Our reviews of The Color Honeymooners: Collection 1 (published June 27th, 2006), The Color Honeymooners: Collection 2 (published March 10th, 2008), The Color Honeymooners: Collection 3 (published May 21st, 2008), The Color Honeymooners: Collection 4 (published August 20th, 2008), The Honeymooners (published December 8th, 2005), and The Honeymooners: The Lost Episodes (The Complete Restored Series 1951-1957) (published November 8th, 2011) are also available.
Baby, you're the greatest!
They called him "The Great One" and for many, the name didn't begin to do him justice. He was a man of large appetites and even larger talents. He was a multiple pack-a-day chain smoker and enjoyed an adult beverage or two. He refused to fly and traveled everywhere by private train car. At the height of his popularity, he was the highest paid television star in the history of the medium and millions watched his variety show every week. While he was a god of the small screen and the nightclub stage, big screen mega-stardom eluded him. From critical acclaim (he was Minnesota Fats alongside Paul Newman in The Hustler) to saccharine cult clamor (he's one of the few good things about the deaf mute mush of Gigot) his Tinseltown appearances further proved that only the glass teat was able to properly channel his larger than life persona into a true mirror of his humor and heart. Sadly, for most in our new power generation, he is the foul-mouthed sheriff from Smokey and the Bandit or the ludicrous big wig who buys his son a black man as a gift in The Toy. But Jackie Gleason was so much more than a curse word filled hick or a rich racist. He was a superstar before there really was such a nomenclature. He was a Renaissance man in a world filled with teeming mediocrity. His creative legacy begins and extends infinitely with the formation of what, for many, is the foundation for all situation comedies: The Honeymooners. Now thanks to Paramount, we get the classic "39" episodes from the one and only season of this comedic zenith to have and to cherish. It is television history in a digital format. It is Jackie Gleason's undeniable gift preserved in everlasting posterity.
Facts of the Case
The Honeymooners got its start as a sketch as part of The Cavalcade of Stars in 1950. Over the course of the next five years, the segments grew in popularity. Hoping to capitalize on their success, Gleason crafted a standalone half-hour sitcom around the adventures of the Kramdens and the Nortons. Debuting in 1955 and only lasting one 39-episode season, The Honeymooners was never a huge ratings triumph and Gleason returned to the variety show format. But something odd happened. Over the course of the decades in reruns and reverie, The Honeymooners' cult developed into a universal legion of devoted followers. Even with the release of "The Lost Episodes" in the mid-'80s (from Gleason's own private collection), fans and scholars still returned to the Classic 39 to experience comedic perfection at its most sublime.
The setup of the show is simplicity itself. Ralph Kramden is an overweight, loudmouthed, hard-working bus driver for the Gotham line in New York City. He lives in a small apartment in Brooklyn with his kind-hearted, put-upon wife Alice. They've been married for 15 years and it seems like every day of their time together has been a struggle. Money is tight, Ralph is full of get rich quick schemes that always seem to fail, and though he protests about being the boss of his home, it is Alice who saves the situation and the day most of the time. Ralph's best friend is Ed Norton, a ditzy soul who works in the New York sewers. His wife is the ex-burlesque dancer Trixie. The Nortons live on credit and cockeyed optimism, playing happy-go-lucky larks to the Kramdens dark depressives. Ed and Ralph love to bowl, shoot pool, and attend The Loyal Order of Raccoons Lodge where they are both very active members. Alice and Trixie are also gal pals, both in their domestic drudgery and husband-hampered existence. But these married couples sincerely love each other and express their emotions freely and openly.
On the five-disc DVD set are the following episodes:
"TV or Not TV": Since neither can afford a set on their own, Ralph and Ed buy one together. But this comfy communal arrangement is challenged when Ralph wants to watch a movie, and Norton is determined to tune in to Captain Video.
"Funny Money": Ralph comes into a fortune when a suitcase full of cash is left unclaimed on his bus. But it turns out the money is counterfeit and the gangsters who made it know who has it…and they will do anything to get it back.
"The Golfer": In order to impress his boss, Ralph brags that he can play golf. It's up to Norton to teach this non-linkster the tricks of the traps before he embarrasses himself on the course and perhaps loses his job.
"A Woman's Work is Never Done": Hoping to make Alice happy, Ralph hires a maid. But finding decent help is a great deal easier than having to put up with Ralph's tirades and mandates.
"A Matter of Life and Death": Ralph hasn't been feeling well and a medical report from a messenger confirms the bad news: he only has six months to live. Too bad the news is actually from a vet who is treating Alice's mother's dog
"The Sleepwalker": Norton's nighttime strolls while he snores have kept the Kramden and Norton households awake for far too many nights. A late night visit from a doctor may lead to a cure, as long as Ralph agrees to stay and look after Norton.
"Better Living Through Television": Ralph stumbles upon the idea of selling a "kitchen helper" gadget on television. Unfortunately, Norton and Ralph must do the commercial themselves, and Ralph has stage fright.
"Pal O' Mine": When Ralph accidentally gets a ring (meant for Norton's foreman) stuck on his hand, the pal's friendship deteriorates. That is, until Ralph gets word that Norton is hurt in a sewer explosion. The frantic friend immediately heads to the hospital to help.
"Brother Ralph": When Ralph is laid off, Alice gets a job as a secretary. Trouble is, her bosses want her "single" or she'll lose the position. So when one of her superiors comes over, Ralph becomes Alice's "brother" lest she risk losing their only source of income.
"Hello, Mom": A telegram announces that "Mom" is coming for a visit. Ralph explodes at the thought of spending time with his big-mouthed, meddling mother-in-law. The resulting argument lasts until someone surprising walks through the door.
"The Deciding Vote": Ralph learns that Norton has the deciding vote in an election for a Raccoon Lodge official. When an opponent wins the position, Ralph is convinced that Norton turned his back on him.
"Something Fishy": The Raccoon Lodge votes to not allow wives on their annual fishing trip. And for the first time, they also vote to tell their wives the news. Can Ralph and Ed keep them from attending? Or do the girls have something fishy up their sleeves?
"'Twas the Night Before Christmas": When Ralph learns that a gift he bought for Alice is really a cheap piece of junk, he hocks his bowling ball to buy her a special present. But it turns out that Alice has bought Ralph a bowling bag to carry the ball in.
"The Man From Space": Ralph wants to win $50 at the Raccoon Lodge costume contest, but no one will loan him the cash to rent an outfit. So using his ingenuity (and several parts of the household furnishings), Ralph creates a hilarious man from space outfit.
"A Matter of Record": Ralph insults his mother-in-law once too often and Alice leaves him. Hoping to win her back, he uses Norton's recording equipment and makes a record of his feelings. Unfortunately, another "anti-Mom" message gets sent by mistake.
"Oh, My Aching Back": Ralph avoids going to his mother-in-law's by playing "sick." He goes bowling instead and wants to prevent Alice from finding out. But when his back goes out, Alice is the least of his problems—he has a company physical in the morning.
"The Babysitter": Alice wants a phone, but Ralph won't pay for it. So Alice hires herself out as a babysitter for the neighborhood. But when Ralph hears his new phone number being batted around in the barbershop, he thinks his wife is two-timing him.
"The $99,000 Answer": Ralph wins a chance to be on a game show and he chooses popular songs as his category of expertise. It's up to Norton to help him brush up on his tune knowledge so that he can hopefully win the jackpot.
"Ralph Kramden, Inc": Ralph wants $20 from Norton, but his friend
won't budge. So Ralph sells him a percentage of himself. When an elderly woman
who Ralph befriended remembers him in her will, the "corporation" and
"shareholder" smell a possible fortune.
"A Dog's Life": When Norton discovers a delicious appetizer spread in the Kramden icebox, Ralph takes the concoction to his boss, who he hopes will invest in the product. Turns out that everyone is eating horsemeat dog food meant for Alice's new puppy.
"Here Comes the Bride": Ralph meddles in Alice's sister's wedding and it's not long before the dejected bride is living with the couple, crying her eyes out. It's up to Ralph to right his big-mouthed wrong and get the newlyweds back together…or else.
"Mama Loves Mambo": When a single Latin lover type moves into the apartment building, the women all swoon and the men all gnash their teeth. Carlos wants to teach them the mambo. Ralph and the boys just want to teach him a lesson.
"Please Leave the Premises": A hike in the rent finds the Kramdens on strike, determined to squash the $5 increase. But when the landlord cuts off the power and the heat, it seems that only Ralph wants to continue the battle, all the way to eviction if need be.
"Pardon My Glove": When Ralph stumbles upon a man's white glove,
he immediately gets suspicious of Alice. Turns out that his worries are correct.
Alice is seeing another man: a local department store decorator who wants to
refurbish their home for free.
"Head of the House": A man on the street interviewer quotes Ralph as saying some rather outlandish things about who wears the pants in his family. When Alice reads it, she flips. Too bad Ralph needs her to back up his bragging to a fellow worker.
"The Worry Wart": An IRS letter starts Ralph on the road to anxiety. With Norton's help, he realizes his possible mistakes. But the threat of tax evasion makes him a mental case until he arrives at the offices, and discovers the real reason he was contacted.
"Trapped": Ralph witnesses a bank robbery and narrowly escapes with his life. Instead of going to the police, he seeks refuge in his apartment, hoping to hide out. The killers know where he lives, however, and stop by to "shut him up" once and for all.
"The Loudspeaker": Ralph is convinced he's winning the Raccoon of the Year Award. After all, why would the Grand High Exalted Mystic Leader of the organization want him to speak at the ceremony? Maybe because his best friend, Norton, is the real recipient?
"On Stage": The Raccoon Lodge puts on a play to make money, and Ralph is cast in the lead. When rumor has it a big time Hollywood producer is going to attend the show, Ralph is convinced he is Tinseltown bound.
"Opportunity Knocks But": When Ralph's boss, Mr. Marshall, asks for some pool playing advice, Norton tags along to shoot a game or two. Marshall is so impressed with Kramden's pal that he offers him a job…as Ralph's supervisor.
"Unconventional Behavior": Alice and Trixie finally convince their husbands to take them along to the Annual Raccoon Convention in Minneapolis. But on the way there, a joke gets out of hand and Ralph and Norton end up handcuffed together.
"The Safety Award": Ralph is acknowledged by the city for the 14 years of safe driving he's done as a bus driver. But the day of the ceremony, everything seems to be going wrong, until (wouldn't you know it) Ralph has a little fender bender.
"Mind Your Own Business": Ralph gives Norton some advice about pursuing his goals and demanding respect—and a promotion—from his boss. Thanks to Ralph, Norton gets fired and it's up to the big mouth to help him get his job back.
"Alice and the Blonde": A friendly visit to a fellow co-worker of Ralph's has the Kramdens and Nortons out on the town. But the amount of attention the boys pay to the man's blonde bombshell wife have Alice and Trixie seeing red…and green.
"The Bensonhurst Bomber": After a tussle in the local pool hall, Norton gets Ralph into a fight with an overbearing bully named Harvey. But as the big battle looms, Ralph turns chicken. It's up to Norton to help his pal save face in front of his friends and neighbors.
"Dial J for Janitor": When the landlord loses yet another janitor thanks to Ralph and Ed's complaining, he threatens to evict them both. But then Ralph accepts the job to get free rent. Only then does he learn how horrible working for tenants like him can be.
"A Man's Pride": Hoping to impress an old rival, Ralph brags that he runs the Gotham Bus Company. But when the friend wants to visit him at work, Ralph must figure out a way to use the real boss' office.
When the age-old argument about the "best" sitcom rears its seemingly omnipresent head, names and nominations are tossed out like junk mail from a day's postal delivery. Seinfeld and The Simpsons are almost universally acknowledged, as well as other entries like Friends, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Cheers. Occasionally, you'll get the oddball who champions something like Married…with Children or Will and Grace as the pinnacle of television humor. More times than not, however, the same familiar faces and showcases are mentioned and discussed. But few discuss the "perfect" sitcoms, the exact marriage of premise to performers that transcends the cathode ray tube to become a timeless monolith of mirth. Fawlty Towers is such a show, an uptight tale of manners under pressure all fueled by the least likely hero in the history of the hospitality trade. I Love Lucy is also among the ideals, not merely for its invention of the sitcom convention, but for the undeniable brilliance of its cast and creators. But when the faultless feats of fine programming are lined up for inspection, one seems to consistently stand head, shoulders, and stomach beyond the rest. The Honeymooners, a three camera concerto about four average individuals from Brooklyn, NY seems to encapsulate what is good, what is comic, and what is endearing about television. It continues to stand the test of time and come out winning…and grinning.
There is no need to discuss underlying themes or the social significance of the Kramdens and the Nortons. All one has to understand is that, 50 years since it first hit CBS airwaves and traveled into the homes of America, The Honeymooners is still hysterical, laugh out loud funny in a way that most modern sitcoms wish they could to tap into. Sure, there is chauvinism and politically incorrect values in abundance running throughout The Honeymooners. But just like Archie Bunker's bigoted beliefs or Al Bundy's off-color remarks, this is a show that actually attempts to illustrate a certain class of human being (in this case, the low end, near poverty blue collar worker) and celebrate their strengths while laughing at their larger than life faults. Ralph Kramden is basically a good hearted humungous who just can't control himself. His rants are not based in anger but anguish and he truly adores his wife and friends. In this lowly bus driver from Brooklyn, Jackie Gleason managed to create the archetype for sitcom husbands for years to come. There is a little Kramden in every Fred Flintstone, Dan Conner, and Homer J. Simpson who bully and bombast their way through life. It's not difficult to see from where their humor arises. Gleason proved that size didn't matter (it didn't hurt the physical comedy, though): it was the performance and the person that counted.
While it would be foolish to try to review each of the episodes in the Classic 39 separately, a quick overview of some of the shows many highlights goes a long way to explaining the lasting appeal of this series. It's interesting to note that of the 39 episodes offered, almost 1/3 are certified classics with the other 2/3s being merely great. There is not a flat or false show in the bunch, and the titles listed below are just a sampling of the specialness to be found on the DVD set.
"TV or Not TV": Since The Honeymooners were already a part of several previous Gleason television shows, they arrived fully formed and honed to perfection when this, the premier episode of the standalone series, made its debut. Indeed, some jokes were so "inside" (the whole "to the moon, Alice" bit) that it took the audience a while to warm up to them. Still, the sight of Norton donning his Captain Video space helmet and cheering along with his TV idol makes this episode a must see, as does Ralph preparing his "snacks" for an evening viewing, laying them out in true "Homer Simpson" style.
"The Golfer": Art Carney's necessity and superiority as a sidekick was never underestimated by the creators of The Honeymooners, and they jumped at the chance to showcase this versatile actor. Here, Carney's golf lesson to Ralph is pure comic genius, a well-timed combination of physical humor with hilariously corny old jokes. Gleason gets a good couple of belly rolls in, but it's Norton's waggle and "addressing" of the ball that people remember most. Ralph's final declaration of his "big mouth" is also classic. Gleason could really bellow such lines.
"Better Living Through Television": Exploring the still virginal medium was always a safe bet for the scriptwriters of early TV, and nothing sparked their satire more than commercials. Like Lucy's drunken drone through an advert for Vitameatavegamin, Ralph and Ed's handy dandy kitchen helper spot is another clear example of expert actors essaying characters under extreme circumstances. Ralph's trademark "homina-homina-homina" stammer is in full effect here, and Gleason's deer in the headlights looks and uncomfortable body language are just fantastic.
"Brother Ralph": Gleason has often been called the king of the slow burn, the incremental building up of rage until his entire rotund body explodes in anger. And no episode highlights this well paced volcano better than "Brother Ralph." From the moment Alice's bachelor boss steps into the Kramden home and asks her "brother" Ralph for a date with "the dish," Gleason is on maximum simmer. When he does finally explode, it is funny and touching at the same time. Like many of Ralph's outbursts, this one is wholly based on his undying love for his wife.
"The Man from Space": Because of his size, Jackie Gleason was the ultimate sight gag. With a simple pratfall or an undulation of his ample hips, he had audiences rolling in the aisles, so adding a crazy costumed element to his human humoresque seems only natural. The best part about this showcase for Gleason's goofiness is how Norton is also ridiculed. His fancy French nobleman outfit underlines his hysterical lowbrow nature in a wonderful way, and it makes Ralph's homemade fiasco that much more comically crude.
"The $99,000 Answer": Oddly, this is not an episode filled with huge laughs or complicated jokes. As with many of the best Honeymooner episodes, it centers on Ralph's inflated sense of self and eventual humiliation at the hands of his own ego. When people look for reasons why, overall, this show is a much-heralded classic, they tend to overlook episodes like this in favor of the gut busters filled with mega-moments of mirth. But in this, a more character driven show, we learn a great deal about the Kramdens and the Nortons, and the insights help turn them even more lovable and familiar.
"Young At Heart": Gleason's gift for broad physical comedy, combined with the show's wistful theme of recapturing one's youth, makes this another prime example of why The Honeymooners was so successful. Even with the awkwardly unrealistic "hep cat" teens at the beginning, the pure comic genius in the "Hucklebuck" dance sequence and Gleason's mastery of roller-skating shakiness more than make up for it. And with the final speech at the end, a beautifully written paean to the melancholy march of time, we have the touching topping to this tasty treat.
"Mama Loves Mambo": For some reason, Gleason and the gang always worked smarter with an unintentional foil for their foolishness. In this case, the bachelor/dancer next door instigates a string of stupendously funny outbursts from Ralph, each gag building on top of the other until, in a very simple speech, the stranger provides a wonderful comeuppance. But the added twist of having the boys act refined and gentlemanly leads Trixie and Alice to the realization that they like their men blue collar. It's sweet vindication for two guys who never seem to catch a break, not even in their own house.
"Young Man with a Horn": Like "The $99,000 Answer," this is a small, subtle script about people and their dreams. Ralph is not trying to "get rich quick" or "pull one over on Alice." Indeed, there is a great deal of heartfelt self-reflection in this show. All the meanness and stubborn qualities that Ralph exemplifies are washed away as a desire to better himself takes front and center. Audrey Meadows' vital contribution to the show's balance is highlighted here, as she turns Ralph's defeat into a very sweet moment of compassion and support. Her undying love keeps a maudlin show from turning defeatist.
"The Worry Wart": If Gleason was indeed the king of the slow burn, he was also the crown prince of the irrational, anxiety filled obsession. There are more moments of table slamming, unreasonable eruptions, and frightened fat man stammering than in any four or five episodes of the series, but Gleason never overdoes it. Indeed, he uses the growing fear to even more fully flesh out his character. We learn that Ralph is basically an honest man who loves his country and wants to make sure he hasn't cheated it. Such a noble, patriotic sentiment is typical of The Honeymooners.
"Trapped": In one of the few instances where the real world of life in New York City meshes with the fantasy land of Kramdenville, crime invades the little apartment in Brooklyn. True, the counterfeiter episode "Funny Money" had a couple of toughs threatening Ralph, but the main focus of that show was the spending of the cash. Here, the threat is the main theme and it's both creepy and comic. Thankfully, this is also one of the few episodes where Ralph's cowardly cringe is tossed aside and he stands up for himself. His confidence (and fighting skills) helps cut the dire tone of the circumstances.
"Unconventional Behavior": Setting the standard for over-the-top comic set pieces, Gleason and Carney's work here as handcuffed train travelers represents the duo's camaraderie and acting command in all its glory. One view of this episode and the reasons why Kramden and Norton are considered a classic comedy pairing become crystal clear. Each works off the other perfectly and are individually given solo moments to shine. Though it seems like every sitcom before or since has done a trapped with a partner routine, somehow this talented twosome makes the old standard work.
Now, one could argue that The Honeymooners relies far too much on the fat joke and Gleason's stocky build to bolster its percentage of laughs, and there will be some modern minds that listen to the barefoot and pregnant paternalism expressed by all the men in the show and scream for a N.O.W. investigation post haste. But you have to accept the show within the context it was created and the sentiment it actually expressed. Ralph's violent threats toward Alice never manifest themselves in abuse or bruises and are made more out of frustration than brutish glee. Alice and Trixie truly run their households, never letting their husbands get away with a single chauvinist remark without making them pay some price. For a woman whose place was supposedly in the home, Alice gets a lot more freedom than many early '50s housewives would have dared (living on the edge of poverty will do that). Sure, Ralph and Ed are the breadwinners and socially accepted kings of their castles, but they seem stuck in their jobs, destined to go nowhere but sideways in their career choice. It's this strange equilibrium between power, the perception of power and the intense emotion that these characters have for each other that helps forgive The Honeymooners of some of its less than enlightened ideals. It's a smart, insightful show that has something very real and very relevant to say about the human condition. Besides, someone had to start the substance that political agendas are based upon, why not let Ralph and Ed be the poster boys for PC.
As for the show itself, it was uniformly well written and expertly directed. Gleason abhorred rehearsals and loved to improvise right on the spot. This lends the episodes a casual, yet chaotic authenticity that sells the notion of living in the nutty world of Norton and Kramden. If there are unsuccessful moments here, it is with the very rare current events jokes and "of the time" pop culture references that fall flat on modern ears. But whenever Gleason bugs out his eyes, when Norton flays his arms in preparation of the simplest task, when Trixie scowls and Alice glowers, all the unknown allusions are cast aside and the show speaks a universal lingo of humanity and hilarity. In the history of the television medium, few shows deserve a permanent place in the pantheon of the greatest ever made. The Honeymooners will live on for hundreds of years, fueled by the talent of the people who created it and the collective ideology of the common man. Somewhere, Ralph and Ed are struggling to keep their heads above water while fighting for their friends and family. And it shouldn't be any other way.
Paramount provides The Honeymooners: The Classic 39 Episodes in a five-disc slim case DVD presentation that is short on bonus features but long on transfer polish. Some websites have argued that more care should have been taken with the prints offered, as there are numerous scratches, dirt, flaws, and age issues to be found here. And this critic was about to complain. But just as this review was being finalized, TV Land hosted a marathon of The Honeymooners in honor of Art Carney's passing, and all proposed visual complaints disappeared. After seeing the shockingly poor quality of the episodes offered on the cable channel, the DVD suddenly looked incredible. TV Land's offering, light gray instead of black and white and appearing to be filmed through cheesecloth, was just awful. By comparison, the DVD presentation here is near perfect. At least the monochrome is sharp and the image appears focused. There are a couple of moments of massive mediocrity, and there will be those who think crowding eight episodes onto each disc all but guarantees a dismal viewing experience. But overall, those used to seeing this show in less than stellar reruns will adore the digital picture here. While not perfect, it is pretty good.
On the sonic side, the Dolby Digital Mono is clean, without major hiss or distortion. The DVD seems to be mastered a little on the low side, so you'll have to turn up the volume to hear the show properly. "TV or Not TV" also has a muddy, muffled mix that really shouldn't exist here. Paramount also fumbles a little in the bonus arena, probably because they are testing the waters of consumer craving before they load up and unleash a commemorative box set (say for, 2005—the 50th Anniversary?) chock full of all kinds of goodies. What we get here is interesting, if just a little superficial. There is twenty some minutes from what appears to be a much longer Honeymooners television special that features interviews with the actors and some behind the scenes insights. Everyone is here (including Gleason in archival footage) and the details they offer are genuine and engaging. Too bad it all ends too soon. And with only the original Buick sponsorship opening and closing to the show as a final bonus, this box set feels a little skimpy. A show of this importance should have more to it than a few interviews and a couple of commercial castoffs. But the chance to finally own these classic comedy jewels on DVD more than makes up for the lack of special considerations…for now.
There are many lasting legacies to be found in The Honeymooners. One can't help but look at any stocky television sitcom lead and not instantly think of Ralph Kramden and his appetite challenged physique. Whenever the wacky neighbor wanders over from next door to illuminate the proceedings with his or her own particular brand of outrageousness, Ed Norton and his cashmere vest over white T-shirt stylings can't be far behind. There is a little of Alice Kramden's temperance in every comedy mom and Trixie's perky persona can usually be located somewhere amongst the colleagues and associates. But beyond the small screen, Jackie Gleason's little show that could continues to resonate with a society brimming with unfulfilled husbands, put-upon wives and outdated social stigmas. If The Honeymooners teaches us anything, it's that beyond all the stereotyping and unfashionable fist waving, love is the true tie that binds…love and laughter. Anyone who is a fan of television comedy will be shortchanging their education if they don't immediately make this Gospel according to Ralph one of their must own DVD treasures. It's not everyday that a show like The Honeymooners comes along. As a matter of fact, it's as rare as Ralph skipping a meal, or Norton refusing one. Comedy doesn't get much better than this. How sweet it is, indeed.
While it's possible to nitpick and complain about certain aspects of the presentation here, the Court is feeling magnanimous in light of the importance to television and comedic history this series represents. Therefore, it finds Paramount, The Honeymooners and the stellar cast and crew that brought it all to life not guilty.
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