinatown Mystery and The Famine

1916 - In 1916, Oakland resident Marion Wong makes the first Chinese-American film, The Curse of Quon Gwon. It, however, proved a false start when it was shelved until it was restored in 2006.

Other APA related films to be released in 1916 include Alien Souls, Broken Fetters, The Honorable Friend, The Soul of Kura San and The Yellow Pawn.

1917 - The Bottle Imp, The Call of the East, Each To His Kind, The Flower of Doom, Hashimura Togo, and War of the Tongs (begun in 1914)

1918 - William J. Worthington had been making films since 1915, but in 1918 he hooked up with Sessue Hayakawa and Tsuru Aoki, who used their money to start Haworth Pictures Corporation with the aim of portraying Asians in a sympathetic light and which brought in on average $2 million a year.

Asian-American related films released in 1918 include: The Bravest Way, The Chinese Musketeer, The City of Dim Faces, For the Freedom of the East, Her American Husband, The Hidden Pearls, His Birthright, The Curse of Iku, The Japanese Nightingale, The Midnight Patrol and Mystic Faces.

1919 - Bonds of Honor, Broken Blossoms - or - The Yellow Man and the Girl, The Dragon Painter, The Gray Horizon, A Heart in Pawn, Mandarin’s Gold, The Pagan God, The Red Lantern and The Tong Man

1920 - Dinty, Li Ting Lang, Outside the Law, Pagan Love and A Tokyo Siren

1921 - Hayakawa forms the Hayakawa Feature Play Company who make The Swamp, Where Lights Are Low, Black Roses and The First Born.

Other films featuring prominent Asian characters made that year include: What Ho, The Cook, Lotus Blossom, Shame and A Tale of Two Worlds.

1922 - Boomerang Bill, East Is West, The Toll of the Sea, Five Days to Live and The Vermillion Pencil

1923 - Drifting, Haldane of the Secret Service, The Remittance Woman and Thundergate

1924 - Anna May Wong creates Anna May Wong Productions with the intention of producing films based on Chinese legends but, after discovering her business partner engaging in dishonest business practices, dissolves the company.

Other APA related films released in 1924 include: The Danger Line, The Great Prince Shan and Sen Yan’s Devotion.

1925 - East of Suez

1926 - Fairmont Productions' The Silk Bouquet, aka The Dragon Horse is financed by San Francisco-based Chinese Six Companies (六大公司) for a Chinese-American audience.

Also released in this year: Eve’s Leaves, A Trip to Chinatown, Mr. Wu, and Yaomo Zhi Yue (The Demon's Cavern)

1927 - Old San Francisco

1928 - The Crimson City, Chinatown Charlie

1929 - China slaver

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From the women's picture to the chick flick

Posted by Eric Brightwell, March 31, 2009 05:52pm | Post a Comment

I wrongly assumed that it would be easy to fire off a blog briefly summarizing the history of women’s pictures. When I began, I quickly realized that it is a genre that’s simplistically treated as synonymous with both weepies/tearjerkers and their near opposite, the rom-com; it quickly proved to be more than I bargained for, which is why it’s showing up on this, the last day of Women’s History Month. The history of the genre occupies an interesting position, little discussed and yet obviously affecting and responding to the Hollywood narrative, the larger global film market, and broader history. Anyway, it proved to be a bit too much so, here's the fast & furious driveby account of a genre that deserves more.

First of all, tear-inducing films are by no means all women's pictures, which is why someone coined the annoying term “guy cry” for young male-targeted stories/films about dying dogs (e.g. My Dog Skip, Old Yeller, Where the Red Fern Grows, &c). For adult males, sentimental melodramas (usually tempered by the macho backdrop of war, the wild west or sports (e.g. Bang the Drum Slowly, Brian’s Song, Knute Rockne) allow men the opportunity to cry with less shame. But, whereas men generally try to resist crying, telling themselves in the heat of a battle scene as the hero lies dying in his buddy's arms, "It's only a movie. It's only a movie. You will not cry!"; women, it is assumed, seek out movies with the hope that they will have "good cry." I have no doubt that this is part of why women’s pictures have rarely been afforded serious critical examination and were only lauded, for the most part, near the beginning of film history.

During the silent film era, most truly snobby critics still viewed film as an inferior art form unworthy of serious discussion, except to point out its deficiencies. Those few positive critics were usually decidely populist and they, of course, loved the maudlin stories, over-the-top action and improbable coincidence of silent melodramas. Most of still-critically-worshipped director D.W. Griffith’s supposed film innovations were borrowed directly from tawdry works of decidedly low, melodramatic fiction and much of his work can be considered in the women's pictures genre. True Heart Sudies is about a suffering country girl who continually sacrifices her own happiness to help advance the position of a man who barely knows she exists. In Way Down East, a young innocent is seduced and impregnated by a smooth womanizer who then tosses her aside.

Silent stars like Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford often played spurned or otherwise wronged innocents who suffered mightily at the hands of dastardly men. Both of the actresses played out in ways fitting the conventions of women’s pictures, albeit ones that demonstrate some of the under-acknowledged variety of the genre. Lillian Gish never married nor had any verified relationships (unless you count her close friendship with Helen Hayes or her sister, Dorothy). Instead, she devoted herself entirely to her career for 75 years before dying alone at 99 years old. Pickford’s husband, Owen Moore, was an alcoholic who -- unhappy about being overshadowed by his wife’s fame -- resorted to beating her, driving her into the arms of dashing womanizer Douglas Fairbanks.

The idea of campaigning for female audiences began when women still didn’t have the right to vote at the ballot box, but did at the ticket booth. With silent film’s reliance on visuals and, usually, highly stylized, dramatic acting, the medium practically seemed ideally suited for melodrama. In the 1920s, Doris Schroeder became in demand for her women’s picture screenplays. Her first screenplay was the provocatively-titled Heart of a Jewess. Her specialty was creating different characters that look like a who’s who of women’s picture stock characters: tomboys, fallen women, vengeful femme fatales and hedonistic gold-diggers. Of course, part of the fun of the pre-Hayes Code era was the ability to show all sorts of tawdry, sordid, gleeful immorality as long as the bad girls end up drug-addicted, rejected or dead. Madame X (1920) was one of the first of such films. In it, a woman (played by Pauline Frederick) is separated from her child and then defended by her unknowing, grown-up son when she's wrongly accused of murder. 

In 1927, the first Academy Award for Best Actress went to Janet Gaynor, the star of 7th Heaven, a woman’s picture wherein a poor, cheated, abused and persecuted woman finds a loving husband, only to have him snatched away to fight in World War I. He makes the unlikely promise to communicate telepathically with his wife every night. Eventually, the heroine thinks he’s died. Against all odds, he returns to her alive… but blind.

It was only when film began to be taken seriously that more serious critics began to dominate film theory. For the most part, they shunned the melodramatic hallmarks of the women’s picture as uncinematic, usually expressing the view that a more intellectual filmmaker’s concerns with film visuals should focus on composition, editing, &c and not emotionally appealing fancy costumes and sets. Somewhat oddly, whereas emotion seems perfectly acceptable in music, from the super sentimentality of Franz Schubert to the comically lachrymose Radiohead, emotion, we are told, has no place in serious film. Of course, all popular film remains, despite critical suggestion, primarily concerned with emotions, whether the genre is action, drama, horror, porn or thrillers. Most audiences go to the cinema in search of an emotional fix. It could be argued that the escapism offered by plutographic spectacle films is almost intrinsic to the genre and extremely cinematic.

The disparity between film critics and audiences is even more glaringly obvious when it comes to foreign films. In most countries, the melodrama (often also a women's picture) is usually favored by the populace, who've frequently never heard of most of the critically-championed films that end up released in America. Look, for example, at Iran, whose New Wave of directors are barely known at home where, conversely, the popular films are generally unheard of abroad.

Women’s pictures' roots in literature were also ultimately frowned upon as extrinsic contaminants stunting film's growth. The seemingly convoluted twists and border-line magical coincidences were looked down upon and yet books like Anna Karenina, Camille, Jane Eyre, Madame Bovary, Wuthering Heights and pretty much everything by Jane Austen have nonetheless proven lastingly popular with filmmakers and audiences, who often enjoy repeated movie adaptations every few years.

Occasionally, in the hands of the right director, what would otherwise be viewed as silly clichés are considered (usually in hindsight) ironic social critiques disguised in camp clothing. Many emotionally manipulative directors, despite their frequent forays into women’s pictures, are viewed as serious directors only because they've (despite frequently working within the genre) skillfully managed to avoid being seen for what they are, e.g. Erich Von Stroheim, Josef Von Sternberg, Lars von Trier, Michael Powell, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Todd Haynes. Others, like Douglas Sirk, Edmund Goulding and George Cukor, have been redeemed through re-assessment of their work. Because of their ongoing popularity, women’s pictures (though still viewed as low art) remain viable, now re-branded as "chick flicks." Given a hip, insouciant (and annoying) nickname, directors of chick flicks like Nora Ephron and P.J. Hogan are at least considered respectable, even as most of their works are scarcely different from the disparaged works of their predecessors. When you look at the top ten highest grossing American films, many are arguably women’s pictures and all contain most of the ingredients of the genre, despite their target audience.
  1. Gone with the Wind (1939)
  2. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)
  3. The Sound of Music (1965)
  4. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
  5. The Ten Commandments (1956)
  6. Titanic (1997)
  7. Jaws (1975)
  8. Doctor Zhivago (1965)
  9. The Exorcist (1973)
  10. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

The 1930s were noteworthy in the history of women’s pictures for several reasons. It was the dawn of the talkie and women’s pictures became known for featuring a lot of dialogue, another characteristic viewed as inherently anti-cinematic and more appropriate to books. In the first half of the decade, before the application of the Hayes code, studios could get away with more than they even do today. Bette Davis in particular enjoyed a string of successes as women of questionable character in films like Dance Fools Dance, Ladies of Leisure, Night Nurse, Illicit, Forbidden, Shopworn and Ladies They Talk About. Barbara Stanwyck, Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich often appeared as either gleefully-immoral or in traditionally male positions to great success.

The musical was also made possible with the adoption of sound. Although almost never described as a subgenre of women’s pictures, there’s little doubt about who is the target audience, Musicals often send up and feminize traditionally male-oriented genres. In the face of the Great Depression, a lighter variation on the wicked woman archetype was the comedic, sympathetic goldigger, as featured in a series of backstage musicals and non-musicals like Red Headed Woman.


In Italy, a series of films were made that, in imitation of Hollywood, portrayed wealthy, conservative families living glamorous, happy lives in their posh homes. The neo-realist crowd called them “Telefoni Bianchi” (White Telephones), after that technological symbol of upper-class frivolity.

The 1940s saw several developments in the women’s picture, many seemingly fueled by the realities of World War II, which resulted in many women entering the workplace for the first time, filling jobs traditionally performed by men. At the same time, many men were shipped off to the battlefront, often never to return. Women’s pictures such as Random Harvest and Waterloo Bridge milked war for all its considerable, tragic emotional worth. In England, however, where the battle came to them, the tendency toward escapism was stronger and what came to be known as Gainsborough Melodramas were hastily cranked out, beginning with The Man in Grey and continuing with Madonna of the Seven Moons, Fanny by Gaslight, The Wicked Lady and Caravan. They were mostly based on adaptations from recent books and all were set in the distant past and provided momentary distraction with fancy costumes and considerable scandal. The years following the war saw an absolute proliferation of women’s pictures. The then newly-common supersaturated Technicolor process was perfect for the heightened emotional state aimed for by genre auteurs like Douglas Sirk.

Production of women’s pictures seems to have reached a low in the 1960s and ‘70s, viewed at the time as conservative, inartistic and passe. Films like Sweet November, Love Story and Looking For Mr. Goodbar all attempted to make some acknowledgment of women’s liberation. Looking for Mr. Goodbar, especially, seems like a cautionary tale to women everywhere who are too liberated for their own good.

The 1980s saw the dawn of the term “chick flick.” I can only assume that it has something to do with the then-popular Andrew “Dice” Clay. Throughout the decade and into the 1990s, Hollywood grew increasingly conservative and there weren’t really any significant developments in the women’s picture in the 1990s, just new faces like Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan. If anything, the women's picture was stripped of any sense of irony or satire and reduced to a nostalgic echo of a supposedly simpler time.

With the complete proliferation of cell phones in the 2000s, film conversations are now liberated from the confines of LAN lines and people can talk and talk in any situation. Elizabethtown was the first film to feature every line of dialogue spoken over phones. Still relying heavily on books as their sources, the decade saw so-called chick lit, which had enjoyed incredible popularity in the ‘90s, influencing the women’s picture. It’s surely why the proliferation of films about busy, professional women exploded.

As I noted earlier, there’s a lot more variation to the women’s picture than is usually recognized. And yet, part of the fun is recognizing how often time-worn conventions appear with little change. Most women’s pictures incorporate several conventions in varying combinations, albeit usually with similar aims, including realization of fantasies about the characters who are experiencing significant life changes that revolve, almost invariably, around the central importance of men, which is part of the reason they’re often viewed as socially conservative. But, as earlier noted, there’s often an satirical note and more than a bit of exploitation in the bulk hiding behind the tidy moralizations at the end. I would argue that adherence to formula frees up the viewer to focus their attention on the performer and is the primary way that action, martial arts, porn, westerns and women’s pictures are viewed. Audiences nearly always attribute their failure to enjoy a film to either predictability or bad acting and tend to enjoy films actually offering genuine surprises. Instead, with genre pictures, the enjoyment is derived primarily from the minor tweaks in formula or, more often, the joy derived from witnessing a particular performer travelling down a familiar path, knowing fully what's coming next. For all of film’s history, women’s pictures have favored not only revisiting similar themes, but frequently relying on the same actors like the vulnerable-but-tough Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Glenn Close, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Julia Roberts, Lillian Gish, Marlene Dietrich, Mary Pickford, Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet, Kiera Knightly, Jane Fonda and Sandra Bullock. The men are similarly tough-but-vulnerable, often English and pretty but not girly, sexually unthreatening fellows. Consider Colin Firth, Hugh Grant, Kevin Costner, Tom Hanks, Rock Hudson, John Corbett, Harry Connick Jr, Matthew McConaughey and Richard Gere.

Variations on a theme with examples:

The Cinderella Story – The fantasy of an apparent everywoman being recognized and transported to a comfy life by Prince Charming is as old as time. The male equivalent is the dork being recognized for his skills (Dark City, The Matrix). Examples include: Woman’s Face, The Bride Wore Red, Low Birth and The Gorgeous Hussy

I'm Rich, Bitch! – A perhaps more realistic, grown-up variation on The Cinderella Story, these characters are born rich and usually stay rich. Having given up on Prince Charming, the viewer resigns themself to merely peeking voyeuristically at the fabulous outfits of their betters. Often based on real characters, the antebellum south was often formerly the romanticized locale. Now, in more PC times, the more distant past is favored. Of course, the sting of other people's wealth is lessened if their lives are still miserable. Consider: The Other Boylen Girl, Duchess, Jezebel,  Gone With the Wind and The Shining Hour

The Lovable Obsesssive – Another decidedly child-like cinematic fairy tale, the male characters in real life would terrify the objects of their affection. In these films, death, space-time, the fact that their lust is based entirely on stalking or physical appearance is supposed to be romantic -- e.g. Bed of Roses, Forever Young, Ghost, Somewhere in Time and While You Were Sleeping.

Dying Young – Whether it’s the protagonist or their love interest, perfect love is ended when fate cruelly intervenes in a story at least as old as Romeo & Juliet. Sometimes, the victim isn't even lucky enough to be in a relationship -- e.g. Beaches, City of Angels, Dark Victory, Dying Young, In My Life, Love Story, Steel Magnolias, Stepmom, Terms of Endearment and Titanic.

Operation: change-a-bro -- Whether taming the bad boy (usually a rich, cocky womanizer) or saving the suffering widower, these films offer the hope of molding a misshapen lump of man into something the woman likes as in An Affair to Remember, Autumn Leaves, Maid in Manhattan, An Officer and a Gentleman, Sabrina or Sleepless in Seattle.

Weddings – Many women's pictures' raison d'etre is focused on holy matrimony, as in 27 Dresses, Runaway Bride, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Bride Wars, The Wedding Planner, Rachel Getting Married, The Wedding Date, Made of Honor and My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

The Suffering Mother –  These films focus on mothers being terrorized by traumatic events involving their children and play up the old paranoia or maternal sacrifice, sometimes to cover for awful, unappreciative brats. See Cry in the Dark, Madame X, Mildred Pierce, Not Without My Daughter, The Sin of Madelon Claudet, Sophie’s Choice, Stella Dallas and To Each His Own.

Bird in a Gilded Cage – In these films, kept women are content to serve their useless husbands, sometimes reluctantly but selflessly taking part in the scumbag's schemes and even taking the rap for their illegal activities. Or maybe he’s an alcoholic and she’s the talent. See Hold Your Man, Lost Weekend, Riff Raff or Mannequin.

Mr. Wrong – Everything seems so perfect in these fairytale romances… until the husbands/boyfriends quickly reveal their true colors. Or, they’re already creepy, but the women find themselves trapped. Gaslight, The Net, Sleeping with the Enemy, Sudden Fear and Waitress.

The Romance of Adultery – Sometimes these women are trapped in loveless marriages with galoots, often with mistresses or alchoholic and impotent, but other times, a fling with a handsome stranger reignites the flames in the woman’s heart that her well-meaning husband can’t. Examples include Bridges of Madison County, Brief Encounter, Now Voyager, The Piano, Ruby Gentry and Waitress.

Not Enough Time --  Whether single mom’s slaving away at a greasy spoon or as a journalist/author/professional assistant, romance just doesn’t fit into these women’s goals… and yet it nonetheless inevitably finds a way. Check out Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Confessions of a Shopaholic, Devil Wears Prada, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, My Brilliant Career, The Turning Point, Sex & the City or You’ve Got Mail.

Princess Charming
-- In the reverse of the Cinderella, the princess, usually urban and sophisticated, somehow falls for a lowly manual laborer, often whilst spending an extnded amount of time in the county. Examples: BUtterfield 8, Kitty Foyle, New In Town and Sweet Home Alabama.

Bouncing Back -– Fresh out of a disintegrated relationship, these films revolve around romantically-wronged women picking themselves up, dusting themselves off, and finding some hot, young manflesh to make everything right, as in Hope Floats, How Stella Got Her Groove Back or An Unmarried Woman.

Cutting Loose -– Not yet ready to date again, these women burn their bodices and find (temporary) solace letting their hair down in the company of women, e.g. The Banger Sisters, Thelma & Louise or Fried Green Tomatoes.

This Woman’s Work -- These films show strong women (often queens) who often treat men as indifferently as the worst men do women, thereby showing that two wrongs do make right. These characters usually have more to do with the ice queen archetype than femme fatales. See Elizabeth, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle and Queen Christina.

Manhunt -– These frantic, frazzled, female protagonists won’t be whole until they capture a man. The race is on! See Bridget Jones’s Diary or He’s Just Not that Into You.

The Tramp's Progress –- Who doesn’t love seeing women sloot around and act like vain, catty, conniving bitches? Especially if they are felled by their sins. Check Beyond the Forest, Cabin in the Cotton, The Letter, Marked Woman, Mr. Skeffington, Of Human Bondage or Old Acquaintance.

Hooker with a Heart of Gold -- Basically the Tramp's Progress crossed with Cinderalla plus Not Enough Time. Or the characters resort to the oldest profession out of necessity, destitute and having given up on love, as seen in Anna Christie, Pretty Woman, Rain, Red Dust, Street Angel or Waterloo Bridge.

Combo Pack -- Ensemble casts allow for the examination of various aspects of love through the lense of the woman's picture, as witnessed in King’s Row; Love, Actually; Peyton Place; Three on a Match or Waiting to Exhale.

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Women's history documentaries

Posted by Eric Brightwell, March 14, 2009 10:19am | Post a Comment


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Samantha Bumgarner -- fiddling ballad woman of mountains

Posted by Eric Brightwell, March 12, 2009 06:49pm | Post a Comment

Aunt Samantha Bumgarner (née Biddix) was a fiddle and banjo player from North Carolina who, in 1924, became the first woman to record hillbilly music. In doing so, she opened the doors for all the great female hillbilly and country musicians who followed. Imagine for a second a world without Brenda Lee, Iris Dement, Jean Shepard, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, Norma Jean, Skeeter Davis, Sue Thompson and Tammy Wynette, to name a few. Not a pretty place.


Samantha Biddix was born in Dillsboro, North Carolina on Halloween, 1878, the same year Black Bart held up his last stagecoach and, more relevantly, Thomas Edison patented the phonograph. Her parents were Has Biddix, himself a fiddler, and Sara MaLynda Brown Biddix. Though Biddix showed an early interest in music, her father wouldn’t allow her to touch the fiddle, an instrument occasionally referred to by hillbillies as a “devil’s box.” Nonetheless, when he wasn’t around, she played it and displayed a natural talent. The banjo, then viewed as a slightly more acceptable instrument for women, was not forbidden and Biddix’s first, constructed from gourd and cat hide, was presented to her at fifteen. Later, having demonstrated her skills for her father, he bought her a ten cent model and allowed her to perform with him in the area. Ultimately, he consented to her entering a banjo competition in Canton and she won. Gaining confidence, she began entering and winning competitions routinely.

When she married Carse Bumgarner in 1902, he gave her her first fiddle but she remained most acclaimed for her banjo playing. A few years later she acquired the nickname "Aunt Samantha." Although through the lens of modern ignorance, a hillbilly woman gaining fame with the banjo may seem completely out of the ordinary, it was actually fairly common for women to play the instrument, especially amongst hillbillies. In 1916, when Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles began field recording in the upper south, nearly three quarters of the hundreds of tunes they compiled as English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians were performed by women. In addition, many famous male hillbillies learned to play from the women in their lives. Ralph Stanley was taught to play by his mother, Lucy Smith Stanley. Cynthia "Cousin Emmy" May Carver taught "Grandpa" Louis Jones. Clarence "Tom" Ashley learned to play from his aunts, Ary and Daisy. Morgan Sexton was schooled by his sister, Hettie. Earl Scruggs was beaten to the banjo by his older sisters, Eula Mae and Ruby.

By the early 20th century, whilst still not completely respectable, several female musicians gained a measure of popularity playing banjo, including Elizabeth "Babe" Reid, Gertrude Evans, Virginia “Aunt Jennie” Myrtle Wilson, Stella Wagoner Kimble, Pearl Wagoner, Ada Lee Stump Boarman and Julia Reece Green. By the 1920s, a veritable banjo craze swept the nation and the most popular brand was the Whyte Ladie. In some respects, Bumgarner was merely part of a tradition involving hundreds of women before her, but as an especially talented musician who usually bested her mostly male competitors, her fame spread in the recording age in a way her predecessors never could. In 1924, she was contacted by Columbia, hoping to capture her talents on shellac.

In April 1924, accompanied by guitarist Eva Smathers Davis of nearby Sylva, Bumgarner traveled to New York City where, on the 23, she and Davis recorded ten songs both together and solo. According to County Music Magazine, that record was also the first release by female musicians in the hillbilly genre. They were also the first recordings of a five-string banjo. Although today the Cashville country scene has little use for anything but this week’s disposable pap, The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum there does feature the 78s of her initial recordings, which were:

Big-eyed Rabbit (Samantha Bumgarner & Eva Davis)
Cindy in the Meadows (Samantha Bumgarner & Eva Davis)
Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss (Samantha Bumgarner)
The Gamblin' Man (Samantha Bumgarner)
Georgia Blues (Samantha Bumgarner)
I Am My Mother's Darlin' Child (Samantha Bumgarner & Eva Davis)
John Hardy (Eva Davis)
Shout Lou (Samantha Bumgarner)
Wild Bill Jones (Eva Davis)
Worried Blues (Samantha Bumgarner)

Aunt Samantha seemed reluctant to pursue her music professionally, although others encouraged her to. Instead, she contented herself with teaching younger musicians, including Harry Cagle, who later formed Harry Cagle and the Country Cousins. When famed quack "Dr." John Brinkley, the so-called "Goat Gland King" (he used goat glands to treat impotency) asked her to allow him to take her to Del Rio, Texas to play on radio station, XERA, she only consented on the condition that Cagle accompany her.

In 1928, she was invited by local banjo-playing lawyer Bascom Lamar Lunsford to play at his first Asheville Mountain Song and Dance Festival. She did, and continued doing so every year until 1959, even though suffering from rheumatism and arthritic hands in later years. In 1936, at one such performance, Pete Seeger was in the audience and word of mouth about her spread amongst the folk revivalist scene. Soon she was playing Chicago, Kansas City, New York, St. Louis and DC, where she performed for the enjoyment of Franklin Roosevelt. She ultimately recorded again as well, for a company in Liverpool.

Bumgarner and her husband moved to Lovefield at some point. They never had any children and he died in 1941. Just one year after retiring from public performance, Samantha Bumgarner died of arteriosclerotic heart disease at age 82 on Christmas Eve, 1960. She’s buried in Dillsboro's Franklin Cemetery.

Although Bumgarner herself seemed content to record rarely and stay in the hills, by the ‘30s, several Kentuckyian women, including Cynthia "Cousin Emmy" May Carver, Lily May Ledford and Laverne "Molly O’Day" Williamson – perhaps encouraged by the possibilities offered to Bumgarner – all used banjo-playing to take them away from the hardscrabble lives in the tobacco fields, hills and hollers of Bluegrass Country to professional careers as musicians, the first of many women to follow a path made possible through a by all accounts humble Aunt Samantha.

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