Deanna Durbin

Edna Mae Durbin (December 4, 1921 – April 17, 2013),[1] known professionally as Deanna Durbin, was a Canadian-born actress and singer, later settled in France, who appeared in musical films in the 1930s and 1940s. With the technical skill and vocal range of a legitimate lyric soprano, she performed many styles from popular standards to operatic arias.

Deanna Durbin
Deanna Durbin on the cover of Yank, in January 1945
Edna Mae Durbin

(1921-12-04)December 4, 1921
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
DiedApril 17, 2013 (aged 91)[1]
Years active1936–1948
Spouse(s)Vaughn Paul (m. 1941; div. 1943)
Felix Jackson (m. 1945; div. 1949)
Charles Henri David (m. 1950; his death 1999)

Durbin made her first film appearance with Judy Garland in Every Sunday (1936), and subsequently signed a contract with Universal Studios. Her success as the ideal teenaged daughter in films such as Three Smart Girls (1936) was credited with saving the studio from bankruptcy.[2] In 1938, at the age of 17, Durbin was awarded the Academy Juvenile Award.

As she matured, Durbin grew dissatisfied with the girl-next-door roles assigned to her, and attempted to portray a more womanly and sophisticated style. The film noir Christmas Holiday (1944) and the whodunit Lady on a Train (1945) were, however, not as well received as her musical comedies and romances had been. Durbin retired from acting and singing in 1949, and withdrew from public life, granting no interviews for the remainder of her life, except for one in 1983. She married film producer-director Charles Henri David in 1950, and the couple moved to a farmhouse near Paris.

Early life

Edna Mae Durbin was born on December 4, 1921, at Grace Hospital in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the younger daughter of James Allen Durbin (1885–1976) and his wife Ada (née Read) Durbin (1885–1972), who were originally from Chester, England. She had one older sister, Edith (later Mrs. Heckman, born in England in 1909, died in California in 2010).[3] When she was an infant, her family moved from Winnipeg to Southern California, and her parents became United States citizens in 1923. At the age of one, Edna Mae was singing children's songs. By the time she was 10, her parents recognized that she had definite talent and enrolled her in voice lessons at the Ralph Thomas Academy.[4] Durbin soon became Thomas's prize pupil, and he showcased her talent at various local clubs and churches.[4]

In early 1935, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was planning a biographical film on the life of opera star Ernestine Schumann-Heink and was having difficulty finding an actress to play the young opera singer. MGM casting director Rufus LeMaire heard about a talented young soloist performing with the Ralph Thomas Academy and called her in for an audition. Durbin sang "Il Bacio" for the studio's vocal coach, who was stunned by her "mature soprano" voice. She sang the number again for Louis B. Mayer, who signed her to a six-month contract.[4]


Durbin made her first film appearance in the short Every Sunday (1936) with Judy Garland, another teenager. The film was intended as a demonstration of their talent as performers as studio executives had questioned the wisdom of casting two female singers together. Eventually, Louis B. Mayer decided to sign both, but by then Durbin's contract option had lapsed.[2]

Instead, Durbin was placed under contract by Universal Pictures, where she was given the professional name Deanna. She was 14 years old when she made her first feature-length film, Three Smart Girls (1936). When producer Joe Pasternak cast the film, he wanted to borrow Garland from MGM, but Garland was not available at the time. When Pasternak learned that Durbin was no longer with MGM, he instead cast her in the film. Three Smart Girls was a success and established Durbin as a star. With Pasternak producing for Universal, Durbin starred in a succession of successful musical films, including One Hundred Men and a Girl (1937),[5] Mad About Music (1938), That Certain Age (1938), Three Smart Girls Grow Up (1939), and First Love (1939)—most of which were directed by Henry Koster.[6]

During the 1930s, Durbin continued to pursue singing projects. In 1936, she auditioned to provide the vocals for Snow White in Disney's animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but was rejected by Walt Disney, who said the 15-year-old Durbin's voice was "too old" for the part.[7]

In late 1936, Cesar Sturani, the general music secretary of the Metropolitan Opera, offered Durbin an audition. She turned down his request because she felt she needed more singing lessons. Andrés de Segurola, who was the vocal coach working with Universal Studios—himself a former Metropolitan Opera singer—believed that Durbin was a potential opera star. De Segurola was commissioned to advise the Metropolitan Opera on her progress. Also in 1936, Durbin began a radio collaboration with Eddie Cantor which lasted until 1938, when her heavy workload for Universal forced her to quit her weekly appearances.[8]

The success of Durbin's films was reported to have saved Universal from bankruptcy.[2] In 1938, she received an Academy Juvenile Award with Mickey Rooney. Producer Joe Pasternak said:

Deanna's genius had to be unfolded, but it was hers and hers alone, always has been, always will be, and no one can take credit for discovering her. You can't hide that kind of light under a bushel. You just can't, no matter how hard you try!

In the early 1940s, Durbin continued her success with It's a Date (1940), Spring Parade (1940), Nice Girl? (1941), and It Started with Eve (1941), her last film with Pasternak and director Henry Koster. After Pasternak moved from Universal to MGM, Durbin was suspended between October 16, 1941 and early February 1942 for refusing to appear in They Lived Alone, which was scheduled to be directed by Koster. The project was canceled when Durbin and Universal settled their differences. In the agreement, Universal conceded to Durbin the approval of her directors, stories, and songs.[9]

Following the two sequels to her first film Three Smart Girls, Durbin issued a press release announcing that she was no longer inclined to participate in these team efforts and was performing as a solo artist. The Three Smart Girls Join Up title was changed to Hers to Hold (1943). Joseph Cotten, who played alongside Durbin in the film, praised her integrity and character in his autobiography.[10]

Durbin took on a more sophisticated role in The Amazing Mrs. Holliday (1943), the World War II story of refugee children from China. Additional adult roles followed, including the film noir Christmas Holiday (1944), directed by Robert Siodmak, and the whodunit Lady on a Train (1945).

While these adult dramatic roles may have been more satisfying for Durbin, her fans preferred her in light musical confections such as Can't Help Singing (1944), her only Technicolor film, which featured some of the last melodies written by Jerome Kern plus lyrics by E.Y. Harburg. A musical comedy in a Western setting, this production was filmed mostly on location in southern Utah and co-starred Robert Paige.[11]

In 1946, Universal merged with two other companies to create Universal-International. The new regime discontinued much of Universal's familiar product and scheduled only a few musicals. Durbin stayed for another four pictures: I'll Be Yours (1947), Something in the Wind (1947), Up in Central Park (1948), and For the Love of Mary (1948).

In 1946, Durbin was the second-highest paid woman in the United States, just behind Bette Davis,[6] and in 1947, she was the top-salaried woman in the United States. Her fan club ranked as the world's largest during her active years.[12]

By 1948, however, her box-office clout began to diminish. In private life, Durbin continued to use her given name, Edna; salary figures printed annually by the Hollywood trade publications listed the actress as "Edna Mae Durbin, player". On August 22, 1948, two months after completing her final film, Universal-International announced a lawsuit which sought to collect from Durbin $87,083 in wages the studio had paid her in advance.[13] Durbin settled the complaint by agreeing to star in three more pictures, including one in Paris. The studio allowed Deanna's contract to expire on August 31, 1949, and the three films never were made.

Durbin, who obtained a $200,000 ($2,100,000 in 2018) [14] severance payment[15], chose to retire from movies. Her former producer Joe Pasternak tried to dissuade her, but she told him: "I can't run around being a Little Miss Fix-It who bursts into song—the highest-paid star with the poorest material."[16]

Durbin turned down a Broadway role as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady because, as she later said, "I had my ticket for Paris in my pocket." [17]

Personal life

At some point, Durbin became an American citizen,[18] although it is unknown if her sister ever elected to claim citizenship.

Durbin married assistant director Vaughn Paul in 1941; the couple divorced in 1943. Her second marriage to film writer-producer-actor Felix Jackson in 1945 produced a daughter, Jessica Louise Jackson, but a divorce followed in 1949.

In Paris on December 21, 1950, shortly after her 29th birthday, Durbin married Charles David, the producer-director of both French and American pictures who had guided her through Lady on a Train. Durbin and David raised two children: Jessica (from her second marriage to Jackson) and Peter (from her union with David).

Over the years, Durbin resisted numerous offers to perform again. In 1951, she was invited to play in London's West End production of Kiss Me Kate, and in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film version of the same in 1953, and Sigmund Romberg's operetta The Student Prince in 1954.

In 1983, film historian David Shipman was granted a rare interview by Durbin. In the interview, she steadfastly asserted her right to privacy and maintained it until the end of her life, declining to be profiled on websites.[19]

Durbin made it known that she did not like the Hollywood studio system. She emphasized that she never identified herself with the public image that the media created around her. She spoke of the Deanna "persona" in the third person, and considered the film character "Deanna Durbin" to be a byproduct of her youth and not her true identity.[20]

Durbin's husband of almost 50 years, Charles David, died in Paris on March 1, 1999. On April 30, 2013, a newsletter published by the Deanna Durbin Society reported that Durbin had died "in the past few days", quoting her son, Peter H. David, who thanked her admirers for respecting her privacy. No other details were given.[6] According to the Social Security Death Index (under the name Edna M. David), she died on April 17, 2013[1][21] in Neauphle-le-Château, France.[22][23]


Deanna Durbin has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1722 Vine Street. She left her hand and footprints in front of the Grauman's Chinese Theatre on February 7, 1938.

Frank Tashlin's Warner Bros. cartoon The Woods Are Full of Cuckoos (1937) contains a turtle caricature of Deanna Durbin called "Deanna Terrapin".

An unnamed caricature of Durbin also appeared in the Warner Brother's cartoon "Malibu Beach Party" (1940).

Deanna Durbin's singing is featured in Alistair Maclean's 1955 novel HMS Ulysses, being broadcast over the wartime ship's internal communication system.

Durbin's name found its way into the introduction to a song written by satirical writer Tom Lehrer in 1965. Prior to singing "Whatever Became of Hubert?", Lehrer said that Vice President Hubert Humphrey had been relegated to "those where-are-they-now columns: Whatever became of Deanna Durbin, and Hubert Humphrey, and so on."

She is referenced in Richard Brautigan's novel Trout Fishing in America (1967), when the narrator claims to have seen one of her movies seven times, but cannot recall which one.[24]

She is also referenced in the WWII novelty song "Peggy the Pin-up Girl". Interestingly, the lyrics pair her name with her first co-star Judy Garland: "Even a voice that's so disturbin' / Like Judy Garland or Miss Durbin / Can't compare to my pin-up queen".

Durbin figures prominently in the 1963 Ray Bradbury short story "The Anthem Sprinters" (collected in The Machineries of Joy).

In Philippe Mora's film The Return of Captain Invincible (1983), Christopher Lee sings a song called "Name Your Poison," written by Richard O'Brien and Richard Hartley, which has the line, "Think of young Deanna Durbin / And how she sang on rum and bourbon."

Russian cellist/conductor Mstislav Rostropovich in a mid-1980s interview cited Durbin as one of his most important musical influences, stating: "She helped me in my discovery of myself. You have no idea of the smelly old movie houses I patronized to see Deanna Durbin. I tried to create the very best in my music, to try to recreate, to approach her purity."[25]

Indian-Bengali film director Satyajit Ray, in his acceptance speech for an Oscar (Honorary – Lifetime Achievement) in 1992, mentioned Deanna Durbin as the only one of the three cinema personalities he recalled writing to when young who had acknowledged his fan letter with a reply. (The other two were Ginger Rogers and Billy Wilder.)

Durbin was well known in Winnipeg, Manitoba (her place of birth), as "Winnipeg's Golden Girl" (a reference to one of the city's most famous landmarks, the statue Golden Boy atop the Manitoba Legislative Building).

There is a short mention in a horse-racing episode of Mama's Family.

On June 25, 2019, The New York Times Magazine listed Deanna Durbin among hundreds of artists whose material was reportedly destroyed in the 2008 Universal Studios fire.[26]


Short subjects
Year Title Role Notes
1936 Every Sunday Edna Co-starring Judy Garland
1939 For Auld Lang Syne: No. 4 Herself
1941 A Friend Indeed Herself For the American Red Cross
1943 Show Business at War Herself
1944 Road to Victory Herself A promotional film to support war bonds; also known as The Shining Future
Feature films
Year Title Role Notes
1936 Three Smart Girls Penelope "Penny" Craig Produced by Joe Pasternak, directed by Henry Koster
1937 One Hundred Men and a Girl Patricia "Patsy" Cardwell Produced by Joe Pasternak, directed by Henry Koster
1938 Mad About Music Gloria Harkinson Produced by Joe Pasternak, directed by Norman Taurog
That Certain Age Alice Fullerton Produced by Joe Pasternak, directed by Edward Ludwig
1939 Three Smart Girls Grow Up Penelope "Penny" Craig Produced by Joe Pasternak, directed by Henry Koster
First Love Constance "Connie" Harding Produced by Joe Pasternak, directed by Henry Koster
1940 It's a Date Pamela Drake Produced by Joe Pasternak, directed by William A. Seiter
A short subject, Gems of Song, was excerpted from this feature in 1949.
Spring Parade Ilonka Tolnay Produced by Joe Pasternak, directed by Henry Koster
1941 Nice Girl? Jane "Pinky" Dana Produced by Joe Pasternak, directed by William A. Seiter
It Started with Eve Anne Terry Produced by Joe Pasternak, directed by Henry Koster
1943 The Amazing Mrs. Holliday Ruth Kirke Holliday Produced and directed by Bruce Manning (replacing Jean Renoir)
Hers to Hold Penelope "Penny" Craig Produced by Felix Jackson, directed by Frank Ryan
His Butler's Sister Ann Carter Produced by Felix Jackson, directed by Frank Borzage
1944 Christmas Holiday Jackie Lamont / Abigail Martin Produced by Felix Jackson, directed by Robert Siodmak
Can't Help Singing Caroline Frost Produced by Felix Jackson, directed by Frank Ryan
Durbin's only film in Technicolor
1945 Lady on a Train Nikki Collins / Margo Martin Produced by Felix Jackson, directed by Charles David
1946 Because of Him Kim Walker Produced by Felix Jackson, directed by Richard Wallace
1947 I'll Be Yours Louise Ginglebusher Produced by Felix Jackson, directed by William A Seiter
Something in the Wind Mary Collins Produced by Joseph Sistrom, directed by Irving Pichel
1948 Up in Central Park Rosie Moore Produced by Karl Tunberg, directed by William A. Seiter
For the Love of Mary Mary Peppertree (final film role) Produced by Robert Arthur directed by Frederick de Cordova


Between December 15, 1936 and July 22, 1947, Deanna Durbin recorded 50 tunes for Decca Records. While often re-creating her movie songs for commercial release, Durbin also covered independent standards, like "Kiss Me Again", "My Hero", "Annie Laurie", "Poor Butterfly", "Love's Old Sweet Song" and "God Bless America".

  • "Alice Blue Gown"
  • "Alleluia" (from 100 Men and a Girl)
  • "Always" (from Christmas Holiday)
  • "Adeste Fideles"
  • "Amapola" (from First Love)
  • "Annie Laurie"
  • "Any Moment Now" (from Can't Help Singing)
  • "Ave Maria" (from Mad About Music)
  • "Ave Maria" (from It's a Date)
  • "Be a Good Scout" (from That Certain Age)
  • "Because" (from Three Smart Girls Grow Up)
  • "Begin the Beguine" (from Hers to Hold)
  • "Beneath the Lights of Home" (from Nice Girl)
  • "The Blue Danube" (from Spring Parade)
  • "Brahms' Lullaby" (from I'll Be Yours)
  • "Brindisi" ("Libiamo ne' lieti calici)" (from 100 Men and a Girl)
  • "Californ-I-Ay"
  • "Can't Help Singing" (from Can't Help Singing)
  • "Carmena Waltz"
  • "Chapel Bells" (from Mad About Music)
  • "Cielito Lindo" ("Beautiful Heaven)"
  • "Ciribiribin"
  • "Clavelitos" (from It Started with Eve)
  • "Danny Boy" (from Because of Him)
  • "Embraceable You"
  • "Every Sunday" (with Judy Garland)
  • "Filles de Cadiz" ("The Maids of Cadiz") (from That Certain Age)
  • "Gimme a Little Kiss, Will Ya, Huh?" (from Lady on a Train)
  • "God Bless America"
  • "Goin' Home" (from It Started With Eve)
  • "Goodbye" (from Because of Him)
  • "Granada" (from I'll Be Yours)
  • "A Heart That's Free" (from 100 Men and a Girl)
  • "Home! Sweet Home!" (from First Love)
  • "Il Bacio" ("The Kiss") (from Three Smart Girls)
  • "I'll Follow My Sweet Heart"
  • "I'll Take You Home Again Kathleen" (from For the Love of Mary)
  • "I'll See You In My Dreams"
  • "I Love to Whistle" (from Mad About Music)
  • "(I'm) Happy Go Lucky and Free" (from Something in the Wind)
  • "(I'm) Happy Go Lucky and Free" (from Something in the Wind)
  • "In the Spirit of the Moment" (from His Butler's Sister)
  • "Italian Street Song"
  • "It's a Big, Wide, Wonderful World" (from For the Love Of Mary)
  • "It's Dreamtime" (from I'll Be Yours)
  • "It's Foolish But It's Fun" (from Spring Parade)
  • "It's Only Love" (from Something In The Wind)
  • "It's Raining Sunbeams" (from 100 Men and a Girl)
  • "Invitation to the Dance" (from Three Smart Girls Grow Up)
  • "Je Veux Vivre" ( Roméo et Juliette) (from That Certain Age)
  • "Kiss Me Again"
  • "La Estrellita" ("Little Star)"
  • "Largo Al Factotum" (The Barber of Seville) (from For the Love of Mary)
  • "The Last Rose of Summer" (from Three Smart Girls Grow Up)
  • "Loch Lomond" (from It's a Date)
  • "Love at Last" (from Nice Girl)
  • "Love is All" (from It's a Date)
  • "Lover" (from Because of Him)
  • "Love's Old Sweet Song"
  • "Make Believe"
  • "Mighty Like a Rose" (from "The Amazing Mrs. Halliday")
  • "Molly Malone"
  • "More and More" (from Can't Help Singing)
  • "More and More/Can't Help Singing" (from Can`t Help Singing)
  • "Musetta's Waltz" (La bohème) (from It's a Date)
  • "My Heart is Singing" (from Three Smart Girls Grow Up)
  • "My Hero"
  • "My Own" (from That Certain Age)
  • "Nessun Dorma" (Turandot) (from His Butler's Sister)
  • "Never in a Million Years/ Make Believe"
  • "Night and Day" (from Lady on a Train)
  • "O Come All Ye Faithful"
  • "Old Folks at Home" (from Nice Girl)
  • "The Old Refrain" (from The Amazing Mrs. Holiday)
  • "On Moonlight Bay" (from For The Love Of Mary)
  • "One Fine Day" (Madama Butterfly) (from First Love)
  • "One Night of Love"
  • "Pace, Pace, Mio Dio" (La forza del destino) (from Up In Central Park)
  • "Pale Hands I Loved" (Kashmiri Song) (from Hers to Hold)
  • "Perhaps" (from Nice Girl)
  • "Poor Butterfly"
  • "The Prince"
  • "Russian Medley" (from His Butler's Sister)
  • "Sari Waltz (Love's Own Sweet Song)" (from I'll Be Yours)
  • "Say a Pray'r for the Boys Over There" (from Hers to Hold)
  • "Seal It With a Kiss"
  • "Seguidilla (Carmen) (from Hers to Hold)
  • "Serenade to the Stars" (from Mad About Music)
  • "Silent Night" (from Lady on a Train)
  • "Someone to Care for Me" (from Three Smart Girls)
  • "Something in the Wind" (from Something in the Wind)
  • "Spring in My Heart" (from First Love)
  • "Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year" (from Christmas Holiday)
  • "Swanee – Old Folks at Home" (from Nice Girl)
  • "Summertime" (Porgy And Bess)
  • "Sweetheart"
  • "Thank You America" (from Nice Girl)
  • "There'll Always Be An England" (from Nice Girl)
  • "The Turntable Song" (from Something in the Wind)
  • "Two Guitars" (from His Butler's Sister)
  • "Two Hearts"
  • "Un bel di vedremo" (Madama Butterfly) (from First Love)
  • "Viennese Waltz" (from For The Love Of Mary)
  • "Vissi d'arte (Tosca) (from The Amazing Mrs. Holiday)
  • "Waltzing in the Clouds" (from Spring Parade)
  • "When April Sings" (from Spring Parade)
  • "When I Sing" (from It Started with Eve)
  • "When the Roses Bloom Again"
  • "When You're Away" (from His Butler's Sister)
  • "You Wanna Keep Your Baby Looking Nice, Don't You" (from Something in the Wind)
  • "You're as Pretty as a Picture" (from That Certain Age)

Radio appearances

1943Screen Guild TheatreShadow Of A DoubtRef.
1938Lux Radio TheatreMad About Music[27]
1943The Jack Benny Program
1948Screen Guild PlayersUp in Central Park[28]

See also


  1. Date of death of Edna David per Social Security Death Index,; accessed April 11, 2018.
  2. Clarke, Gerald (2001). Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland. New York: Random House. p. 76. ISBN 978-0385335157.
  4. Basinger, Jeanine (2007). The Star Machine. New York: Knopf. pp. 258–59. ISBN 978-1400041305.
  5. In the film, Jane Barlow, ballerina and a student of Nijinska, was a body double for Durbin. Yoshida, Yukihiko," Jane Barlow and Witaly Osins, ballet teachers who worked in postwar Japan, and their students, Pan-Asian Journal of Sports & Physical Education, Vol.3(Sep), 2012.
  6. Harmetz, Aljean (May 1, 2013). "Deanna Durbin, Plucky Movie Star of the Depression Era, Is Dead at 91". The New York Times. Retrieved May 23, 2014.
  7. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Media notes). Walt Disney. Walt Disney Studios. 2008 [1937].CS1 maint: others (link)
  8. Interview with David Shipman, 1983.
  9. Brady, Thomas F. "Some Hollywood Highlights", New York Times, February 8, 1942.
  10. Cotten, Joseph: Vanity Will Get You Somewhere: An Autobiography by Joseph Cotten (Avon Books (Mm) July 1988); ISBN 978-0-380-70534-4
  11. Bob Dorian, American Movie Classics; accessed March 28, 2014.
  12. Dagan, Carmel (April 30, 2013). "Singer-Actress Deanna Durbin Dead at 91". Variety. Retrieved May 23, 2014.
  13. "Deanna Durbin sues studio". The New York Times. August 23, 1948.
  14. Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. "Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–". Retrieved January 2, 2019.
  15. Brady, Thomas F. (June 19, 1949). "Hollywood Digest". The New York Times.
  16. Freedland, Michael (May 1, 2013). "Deanna Durbin obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved May 23, 2014.
  17. Carmel Dagan (2013-05-01). "Singer-Actress Deanna Durbin Dead at 91". Variety. Retrieved 2019-09-14.
  18. "U.S. Citizenship Restored To 221 Living Overseas". 15 July 1964. Among those regaining their citizenship was Deanna Durbin, the Canadian‐born actress, who has been living in Paris.
  19. "NOSTALGIA: Deanna Durbin" Archived 2011-06-05 at the Wayback Machine, San Francisco Chronicle,; accessed April 19, 2016.
  20. Private letter to film historian/critic William K. Everson in the late 1970s
  21. "DAVID, EDNA A. thru DAVID, EDWARD".
  22. "Deanna Durbin, child star from Hollywood's golden age, dies", Entertainment Weekly, Entertainment Weekly Inc., May 2, 2013, retrieved May 4, 2013
  23. Luther, Claudia (May 2, 2013), "Deanna Durbin dies at 91; wholesome star of Depression-era films", Los Angeles Times, Tribune Company, retrieved May 4, 2013
  24. "Richard Brautigan – "Part 9 of Trout Fishing in America" – poetry archive –".
  25. Darling, Lynn (1983). "The Song of Slava". The Washington Post. Retrieved October 28, 2018.
  26. Rosen, Jody (June 25, 2019). "Here Are Hundreds More Artists Whose Tapes Were Destroyed in the UMG Fire". The New York Times. Retrieved June 28, 2019.
  27. Internet Archive, Old Time Radio, "Lux Radio Theater"1938 #8
  28. "Those Were The Days". Nostalgia Digest. 40 (1): 32–39. Winter 2014.
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