OLD MOVIES, NEW EYES – Garry Armstrong

Those of you who are regulars on “Serendipity” know I love old movies and watch them frequently. I grew up with “Old Hollywood” having seen my first movie at a theater in 1946.  I was four. “The Best Years Of Our Lives” has its place in my sense memory because my Dad had just returned home from Europe and World War 2 as an Army Sergeant.

Armstrong family portrait

We have a large picture of Sgt. William Armstrong, His Wife, Esther, and their firstborn tot, Garry.  It’s the way we were. That 1946 night at New York City’s movie mecca.  Radio City Music Hall is covered in a silver-gold haze in my memory.

From that first movie night, I would go to see films now regarded as classics on a regular basis. We’d go to the movies three times a week. It could be the local second-run house like the Carlton or a first-run theater. For the first-run houses, we had to take a bus to Jamaica Avenue in Queens.

Those were the days when film studios still owned theaters.  The theaters only showed studio made films. Valencia with its star-filled ceiling ran MGM and Paramount movies. Across the street, the RKO Alden ran RKO and Warner Brothers films. Down the avenue, there was a Fox house which ran nothing but 20th Century Fox movies.

The Valencia Theater in Jamaica, Queens

Marilyn and I have shared memories of seeing films like “Shane” in 1954 at the Valencia. Diminutive Alan Ladd seemed larger than life as gunfighter Shane, righting wrongs on the screen beneath the celestial ceiling. It was an experience within an experience. You couldn’t duplicate it with the new medium television.

I came to know all the stars, directors, character and bit actors with as much knowledge as I did with my favorite baseball players helped by info on bubble gum cards.

As a grade-schooler, I knew the likes of supporting or character actors like Thomas Mitchell, Edward Brophy, Jerome Cowan, Eugene Palette, Zazu Pitts, Franklin Pangborn, Barton MacLane, Charles Lane, and James Gleason as well as the major stars like Bogie, Tracy, Gable, Grant, Hepburn, and Cooper.

My Mom, a huge Gary Cooper fan, named me after “Coop.” A clerical error on my birth certificate turned Gary into Garry. That spelling gaffe would reoccur decades later in my career as a TV News Reporter.

I loved the fantasy life of the black and white movies of the ’30s. The stories about the rich, carefree, trouble-free White millionaires who lived in ritzy mansions or mega large Park Avenue apartments with sparkling floors, gleaming walls, and tables kept in pristine condition by domestics who were usually minorities.

Blacks, Asians, Jews or Italians always portrayed in a blatant stereotyped fashion. As a kid, we laughed at the bug-eyed Black actors who were comedy foils in Charlie Chan movies. Chan, although the “hero,” was also portrayed in stereotyped fashion by White actors.  My middle brother and I giggled at the antics of Chan and his aides. They seemed like the clowns we saw at the circus.

Laugh riots! The stars – White actors and actresses — laughed or smiled broadly at the buffoonish behavior of the minority characters. They provided comic relief from heavy moments in the films.

My love of these old movies and their cliche characters didn’t diminish over the years as I became a self-proclaimed movie maven and impressed people with my knowledge of obscure actors, forgotten films and terrific lines of dialogue.

A friend once called me at three o’clock in the morning, woke me up to ask about the names of a certain movie and its stars. I grumbled and then laughed as I fed him the info while still half asleep but always razor-sharp with trivia.

My movie knowledge helped in numerous encounters with stars from old Hollywood when I became a Boston TV news guy.  I could skip jump from local reporter to film expert talking with stars about their personal, often lesser-known movies. I could insert stuff with people like Gregory Peck who told me he didn’t do comedies because they were not his forte.

I reminded Peck of his film, “Designing Woman” with Lauren Bacall which was a remake of the Tracy-Hepburn classic, “Woman of the Year.” Peck shot me a “you sonofagun, you got me” laugh and all was fine.

In retirement, I like to watch as many old movies as possible – no longer saddled with my murderous TV news schedule. I usually go to bed, wearing headphones, and watch an old movie as my sleepy time tonic. Marilyn usually is listening to a book or watching her own favorite film or show on her computer.

A strange thing has happened to me.

Marilyn has had lengthy conversations with me about the blatant racism in those beloved scatterbrained 1930’s movies. She also has discussed her discomfort with my beloved westerns. Cowboys versus Indians, a staple of my life from youth to senior citizen. Marilyn cites the blatantly unfair portrayal of the Native American in most westerns. Truthfully, my bluster rose in defense of the oaters.

My heroes have always been cowboys.

“Buchanan Rides Alone FilmPoster” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

My personal favorite interview was with the Duke, John Wayne. I can quote, chapter, verse, scene-by-scene dialogue in movies like “The Magnificent Seven.” One of my all-time favorite films is “The Searchers”,  probably John Ford’s best western in a career defined by westerns and the rugged, southwestern landscape.

John Wayne’s dark, brooding and racist Ethan Edwards is, in my mind, the Duke’s finest acting work. The movie focuses on racism and hatred of the Red Man, portrayed as villains by White Men. Supposedly the good guys trying to take the Native American’s land.

Ford – who made his directorial life on this theme – was, perhaps too late in his illustrious career, trying to balance the scale with the White and Red men. I’ve always loved the film for its depth, its hauntingly honest depiction of the Wayne character. A man you wouldn’t invite in for dinner.

Ford’s dark movie is still lighter than the original novel in which Ethan Edwards really has no redeeming character values.

Tombstone

I’ve come to understand Marilyn’s strong feelings about not watching this classic western. But I still watch it whenever I can because it’s a beautifully made film with excellent acting, great script and dialogue and a memorable closing scene — no happy ending for the Wayne character. It’s all bittersweet. The stuff of life.

I now also view some of my other favorite westerns with new eyes. The White hero, in nice, fancy clothing with a beautiful horse is not necessarily the good guy. The Indian Chief with a muddy face and perpetual snarl is not automatically the savage. Clothes don’t make the man.

Likewise, I look back at some of those wonderful, frothy 30’s comedies and say “No, thanks” when the bubbly blonde announces “I’m free, WHITE and 21”.  I’ve heard and seen this countless times before but now with new eyes and ears.

That’s a wrap. PRINT IT!

56 thoughts on “OLD MOVIES, NEW EYES – Garry Armstrong

  1. I can’t really say anything about these movies because I don’t know them. BUT I adore the family photo….. Such cuteness…..
    Only, if that dates back 73 years, how old are you really? You look so ageless, must have had good genes in your family!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I also have fond memories of my father taking me to the movies since I was about four. And now in retirement, I watch again my favorite movies over and over —American melodramas of the 1950s and 60s, French nouvelle vague, Italian neorealism and British New Cinema classics. I didn’t lose it at the movies, but I might as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Juan, “I didn’t lose ‘it’ at the movies, but I might as well” — I LOVE that! I feel the same way. I fell in love or had crushes on many of “the girl next door” types like – Joan Leslie, Priscilla Lane, Peggy Dow and Julie Adams — to name a few. I always wanted to save them from their screen dilemmas. Sally Forest is another one. She played an unwed mom to be in a film called, “Not Wanted” 1949-RKO. Leo Penn (Father to Sean and Charlie) played the “bad guy” who gets her pregnant and dumps her. Keith Brasselle played the nice guy who eventually gets Sally at the end — was my kind of hero as a very young and naive movie goer.
      I used to have that naive notion about women as a teenager and young man. Made things difficult for me because I was shy. I think my movie alter ego frustrated many women I dated…I couldn’t just be myself. With Marilyn, it was easy. She always was okay with me the way I was. No need to be anyone else.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. These old films are true classics, and they don’t make them like that any more. Great stuff. Have you managed to re-watch The Lion in Winter yet? 🙂
    P.S. Gorgeous picture of the little Garry!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ali, “The Lion In Winter” is one of Marilyn’s favorites. We watch it frequently. We laugh at the exchanges between Hepburn and O’Toole — they sound a lot like the Armstrongs. I think Katherine Hepburn would’ve LOVED Marilyn.

      Thanks for the words about Garry, the tot. He was a cute kid.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Sadje, you absolutely NAILED what I was trying to do with this piece. With time and awareness, we can MODIFY our likes and dislikes. Marilyn is great at getting though to me. I listen (Not always with joy) to what Marilyn says and respect her point of view. I must confess that I am a very stubborn dinosaur which leads to heated exchanges before I budge my stance. It’s one of the magical parts of the Garry-Marilyn relationship that dates back almost 60 years.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve always loved Westerns, too. “The Searchers” is a nostalgic film for me. I loved the last scene that is a homage to Harry Carey, one of the first Western stars when Wayne, borrowing the typical Carey stance, says goodbye to the character played by Olive Carey, Harry’s widow. And, of course,Dobe Carey was in the film as well. Having lived on the Harry Carey ranch for a couple of years when I was young and knowing them all for the rest of their lives, the film brings them all back to life for me. Also, my dear friend, Stan Jones, who also is gone, wrote the song, “The Searchers” which is played throughout the film. Harry’s ranch was five miles from a tiny little town, and even further from the next town that had a movie theatre. Once a month, we drove the Navajo help into town and we went to the movies, which was always a Western. For the next month, Cappy, Harry’s daughter, and I played as many of the horse scenes as we could remember. We were always on our horses every day exploring the 2,000 acres of the ranch and, when we found them, stampeding the cattle and horse herds in the mountains up the nearest canyon. Life was simple and fun.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Patricia, I so love your stories about socializing with the likes of Dobe Carey, Lucille Ball, etc. Your anecdotes about birthday parties for the children of legendary stars are magical. I often retell your stories (always crediting you) to show what it was like to be inside old Hollywood.

      Patricia, I have an event coming up soon — I am hosting a “movie night” for our town’s senior citizens group. I look forward to shares with them about their favorite movies and stars.

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    • Jim — Mr. Cagney was a gentleman OFF camera. I’ll never forget the day HE approached me and struck up a conversation – which led to an afternoon at his Martha’s Vineyard cottage. I kept softly pinching myself — I’m hanging out with James Cagney? What a very nice guy. Marilyn and I always replay his dance down the White house steps in “Yankee Doodle Dandy”.

      Jim, Mr. Cagney told me emphatically, “I NEVER said –you dirty rat!” We both laughed at his feigned indignation.

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        • Fandango, Cagney did a few stage musicals (Vaudeville) before his debut in “Public Enemy”. He also did a few WB musicals before “Yankee Doodle Dandy”. It’s said tht Cagney was George M. Cohan’s number one choice to play the Yankee Doodle Dandy. I believe Cagney was 42 years old when he did that film. Lots of intensity and stamina for a middle aged guy. He repeated the Cohan character in a cameo role in “The Seven Little Foys” with Bob Hope. That was maybe a decade after “Yankee Doodle Dandy”. Cagney said it was harder the second time around.

          Liked by 1 person

      • wow! hanging with James Cagney, that must have been the best. And I always watch Yankee Doodle Dandy on July 4th, it’s one of my all-time favorites, and his dance down the steps is a highlight. Funny how he never said you dirty rate, but that’s how everyone imitated him! Thanks again for the behind the scenes perspective. I was always hoping that there would be a movie about Cagney, starring Michael J. Fox, who I heard is a big fan.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Jim, I believe Michael J. DID want to do a Cagney bio film. Unfortunately his health has limited what he can do.

          More trivia: Cagney was in semi-retirement in the early 50’s. He was just tired of working and wanted to relax and enjoy his horse farms on Martha’s Vineyard and upstate New York. MGM called him in desperation when Spencer Tracy was too sick to do “Tribute To A Bad Man”. So, Cagney stepped up and played the stubborn old rancher who refuses to back down to cattle thieves and other varmints. Cagney seemed at home on horseback. A natural since he was a horseman in real life. He had some good looking ponies at his MV ranch. I, in retrospect, stupidly turned down an offer from Cagney to ride one of his horses. At that point in my life, I hadn’t done any real horseback riding and didn’t want to look foolish. Wish I’d tried.

          Liked by 1 person

          • too bad about Michael J. Who would you pick among current actors to play Cagney? And thank for more fun facts – and I’m with you, I don’t think I would have gotten on a horse either.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Jim, good question about a current actor to play James Cagney. Not sure. Gotta think about it. Will answer when I think of someone. Who would YOU cast as James Cagney?

              Liked by 1 person

              • I was trying to think of someone who could dance and sing, and act. One name came to mind – Justin Timberlake. I also searched Google and discovered that Hugh Jackman can dance. Perhaps Ryan Reynolds or Bradley Cooper, given some of their recent roles. As far as the look, Leonardo comes to mind, I just don’t knowif he can sing or dance.

                Liked by 1 person

                • Jim, some interesting suggestions. “Leo” is the only one who crossed my mind.
                  Showing my age, I don’t have any “favorite” actors as I did when I was younger. Through the years, my favorite actors included William Holden, Glenn Ford, John Garfield, Gregory Peck, Steve McQueen and, of course, Spencer Tracy.
                  My favorite “stars” — Cagney, Duke Wayne, Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea, Bogie and Cary Grant. The stars are the ones who I would go to see in ANYTHING they did. Good, bad or mediocre.
                  As a kid, I used to devour the fan mags. I swallowed most of the PR fluff that pretended to be factual. I remember reading a pictorial piece about “Alan Ladd At home with his wife and children”. Ladd and his wife, Sue Carol, were dressed in informal dude ranch outfits — supposedly their everyday garb. There were pics of the Ladd kids — Alana, David and Alan “Laddie” Ladd, Jr. They were all dressed in brand spanking new ranch outfits. I thought it was so cool — as a 8 or 9 year old movie fan. The fan mags painted a fantasy life for those of us who were movie buffs. It never occurred to me – back then — that it was all PR dog poo. James Cagney revealed he hated doing those magazine layouts because they were so phony. He used to play tricks on the reporters, photogs and their crews. Apparently, Jack Warner explained to Cagney that the fan mags paid for a big part of his salary and his movies and the studios’ expensive production in the Cagney films. Cagney said he still despised the fan mags but relented somewhat.

                  Charlton Heston, on the other hand, treated the media nicely, understanding they had jobs to do. I met Heston (“Please call me, Chuck”) maybe half dozen times. It became first name basis exchanges. Heston showed interest in our TV gear, explaining he took media courses in college. Most reporters asked Heston questions about “The Ten Commandments” and “Ben Hur”. I knew he was really fond of of a western he did, “Will Penny” which was a realistic, non glamorous portrayal of life as a cowpuncher. Early in our first meeting, I hinted how much I enjoyed “Will Penny” and Heston’s smile almost lit up the room. “Penny” also was the first major film that allowed Heston to churn down his ‘larger than life’ film heroes. it was evident in the dialogue and how he related to his on screen co-stars. Heston, at one point, apologized for “going on” about “Will Penny”. I just smiled because I’d hit gold.
                  Marilyn and I attended a Mega big PR luncheon for “Midway” in New York City. We were seated at a table with veteran entertainment reporters from around the world. When Heston approached our table, he singled me out (to my surprise and the dismay of the veteran PR folks) I introduced Marilyn to Heston (“Please, just call me Chuck, Marilyn). I loved the attention he showered on her. He didn’t stop there. He brought over some “friends” to meet us. Henry Fonda, Burgess Meredith and Kevin Dobson who was hot then from his regular stint as “Crocker” on “Kojak”.

                  Jim, I am drifting here, I know. Just remembering how delightful it was to spend time with Hollywood legends who were nice folks OFF camera.

                  Liked by 1 person

                  • Garry, I’m loving your drifting! It’s fun to read these personal encounters you have had with some of the stars of Hollywood. Great story about Hesston. Another couple of favorites of mine were Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, and Bob Hope. Unfortunately, I haven’t met anyone from Hollywood!

                    Liked by 1 person

                    • Jim, the celebrity encounters were one of the PERKS of my career. They usually occurred because of scheduled interviews to promote films, plays, or books. I usually parlayed business into something more relaxed and friendly – i.e. – One of my many low scale bars around Boston which were second homes to me. I was the local celeb befriended by the bar patrons. So, when I brought a Hollywood legend in, they weren’t hassled by others in the bar. No fan staring or autograph hounding. People like Robert Mitchum enjoyed the seedy settings of the bar. Mitch actually smiled when he sat down and no one gave him a second look. I usually could count on getting top shelf booze not the weak stuff served to touristas or “pilgrims”.
                      The second thing going for me was the celebs usually checked out local television when they came to town. During my “prime”, I was on the air many times a day – from the early morning news to the 11pm newscast. I was a hustler. .During those olden days, Reporters got performance fees on top of salary. Everytime my face showed on the tube, there was a fee. I knew the AFTRA handbook well (I was shop steward for awhile) and filed for fees EVERYWHERE. My nickname — “Kaching” came from familiarity with the AFTRA handbook and the reporter’s pay system. I had a toy cash register. At day’s end, I’d sit at my newsroom desk, tallying all the fees I’d earned that day. The cash register sound “Ka-ching, ka-ching” resonated throughout the newsroom, causing anxiety among the suits and envy among my co workers. Anyway, my face was familiar to visiting celebs. That’s what, I believe, prompted James Cagney to approach me and intoduce himself. Those were the days when local reporters (and anchors) were treated like celebrities. We received special treatment in restaurants, movie theaters and other places of business. I must admit I miss that a little these days. I cannot believe people still remember/recognize me even though I’ve been retired for almost 18 years now. It’s always appreciated.

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • I like your hustle. I guess there’s no residual royalties from all those performance fees? It soundsl ike you had a wonderful career; I always thought the life of a reporter looked as interesting as any, particularly when you get to meet such a wide variety of people. I read that you met President Johnson; meeting a President is not something most people get to do! We have someone in Philly who has been on broadcast news forever – Jim Gardner has been the anchor of Action News (an ABC affilate) for 42 years! I am gussing that like you, he is recognized everywhere he goes in the city. I’m sure that has its pros and cons.

                      Liked by 1 person

  5. Yes there a certain nostalgia to those old movies. Funny how you got that extra “r” in your name Garry. They put an extra “l” in Peter’s last name many years ago “Martell”. They did that to anglicize it. He went to city hall and fought it. That’s why there’s only one “l” in our last name “Martel”. They did that to his sisters too. They still have the two “ll” on their birth certificates.
    Leslie

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I am shocked, sometimes, by the blatant racism and profiling that went on in those old films. Then I remember that it was the time…the period in history and I settle back (sometimes with popcorn – hold the butter thanks) and enjoy the show. Same things with books that use racist language and situations. I can enjoy the story in those old classics because I realize the world has moved on and in that respect (mostly) we’ve become better and see the error and folly of our ways. Now having said that last thing, there was a recent movie I happened to see (it was within the last nine years so was made as early as 2010, but possibly later). The “N” word was flung about like confetti. The racist attitudes of one of the main characters were out there for everyone to see. I was more shocked by that. Perhaps we haven’t learned as much as we think we have, nor moved on from an ugly time. The bottom line (to me) is that humans are pretty stupid and may have to learn a particular lesson over and over and over, and may never learn it. The worst part is that humanity is still seeing differences instead of focusing on the fact that we are ALL people.

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    • I used to think we’d moved on but lately, I’ve realized we haven’t moved. We are totally stuck and when we feel like it, we buy big guns and shoot the people who aren’t exactly like us. With the best will in the world, slaughters of kids in schools, worshipers in Synagogues and Churches don’t scream “We’ve moved on” to me. It screams “we have an ugly, racist problem in this country — and we haven’t done anything to fix it..” Okay, maybe WE personally have changed, but the rest of our country is still fighting the Civil War because we have yet to accept racial equality as a national standard — and it doesn’t matter WHERE you live. It’s ugly all over.

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      • No that hatred and divisiveness is something we have NOT overcome, despite the best efforts of good people. All I suppose we can do is individually stand up where we see that nasty stuff happening, speak out, and possibly get shot for our point of view. The whole school and place of worship killings are unthinkable. Children and people in places where God (as He is viewed in that place) dwells should be extempt from stupid thoughtless murderers. And yeah. *sigh*

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    • Melanie, I abhor contemporary movies that use racial epithets. I especially dislike it when used by Black actors and producers. Many Black comics use racially demeaning words as part of their act. It’s their “homey” or “gettin’ down” schtick. Golly, it so galls me. Part of it is — All my professonal life, I strove to dispell those racial stereotypes. My parents were adamant that we not use street lingo. It’s just one off the reasons Sidney Poitier was important to people of color. He never stooped to racial stereotype to get his characters across. His outburst in “In The heat of the Night”, — “They call me MISTER Tibbs” — becme a rally cry for many of us of a certain age.

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      • Whatever color the person doing that kind of schtick is should be ashamed in my opinion. I love that movie and recently finished watching the whole series of the TV show of the same name. It was really interesting to watch (in the TV series) how the Chief evolved from that bigoted racist in the movie. I always cheer when I hear “They call me MISTER TIBBS!” I’m glad there were those who stood up for themselves in that ugly time.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Melanie, We also enjoyed the “In The Heat of the Night” TV series. It was interesting seeing the post-Archie Bunker Carroll O’Connor as beleagued Sherriff Bill Gillespie. The Sheriff’s interracial romance was a huge leap forward from the ’67 movie.

          Like

    • Becky, thank you. I remember that pic, that day and night — 73 years ago — as if it was yesterday. I had long, curly red hair. I instantly fell in love with movies and the cinema world of make believe.

      i wanted to be an actor when I grew up. I apparently told my original Boston TV bosses about the acting aspiration. They reminded about it over the TV news decades. Perhaps a sly inference that I was acting and not reporting.

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        • Becky, you’re right. There IS a little acting in TV news reporting. A dear friend – who just passed away — was one of Boston’s favorite anchors. He was a tall, Texican who looked a bit like acror Robert Stack. He was teased a lot about the ‘Elliot Ness’ resemblance and, as was his nature, took it with good humor. He and I used to tease each other about some of the bits or schtick used by reporters.
          — shaking your head to show disbelief.
          — biting your lower lip to show empathy.
          — looking down at your feet to show frustration with the too familiar crime story.

          These bits of business become hokey if overused. I don’t recall much theatrics from Walter Conkrite. When JFK was killed, Conkrite’s grief was genuine.

          These days, local TV News is often the theater of the absurd.

          Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! It’s one of the things I notice when i watch the oldies. The dialogue is more important and gets more time than the action scenes. Actually, the action spins off the dialogue, even in the old westerns.

      “High Noon” is a great example. There’s almost a script long buildup to the climaxing gunfight between Coop’s embattled Marsall Will Kane and Frank Miller’s gang There’s added suspense as it becomes obvious no one in town will help Kane. There’s no obligatory gunfight with the obnoxious young gunny looking to make a rep. The fist fight between Coop and his wannabee deputy, Lloyd Bridges, is the only real action unil th final few minutes. The dialogue leaves you hanging, wondering whether Coop will survive.

      I remember John Wayne wasn’t happy with the film or Coop’s lawman. Duke thought there should be more action and Will Kane should’ve been more manly and aggresisive. Wayne allegedly sent Coop a note dissing the film and Coop’s portrayal of the vulnerable hero.

      Trivia: Gregory Peck was first offered “High Noon”. He turned it down because he had just done “The Gunfighter” (A groundbreaking oater) and didn’t want to do two westerns in a row. I don’t think Stanley Kramer (the producer) or Fred Zinnerman (The director) wanted Wayne. Maye Duke was irked that he didn’t get the offer. Gary Cooper was so perfect as the aging, weary lawman. The film spawned TV western series like “Lawman” with John Russell’s Marshall Dan Troop – aged to look like Coop. I loved “Lawman” and Russell’s Dan Troop. Russell turned up as a lawman gone bad in Clint Eastwood’s “Pale Rider”, an obvious homage to “Shane”. Okay, enough trivia, Pilgrim.

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