Queenie (1987)

Based on Michael Korda’s novel, “Queenie” takes the kernel of a family member’s story and fictionalizes it, though there is absolutely no reason to confuse “Queenie” with “Queen,” already discussed in these pages.  Maybe half-Indian/maybe not actress Merle Oberon (a relative of Korda’s and the flimsy basis of the story) certainly went through nothing compared to Alex Haley’s family members.  Moreover, in presentation, “Queen” is serious and touching, where “Queenie” is merely witless and bland.  Confusion eradicated, let’s move on.

Called “Queen” by her nasty schoolmates, young Kate Emma Davies is first encountered behind the bars of an exclusive British girls school in Calcutta, 1931 (not to be confused with Merle Oberon, who was from what was then Bombay–phew, now we’re fully fictionalized).  One of the girls wants her locket.  Spunky Kate tells her, “you’ll have to rip if off my dead body!”  Phew, now we have full character development. 

Kate goes walking through the tiny streets of the city to meet with a friend, though the police tell her to go “back to the English quarter…don’t you know your bite?”  “This is my bite,” she scoffs.  In what has to be one of the last examples of insensitive racial casting, Kate’s mother is played by Claire Bloom, donning heavily darkened make-up and a passingly developed accent, to play Indian.  Kate complains that the girls at school, “know I’m part black,” and refuses to return.  Claire comforts her daughter with wishful thinking that Kate’s father in England will someday call for them.  Just as bad is Claire’s brother, Leigh Lawson, who does the obligatory complaining about the British Raj, though Claire keeps smiling and saying, “England is her heritage and she shall have it.” 

Things at school just get worse.  There’s a tussle in the gym where Kate’s enemy gets the locket and then teacher Geoffrey Rose, who looks and sounds like he’s been mothballed in the villain closet in central casting for decades asking her “what doors are open to an Anglo-Indian woman?  Not many!  Your coloring allows you to pass for white.”  “It’s not lucky, it’s a curse,” she responds.  However, he then changes tactics and offers to make her “sound like a lady,” because he hears traces of an Indian accent of her which will keep her from polite society.  “How much will it cost me?”  “Please, don’t insult me.  You and I are friends.  There is no cost,” he replies, dripping with menace.  When he puts his hand on her cheek, he’s become a most lecherous Henry Higgins knock-off.

Kate goes home and her friend dolls her up like a fashionable Indian woman, but her pleasure in a sari lasts only a moment before Claire bursts into the room, rips off her clothes and bars the friend from ever returning.  Uncle Leigh takes her to the movies where she announces she “wants to be in a film.”  Not a movie, star, just “to be in a place where it seems to happy.”  This may be the first time in cinematic history anyone has yearned to be an extra.  On the way back, she tells him about her English lessons and he’s thrilled, but there is violence on the streets.  Why?  “It seems to be the way of the world, man against man, religion against religion, caste against caste,” he tells her.  Oh, great, Indian politics.  I suppose they are inevitable here, but “Queenie” is a soap opera miniseries, let’s not get too heavy, folks. 

Geoffrey gets closer to what he wants by telling Kate to take off her jacket so “I can see that diaphragm move.”  Ewwww.  He makes her do breathing exercises to watch her chest heave and then finally grabs her for a kiss.  He’s not even finished before telling her, “it’s our little secret, you must never tell…it’s your black blood that makes you so exciting!”  Kate has to lie to her mother, so proud she’s claiming the English side of herself, saying that “the lessons are over.”  Kate demonstrates and Claire chirps, “you sound just like the Queen of England.”  That line should have come earlier, as maybe an explanation of how she got her nickname Queenie, but it’s too late because she’s been called that since the first scene.  Talk about inept writing! 

Uncle Leigh takes Kate to a British club (he plays in the orchestra), and she easily passes for white.  The boys all want to dance with her and she beams with delight.  However, also at the party is her nemesis, daughter of Joss Ackland and Sarah Miles.  Do you need me to describe how the scene is going to play out?  You do?  Well, okay, if you insist.  The nemesis spots Kate and her bitchy mother says, “well, well, well, I have to take my hat off to her.  You’d never know she had a touch of the you-know-what.”  She slithers over to Joss, tells him and Joss grabs Kate, telling her to leave.  The boy she’s dancing with objects, so he snaps, “you know the rules, old boy, whites only.”  The kid is horrified, but Joss insists that she leave with proper decorum, not making a scene. 

Back to embracing her Indian side, Kate goes with her grandmother to a Hindu temple where Granny gives us a quick religious lesson.  There are beautiful girls swaying about.  “They are now going to express their fate through dance…they ask for love and they give love,” she tells Kate.  Explanations of Hindu dichotomy follow, with the takeaway from Kate being that black and white will always be fighting within her.  There are dire warnings from Granny about “crossroads” and whatnot.

Leaving the temple, the two walk straight into a gigantic melee of fights, fire, shooting, carnage that goes well into the evening.  The rioters overturn a car at Claire’s house and fire soon erupts.  Kate and Granny get home just as Claire and Leigh are exiting, but marauders kill Granny just as Leigh is strangling another. 

Five years pass and Queenie is now played by Mia Sara.  She and her family live in reduced surroundings.  Uncle Leigh is having a fling with Sarah Miles, who had been such a gorgon about his niece being part Indian.  “I don’t want you for your money,” he assures her when she offers him some.  They almost kiss when she drops him home after a night out, but think better of it since anyone could be watching.  He tries to pass off the money to Claire as payment for being in the band, but she knows it’s “from the lady in the car.”  Apparently, Sarah is not the only woman he has.  “You should get paid for your services,” Claire complains, noting that he spends more time with them than his family.  “I’m not your husband, I’m not our father, I won’t run away,” he reassures her.  Yikes, men have been a problem for Claire, huh? 

The nemesis has grown up into Serena Gordon, still spending time with her parents at the club, dancing to old-fashioned music.  She talks about her “new stud” with her father, and the conversation is a hoot.  It seems a little odd that Joss asks about his nostrils, but after all, “that’s the only way to tell about a good Arab.”  My word!  That’s racist even for villains.  Oh, wait, they are talking about a horse.  That’s two minutes we’ll not get back.  Joss wonders why she’s not more interested in young men, and Serena coos, “why would I want anyone else when I have you, Daddy?” and he can’t meet her gaze.  Awkward!  Sarah manages to top even this when making a toast at the club so drunk she can barely put sentences together.  Joss has to drag her off the stage as everyone gossips.  She gets free of his clutches and runs to Leigh.  Joss follows her and finds them kissing.  Breathing like a dragon, he threatens, “to destroy” Leigh, but Sarah pipes in “there will be no charges” because his personal life is no cleaner than hers and she knows it, and also because it would open up her affair with an Indian man, a big deal for a society lady.

Mia pays Joss a visit, lying to the servants that his daughter is in trouble.  Joss is not pleased, telling her “nobody has to engage in bad manners,” when she admits the deception.  What is he, the Emily Post of Calcutta?  Actually, she’s there to plead for her uncle’s job back.  Without the money for his job, “we can’t survive” and Claire has had to go begging for food.  He’s not moved, telling her, “you don’t know what it’s like having your wife touched by a nigger.”  Right to the head of miniseries villainy he goes with that line.  He then decides Mia can be his sex toy and he won’t say anything about her uncle.  He takes her to the bedroom, forces her to strip.  After sex, she’s on the floor and he tosses her dress to her, saying, “that’ll do.”  “This is only the beginning,” he adds, insisting she come back every day “until I’ve had satisfaction.”  Mia is horrified and starts screaming, so he chases her with a belt.  She crouches by the staircase and when he raises his arm, he somehow (I really didn’t understand just how) falls over, dropping to the floor.  A vile character like this exists in nearly every American miniseries, but it usually does take longer for him to die as the heroine finds her way to success and fortune, then finding a way to humiliate him.  But, Joss is done away with very quickly.  I guess we should worry that multiple servants knew Mia was in the house at the time of his death.  They even see her running out with his wallet.  “Go find her, I’ll kill her,” Serena weeps when the servants tell her a purported friend of hers pushed him over (not true, but you saw that coming before he hit the ground).

With the police searching every house, Claire decides that Mia and Leigh must go to England (now that they are 200 pounds wealthier).  “Make the most of yourself,” Claire tells her daughter before Mia and Leigh rush out moments before the police arrive. 

It takes them two months, but Leigh and Mia arrive in London, illegally.  The cab driver thinks Mia is white, which will come in handy, but refuses to take them to a decent hotel because he assumes Uncle Leigh is daring to step out with a white woman.  “They call us Coloreds here,” Leigh tells Mia as he is refused every job for which he applies.  That means it’s up to Mia to support them because she passes.  How very “Imitation of Life” of her (though she doesn’t hide anything with as much purpose as Sarah Jane).  She has no better luck and Leigh snaps that they are down to “nothing and change,” though he has enough money to get hammered every night. 

In desperation, Mia goes to a seedy out-of-the-way nightclub run by Topol.  “I’m Jewish, came over from Hungary,” he tells her, but she claims to be English.  He’s not convinced, saying she has a “very exotic quality.”  He has no waitress jobs, but he invites her to dance on the empty stage with him.  Mia reveals a hidden talent, winding around like Isidora Duncan with no props.  “When it feels right, just take off your top,” Topol says.  Yup, it’s that kind of club.  She refuses, but he sizes her up, seeing that she likes attention and being adored.  “As a woman, you must know what kind of power you have over a man…you can have us men utterly utterly under your spell.  It must be a wonderful feeling to have all those men watching you, to know you control them,” he tells her and offers her a huge sum to work for him.  She doesn’t turn him down or disagree with anything he’s said.  She even gets Uncle Leigh a job in the band.

Compared to the old cows also performing in this house of burlesque, Mia is a revelation.  We did “My Fair Lady” earlier, now we’re onto “Gypsy.”  Topol gives her good hints before her first performance and promises their relationship is “business only.”  She thanks him for that, but he says not to as “it gives me the opportunity to exploit you without mercy.”  She smiles at that, about to come out of her shell thanks to this like minded man.  Leigh had no idea that he signed up for burlesque and tells Mia, “you look like an English whore.”  She is furious, telling him, “I’m making the most of myself, don’t you see?”  “Suddenly, I don’t know who you are,” he is forced to say, in the script’s worst cliche yet. 

On her first try (take that Gypsy Rose Lee), she nails it, turning out to be an absolute natural and getting the men in the joint all excited, the only stripper to do so.  Soon, the club is jammed with patrons, male and female, to watch Mia do her thing.  Back in Calcutta, Serena is still demanding justice for her father’s death. 

Time passes and Mia is still packing them in.  Photographer Gary Cady finds himself smitten with her from the first time he sees her act and tries to take her picture, but Topol stops him.  Leigh begs Topol to fire Mia, but she’s Topol’s ace and besides, she loves what she’s doing.  Topol wants to know where Mia is really from.  She says it doesn’t make a difference.  Ah, not so.  “It could make a rather important difference between being a stripper until your body goes or something better,” he notes and she admits being from Calcutta.  He gives her Gary’s card, as Gary needs a model.  They decide she will be called “Dawn Avalon” from Tasmania.  We’re back to Gypsy Rose Lee, as Mia and Topol invent a backstory for her.  “Do you think you can really pull this off?” he asks.  “I’ll do what I have to do, for my family, for myself,” she insists. 

The photo session does not go well.  “I can’t figure out what to do with you!” Gary bleats, though still bursting with passion for her.  “I have better things to with my afternoons than spend them with mad artist types who don’t even know their minds!” she roars.  Finally, we’re getting to the cheese of the piece!  She’s becoming a diva.  He doesn’t consider himself an artist as (get ready) as a photographer, “I only reveal what’s already there.”  “The truth,” Mia adds.  Finally, in a casual moment, he figures out how to shoot her. 

The romance starts off very sweetly.  Gary takes her to see “Camille,” an odd first date movie.  She wants to know how to become a movie star (remember, earlier, she had simply wanted to be in the movies, not a star).  She realizes she needs an agent and someone to manage her, so she asks Topol and with a fifty-fifty split, he agrees.  Gary wants Mia to move in with him, asking her in a London rain that demands a big kiss and a declaration of love.  Unfortunately, drunken Uncle Leigh is not pro Gary or pro romance.  The reason why isn’t quite what one would expect: “I love you.  I want you more than anything else in the world.”  It’s jealousy, which works itself into an attempted rape until she grabs a shattered bottle.  Creepy, yes, but this is the first unique moment in “Queenie,” so far a paint-by-numbers story with a cliche at every turn. 

Mia rushes out of the apartment and Leigh follows, only to be hit by a car and killed.  She lies in a letter to her mother, telling her “he died peacefully.”  Free of Leigh, she goes back to Gary, who is angry at her for disappearing from him life, but when she tells him Leigh was killed, he’s back to being nice.  Now she’s ready to move in, and they can have a big sex scene, completely with special lighting, limbs flailing, bad kissing and the rest of the works. 

Gary has a showing of his work, where snobs talk about the “existential” pictures and his use of “darks and lights,” no pun intended.  This gets them an invitation to one of the “famous weekends” of movie producer Kirk Douglas.  Joss Ackland and Claire Bloom were slumming, of course, but Kirk Douglas does it with a capital S.  He “collects people like he collects art,” Gary says as Mia is astounded by all the people at the mansion. 

Kirk’s agent, Joel Grey (the only Oscar-winning slummer here, as Kirk would not get his honorary Oscar until almost a decade after “Queenie”), is worried because Kirk wants to make the leap from producer to director.  “I’ve directed before,” Kirk says, grabbing a statuette from the desk, but Joel reminds him the new picture is a big budget one and needs an experienced hand.  “You’re an artist, not a traffic cop,” Joel carps, but Kirk wants “the challenge.” 

You want cloying?  Here it is.  Mia is mingling, managing to bump into everyone and backs up into Gary, who sends a punch bowl hurling at Kirk.  “I don’t believe we’ve met,” he says with a good sense of humor to Mia and Gary.  “I’m a dancer,” she tells him.  “Classical?”  “No, Modern.”  Kirk seems to think she would be a good actress and offers her a screen test.  “You’re not ready!” Gary pouts, though Topol is on Mia’s side.  Apparently, Topol and Kirk worked together, “a long time ago, making silent films.”  Boy, that’s convenient. 

Before the screen tests of various ladies, Joel reminds Kirk how nervous he is, and how investors and studios want established actors, “preferably with a few wrinkles.”  Kirk says the leading man is nearing 50.  Joel is shocked he’s that old.  “Time flies when you’re overacting,” Kirk comments.  That’s a good line, no matter what, but in a miniseries, particularly apt since overacting is usually the only kind of acting that goes on.  He’s way more interested in Mia than he should be.  “Remember, all these people are here to make you look good,” he says to calm her nerves.  At a screen test? 

Gary has come for moral support, and Kirk asks him for help redoing the lighting to maximize Mia’s features.  Now we’re sprinted into territory claimed by “The Red Shoes.”  After one flubbed take, her second stab is perfection, well, in the plot at least.  “That one’s a star!” Kirk beams to Joel.  Actually, the only thing that even bears a resemblance to movie stars of the 1930s is the make-up. 

Kirk has to haggle with Topol for Mia’s services and Topol is shrewd.  The negotiations over a pool table are intense, with Topol taking full advantage of their “shared past” as peasants.  Kirk asks, “how does she feel about needles”” to Topol’s surprise.  The movie is to be shot…wait for it…wait for it…in India!  And one needs her shots to travel to India.  Uh oh.  Worlds are about to collide.

Topol doesn’t know about the murder charge hanging over Mia’s head, so he can’t understand why she refuses to go back to India.  He think it’s just about the passing, so he tells her, “keep passing…if we don’t tell anyone, no one will ever know, in India or anywhere else.”  She decides to tell Topol all of the truth, but he reminds her she’s “Dawn Avalon” from Tasmania, with “papers forged by the greatest artists in Europe.” 

There’s another problem: Gary won’t go to India with her because he’s been offered a photography assignment elsewhere.  “I need you,” she whines and of course he gives in. 

Before everyone arrives, Serena has yet another scene demanding justice, though her mother advises her to drop the investigation because she’s “not prepared” for the truth about “Dear Daddy.” 

A huge publicity machine is rolled out when the party touches down in India.  Hollywood wasn’t too keen on location filming in the 1930s, but this bit of trumped-up hokum was a specialty.  Gigantic crowds are there to welcome everyone as the leads are sent up on elephants in front of the cheering masses.  They get a more spectacular welcome than any visiting royal could imagine. 

Joel breaks the news to Mia and Gary that they can’t stay in the same room because “the Indian government is really fussy about these things.”  Uh huh.  After the display we just saw, they couldn’t also arrange for two people to sleep together?  They can only manage big magic tricks? 

It’s two days before Claire sees a newspaper about Mia’s presence in India.  She calls Mia and they meet in a park.  “Why have you come?” Mia asks Claire.  “If anyone sees us together, finds out who I really am…” she worries, but unfortunately Claire has been evicted and has nowhere to go.  Mia gives her the hotel key and insists she speak to no one.  However, someone has been trailing Claire, hired by whoever it was who paid more rent on Claire’s hovel to get her forced out. 

Just as rehearsals are about to begin, Kirk has problems of his own.  A major investor has pulled out and everyone insists Kirk cut down expenses.  “I’ll find the money,” he insists, refusing to change the picture he wants to make. 

It’s uh oh time.  Gary goes to deliver champagne to Mia’s room where Mama Claire is hiding out fondling the fabrics of her daughter’s dresses.  Luckily, Claire stalls and Mia is only moments behind.  Claire pretends to be Mia’s maid, saving the day.  Her acting is better than everyone else’s, maybe she should be in the movie!  We’re back to “Imitation of Life.”  Mia wants to send Claire to England so her cover won’t be blown and because she thinks it’s “shameful” to treat her mother like a servant.  Claire launches into a speech about “shame” done very nicely (if a little influenced by tranquilizers), but since Mia is not her acting equal, the scene doesn’t quite have the crackle it should. 

Mia and Kirk go horse riding, which Kirk claims “is done from the thighs.”  Mia’s horse is spooked when none other than Serena rides by.  Mia is hidden behind a mesh netting.  “I say, you look familiar,” Serena says, and Mia is too freaked to continue the riding lesson.  She’s convinced Serena recognized her.  Claire’s advice is “act like nobody can touch you and nobody can.” 

Indeed, Serena has recognized Mia and goes to the police.  The man who has been running the investigation all these years doesn’t believe her.  Serena knows it’s her, “living the high life and making fools of us all.”  The detective is too afraid to rile the English, saying that without proof, it will be embarrassing.  Serena throws money at him and demands he do something about Mia. 

At a party, Kirk suggests Gary should be in the movies and Mia tells him to “get him a job” but Gary doesn’t want it and an argument ensues.  Mia huffs off and Kirk chases after her.  “Let’s make up,” he suggests when he catches up to her and plants a kiss on her lips.  The unfortunately lighting makes him look like a wax figure old enough to be her grandfather (which I guess he is).  She dashes away, but then gets drunk and sloppy.  Gary insists he be the one to take her to her room and Kirk is jealous, instructing Joel to make sure the movie shooting in Egypt hires Gary. 

The next day, Mia tries to apologize to hardened Gary, who informs her of the job offer in Egypt.  She keeps telling Gary she has no interest in Kirk, so Gary proposes.  “You’re changing all the time.  You’re all shadows and smoke.  I am finding it harder and harder to hold onto you,” he exclaims when she doesn’t accept. 

Serena pounces on Mia, telling her she’s left a photograph for her at the front desk of a girl she went to school with who looks just like her.  “You could be twins,” she gloats while Mia tries to remain calm.  Badness piles up because Gary takes the job in Egypt.  Has she thought to call Topol?  Isn’t it his job to protect her?  Gary accuses her of not loving him, the reason she keeps some big secret from him.  They promise to write each other every day, share a kiss and then he departs. 

There is a gigantic battle to remind us of the political unrest in India…oh, wait, never mind, it’s part of Kirk’s movie, because why else would Mia be riding into the middle of it?  When it’s over, Mia goes to Joel hoping for mail, but he’s hidden the letters from Gary to give to Kirk.  He’s been keeping both sides of the correspondence. 

The police inspector arrives to question Mia about Serena’s accusation.  He has contacted her supposed hometown in Tasmania, where no one has ever heard of her.  She whips out the forged papers, pictures and everything else.  “Really, Inspector, your case is beginning to sound like one of my movies, my bad ones,” Kirk jokes with him, defending his star.  When the inspector leaves, Kirk turns on Mia, demanding to know “what the hell is going on?”  He can tell he’s lying.  “How do you think I got out of Budapest?  Same way you crawled out of Calcutta,” he notes.  She does not tell him the truth, but she does crumble into his arms for a passionate kiss. 

The inspector did not believe the papers, but Serena has taken the case to the British authorities anyway, and he’s relieved of his duties in the investigation. 

Financially, Kirk is still in trouble.  Joel has been sending his wife out to beg for money.  Kirk is aghast that he would do something so tacky.  “Why don’t we hold a bake sale?” he cracks.  But, Joel’s wife has connections.  After all, she is the daughter of a studio head (which makes her basically Irene Mayer Selznick).  However, they need $4 million more in order to finish the movie and no one is putting it up.  “You’re not listening to me.  Maybe if you took your mind off that little tart…” Joel advises, which gets him a back-handed slap across the face from tough Kirk.  “You’re the parody of a general, marching off to battle while everyone is telling you you’re going to lose,” Joel huffs.  What the hell does that mean? 

Claire is upset that Mia is sleeping with Kirk.  “He’s only using you,” she notes, but Mia says she’s doing the same with him because “he’s the only one who can help us.”  In fact, she’s told him the full truth, which worries her mother.  Claire also was hoping that Mia would be in love with the man she’s screwing, and Mia ruefully admits that she had love and lost it. 

Bouncing into the movie three-quarters of the way is the always-dependable Martin Balsam, as a powerful Hollywood player.  He has seen the rushes and agrees that Mia is definitely a star.  But, it’s down to business.  Martin hasn’t an arrangement in mind.  He’s already seen the financial books, “both sets,” which horrifies Kirk.  His demands for pumping money into the movie are gigantic: distribution, equal billing and half the profits.  “Half the profits for one quarter of the investment?” Kirk asks.  But, he agrees to it and then Martin asks for the last condition, final say in editing.  Kirk scowls, “you’re garbage!”  “Does that mean we have a deal?” Martin asks.  Kirk stomps off with Joel complaining and nearly collapses from a heart condition.  “Make the deal…but no final cut!” he tells Joel. 

The movie is done and Kirk and Mia are back in London.  During a night walk along the Thames, he gives her the letters from Gary.  He fully admits to stashing them.  “You bastard,” she cries.  “I am,” he agrees.  He did it because “I don’t want to lose you,” he tells her.  He goes one step further and says he sent her letters to Gary to him since “I knew I couldn’t keep you forever.”  He’s a bastard, but a noble one, apparently.  She takes the car to get to Gary as quickly as possible and of course Kirk’s chest pains mirror those on his face.  He sits on a bench and is still there in the morning, dead.  That makes for a nice newspaper picture. 

Naturally, Mia is distraught (and Claire is still pretending to be her maid, even back in London), but Gary arrives, having received the letters.  “Post office is slow,” she jokes.  “I’ve been married and widowed,” she tells him, which is news to anyone watching.  Did I miss a wedding scene?  “We’re both very different people now,” Gary notes, a line expected since the beginning of the scene.  The conversation gets even dumber when she turns on him, opining that he’s come back for her money, angry that he wasn’t there for her when she was afraid.  That’s unfair, but remember, he knows they are “different people,” so he doesn’t have a problem walking out on her. 

All of this happened and Mia’s first movie hasn’t even opened yet, because after a series of flashbacks, Mia and Claire drive up to the premiere, mobbed by press and fans in grand old Hollywood style.  Even Topol is there and we haven’t seen him since he made the deal with Kirk.  Joel tells the crowed they are about to see “the most lavish and probably the most expensive film ever made.”  There’s a shout-out to Kirk and then he introduces Mia.  When Mia steps to the microphone, she gives one of those bashful, quiet and very rehearsed speeches that actresses once gave at premieres.  Okay, since this is a movie about a movie, it goes on longer than say Vivien Leigh or Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Fontaine might have deemed appropriate, but that’s to be expected.  Mia outs her mother, who hesitantly moves through the throngs to join her daughter on the steps of the theater.  Nobody seems at all upset, which kind of negatives the whole plot, doesn’t it?  “I’m very proud of where I came from and who I am,” Mia says.  Gary starts clapping and soon everyone joins in.  Boy, when Hollywood decides to absolve itself of its sins, it goes all out, doesn’t it?  Merle Oberon died in 1979, so she didn’t get to see this vindication, but then again, no one really knows her exact story.  This one is pure Hollywood fantasy tripe. 

Categories: Romance Miniseries

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