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THE RAVEN (1915)

“The insidious wine weaves strange fancies in his brain....”

Charles J. Brabin

Henry B. Walthall, Warda Howard, Ernest Maupain, Eleanor Thompson, Harry Dunkinson, Bert Weston, Hugh Thompson, Peggy Meredith, Frank Hamilton, Charles Harris

  Screenplay:  Charles J. Brabin, based upon the play and the novel by George Cochrane Hazelton

Synopsis:  In 1811, the actor David Poe Jr (Frank Hamilton) dies, leaving his widow (Peggy Meredith) and his two small children poorly provided for. A friend, Mrs Allan (Eleanor Thompson), arranges a benefit show to raise money for the struggling family, but the assistance comes too late. To her horror and distress, Mrs Allan finds that the widow has also died. Mrs Allan tries to persuade her husband, John (Ernest Maupain), to take in the Poes’ young son. At first he is reluctant, but allows himself to be won over by his wife’s caresses and pleadings. The boy is known afterwards as Edgar Allan Poe (Henry B. Walthall). As a young man, Poe’s career at university is ruined by his gambling and drinking; the latter causes him to suffer frightening hallucinations. Meanwhile, John Allan reacts with rage upon learning of the debts his foster son has contracted. Better days come when Poe meets Virginia Clemm (Warda Howard), vying for her affections against a friend of his called Tony (Harry Dunkinson). One day, Poe and Virginia go riding together. As they sit near the woods by a pond, he invents a tale of woodland sprites for her. On the way home, the young lovers are horrified to see a man brutally beating a slave. Poe intervenes, offering to buy the slave’s freedom. However, he can only write another IOU. When this goes unpaid, the slave-owner takes it to John Allan, for whom this is the final straw: he turns his foster son from his house. Virginia, a witness to this scene, offers to go with Poe, if he will have her; the freed slave also elects to follow the young couple. But things do not go well for the Poes; Edgar begins drinking again, and his hallucinations return. In the midst of his delirium, Poe imagines a wild tale of a lost love, and of a raven....

Comments:  The macabre nature of much of his work, his short and unhappy life and the unexplained circumstances of his death have combined to make Edgar Allan Poe an attractive figure to writers and film-makers, many of whom have chosen to weave their own stories in which Poe himself appears as a character. A number of the resulting tales have Poe undergoing in reality the horrifying scenarios that inform his writing, a common approach when dealing with literary figures. Alternatively, they turn Poe into a detective, and depict him exhibiting in person the intellectual skills later illustrated in his tales of C. Auguste Dupin.

The third common approach is the biopic, which in the case of Poe is as good as a new kind of fiction. Few and far between are the hard facts of the author’s life, with every happening seemingly accorded two or three contradictory accounts; a situation exacerbated by the fact that Poe himself was a compulsive self-dramatist, always putting a melodramatic spin upon the events of his life, and generally casting himself as the unfortunate but gallant victim of other people’s malice and jealousy. Between his erratic and inconsiderate behaviour and his venomous literary reviews, it was perhaps not surprising that Poe made enemies; although that hardly excuses the bizarre revenge taken upon him after his death by Rufus Wilmot Griswold. Griswold was himself a poet, but better known as the compiler of anthologies; he and Poe conducted a very public feud over the content of those volumes, while the subsequent replacement of Poe by Griswold as editor of Graham’s Magazine put the seal upon their mutual hatred. Griswold was infamous for his vindictive nature, but even by his standards his post-mortem attack on Poe was staggering. After firing an opening volley in the form of a jeering pseudonymous obituary, Griswold published a vituperatively hostile memoir of Poe that has been described as “a masterpiece of character assassination”. Although many of its “facts” were either exaggerated or fabricated outright – this is the source of the Poe-as-drug-fiend trope, while self-condemnatory letters supposedly written by the author were later exposed as having been tampered with and even forged – the piece was widely read, widely quoted and widely believed. (Perversely, it also had the effect of increasing the popularity of Poe’s writings, which is probably not what Griswold intended.)

Some years later, Poe’s reputation began to be rehabilitated by John Henry Ingram, who not only gathered an extraordinary collection of Poe memorabilia (now at the University of Virginia), but literally devoted his life to undoing the damage done by Griswold. However, so obsessive was Ingram about his idol’s good name that his writing was inevitably coloured by it. He also became a kind of “anti-Griswold”, attacking anyone who dared to criticise his Poe scholarship or, worse, dared to criticise Poe. Moreover, examination of the letters and reminiscences of Poe collected by Ingram after his death reveals that he had been extremely selective in what he chose to make public, omitting anything that spoke against Poe’s character or showed him as other than an innocent victim.  Although his work was valuable both in gathering scattered facts about Poe’s life and in collecting, preserving and disseminating his writings, contributing enormously to the late author’s literary reputation, as history Ingram’s biography is little more to be relied upon than Griswold’s memoir.

Infinite Poe scholarship has emerged during the intervening decades, of course, but the mysteries and the contradictions remain. In light of all this, it is perhaps not surprising that a number of unabashedly fictionalised accounts of Poe’s life began to emerge during the late nineteenth century; the incompleteness of the late author’s public biography must have struck some writers as an invitation to fill in the gaps. One of the most successful such attempts, at least in terms of its popularity, was a play written by George Cochrane Hazelton, whose literary specialty was tales written around real historical figures. Hazelton was given to subtitling his works as being, ’Twixt fact and fancy, and perhaps he never needed to do so more than in the writing of “The Raven: The Love Story Of Edgar Allan Poe”. Hazelton’s play was first staged in 1895, and frequently revived over the following decade; in 1908, Hazelton shaped his play into a novel, publishing it under the same title (and with the same disclaimer). The popularity of Hazelton’s works certainly had their influence on the public perception of Poe at the turn of the century, and probably accounts for the fact that the first three biographical recreations of Poe’s life centre on exactly the same episode: the composition of “The Raven”.

Film biographies of Poe are almost as old as cinema itself; indeed, Poe was the subject of what seems to be the very first biopic, D.W. Griffith’s Edgar Allen Poe, made in 1909. Griffith’s short film was followed in 1912 by The Raven, which over its slightly longer running-time told almost exactly the same story, but offered its audience a happy ending: Poe is able to take the earnings from his poem home to Virginia. Unfortunately, this version of the author’s life no longer exists. (Its poster does, though; that’s actually it up above, bearing the sad annotation, A film that will live for ages.) By the time that the third rendering of the story emerged in 1915, feature-length films had become a more common phenomenon; and unlike its one- and two-reel predecessors, Charles Brabin’s The Raven was able to devote more than half of its running-time to an account of Poe’s life, before again focussing upon the creation of his most famous poem.

These three early accounts of Poe’s life would be followed over time by many others; and it is very noticeable that these films almost invariably fall into one of two camps: echoing those warring biographies by Ingram and Griswold, they either turn Poe into a romantic hero, or they demonise him. Charles Brabin’s telling of Poe’s story is, in this respect, more interesting than many of its brethren, because it does both. It is not surprising to find the earliest biopics featuring a well-behaved, thoroughly domesticated Poe. Apart from the fact that the Ingram biography, and the Hazelton fictions inspired by it, had gained an ascendancy in the public mind, there was another force at work at this time in the shape of the social pressure upon early cinema to deal only with morally acceptable material. Thus, while the evil, drug-fiend Poe of Griswold’s biography would have been an impossibility, Ingram’s brave, misunderstood Poe was another matter. In The Raven, Charles Brabin does briefly offer a more realistic portrait of Poe; but having done so, he then over-compensates for these darker interludes with other scenes that whitewash the author until he is quite unrecognisable. 

The Raven was originally released with a running-time of around an hour; and while a print of this length may still exist (the evidence is inconclusive), it is a shortened version that has been released to DVD; a fact that may or may not account for the wild chronological leaps of which this production is guilty. Conversely, these jumps may be traced to the play upon which the film was based, giving us storytelling in discrete “acts”. The film opens with a potted Poe family tree. We see John Poe arriving from Ireland in 1745 (and profoundly regretting his decision to emigrate, if his various contortions are to be believed), and visit briefly with David Poe, “revolutionary patriot”, before being formally introduced to David Poe Jr and his wife, known as Mrs Hopkins Poe, as they perform upon the stage in 1805. 


The death first of David – whose desertion of his family is not mentioned – and then of Mrs Poe leaves the children almost destitute. (Curiously, the film claims that the Poes had two children rather than three, and Rosalie disappears after this single scene.) Mrs Frances Allan arrives at her friend’s house bearing the proceeds of the benefit show that she arranged, but learns to her horror that she is too late to help Mrs Poe. We next see Mrs Allan cajoling her husband into allowing the informal adoption of the boy Edgar, the preponderance of white pillars and magnolia blossom clueing us in on the fact that the action has shifted to Virginia. Mr Allan allows himself to be won over, and he sweeps the small boy up into his arms, embracing and kissing him. This is, to put it mildly, the final mark of affection that we shall see exchanged between the two.

Another curiosity of this opening phase of The Raven, at least as it exists today, is the premature introduction of Henry B. Walthall as the adult Edgar Allan Poe. There is no doubt that the casting of Walthall here was due to his performance in The Avenging Conscience the year before, nor indeed that the production of The Raven was inspired by that film’s success. (At the time, much was made of Walthall’s supposed resemblance to Poe, but frankly, he’s not a patch on Herbert Yost.) At the beginning of The Raven, a shot of the famous daguerreotype of Poe is interpolated after the announcement of Edgar’s birth; it fades into a shot of Walthall in character. We then cut back to the young children at Mrs Poe’s deathbed. A far more appropriate spot for this insert would have been here, as a bridge between the brief account of Poe’s childhood and his first appearance as an adult, which as it stands is exceedingly jarring, as we leap directly into the midst of Edgar’s university career, or at least its extracurricular activities, and find him slumped in an alcoholic stupor after an all-night gambling session. Meanwhile, Mr and Mrs Allan receive a letter from the university complaining of Edgar’s numerous debts. Mrs Allan pleads with her husband on her foster son’s account, but this time Mr Allan remains implacable.


The Raven’s most blatant re-writing of Poe’s history comes, perhaps not surprisingly, in its depiction of his relationship with the girl who would become his wife. Following the death of Frances, John Allan re-married, and a final rupture took place between his foster son and himself (although Poe never stopped writing for financial aid). At that time, Poe moved into the house of his aunt, Mrs Maria Clemm, who already shared her home with Poe’s (here unmentioned) older brother, William Henry, who died not long afterwards, and with her young daughter. Virginia was then nine; four years later, she and her cousin were married. George Cochrane Hazelton made the Poes’ marriage the focal point of his play and the novel derived from it, but in doing so chose to avoid the facts by making no direct reference to Virginia’s age. In the novel, she is referred to at first glimpse as “a child”, but this conveys little to the reader; at the time of the tale’s publication, this was a word that might be applied to any unmarried woman not yet considered an “old maid”. The use of this indeterminate expression is then followed by page after page of rapturous love scenes between Virginia and Poe, which follow hard upon their first meeting, and which in the cold light of reality are profoundly disturbing. (He kissed her. She fluttered like a wounded bird. He healed the wound with a second kiss. The moon approved. The stars blessed them....)

Charles Brabin’s filming of Hazelton’s work does not merely shy away from the truth of the Poe marriage, it denies it utterly. The Raven contains no hint that Virginia and Edgar were first cousins, and far from admitting Virginia’s age, this film has the child-bride played by the thirty-five year old Warda Howard. Granted, Ms Howard both acts and is made up to look much younger than her age, and is first seen sitting tomboyishly in a tree; but not for as much as moment could anyone mistake her for a pre-pubescent. The Raven’s Poe/Virginia scenes are a strange oasis of bland, conventional cheerfulness in the midst of this otherwise gloomy work, and it is hard not to believe that they were constructed in this artificial way precisely in order to provide some relief from the misery. Hazelton’s play and novel propound a triangle in which Virginia is lusted after by John Allan’s secretary, Mr Pelham, who plots to further damage Edgar in his foster father’s eyes, in order to get him banished and thereby (he thinks) improve his own chances with Virginia. The film re-tools the triangle to make the third point Poe’s good friend, Tony, and their rivalry essentially comic in nature. (At least, comic by inference if not so much in execution, inasmuch as the unfortunate Tony is somewhat overweight, and therefore has as much chance of romantic success in a film of this era as his female counterparts would over the succeeding nine decades.) One outcome of this switch is to leave Pelham on the sidelines of the story behaving like a stereotypical stage villain, rubbing his hands and laughing evilly to himself – and wearing the most hideous checked trousers you ever saw – while no reason for his malice towards Poe is ever supplied. 


One of the most interesting touches in The Raven is to have all of the women in Poe’s life, both real and imaginary, played by Warda Howard. A pastoral interlude in Poe’s courtship of Virginia has the two riding out together and then sitting by “the glassy pool of romance”, where Poe invents a tale for Virginia’s amusement. Here, a hunter draws his bow against a deer, but a passing woman intervenes to save the animal’s life. The two are angry and cold with one another, until a watching wood sprite – Ms Howard again – chooses to intervene: she plays a magical tune upon her pipes, at which the former adversaries fall into each other’s arms.

If the relationship between Poe and Virginia is The Raven’s most egregious piece of historical re-writing, its most bizarre is surely its assertion that last straw that finally destroyed Poe’s relationship with John Allan was a debt incurred by freeing a slave. We can thank George Cochrane Hazelton for this touch, which is a complete invention. John Allan himself dabbled in the slave trade, and Poe not only grew up in a slave-owning family, but is on the record both as defending the institution and criticising the abolitionists. What The Raven offers, therefore, is revisionism with a vengeance – although the implications of Charles Brabin’s decision to retain this particular piece of fiction are not without interest, given that this film was released the same year as The Birth Of A Nation. It is on the way home from their interlude by the lake that Poe and Virginia encounter the slave-owner. Virginia pleads with Poe to intervene, and he makes the fateful decision to plunge still further into debt in order to free the man’s victim. (While I accept that a white actor in blackface playing the “negro” was inevitable, I could have done without the white makeup lips.) The subsequent presentation of Poe’s IOU to John Allan sees Edgar turned out of his foster home once and for all. Virginia immediately offers to accompany him, and so does the former slave. The three of them literally walk off on the spot, a single bundle of possessions amongst them.


Another jarring leap occurs here. With no indication of intervening events, The Raven now depicts Poe, in the grip of the demon drink once again, not so much creating his most famous poem as living through its horrors. From here we cut again to the cottage at Fordham. Poe is unable to sell his manuscripts, and he, Virginia and Mrs Clemm live in dire poverty. As the author works through the night, Virginia ignores her own illness to try and persuade her husband to rest, but he will not. Suddenly, Virginia is seized with a wracking fit of coughing. Poe leaps to his feet to attend her, as does Mrs Clemm. She puts her daughter to bed, and Poe returns gloomily to his work. He spends the next day going from publisher to publisher, trying in vain to sell his writing. He journeys home on foot through the snow, having to confess his failure. Poe helps Virginia to bed and, lacking blankets, covers her with the warmest item in his possession, his coat from his West Point days, and gives her the household cat to hold. Poe keeps vigil through the night, but Virginia’s last hours have come.... Poe subsequently undergoes a breakdown, wherein he begins to experience visions of his wife. He sees a young, blooming Virginia; she talks and laughs merrily with him, but fades away when he tries to touch her. In despair, Poe mourns by his wife’s grave....

Had The Raven concluded with Virginia’s death, and Poe’s collapse, it would have built to a powerful conclusion that to a great extent would have mitigated the historical and creative missteps of its first half. However, while the film does depict these things, it also breaks them up with an inexplicable interlude involving the poet Sarah Helen Whitman, who is seen carrying out works of charity, but never actually meets Poe. Missing footage may be to blame here, but as this film stands it ruins its own climax with scenes that – ironically enough, considering its re-writing of Poe’s history – could mean nothing to anyone not well acquainted with the facts of the author’s life. This is also true of the West Point coat that Poe suddenly produces; the film as we know it today makes no reference to Poe’s inglorious military career.


Despite this, this final sequence is one of three that lift this film into a much more significant artistic realm. These closing scenes of poverty, death and despair are indeed effective in their bleakness, and because they are executed with restraint. However, the real interest of The Raven lies in two earlier sequences, which deal with a frightening imaginary world rather than a heart-breaking real one.

While there is no denying The Raven’s debt to The Avenging Conscience, there is a distinct sense in this film of Charles Brabin not just copying Griffith’s film, but rather taking its lessons to heart and finding inspiration in it. Furthermore, although it is guilty of the obvious biopic stunt of having its author experience what he would subsequently write, The Raven stands by its darker scenes in a way that The Avenging Conscience ultimately does not. Far from providing the viewer with a comforting “out”, this film bluntly attributes Poe’s more horrifying tales to his sufferings while in the grip of delirium tremens.

The first such episode occurs after the film’s first lurching jump from Poe’s childhood to his disastrous university career, where he lies slumped at a table after a night of drinking and gambling; while the intertitle informs us that, The insidious wine weaves strange fancies in his brain. What follows is an abridged version of “William Wilson”. Poe raises his head to find that four fellow gamblers have re-materialised around him, one standing to the side and smoking a pipe, three more sorting their cards. He stares disbelievingly at the man seated opposite him, then points a finger. Evidently an accusation of cheating has been made: the accused rises up in indignation as the others cluster around in palpable emotion. The men are next seen in a field. Poe and his adversary stand almost toe to toe, pistols in hand. Before the signal is given, Poe fires. His adversary crumples, as the seconds look on in horror, then begins to fade away – as do the other men – leaving Poe alone to clutch his head in terrified bewilderment....and to jerk awake once again at the table in his room. He leaps to his feet, the night’s last drink still held in one shaking hand. He tries to reassure himself that his experiences were not real, even passing his hand over the flames of some guttering candles. Then he gives that last drink a broad smile of relief – and drains the glass....

(This vital interlude suffers badly from the poor quality of the existing prints of this film, since without familiarity with the story in question, it is not at all obvious that the card-player who becomes the focus of Poe’s ire is his double.)

The Raven’s signature sequence occurs with equal abruptness. Poe is dozing in an armchair when there is a knock on his door. We see, though he does not, that there is no-one there – although the silhouette of a raven in flight appears for a moment. Poe nervously opens the door, but – darkness there, and nothing more. As Poe stares into that darkness, he begins to experience a strange vision, Dreaming dreams no mortal ever dreamed before. He sees himself struggling up a mountainside. A large boulder appears in his path. As he strives to overcome this obstacle, the word “WINE” materialises upon its side. Then the figure of a woman appears, standing upon the boulder bathed in light, and urging Poe onwards before vanishing. Poe reaches out yearning arms and scrambles over the boulder, but there is no sign of the woman; the stillness gave no token / And the only word there spoken was the whispered name Lenore.

Poe comes to, to find himself still staring into the darkness outside his door. He shrinks back inside, clutching his head,  and swiftly pours a drink from a decanter; but as he gazes at it, he sees a skull superimposed over the glass, and drops it with a cry of horror. He sinks down into his armchair and goes back to sleep.

Some time later, we see Poe reading – presumably, A quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, although the intertitles do not tell us so – when he suddenly reacts to hearing something at his window-lattice. He gets up to investigate, opening the window, and then the shutters. A raven lands upon the sill, then flutters up to perch upon the bust fixed above the door of the room. Poe asks the bird its name. It replies, NEVERMORE – then seems to laugh at his unease. Poe sits back down, still staring up at the raven, wondering what its repetition of NEVERMORE to his inquiries might mean. Then his reflections turn in another direction. He thinks of a woman, dwelling upon how she shall care for him so tenderly----

NEVERMORE, interrupts the raven.

Even so, the figure of a woman materialises behind Poe. She reaches out spectral hands, easing him back into his chair and stroking his brow. Poe lifts a hand to hers – but there is nothing there. He leaps to his feet, hurling invective at the raven before imploring, Tell me – is there balm in Gilead? Quoth the raven, NEVERMORE. Suddenly, Poe finds himself at the gates of heaven, his way barred by a woman-angel in flowing robes, who holds aloft a sword. She vanishes, and the gates of heaven swing shut, leaving Poe crouched upon the ground in despair.

In his room, Poe again pleads with the raven, begging to know whether his soul shall ever again, Clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels named Lenore? Quoth the raven – NEVERMORE. Furiously, Poe stretches violent hands towards the bird, but cannot reach it. He demands that it leave his room. NEVERMORE, replies the raven. Poe slumps back, overwhelmed and devastated. And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting....

Poe leans back in his armchair, his eyes closed. The figure of the woman appears beside him. She gestures, calling him; and Poe’s spirit leaves his body in response. It gazes for a moment at its corporeal form, then obeys the imperative movements of the woman; the two spirit forms move away. And as they go, Poe falls from his armchair and lies upon the floor, motionless. For an instant, we see the silhouette of a raven in flight superimposed across his body....

And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor / Shall be lifted....

Although much of The Raven is historical tosh conventionally executed, this sequence is a remarkable piece of imaginative cinema. What is particularly heartening here is that Brabin did not merely reproduce D.W. Griffith’s experimental approach, but strove to create fresh images with techniques of his own, occasionally even surpassing his model. Poe’s visions are again realised predominantly through superimposition (and like Griffith, Brabin has trouble getting the scale of his ghostly characters right), but are on the whole more complex. So too is Brabin’s staging of his protagonist’s religious agonies, where in place of the fairly straightforward manifestations of Griffith, we are given that unexpected glimpse of Poe being turned away from the pearly gates. Most interesting of all, however, is that first stylised depiction of Poe struggling up the mountain of life, his way blocked by a boulder representing his addiction to alcohol, with hope and redemption appearing in the form of his ideal woman. (The poor quality of the surviving prints again takes its toll here, where it is now only just evident that Brabin was experimenting with lighting effects.) Brabin’s inclusion of text within the action, instead of in an intertitle, is particularly significant; this is the earliest example I know of a visual technique later employed to great effect by important silent film-makers like Fritz Lang and Paul Leni.

While The Raven’s view of Edgar Allan Poe himself wavers between cool acknowledgement of his personal demons and an impulse of turn him into a hero of melodrama, its recreation of Poe’s best-known and much-loved poem is a well-judged mixture of admiration and unease. One interesting facet of this sequence is how much more restrained the acting of Henry B. Walthall is here, than it was in a similar role the year before for D.W. Griffith. In directing this footage, Charles Brabin wisely chose to take the emphasis away from Poe’s actions, and shift it onto Poe’s thoughts. As a director, Brabin hasn’t much reputation these days, but there are glimpses in this film, as there were throughout his career, of a vivid imagination at work. (The critics of 1915 were, evidently, very much impressed that Brabin chose to use a live raven in his film instead of contenting himself with a stuffed one, as the earlier versions both did.) Warda Howard’s work in this film is perhaps more notable for its quantity than its quality, but she is affecting during the scenes of Virginia’s last hours. As well as Virginia and the wood sprite, Ms Howard plays all of the women of Poe’s vision – his ideal, heaven’s guard and the lost Lenore – and in the film’s unfortunate coda, Sarah Helen Whitman.

From an historical perspective, The Raven is important because of the way it illustrates how, even by the early twentieth century, Poe had become what we might call today “a pop culture phenomenon”. There is an assumption made – not just in The Raven, but also in its forerunners, The Avenging Conscience and Edgar Allen Poe – that the cinema-going public is familiar with the whole range of Poe’s stories and poems; it is rarely considered necessary in these films to explain a particular reference. (There is likewise an assumption that the public is not so familiar with the details of his life.) Nearly a century later, Poe is deeply embedded within the collective consciousness; adaptations of his work continue to appear in a ceaseless stream – according to the IMDb, 214 films or television episodes have been based upon his writings – while allusions, jokes and tributes abound in other works. Indeed, thanks to one such pop cultural usage, I am today quite unable to hear “The Raven” in my head other than in the abyssal tones of Mr James Earl Jones. (That’s not a complaint, mind.) This may not have been the kind of fame that Poe dreamed about when he was crafting his uniquely disturbing fictions, but it is doubtful that he would have objected to becoming a part of the common lexicon. As unmistakable and idiosyncratic as are the tales of Edgar Allan Poe, there is a real sense in which his fears have become our fears.

Please note:
This review originally formed part of a series of "Compare / Contrast" studies conducted by myself, Zack Handlen and Chad Denton. Unfortunately, a combination of internet meltdowns and bitchy real life dismembered this ongoing project. However, the "conversations" that were the centrepiece of these studies have been preserved as a part of Etc., Etc., Etc. Click the banner below to access them.

Meanwhile, Chad can currently be found at
Trash Culture, while Zack is a member of the A. V. Club

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    ----posted 28/07/2009