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Probably Buster Keaton's best film, and oddly enough, it's not even a
straightforward comedy it's actually an action film, with clever doses of
romance and comedy tossed in for good measure. `The General', which is set
during the Civil War, is about a train engineer named Johnny Gray (Buster
Keaton, of course) who tries to enlist in the Confederate Army . . . and is
turned down because the army feels he'd be much more valuable for the war
effort as an engineer instead of a soldier. However, through a series of
misunderstandings, both Johnny's family and his girl think he's a coward,
and they refuse to speak to him until he becomes a soldier. Months pass,
and Johnny, sad and alone, is piloting his train the General when it is
stolen from him by the North. Johnny's efforts to recover the General and
to win back his girl's love become an unbelievably funny and action-packed
series of events, as Johnny tries to go from being a sad-sack buffoon to
being a hero.
If you haven't watched many silent films, they demand a greater amount of attention than `normal' film there are no audio cues; and volumes can be spoken with a simple facial expression. Buster Keaton is amazingly expressive, as he's fully capable of going from wildly happy to downtrodden and sad in the blink of an eye. While funny, Keaton is much more than just a clownish figure he manages to evoke a lot of sympathy as well, and he genuinely becomes what can only be described as an action hero as well. His timing, whether for a joke or for a tender moment, is absolutely impeccable.
What's also great about `The General' is the sheer amount of stunts and physical humor a movie like this couldn't be made today. No amount of insurance would cover it. Keaton does all his own stunts, and manages to perform a number of feats that are simultaneously hilarious and dangerous he chases down `The General' with a bike, he sits on a moving cattlecatcher, knocking away railroad ties with a tie of his own. All these stunts are fantastic, but it's scary to think that any one of these probably could've killed Keaton if something even went slightly wrong.
`The General' is a lot more than slapstick. Personally, I think it's one of the first films to push the envelope of movies it goes for action, romance, and humor, and it pulls all of those elements together into a terrific movie. If you've never seen Buster Keaton or, for that matter, a silent film go find this one and watch it. It's a classic. A+
Buster Keaton once said that if he hadn't been a comedian, he might
have been a civil engineer. He was not only a mechanical whiz but a
spatial genius who devised stunts and gags with the grace of pure
physics. It's no wonder he adored trains, the most elegant of machines,
and brought them into his movies whenever he could. When one of
Keaton's former gag-writers loaned him a book recounting the theft of a
locomotive from Georgia by Union raiders during the Civil War, he was
immediately fired with enthusiasm to bring this "page of history" to
life. His first certainty was that the production had to be "so
authentic it hurts." He even insisted on using historically accurate
narrow-gauge railroad tracks, which he found, along with appropriate
landscapes, near the sleepy town of Cottage Grove, Oregon.
Most importantly, the area had stretches of parallel tracks, which allowed scenes of Buster on his trainagilely scrambling over the cars, balancing on the roof to scan the horizon, chopping wood for the engine while armies pass unnoticed behind himto be filmed from another train running alongside. Buster, his train, and the camera are all in motion; the wind whips through Buster's hair while smoky pine-covered hills rise and fall around him. These scenes are not only the highlight of the movie but a peak in the history of *moving* pictures, and they put to shame all later back-projection and process shots, models and computer-generated effects. The quality of Keaton's film-making is simplypun intendedunparalleled. Every shot in The General is clean, fresh and efficiently composed; the action is captured honestly and legibly at all times. The film never tries to be beautiful; its beauty is functional, just like the grave, masculine beauty of the locomotives and railroad bridges and Civil War uniforms.
The General's narrative structure is as strong and uncluttered as its look. Like a train, it stays on track, never meandering for the sake of a laugh or a stunt. All of the gags rise organically from the coherent and straightforward storyline. Adapting the historical incident, Keaton made himself the engineer of the stolen train (Johnnie Gray), rather than one of the raiders. As he saw immediately, The General is one long chase, or rather two chases, structured like the flight of a boomerang. First Johnnie on a borrowed train, the Texas, chases his own stolen train, the General. He manages to steal it back and races it towards his own lines, pursued by the raiders in the Texas, who try to prevent him from carrying their battle plans to his own high command.
The General is not Keaton's funniest film, but here he was going for quality over quantity in laughs. A number of the gags, like the box-car that keeps appearing and disappearing as it switches tracks, have a long build-up for a relatively modest payoff. But the laughter is mingled with a gasp of awe, and the best moments never get stale on repeated viewings. The cannon attached to the back of Buster's train goes off just as the train starts around a curve, so the ball flies straight and hits the raiders' train coming out of the curve. Riding on the cowcatcher, Buster hurls one railroad tie at another lying across the tracks, striking it precisely so that it flips out of the way. A forlorn Buster sits on the crossbar of his train's wheels, so lost in thought he doesn't notice when the train starts to move, carrying him up and down in gentle arcs: stillness in motion.
I agree with author Jim Kline who describes The General as Keaton's most personal film, the one that best captures his unique vision, spirit and personality. In many of his films, Buster starts off as an inept or effete character and develops into a hero. But his competent, ingenious and athletic character in The General, who is also modest, tireless, and underestimated, comes much closer to his real nature. There is a shot in The General of Buster's eye isolated on screen, framed by a hole in a white table-cloth, that has always reminded me of Dziga Vertov's kinoglaz, the "camera-eye." Keaton melds with his camera; there's no distinction between his qualities as a performer and the qualities of his movies. They have the same silence, the same strictness, the same strange blend of gravity and humor.
The General might be the most serious comedy every made, but it's not a tragicomedy. That, as in Chaplin's blending of pathos and low humor, was something people took to immediately. But no one knew what to make of The General. Original reviews accused the film of being dull, pretentious, unoriginal, and unfunny. Even today, people who have heard it acclaimed as one of the greatest movies of all time are sometimes puzzled or disappointed by it on first viewing. The General is challenging because it doesn't flaunt its virtues; like Keaton's concise and economical performance, it holds a great deal in reserve. Take the movie's most famous shot, of a train crashing through a burning bridge, for which Keaton built a real bridge and destroyed a real train. The shot lasts a few seconds in the finished film: he doesn't dwell on it or hype it. Who else in Hollywood would sink money in a spectacular effect and then downplay it? Keaton never forces a response from the audience, never manipulates, never overplays. He doesn't show off his acrobatic skills or his enormous repertoire of comic talents, nor does he play for sympathy. Anything so subtle will always leave some people cold. But for those who can see the expressiveness of Buster's so-called "stone face," who get his peculiar dry humor, who appreciate the rigorous purity and taste he displayed, these virtues are all the more stunning because they are understated. Buster Keaton always has more than he's showing; you can see it in his eyes.
Buster Keaton's "The General," about a man and his engine, puts you in
a world where the most comically inventive situation that could happen
will happen. From major comic situations to throwaway gags, "The
General" always knows what to do.
The story begins in leisurely fashion. A title card tells us that Johnnie Gray (Keaton) has two loves in his life: his engine and his girlrespectively, The General and Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack). Johnnie goes to visit Annabelle, followed by two engineer-worshipping boys and, unknown to him, Annabelle Lee herself. He and his entourage arrive at the door; Johnnie polishes his shoes on the back of his pants legs, slicks back his hair, and gently taps the door with the door knocker. Then he turns to notice Annabelle. Keaton's understated reaction is a testament to his uniqueness. Any other comedian would have done an explosive double-take.
Now Johnnie and Annabelle are together in her parlor, but the boys are there, too. Johnnie stands up, puts on his hat and opens the door as if to leave. The hero-worshippers are ready to follow, but Johnnie lets them out first, then closes the door on them. This is a gentle ruse in the world of silent comedy. At Keystone both boys would have gotten kicked in the pants.
Now the two are alone. Annabelle's father sees them from another room and is about to break things up when her brother enters and announces that Fort Sumter has been fired upon: the War Between the States has begun. Annabelle kisses her father and brother as they go to enlist, then turns expectantly to Johnnie, who cocks his head like a confused puppy. She asks, "Aren't you going to enlist?" Realization hits him, and he leaps off the seat. Before he can run out the door, Annabelle kisses him. This so overwhelms Johnnie that he flings out his arm in a farewell gesture and falls off the porch.
Johnnie races to the general store, which is now a makeshift recruitment office. Taking a shortcut he manages to be the first in line. The door to the office is opened and Johnnie comes marching inonly he and the rest of the line go in two different directions, and he has to jump over several tables to get in front again. He gives the enlistment officer his name and occupation, but the man rejects him. Johnnie is more valuable to the South as an engineer. Later, Annabelle believes that Johnnie didn't even try to enlist. She refuses to speak to him again until he's in uniform. What follows is a classic moment: Johnnie sits on the connecting rod of his engine. He's so miserable that he doesn't notice when he starts moving up and down, until just before the train enters a tunnel.
Time passes and we learn that a group of Unionists are secretly passengers on The General. When (nearly) everyone is off the train having dinner, the Unionists climb back aboard and take the engine. Annabelle, a passenger herself, was still on board. She is now their prisoner.
But Johnnie only knows his beloved General has been stolen, possibly by deserters. He pursues the engine by taking another, The Texas. Through a mishap he becomes the sole person aboard The Texas, but the Unionists think they're outnumbered and continue to run. What follows is the true joy of the movie: two long chases (separated by an important plot twist). Now the movie changes its quiet pace for almost nonstop action.
I love it when the Unionists break off the rail car to hinder The Texas. At one point, the car, which Johnnie thought he had switched to another track, reappears in front of the baffled engineer, only to disappear later just as mysteriously. We see the logical circumstances that lead to the car's seeming magic act, and the equally logical situations that keep Keaton occupied, preventing him from seeing what we see.
Comic logic is important to "The General." In no other movie do hyperbolic slapstick gags seem so plausible and inevitable. In a throwaway gag, Johnnie empties a burlap sack full of shoes because he urgently needs the sack. Of courseof course!he loses his own shoe in the pile and must stop to hunt for it.
We move to the second chase, where Johnnie has The General and the Unionists are the ones pursuing him. Now Johnnie must contend with Annabelle Lee.
Marion Mack leaves no mark of her personality on the screen. She deserves credit mainly for being willing and able to take it. Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn were never thrown around, trod upon or knocked about the way Marion Mack was. She has hilarious moments. The excitement of the chase does not prevent her from taking out a broom to sweep the dusty floor of the engine. An exasperated Johnnie tells her to keep throwing wood into the fire. She takes a small stick and daintily puts it in. Johnnie sarcastically hands her a sliver, and she puts that in, too. Then, in a moment that has an audience roaring and clapping, Johnnie grabs her and half-throttles her before kissing her instead.
The final section, most of it a battle scene, includes the shot where The Texas begins to cross a burning bridge, only to crash into the river. Owing to Keaton's disdain of fakery (one of several reasons his works seem modern) he did not use a model but a real train on a real burning bridge. The crash cost $42,000reportedly making it the single most expensive shot ever in a silent film.
A worthy closing gag was too taxing even for Keaton's ingenuity. Johnnie's dilemma is to kiss his girl while saluting the passing soldiers. His remedy is only mildly funny. Is anyone complaining? "The General" is a work of art and a work of genius.
It is "generally" (or should I pun and say "General Lee"?) said that
the best comedy of the silent film career of Buster Keaton's career was
his Civil War epic THE GENERAL. Apparently planned with more care than
any of his other film projects, it involved not only researching a
period of history some sixty years in the past, but getting the correct
rolling stock, costumes, weapons, and props to make it look correct.
And it worked so well that Keaton never really could (despite some
great moments in STEAMBOAT BILL JR.) out-do it. In fact, the closest
thing to his best sound film (or film that he influenced that was a
sound film) was his work with Red Skelton in the comedy A SOUTHERN
YANKEE, where he returned to a Civil War theme.
THE GENERAL (as I mentioned in discussing the Disney film THE GREAT LOCOMOTIVE CHASE) is based on the "Andrews Raiders" stealing of the Confederate locomotive "The General", and an attached train, which was used to damage tracks and bridges. The raid (in February 1862) was from northern Georgia into Tennesee. It only lasted 20 miles, as the coal for the train was used up and not replaced. Andrews and several raiders were hanged after a trial. Others went to southern prisoner of war camps. The effect of the incident far outstripped it's military success. The damage (after all) could be repaired. But like Jimmy Doolittle's Raid over Tokyo in April 1942, it had a tremendous effect hurting Confederate morale. The area attacked was hundreds of miles from the battlefronts of Virginia or Kentucky/Northern Tennessee that were in the current events of the War at the time, and so was considered safe by the Confederate government and public. Instead it had been shown quite easy for Northern raiders to hit and run for awhile.
Despite it being a brief incident of the war, the locomotive chase would remain famous after more important events were forgotten. The actual locomotive is still in existence in a museum in the south. When Lesney did it famous series of "Models of Yesteryear" the first locomotive that was included in that series of collectible toys was "The General".
The story, however, was ultimately a downer. But Keaton took the basic tale and made it a comedy of the period. First he changes the viewer's perspective - it is not concentrating on Andrews and his men, but on the Confederates. Secondly, he builds up the story of Johnny Gray, a railroad engineer who tries to enlist but is rejected (the twist of logic failure in the script is that the Confederate draft board head does not bother to explain to Johnny that he is more useful as an engineer to the cause than as a soldier). Because Keaton's family and girl friend (Marion Mack) see he is not enlisted, they believe he turned coward.
Johnny eventually is the only person who tries to retake "the General" from the raiders, and the film has actually two chases in it - first Andrews and his men stealing the train, and then Keaton sneaking into Northern lines with Mack and retaking it.
Along the way are many comic classic moments, such as Keaton carefully standing on the cowcatcher and carefully using physics to knock off broken wooden ties that might derail the train, or when (at a moment of dejection) Keaton sits on the connecting rod that links the trains wheels and finds himself pulled into the locomotive barn while in a sitting positions. The situation of fighting the Yankees during the second chase, and finding Marion Mack there "helping" him, are wonderful - especially when she judges which lumps of coal are pretty enough to be used to keep the engine fired (she throws away the ugly little ones). Keaton's reaction to her stupidity is a wonderful moment.
The classic conclusion of the comedy is the battle of the two sides at the river, and the burning of the railroad bridge (with it's destruction of a second locomotive). It has been called the most expensive sight gag in history. By the way, the Northern General who ordered the locomotive across the bridge is of some special interest. He was Mike "Turkey Strut" Donlin, a frequent member (and starring player) of the old New York Giants under John McGraw and Christy Matthewson in the first two decades of the 20th Century. Donlin (who got his funny nickname from the way he ran the bases) left baseball to become a film actor (he had worked a bit in vaudeville). Keaton was a sports fan (and showed this in his film COLLEGE, where he shows his abilities in several sports) and hired Donlin. This was the latter's most famous performance - look at his reaction to the collapse.
It must be regarded as Keaton's finest film, and certainly the best war comedy to come out in the silent period. It may also be the best war comedy to come out of any period of motion pictures.
No one will top Keaton for physical risk, and risk is what deep film
experiences are all about. This might be classed as a comedy, but for
me it touches deeply enough. Its about a man who needs to prove himself
by taking risks and being true. And its by a man who takes even greater
risks and is more true. True to the spirit of the social compact, here
displayed as the chummy south.
He's always done stunts that amaze. Many of his other films have things in them that if the timing were only a little off, he'd be seriously injured, or die. But this takes the cake. Its almost as if he started with the idea that he'd have three locos to play with and had a year to think up stunts.
And the stunts are so physical! And so dangerous. And so, so very effective.
His trademark is the deadpan face placed as a sort of innocent cluelessness. Its particularly funny when you see the physical movements and you know that 1) they take incredible preparation and timing to pull off and 2) the fellow you see that looks so puzzled by the reality you see is the guy that devised and directed those stunts.
Ted's Evaluation -- 3 of 3: Worth watching.
THE GENERAL represents the greatest achievement screen comedy ever
accomplished. From the brilliant gag construction to the sheer excellence of
the filmmaking technique, THE GENERAL is a hilarious and amazing journey
into comedy. Written and directed by Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman,
Keaton brings brilliant gags into the story. The film begins when Keaton is
told he is of no use to the South as a soldier, but as a train engineer.
However, his girlfriend refuses to talk to him until he is in uniform. After
the war has started, the girl is kidnapped by some Union raiders on Keaton's
train, and so begins the greatest (and funniest) chase ever filmed. For the
next 75 minutes, the viewer is in Keaton's world. His gags, routines and
amazing slapstick serve to make this the greatest screen comedy ever
-Matt, age 16
One of the great masterpieces of cinema, Buster Keaton's "The General"
combines inventive humor with terrific action and fine melodrama, all
beautifully and carefully planned and photographed. It is filled with
subtle and wonderful details that make it well worth devoting your full
attention to watching. As an extra bonus, it offers a fascinating look at
the Civil War era, with many realistic details, inspired by a historical
After a short opening sequence, the movie divides nicely into two halves. Johnny (Keaton) is a railway engineer, turned down in his attempts to enlist in the Confederate Army and subsequently rejected by his girl. Continuing with the railroad, one day his locomotive is stolen by Union spies, who also kidnap his girl. Johnny first chases the engine into Union territory to recapture it, and then is himself chased by the Northern Army as he attempts to return home. Both chases are filled with excitement and manic fun, with some breathtaking stunts by Keaton thrown in. It all leads up to a dramatic and memorable climax that includes many ironic and suggestive touches.
Keaton is at his best, with the story offering him a perfect showcase for his many talents. His slapstick and acrobatic skills are given free rein, and his character's stoic perseverance is a fine complement to the frantic action.
This belongs near the top of any list of great films, a classic worth watching and re-watching.
I haven't had so much fun watching a movie for a long time. The General
is a silent comedy (mostly slapstick) about Johnny Gray, a train
engineer with two loves: his engine and Annabelle Lee. Annabelle soon
dumps him because of his failure to enlist into the Civil War (they
would not take him because he was too valuable as an engineer). Things
are then sped up a year, where we see some Union commanders planning to
hijack a train to unleash a highly sophisticated master plan. As it so
happens, they steal Johnny's engine, a big mistake.
Buster Keaton does a phenomenal performance as Johnny. His face and character is ideal for this type of comedy. He reminds me a lot of Leslie Nielsen from the Naked Gun movies (but, of course, less old). He is often ignorant of what is going on around him, leading to plenty of laughs. This also makes him a very charismatic character.
There are countless train related jokes. The first one comes right at the beginning, when we see Johnny being followed by two kids and a woman, in a line much like a train. The bulk of the movie is made up of Johnny running a train, either chasing or fleeing from the Union soldiers. The movement and maneuvering of the trains is beautiful. The stunt work is an incredible accomplishment. The finale is explosive.
The General was a lot of fun to watch. It gave me more laughs than most modern comedies, and had plenty of substance on top of that. This is enough for me to label it as one of the greatest comedies ever. After my first viewing, it instantly became one of my favorites. It is timeless gem that should be watched at least once by anyone interested in movies.
I've seen one other silent movie in my life, but it was Mel Brooks's The
Silent Movie so I don't know if it really counts. I really enjoyed The
General overall, more than I thought I would as someone who was born after
The main thing that surprised me was the fact that I couldn't look down to write very many notes; any time I took my eyes off the screen I ran a serious risk of missing something. It seems to me that the film, even though it was long (or seemed so), it was very dense in terms of action. I imagine that since the movie has no dialogue, the filmmakers must make up for it by making it as visually interesting and entertaining as possible. I am accustomed to more modern movies with snappy dialogue and special effects and such-movies in which you can look down at your popcorn or kiss your date and not miss too much because you can hear pretty much what's happening. This was a nice change for me.
Obviously, I've never seen a Buster Keaton film, and I'm not even sure if I'd heard of him before this class. But I can see why he is so appealing in his films. I loved his facial expressions, particularly the stoic-but-crestfallen look in his eyes on the train when something else goes wrong. He also has great control of his body, as we discussed in class, and a fine sense of comic timing.
I found the film surprisingly funny. Many modern films that I think are funny (e.g. Austin Powers, Toy Story, American Beauty) rely largely on witty or outrageous dialogue for their humor. As a silent film, The General must rely mainly on images for its humor-the slapstick images of Johnnie falling over constantly, the unusual image of Johnnie riding up and down on the crossbar between the train wheels, the stereotype exploitation in the scene when the girl sweeps out the locomotive. I'm sure that some of the things that I considered amusing might not have been considered funny by the original audience, such as the record-scratch lightning bolts.
I really liked some of the cinematic techniques and blocking that Keaton used. One of my favorite scenes in the entire film is when Johnnie is chopping wood on the train while the Southern army retreats in the opposite direction in the background. Even though the `real' army is pulling back, the one they didn't want is rushing into enemy territory. It's a nice integration of plot and character commentary. I also liked the way he kept cutting back and forth between the Yankees on their trains and Johnnie on his, at first the pursuer, then the pursuee. By continually showing us what both sides are doing, Keaton builds the tension between them, adds to the comic effect, and keeps the audience interested by always giving them something different to look at. This montage technique is used in nearly all action films and many comedy films today.
I did not realize that the rain and fire sound effects were added in later. I think they are interesting, and I can see why someone put them in, but I think I would prefer that the film be left the way it was originally shown. Or at least they should take out the chirping birds. Some people complained about the repetitiveness of the music, but I found the music quaint and very much in the character of the movie. It was as if each person or group had its own theme music, perhaps to make up for the lack of dialogue. The use of the `Beautiful Dreamer' love theme reminds me of the `Dreamweaver' love theme in Wayne's World that plays when Garth sees the blonde woman.
Although the battle scene was interesting, I agreed with much of the class that the movie could have ended earlier. The movie seemed to change a bit once the entire army got involved and the focus left Johnnie for a time. Perhaps they could have ended the battle scene with the Southern army lying in wait for the enemy, and then cut to a later scene in which Johnnie receives an honorary enlistment so he can get the girl. But hey, then Keaton wouldn't have gotten to play with the bridge fire and the dam; maybe audiences then weren't so different from us, and would prefer an exciting ending for a movie like this over a more subdued one. But I still think it changed the character of the movie and should have been changed somehow.
Overall I give it a 9/10. If you've never seen a silent movie, this is a great one to start with.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I would have eventually gotten around to watching this film, but my
curiosity was piqued when I saw that it had miraculously jumped to
Number #17 on the 2007 version of AFI's Top 100 Movies of all time
list. It didn't make the cut at all for the original compilation in
1997, so even before seeing the picture, I had to wonder what might
have affected movie critics in the intervening decade to reach this
conclusion. I usually line up with the majority in most cases, but I
have to admit, I don't quite get it with this picture. I found it
entertaining enough on occasion, but I never got the sense that it was
one of the great comedy classics of all time the way it's heralded on
the DVD sleeve. I don't think the Civil War lends itself much to
comedy, so right there my expectations were greatly reduced. Keaton's
somber demeanor and generally stone faced disposition don't help. On
the flip side, I wouldn't have expected slapstick to move the story
along either, so at least I wasn't disappointed in that regard.
What I DID enjoy were some rather offbeat moments that showed genuine creativity. When Johnnie Gray (Keaton) dejectedly considered his rejection by the Confederate Army, and pondered his situation while sitting on the train's connecting rod, the resulting visual was pure genius. The up and down motion lent a truly surreal juxtaposition to Johnnie's thoughtful reverie, and was one of the highlights of the picture for me.
The other significant scene that gave me pause was when The Texas collapsed on the burning Rock River Bridge. For starters, I found it unbelievable that a wooden bridge could possibly be constructed strong enough to support a locomotive. Then I came to learn that the scene was the most expensive ever made for a silent film, and I have to give Keaton credit for going out on that kind of a limb - unbelievable.
Oh yes, and I can't forget the sequence where Keaton's marksmanship is dead on when he makes contact with the rail tie blocking the train tracks, flipping it out of the way with a well timed throw of his own. Could that have possibly been done in one take? In a pre-CGI world, it's difficult to imagine how stunts like these could have been performed, particularly by an actor who had no recourse but to do his own. For that, Keaton deserves accolades.
In between all this clever film making however, I just wasn't inspired. The central plot element doesn't hold up for me - if Johnnie Gray was rejected as a volunteer, why wasn't he simply told the reason why. One could argue that then, you wouldn't have a picture, but for me it left the story on a shaky footing. If Johnnie was more valuable as a train engineer than a soldier, the picture might have taken a different approach, but the rest of the elements could have remained the same and he still would have come out a hero. Maybe I'm second guessing a master, but that's what I come away with.
Conclusion - if this movie didn't make AFI's Top 100 Film List in 1997, I don't understand what might have occurred in the intervening years to suddenly have film critics vault it into the Top 20. At the same time, Chaplin's "City Lights", in my estimation a superior silent film, fell OFF the list, while "The Gold Rush" moved up a few notches. I may not be a professional, but I know what I like, and this one just didn't do it for me.
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