My 45 Favorite Pre-code Actresses

by HauntedGirl | created - 02 Nov 2010 | updated - 22 Nov 2015 | Public

The best and most entertaining performances between 1929 and the first half of 1934. This is a work in progress as there are still many more films that I haven't yet discovered. Hopefully more will be released to DVD or TCM will schedule them.

1. Kay Francis

Actress | Trouble in Paradise

Kay Francis is possibly the biggest of the 'forgotten stars' from Hollywood's Golden Era, yet, for a while in the 1930s, she ranked as one of the most popular actresses, tagged the 'Queen of Warner Brothers', by 1935 earning a yearly salary of $115,000 (compared to Bette Davis with $18,000). The ...

Pre-codes Seen to Date: The Cocoanuts-1929, For The Defense-1930, Passion Flower-1930, Raffles-1930, Guilty Hands-1931, Cynara-1932, Jewel Robbery-1932, One Way Passage-1932, Street of Women-1932, Trouble in Paradise-1932, The House on 56th Street-1933, I Loved a Woman-1933, Keyhole-1933, Mary Stevens M.D.-1933, Dr. Monica-1934, Mandalay-1934,

2. Ruth Chatterton

Actress | Dodsworth

Beginning as a chorus girl at age 14, Ruth Chatterton became a Broadway star with "Daddy Long Legs" in 1914. She appeared in such shows as "Mary Rose" and "Come Out of the Kitchen" before moving to Hollywood in 1925. As her film career faded in the late 1930s, she returned to the stage in revivals,...

Pre-codes Seen to Date: Anybody's Woman-1930, The Lady of Scandal-1930, Frisco Jenny-1932, The Rich Are Always With Us-1932, Female-1933, Journal of a Crime-1934

3. Barbara Stanwyck

Actress | Double Indemnity

Today Barbara Stanwyck is remembered primarily as the matriarch of the family known as the Barkleys on the TV western The Big Valley (1965), wherein she played Victoria, and from the hit drama The Colbys (1985). But she was known to millions of other fans for her movie career, which spanned the ...

Pre-codes Seen to Date: The Miracle Woman-1931, Night Nurse-1931, Ten Cents A Dance-1931, Forbidden-1932, The Purchase Price-1932, Shopworn-1932, So Big!-1932, Baby Face-1933, The Bitter Tea of General Yen-1933, Ever in my Heart-1933, Gambling Lady-1934,

4. Joan Crawford

Actress | What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Joan Crawford was born Lucille Fay LeSueur on March 23, 1905, in San Antonio, Texas, to Anna Belle (Johnson) and Thomas E. LeSueur, a laundry laborer. By the time she was born, her parents had separated, and by the time she was a teenager, she'd had three stepfathers. It wasn't an easy life; ...

Pre-codes Seen to Date: Paid-1930, Grand Hotel-1932, Rain-1932, Dancing Lady-1933, Today We Live-1933, Sadie McKee-1934

5. Joan Blondell

Actress | Grease

With blonde hair, big blue eyes and a big smile, Joan was usually cast as the wisecracking working girl who was the lead's best friend. Born into vaudeville to a comic named Eddie, Joan was on the stage when she was three years old. For years, she toured the circuit with her parents and joined a ...

Pre-codes Seen to Date: Sinner's Holiday-1930, Big Business Girl-1931, Blonde Crazy-1931, Millie-1931, Night Nurse-1931, Other Men's Women-1931, The Public Enemy-1931, The Reckless Hour-1931, Big City Blues-1932, Central Park-1932, The Crowd Roars-1932, The Famous Ferguson Case-1932, Lawyer Man-1932, Make Me A Star-1932, Miss Pinkerton-1932, Three on a Match-1932, Union Deport-1932, Golddiggers of 1933, Footlight Parade-1933,

6. Marlene Dietrich

Soundtrack | Witness for the Prosecution

Her father was a police lieutenant and imbued in her a military attitude to life. Marlene was known in school for her "bedroom eyes" and her first affairs were at this stage in her life - a professor at the school was terminated. She entered the cabaret scene in 1920s Germany, first as a spectator ...

Pre-codes Seen to Date: The Blue Angel-1930, Blonde Venus-1932, Shanghai Express-1932, The Scarlet Empress-1934,

7. Norma Shearer

Actress | The Divorcee

She won a beauty contest at age fourteen. In 1920 her mother, Edith Shearer, took Norma and her sister Athole Shearer (Mrs. Howard Hawks) to New York. Ziegfeld rejected her for his "Follies," but she got work as an extra in several movies. She spent much money on eye doctor's services trying to ...

Pre-codes Seen to Date: The Last of Mrs. Cheyney-1929, The Divorcee-1930, A Free Soul-1931, Private Lives-1931, Smilin' Through-1932, Strange Interlude-1932,

8. Jean Harlow

Actress | Bombshell

Harlean Carpenter, who later became Jean Harlow, was born in Kansas City, Missouri, on March 3, 1911. She was the daughter of a successful dentist and his wife. In 1927, at the age of 16, she ran away from home to marry a young businessman named Charles McGrew, who was 23. The couple pulled up ...

Pre-codes Seen to Date: The Love Parade-1929, Hell's Angels-1930, City Lights-1931, Platinum Blonde-1931, Public Enemy-1931, The Secret Six-1931, The Beast of the City-1932, Red Dust-1932, Red-Headed Woman-1932, Scarface-1932, Three Wise Girls-1932, Bombshell-1933, Dinner at Eight-1933, Hold Your Man-1933,

9. Claudette Colbert

Actress | It Happened One Night

One of the brightest film stars to grace the screen was born Emilie Claudette Chauchoin on September 13, 1903, in Saint Mandé, France where her father owned a bakery at 57, rue de la République (now Avenue Général de Gaulle). The family moved to the United States when she was three. As Claudette ...

Pre-codes Seen to Date: The Smiling Lieutenant-1931, The Sign of the Cross-1932, Three-Cornered Moon-1933, Torch Singer-1933, Cleopatra-1934, Four Frightened People-1934, It Happened One Night-1934

10. Ginger Rogers

Actress | The Major and the Minor

Ginger Rogers was born Virginia Katherine McMath in Independence, Missouri on July 16, 1911. Her mother, known as Lelee, went to Independence to have Ginger away from her husband. She had a baby earlier in their marriage and he allowed the doctor to use forceps and the baby died. She was kidnapped ...

Pre-codes Seen to Date: The Thirteenth Guest-1932, 42nd Street-1933, Flying Down to Rio-1933, Gold Diggers of 1933, Professional Sweetheart-1933, A Shriek in the Night-1933, The Gay Divorcee-1934,

11. Miriam Hopkins

Actress | The Heiress

Born into wealth in Savannah,Georgia on October 18, 1902, Ellen Miriam Hopkins was able to attend the finest educational institutions including Goddard Seminary in Plainfield, Vermont and Syracuse University in New York State. Studying dance in New York , she received her first taste of show ...

Pre-codes Seen to Date: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde-1931, The Smiling Lieutenant-1931, Trouble in Paradise-1932, Design for Living-1933, The Story of Temple Drake-1933,

12. Loretta Young

Actress | The Farmer's Daughter

Sweet, sweeter, sweetest. No combination of terms better describes the screen persona of lovely Loretta Young. A&E's Biography (1987) has stated that Young "remains a symbol of beauty, serenity, and grace. But behind the glamour and stardom is a woman of substance whose true beauty lies in her ...

Pre-codes Seen to Date: Big Business Girl-1931, Platinum Blonde-1931, The Hatchet Man-1932, Taxi!-1932, They Call It Sin-1932, Week-End Marriage-1932, Employees Entrance-1933, Grand Slam-1933, Heroes for Sale-1933, Life of Jimmy Dolan-1933, A Man's Castle-1933, Midnight Mary-1933, She Had to Say Yes-1933, Born to be Bad-1934, The House of Rothschild-1934

13. Marie Dressler

Actress | Min and Bill

Once you saw her, you would not forget her. Despite her age and weight, she became one of the top box office draws of the sound era. She was 14 when she joined a theater group and she went on to work on stage and in light opera. By 1892, she was on Broadway and she later became a star comedienne on...

Pre-codes Seen to Date: Anna Christie-1930, Politics-1931, Dinner at Eight-1933, Tugboat Annie-1933,

14. Fay Wray

Actress | King Kong

Canadian-born Fay Wray was brought up in Los Angeles and entered films at an early age. She was barely in her teens when she started working as an extra. She began her career as a heroine in westerns at Universal during the silent era. In 1926 the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers ...

Pre-codes Seen to Date: Dirigible-1931, The Finger Points-1931, The Unholy Garden-1931, Doctor X-1932, The Most Dangerous Game-1932, Ann Carver's Profession-1933, King Kong-1933, Mystery of the Wax Museum-1933, One Sunday Afternoon-1933, The Vampire Bat-1933, Black Moon-1934, Viva Villa-1934,

15. Myrna Loy

Actress | The Best Years of Our Lives

Myrna Loy was born Myrna Adele Williams on August 2, 1905 in Helena, Montana, to Adelle Mae (Johnson) and David Franklin Williams. Her paternal grandparents were Welsh, and her mother was of Scottish and Swedish descent. Myrna was raised in Helena and nearby Radersburg. Her father, a rancher, was ...

Pre-codes Seen to Date: Arrowsmith-1931, The Naughty Flirt-1931, The Animal Kingdom-1932, Love Me Tonight-1932, The Mask of Fu Manchu-1932, Thirteen Women-1932, The Wet Parade-1932, Night Flight-1933, Penthouse-1933, The Prizefighter and the Lady-1933, Manhattan Melodrama-1934, Men in White-1934, Stamboul Quest-1934

16. Dorothy Mackaill

Actress | Bulldog Drummond at Bay

Dorothy Mackaill was 11 when her parents separated; she then lived with her father. A rebellious teenager, Dorothy -- who had long wanted a career in the theater -- ran away to London and finally persuaded her father to pay for her board and lessons. Her first job was in the chorus; she then ...

Pre-codes Seen to Date: Kept Husbands-1931, The Reckless Hour-1931, Safe in Hell-1931

17. Carole Lombard

Actress | My Man Godfrey

Carole Lombard was born Jane Alice Peters in Fort Wayne, Indiana, on October 6, 1908. Her parents divorced in 1916 and her mother took the family on a trip out West. While there they decided to settle down in the Los Angeles area. After being spotted playing baseball in the street with the ...

Pre-codes Seen to Date: No Man of Her Own-1932, Twentieth Century-1934,

18. Mae Clarke

Actress | Frankenstein

Vivacious, blonde Mae Clarke was exposed to cinema from an early age, her father being an organist in a motion picture theatre. Growing up in Atlantic City, New Jersey, she learned how to dance and, at the tender age of 13, was already performing in nightclubs and amateur theatricals. In 1924 she ...

Pre-codes Seen to Date: Frankenstein-1931, The Front Page-1931, The Public Enemy-1931, Waterloo Bridge-1931, Penguin Pool Murder-1932, Three Wise Girls-1932, Fast Workers-1933, Lady Killer-1933, Parole Girl-1933, Penthouse-1933, Turn Back the Clock-1933, The Man With Two Faces-1934, This Side of Heaven-1934

19. Ann Harding

Actress | Holiday

Ann, born Dorothy Gatley, spent most of her childhood as an "army brat" constantly moving around before the family finally settled in New York. Ann first appeared on the stage while she spent a year attending Bryn Mawr College. She became a clerk and freelance script reader with a film company ...

Pre-codes Seen to Date: The Animal Kingdom-1932, The Conquerors-1932, Prestige-1932, Westward Passage-1932, Double Harness-1933, The Right to Romance-1933, The Life of Vergie Winters-1934

20. Constance Bennett

Actress | Topper

Independent, outspoken Constance Bennett, the first of the Bennett sisters to enter films, appeared in New York-produced silents before a chance meeting with Samuel Goldwyn led to her Hollywood debut in Cytherea (1924). She abandoned a burgeoning career in silents for marriage to Philip Plant in ...

Pre-codes Seen to Date: Son of the Gods-1930, The Common Law-1931, The Easiest Way-1931, Bed of Roses-1932, Rockabye-1932, What Price Hollywood?-1932, Our Betters-1933

21. Bette Davis

Actress | All About Eve

Ruth Elizabeth Davis was born April 5, 1908, in Lowell, Massachusetts, to Ruth Augusta (Favor) and Harlow Morrell Davis, a patent attorney. Her parents divorced when she was 10. She and her sister were raised by their mother. Her early interest was dance. To Bette, dancers led a glamorous life, but...

Pre-codes Seen to Date: Waterloo Bridge-1931, 20,000 Years in Sing Sing-1932, The Dark Horse-1932, The Man Who Played God-1932, The Rich Are Always With Us-1932, So Big!-1932, Three on a Match-1932, Bureau of Missing Persons-1933, Parachute Jumper-1933, Working Man-1933, The Big Shakedown-1934, Fog Over Frisco-1934, Jimmy The Gent-1934, Of Human Bondage-1934

22. Marian Marsh

Actress | Svengali

One of the early sound era's most attractive young leading ladies, doll-faced Marian Marsh enjoyed a short yet significant film career as the star of several memorable 1930s melodramas opposite some of the cinema's best, most charismatic lead actors. Her youthful, wide-eyed innocence combined with ...

Pre-codes Seen to Date: Hell's Angels-1930, Five Star Final-1931, Svengali-1931, Under 18-1931, Beauty and the Boss-1932,

23. Ann Dvorak

Actress | Scarface

Ann Dvorak was the daughter of silent film star Anna Lehr and silents director Edwin McKim. She entered films at the start of sound, as a dance instructor for the lavish MGM musicals. She came to international prominence in Scarface (1932) with Paul Muni, but often complained about the lack of ...

Pre-codes Seen to Date: Crooner-1932, The Crowd Roars-1932, Love is a Racket-1932, Scarface-1932, Three on a Match-1932, College Coach-1933, Heat Lightning-1934, Massacre-1934, Side Streets-1934

24. Nancy Carroll

Actress | There Goes My Heart

Nancy Carroll made her film debut in 1927 after several years on the musical stage and later and Broadway. She became very popular upon the advent of sound because of her musical background. This red-haired, cupid-bow-mouthed star entertained movie audiences during the 1930s mouthed star gained a ...

Pre-codes Seen to Date: Laughter-1930, Hot Saturday-1932,

25. Thelma Todd

Actress | Horse Feathers

Thelma Todd was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, an industrial city near the New Hampshire state line. She was a lovely child with good academic tendencies, so much so that she decided early on to become a schoolteacher. After high school she went on to college but at her mother's insistence ...

Pre-codes Seen to Date: The Maltese Facon-1931, Call Her Savage-1932, This is the Night-1932, Counsellor at Law-1933, Mary Stevens M.D.-1933, (Shorts: High C's-1930, The King-1930, Whispering Whoopee-1930, Catch as Catch Can-1931, Love Fever-1931, The Pip from Pittsburgh-1931, Rough Seas-1931, Asleep in the Feet-1933, Backs to Nature-1933, The Bargain of the Century-1933, Maid in Hollywood-1934)

26. Mae West

Actress | I'm No Angel

Mae West was born in Queens, New York, to "Battling Jack" West and Matilda Doelger. She began her career as a child star in vaudeville, and later went on to write her own plays, including "SEX", for which she was arrested. Though her first movie role was a small part in Night After Night (1932), ...

Pre-codes Seen to Date: I'm No Angel-1933, She Done Him Wrong-1933,

27. Jeanette MacDonald

Soundtrack | Cairo

She was the third daughter of Daniel and Anne MacDonald, younger sister to Blossom (MGM's character actress Marie Blake), whom she followed to New York and a chorus job in 1920. She was busy in a string of musical productions. In 1928 Paramount tested and rejected her, but a year later Ernst ...

Pre-codes Seen to Date: The Love Parade-1929, Monte Carlo-1930, Love Me Tonight-1932, One Hour with You-1932, The Cat and The Fiddle-1934

28. Aline MacMahon

Actress | Kind Lady

Aline MacMahon was born of Irish/Russian ancestry on May 3 1899, the daughter of William Marcus MacMahon and Jennie Simon MacMahon. Her father went on to become editor-in-chief of Munsey's Magazine, while her mother pursued a theatrical acting career from middle-age and lived to the ripe old age of...

Pre-codes Seen to Date: Five Star Final-1931, The Mouthpiece-1932, One Way Passage-1932, Silver Dollar-1932, Week-End Marriage-1932, Gold Diggers of 1933-1933, Heroes for Sale-1933, The Life of Jimmy Dolan-1933, The World Changes-1933, Heat Lightning-1934, Side Streets-1934

29. Glenda Farrell

Actress | Mystery of the Wax Museum

Glenda Farrell began as the archetypal wisecracking blonde in 1930s gangland films like Little Caesar (1931) and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932). Diminutive, grey-eyed and undeniably sassy, she was a seasoned performer long before Warner Brothers snapped her up as a contract player in 1929...

Pre-codes Seen to Date: Little Caesar-1931, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang-1932, The Match King-1932, Three on a Match-1932, Bureau of Missing Persons-1933, Grand Slam-1933, The Keyhole-1933, Lady for a Day-1933, A Man's Castle-1933, Mary Stevens M.D.-1933, Mystery of the Wax Museum-1933, The Big Shakedown-1934, Heat Lightning-1934,

30. Sylvia Sidney

Actress | Beetlejuice

Sylvia Sidney was born in New York City, in the Bronx borough, on August 8, 1910 with the birth name of Sophia Kosow. Her father was Russian born and her mother was born in Romania. They divorced not long after her birth. Her mother subsequently remarried and Sylvia was adopted by her stepfather, ...

Pre-codes Seen to Date: City Streets-1931, Street Scene-1931, Merrily We go to Hell-1932,

31. Irene Dunne

Actress | The Awful Truth

Irene Marie Dunne was born on December 20, 1898, in Louisville, Kentucky. She was the daughter of Joseph Dunne, who inspected steamships, and Adelaide Henry, a musician who prompted Irene in the arts. Her first production was in Louisville when she appeared in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the age...

Pre-codes Seen to Date: Cimarron-1931, The Great Lover-1931, Symphony of Six Million-1932, Thirteen Women-1932, Ann Vickers-1933, No Other Woman-1933,

32. Maureen O'Sullivan

Actress | Hannah and Her Sisters

Maureen Paula O'Sullivan was born on May 17, 1911 in County Roscommon, Ireland, to Evangeline "Mary Eva" Lovatt (Frazer) and Charles Joseph O'Sullivan, an officer in the Connaught Rangers. She was of Irish, English, and Scottish descent. The future mother of Mia Farrow was educated in private ...

Pre-codes Seen to Date: The Big Shot-1931, Payment Deferred-1932, Skyscraper Souls-1932, Strange Interlude-1932, Tarzan the Ape Man-1932, Tarzan and His Mate-1932, Stage Mother-1933, Tugboat Annie-1933, Hide-Out-1934, The Thin Man-1934,

33. Helen Twelvetrees

Actress | Millie

Helen Twelvetrees was born Helen Marie Jurgens in Brooklyn, New York on December 25, 1908. Her interest in the theatricals was apparent at an early age. After graduating from high school. Helen embarked on a stage career. She participated in a number of plays in New York City, but gravitated toward...

Pre-codes Seen to Date: Millie-1931, Young Bride-1932, Disgraced-1933

34. Greta Garbo

Actress | Ninotchka

Greta Garbo was born Greta Lovisa Gustafsson on September 18, 1905, in Stockholm, Sweden, to Anna Lovisa (Johansdotter), who worked at a jam factory, and Karl Alfred Gustafsson, a laborer. She was fourteen when her father died, which left the family destitute. Greta was forced to leave school and ...

Pre-codes Seen to Date: Anna Christie-1930, Mata Hari-1931, Grand Hotel-1932, Queen Christina-1933,

35. Frances Dee

Actress | I Walked with a Zombie

Dee was born in Los Angeles, where her Army officer father was stationed, and grew up in Chicago after her father was transferred there. In 1929, he was re-assigned to L.A., and, as a lark, the 19 year old Dee began working in motion pictures as an extra. Her debut was in Words and Music (1929) ...

Monte Carlo-1930, Headline Shooter-1933, One Man's Journey-1933, Little Women-1933, Blood Money-1933, Of Human Bondage-1934

36. Marion Davies

Actress | Going Hollywood

Marion Cecelia Douras was born in the borough of Brooklyn, New York on January 3, 1897. She had been bitten by the show biz bug early as she watched her sisters perform in local stage productions. She wanted to do the same. As Marion got older, she tried out for various school plays and did fairly ...

Pre-codes Seen to Date: The Bachelor Father-1931, Five and Ten-1931, Blondie of the Follies-1932, Polly of the Circus-1932, Going Hollywood-1933, Peg O' My Heart-1933,

37. Clara Bow

Actress | Wings

Clara Gordon Bow, destined to become "The It Girl", was born on July 29, 1905 in Brooklyn, New York, and was raised in poverty and violence. Her often absentee and brutish father could not or did not provide and her schizophrenic mother tried to slit Clara's throat when the girl spoke of becoming ...

Pre-codes Seen to Date: Call Her Savage-1932

38. Bebe Daniels

Actress | The Maltese Falcon

Bebe Daniels already had toured as an actor by the age of four in a stage production of "Richard III". She had her first leading role at the age of seven and started her film career shortly after this in movies for Imperial, Pathe and others. At 14 she was already a film veteran, and was enlisted ...

Pre-codes Seen to Date: The Maltese Facon-1931, Silver Dollar-1932, 42nd Street-1933, Counsellor at Law-1933

39. Helen Hayes

Actress | Airport

Known as "The First lady of the American Theater", Helen Hayes had a legendary career on stage and in films and television that spanned over eighty years. Hayes was born in Washington, D.C., to Catherine Estelle "Essie" Hayes, an actress who worked in touring companies, and Francis van Arnum Brown,...

Pre-codes Seen to Date: Arrowsmith-1931, The Sins of Madelon Claudet-1931, Farewell To Arms-1932, Another Language-1933, Night Flight-1933

40. Alice White

Actress | Broadway Babies

This Hollywood High graduate began her career as a secretary and script girl, working for Josef von Sternberg and Charles Chaplin. A sexy and bubbly player, she was repeatedly miscast as a singer-dancer. She toured the vaudeville circuit after her career spluttered, returning to Hollywood only to ...

Pre-codes Seen to Date: Show Girl In Hollywood-1930, The Naughty Flirt-1931, Employees Entrance-1933, Picture Snatcher-1933, Jimmy The Gent-1934

41. Genevieve Tobin

Actress | The Petrified Forest

The daughter of a stage entertainer, New York-born actress Genevieve Tobin started treading the boards as a child and appeared in the role of Little Eva in the silent short Uncle Tom's Cabin (1910). Her older brother George Tobin and younger sister Vivian Tobin also became stage and film actors. By...

Pre-codes Seen to Date: One Hour With You-1932, I Loved a Woman-1933, Easy To Love-1934, Success at Any Price-1934,

42. Mary Astor

Actress | The Maltese Falcon

Mary Astor was born, Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke, on May 3, 1906 in Quincy, Illinois to a German immigrant father, Otto Ludwig Langhanke, and an American mother from Illinois, Helen Marie Vasconcellos, of Portuguese and Irish ancestry. Her parents were very ambitious for her as they recognized ...

The Runaway Bride-1930, Other Men's Women-1931, Smart Woman-1931, Red Dust-1932, The Kennel Murder Case-1933, The World Changes-1933, Easy to Love-1934, The Man with Two Faces-1934

43. Leila Hyams

Actress | Freaks

Leila Hyams was one of the top leading ladies of the early talkie pre-code years. She was a likable, pleasing actress with a charming presence. She had much spark, personality and charisma, and a touch of down-to-earthiness and naturalness that won over movie fans; they could relate to her. A ...

The Big House-1930, Men Call it Love-1931, The Phantom of Paris-1931, Freaks-1932, Island of Lost Souls-1932, Red-Headed Woman-1932,

44. Una Merkel

Actress | Private Lives

Una Merkel began her movie career as stand-in for Lillian Gish in the movie The Wind (1928). After that, she performed on Broadway before she returned to movies for the D.W. Griffith film Abraham Lincoln (1930). In her early years, before gaining a few pounds, she looked like Lillian Gish, but ...

45. Margaret Lindsay

Actress | Scarlet Street

Picture-pretty brunette Margaret Lindsay was one of a number of pleasant, sweet-natured ingénues who could do no wrong in a score of 1930s stylish Hollywood pictures. Such altruistic love interests were often overlooked in pictures that were carried by the flashy histrionics of a jaunty James Cagney...

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