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Jane Knowles Marshall
Last summer I worked on a unit which attempted to uncover the social concerns of 1930s Britain as delineated in two initially regarded disparate novels, The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie and Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell. My students enjoyed comparing the middle-brow and high-brow novels immensely. They were detectives who relished the discovery of thematic similarities in the two works. They were also astute critics who noted and questioned the notions of style and audience. Two-thirds of the way through the work on this unit I decided to include as well two examples of film produced in 1930s Britain. This visual study served to underscore and further explicate our thematic discoveries. Moreover, I quickly realized that film study could and should, be a component of the course, “Visual Art and Literature,”
This year I plan to tie all of the threads together, as it were, in order to devise a unit which will include an adaptation of the method of analysis for film study as well as a comparative study of a variety of fiction. This unit will be a natural sequel to last year’s work, for we will consider pre-World War II American works which might then be compared with the previously studied British works. Yet, this unit will take film study a step further. Film will not be seen as part of a culminating activity, but rather will be seen up-front as the primary focus of the unit, and film will also be seen as another art form worthy of careful analysis.
The final section of the unit encourages students to engage in a comparative study of Citizen Kane and a variety of fiction. I believe that we will discover a similarity of theme among these works which might serve to indicate pre-World War II American concerns. Thus we will approach film and fiction with a historical bent—noting that art forms invariably mirror the societies which produce them. Yet, it is likely as well that this comparative study will enable us to discover various interpretations or transformations of theme; these transformations in turn might serve to indicate the individual insight (and genius) of each of the creators. Thus we will also approach film and fiction with a critical bent—noting that art-forms also mirror the minds and heart of the individual artists.
I used the teaching of The Turn of the Screw and its movie counterpart, The Innocents, next in order to 1.) raise the topic of literary works and film adaptations and 2.) provide students with another exposure to film prior to tackling film elements and Citizen Kane. Students were provided with two professional criticisms of The Innocents to read and respond to. The critics’ views as to the success of the adaptation of The Innocents varied,yet, both discussed the uses of lighting, film stock, and other elements of film during the course of their arguments. Students were asked to summarize these criticisms by articulating the main ideas expressed by the critics, and the-y were also asked to choose the one they thought was the best and to explain why they made the choice thy did. The reading of professional film criticism provided students with an introduction to the elements of film. The writing assignment—in addition to providing practice with summary writing and argument—served to underscore the seriousness of film study. Again, though teachers may wish to use different films, it is suggested that they introduce students to film criticism through examples prior to providing students with the following hand-out of film elements Such an exercise will result in student “readiness” and/or will serve to articulate the purpose of technical awareness.
When we turned to film vocabulary, I simply passed out notes which I had taken from Sobochack and Sobochack’s text. I believe the following summary of the text will work equally as well or better with students. Because the summary is so dense, teachers will have to read it aloud to students (as they follow in their own copies) and stop frequently to further explain ideas and provide salient examples. I found that students were able to provide examples of their own when asked so that the lecture format was tempered somewhat. I do not apologize for the lecture format in the least; I believe it is important to ask students occasionally to listen in order to digest new material. Yet, pressing students for their own examples insures that students remain receptive and involved in this relatively passive classroom activity.
Teachers might wish to devise follow-up-‘activities for use after the lecture-discussion which would call for student feed back. For example, a short writing exercise might be assigned; Suggested question—(What did you learn which was most interesting to you? Why? If possible, provide an example from your own viewing which has to do with this topic.) Additional ideas for student activities which will further explicate the elements of film follow the discussion of the Sobochack text.
Film Stock refers to the type of film used in a given movie. Though movies are usually filmed in their entirety in black and white or in color, instances of the use of a variety of film stocks in a single movie are not especially rare. The use of sepia-toned segments in the otherwise all-color Murder on the Orient Express provides an apt example. These segments indicate the past by reminding the audience of old photographs or yellowed newsprint and thus-signal use of flashbacks which deal with the kidnapping and murder of a famous child. The use of the sepia stock also helps to isolate and thus underscores the horrific quality of the crime depicted.
Black and white film stock is often used in serious films. In fact, a whole genre of film of the ‘40s and ‘50s called “film noir” dealt with the themes of urban decay and/or corruption. Certainly the use of black and white stock puts forth a drab or decaying quality. Black and white film may also indicate conflict as a result of its oppositional quality. In fact, the choices afforded the film-maker within the black and white frame work allow various emotional response to emerge.
Fast (black and white) film has a grainy, high-contrast quality. Sometimes such stock is used to signify or underscore the notion of reality as it reminds us, if not of newsreels, then of newsprint and thus evokes the documentary. However, fast film may also represent the dream; when compared with low-contrast film which is exact—that is, not fuzzy or grainy—the possibilities of representing illusion emerge. In fact, both types of stock may be used in a single film to create a variety of effects. A change of stock in a single film may also signify a change of time or place, and thus helps the viewer to grasp meaning and/or follow the film’s plot.
Of course, color film is the preferred choice of our latest film makers. Perhaps a generation of color TV watchers dictate that this be the case. In any event, film makers no longer relegate color solely to glitzy musicals or biblical epics. Various techniques are used within the color frame work to evoke a serious tone or indeed to make a thematic statement. For example, film characters might be clothed in drab costumes and then filmed against brightly-colored machinery: such a technique would emphasize the notion of a dehumanizing technological society.
As film provides foreground, middle ground, and background, people and objects may be filmed to provide spatial relationships; this provides visual clues as to the relative importance of various components of a scene. .For example, in The Lady Vanishes Hitchcock creates chilling suspense and the foreshadowing of a poisoning by placing poisoned drink props in the foreground of a shot while placing the unsuspecting (and blithely conversing) victims in the middle-ground.
The use of various lenses also serves to diminish or enlarge characters, A man seen running toward the camera equipped with a telephoto lens appears to be running on a tread mill; that is, little distance appears to be covered, and therefore the man appears to be dwarfed by his environment A wide-angle lens, on the other-hand, initially indicates that the subject is far away, but his movement toward the camera causes his size to increase quickly, and the subject then seems to dominate his landscape.
The camera itself can be tilted to show entire scenes at an angle. Such a view creates a sense of disequilibrium.
The use of a slow pan shot when the camera slowly moves across a landscape affords the audience a feeling of omniscience. A change of speed in a pan will produce a variety of effects. For example, a fast pan will cause the audience to feel dizzy or out-of-control. A combination of speeds will produce various rhythms which may be either comforting or disconcerting.
In general, the use of slow motion is relegated to lyrical or romantic scenes, though it may be used as well simply to prolong a scene which may be grisly in nature. Fast motion has a comedic quality. A combination of speeds might indicate life out of balance.
- 1. A. Re-read a short story which has been previously discussed in class. (Thus students will be familiar with the story’s plot and theme. We will be using “The Rocking-Horse Winner” by D.H. Lawrence. See 1985 curriculum unit: “A Study of Twentieth Century British Culture Through Art and Literature.”
- ____B. Provide a brief summary of the plot.
- ____C. Articulate the theme.
- ____D. Translate the story to film. Choose three film elements to discuss. For example, how would you use lighting, movement, background music to support the theme? You may choose any of the film elements for discussion.
- ________Scene: climax of story (“The Rocking-Horse Winner”) Paul rides his rocking-horse furiously, envisions the next winner of the Derby, dies.
- ________Lighting: Harsh? Soft? Use of shadows? Subject (Paul) back-lit? Pin points of light used? etc. Explain choices.
- ________Composition: Balanced? Unbalanced? Close-ups? Long-shots?
- ________Would you make use of foreground, middle-ground, background space? Explain.
- ________Movement: How would you underscore the relationship between Paul and his mother through subject movement?
- ________Camera movement: Would you use a pan shot? Slow motion? Explain.
- 2. A. View a television drama of one hour’s duration.
- ____B. Take notes of the use of background music and synchronous and asynchronous sound.
- ____C. Write a summary based on your notes. D. Discuss how uses of film sound supported the work.
- ____D. Discuss ways in which film sound worked to aid viewer understanding of the material at hand. (Were synchronous sound effects used to create suspense? Were asynchronous sound effects used to emphasize a mood or an idea? Explain. Was the background music varied? Why?/Why not?)
Though one might hold Kane’s mother responsible for Kane’s arrested development—noting that her misguided decision to separate Kane from the family at an impressionable age was devastating—one must also note that the emerging public man was deemed successful by society, and/or that his egocentric behavior was not only condoned (by society at large), but often applauded.
Kane’s pursuit of happiness resulted in his deadening isolation, and though this is tragic in itself, the essential tragedy of Citizen Kane concerns the destruction of those myriad others caught in the devastating web of false values and lost idealism. In short, Kane’s loss of idealism symbolizes America’s loss of idealism and/or the essential flaw of the American dream.
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Because Citizen Kane is technically rich, it is suggested that the film be shown to students over a period of three days. Students should be encouraged to jot down examples of the usage of various film elements previously discussed as they view the film. These notes can then be shared in discussion during the last portion of each class period. Individual students will invariably make note of different examples of the variety of film elements. Thus with a minimum of teacher in-put a full-blown discussion will emerge. To insure that most,if not all, of the elements of film are discussed, it is suggested that teachers provide students with note-taking sheets complete with headings for each element. These will not be used during the viewing of the movie. Rather, students will copy their notes on these sheets subsequently. This activity will help to organize the follow-up discussion which will move through the elements of film. The additional time provided for students for copying their notes may also enable them to fill in blank (film element) spots from the memory of their recent viewing of Citizen Kane.
In fact, I asked my students to try note-talking and discussion as a first response to Citizen Kane. My particular class had no difficulties with this, and we enjoyed some interesting discussions. It was particularly interesting to note that a variety of examples of film elements was seen by students. Since essentially every frame of Citizen Kane makes use of some technique derived from film elements, perhaps this was not so surprising. Nevertheless, we learned something from one another, and the spirit of sharing was enjoyed by all.
The following paragraphs provide the teacher of this unit with brief delineations of the elements of film discussed earlier as they relate to Citizen Kane. Some of the information provided must be credited to Sobochack and Sobochack and to Robert L. Carringer, the author of The Making of Citizen Kane. By and large such information appears in direct quotes. Many of the remaining ideas emerged from class discussions, and thus my students are to be credited as well. It must be stated that many of the examples of the use of film sound came from the secondary sources Sound is often noted subliminally, and my students and I were much less successful at observing sound techniques. Thus teachers of this unit might expect to have to share at least this portion of the analysis (derived from secondary sources) with their own students.
The interplay of light and shadow is very often employed in Citizen Kane. Perhaps the most famous example of this occurs when Kane’s face is shadowed s he signs his “Declaration of Principles” prior to printing it in his newly-organized newspaper. An idealistic Kane is depicted here; his principles have to do with printing the truth and fighting for the underdog. Yet, these principles are immediately and essentially overshadowed. The shadowed face of Kane depicts his inability to live by his principles, and/or foreshadows the demise of his idealism.5 As Kane’s power increases so does his ability to “cast shadows” on the lives of others. Thus the film maker often depicts other characters literally in Kane’s shadow so as to illustrate the enormous influence of Kane’s personality—and the destructive quality of his presence.6
“The way in which deep: focus or extended depth of field can show relationships between background and foreground planes is particularly evident in the scene where Kane’s mother signs the guardianship of her son over to Mr. Thatcher (in the foreground). Charles’ father hovers ineffectually in the middle distance while young Charles is visible through the window playing innocently in the snow. Thus the free spirited boy is present in the viewer’s consciousness as we see his mother -put into motion the series of event which will deprive him of his innocence and freedom.”8
Occasionally in Citizen Kane the camera is tilted in order to show entire scenes at an angle. The resultant disequilibrium illustrates a world gone askew. When Kane takes over The Enquirer, the newspaper office is depicted at an angle in order to foreshadow Kane’s subsequent loss of dignity and integrity. Susan’s cluttered room is also shot at an angle; this employment of the device serves to further emphasize Susan’s confusion and unhappiness.
- 1. Suggest that students write paragraphs which articulate the theme of Citizen Kane. Share these writing in class.
- 2. Suggest that students choose a single film element used in Citizen Kane and explain how this element serves to explicate the film’s theme.
- ____A. Try to insure that a variety of elements are chosen by students.
- ____B. Call for an oral presentation in class so that various ideas are shared.
- ____C. Provide time for a second viewing of the film—if students desire. Otherwise, students may refer to their previous notes.
- 3. Compare and contrast the British films of the same time period(see 1987 unit) with Citizen Kane. Comment on thematic similarities and differences.
The paragraphs below provide the teacher of this unit with brief synopses of the stories along with the articulations of themes. In addition, brief examples of narrative strategies employed by the authors are presented. Thus students are encouraged to think generally about the elements of fiction—and in particular—about the techniques used to delineate character in the short story.
The discussion questions provided for students are meant to: 1.) encourage thematic comparison among the short stories and Citizen Kane and 2.) initiate discussion about the translation of fiction into film through a comparison of cinematic and written techniques.
“Clothe the Naked” by Dorothy Parker
“Clothe the Naked” emphasizes the wide abyss between the “haves” and the “have-nots” in American society. The main character, Big Lannie, lives in squalid poverty while her employers, Southern society women, live in luxurious comfort. The many contrasts delineated in the story serve to underscore the corruption of the wealthy and the necessary acquiescence of the poor in “Clothe the Naked”.
Big Lannie accepts the travails of life which include the loss of her husband and children with dignity and stoicism. She finds joy in raising her blind grandson—despite the ardship and fear this responsibility engenars. In contrast, her employers glide through life free from tragedy—ignorant of pain. Their responsibilities include “planting salvia around the cannon in front of the D.A.R. headquarters.”14 Their hardship (losing Lannie as a laundrss when Lannie’s grandson is orphaned) is keenly flat and selfishly handled. “Each arrived at the conclusion that she had been too qood to Big Lannie, and had been imposed upon!15 In fact,only one of Big Lannie’s employers will have her back when Raymond is older and .more self-reliant; though this employer, Mrs. Ewing; prides herself on her kindness, the reader is cognizant of her real motive and of her patronizing attitude.
The climax of the story occurs when Raymond goes for a long-awaited walk wearing clothes grudgingly passed on to him by Mrs. Ewing. Instead of experiencing the simple joy of a walk, Raymond is viciously attacked. The author deliberately describes the attack in an ambiguous way, and thus encourages the readr to see the attack symbolically. Raymond is crushed by the uncaring world which Big Lannie has miraculously managed to survive. One wonders what will happen to Raymond once his protectress is gone.
“Clothe the Naked” is dispassionately told. There is little use of dialogue, and the events of the plot are simply related with no authorial comment. Characters are often revealed through the use of sentence structure. Thus short sentences describe Big Lannie’s situations. The powerful simplicity and straight-forwardness of these sentences mirror Big Lannie’s acceptance of fate and her inherent dignity and innocence. “She neither cursed her ills nor sought remedies for them. They happened to her; there they were.”16 Mrs. Ewin’s character, on the other hand, is illustrated through complex sentence structure comprised of conditional phrases which mark her as an excuse-bound and essentially delwded character. In order to further contrast the characters of Big Lannie and Mrs. Ewing, Parker often juxtaposes the conflicting sentence styles associated with Big Lannie and Mrs. Ewing. In this way, Mrs. Ewing’s false complexity and Big Lannie’s elegant simplicity are underscored; “But Mrs. Ewing, admittedly soft-hearted certainly to a fault and possibly to a peril, kept her black laundress on. More than ever Big Lannie had reason to call her blessed.”17
“Clothe the Naked” (story and title) describes a loss of idealism and a corruption of values in American society. “The Naked” are the poor who are trampled bL thos who worship materialism and power. “The Naked” are also the only surviving innocents in a corruDt Amrican landscape.
“Slipping Beauty” by Jerome Weidnan
“Slipping Beauty” is essentially a vehicle or.the immigrant’s reaction to American values. In fact, two-thirds of the story is comprised of a seltzer salesman’ monologue on American life. Mr. Yavner tlls of two daughters, Yettie and Jennie. Yettie, the older, worked hard learning how to coo and sew while attending business scool in order to procur a steady job (and a husband). Jennie, the younger, quit school in order to read magazines and smoke cigarettes by day, and run around with jobless boys by night. Much to Mr. Yavner’s dismay, Yettie remains husband-less and work-bound while Jennie is arried to a “nice fellah Cwith3 a steady job by the city.”18
Yavner reacts vehemently to te American scene where happiness res ults from the luck of the draw rather than from personal development. Yavner states that there is nothing to learn in America. When a parent’s advice is followed there is no reward while the flouting of parental (old world) values results in “success.” Thus the work ethic seems to result in more work while laziness is rewarded with a life of leisure. In short, the selfish doll is highly regarded in America where imae rather than substance is valued.
“Slipping Beauty” has the structure of the fairy tale or the fable. Mr. Yavner serves as an old-time story-teller of the oral tradition who simply relates the facts and ultimately the moral of the tale. The author provides a brief introductory material which serves as a doorway through which we may view the story teller of years gone by; that is, we are introduced to Mr. Yavner through a “contemporary” character who describes Yavner’s dress, work style, and other idiosyncracies. In this way the author distances us from Mr. Yavner. Both the introductory framing device and the fairy-tale structure of the story serve to underscore the abyss between old world and new world lifestyles, and the reader is called upon to assess the value of the modern existence.
“Prelude” by Albert Halper
“Prelude” is a story of anti-semitism and the spectre of fascism. The immigrant family of father, son, and daughter, the Silversteins, is initially verbally taunted and then finally viciously attacked by a gang of unemployed youths.
The story emphasizes the failure of the melting-pot scheme and the illusiveness of the American dream. The members of the gang are alienated and frustrated, for there is no “American dream” for them. The Silversteins live in isolation in a gentile neighborhood and cannot count or their neighbors for help when thy ar attacked.
The hatred which is born of a segmented or non-cohesive society is ultimately self-destructive; as the daughter points out to her passive neighbors, “ . . . after they get us down they’ll go after you.”19 “They” are any of the unbridled disenfranchised members of society who fight (ironically one another) for a piece of America nuch as a dog might fight his own kind for a bone. “They” are also those people who—having lost a sense of dignity or self-worth—are prime candidates for member:ship in a fascist army.
“Prelude” is told from the point of view of Harry, the son. We are privy to Harry’s thoughts with regard to the events of the story as well as his feelings about his father and sistzr. Harry is a sensitive and intelligent character whom we instinctivelv trust as a narrator. His ability to analyze his sister’s rage and his father’s passivity in the wake of the gang attack, establishes his narration as essentially accurate though passionate. The use of this technique of first-person narration draws the reader into the events of the story. We feel as thou3h we know Harry, for he speaks directly to us. As a result, Harry emerges as a realistic creation, and we, the audience, feel that his world may indeed be ours as well.
- 1. Compare/contrast the characters of Charles Kane and Big Lannie with reard to the ideas of power, strength, and success, What is success?
- 2. Discuss the meanings of the titles of each work.
- 3. Compare Dorothy Parker’s use of symbolism/ambiguity in “Clothe the Naked” with the symbolism inherent in Citizen Kane (Rosebud,etc.) How would you create the ambiguity of the attack on the grandson (“Clothe the Naked”) in a film adaptation of that story?
- 4. Dorothy Parker’s use of conflicting sentence structures with regard to Big Lannie and Mrs. Ewing serves to create rhythms which we associate with each character. How do hese rhythms help to delineate character? How might this establishment of rhythm be accomplished in film? Discuss with regard to various film elements. (Use of background music? Pace of dialogue? Visual rhythm through the use of composition?)
- 5. Why does the author use a contemporary character to introduce us to Mr. Yavner in “Slipping Beauty”? Would such an introduction work in a film adaptation? Why? Why not? If not, what cinematic techniques could you use to create a similar effect?
- 6. Discuss the theme of isolation with regard to Citizen Kane , “Prelude”, “Slipping Beauty”, and “Clothe the Naked”. Why are the characters in each ork isolated? What is the result of this isolation? Reiterate the film techniques which underscored isolation in Citizen Kane. What literary techniques are used to underscore the distance between characters in “Clothe the Naked” and “Slipping Beauty”?
- 7. Compare/contrast the parental concerns dig-played in Citizen Kane, “Slipping Beauty”, and “ Prelude”.
- 8. How does the use of first-person narration help to delineate the character of Harry in “Prelude”? How does this first-person narration affect the reader? Why? How could this narrative technique be used in a film adaptation of “Prelude”? or Would the employment of particular elements of film serve the same purpose? Explain.
- 9. Compare and contrast Mr. Yavner’s (“S1ipping Beauty”) and Mr. Silverstein’s (“Prelude”) feelings about America.
- 10. Discuss the political and personal repercussions the segmented society as delineated i “Preluae”.
The tacher of this unit may wish to further expand the third section or the reading. portion of the unit should student interest in the time period remain high. Thus I include below additional suggestions for short story reading which will further delineate the concerns of American society just prior to World War II. The following descriptions of these stories are simply meant to apprise the teacher of their essential themes, and they are therefore extremely brief.
- 11. Comment on the differences of focus (varying social groups) in the short stories read and the film viewed.
“The Standard of Living” by Dorothy Parker
Parker illustrates the vacuousness of two lower-middle-class shop girls who imitate society women in gesture and attitude while dreaming of the procurement of a million dollars.
“Eight-Oared Crew” by Harry Sylvester
“Eight-Oared Crew” describes the relationship between the immigrant class and the third-generation upper-class of an Ivy League School.
“The Girls in Their Summer Dresses” by Irwin Shaw
Shaw poignantly reveals the loneliness inherent in an upper-class marriage based on convenience and sex rather than on friendship and love.
I hope to work closely with the theatre and writing teachers of our arts program at the Cooperative Migh School in planning this student-produced work. I envision student activity in a variety of arenas including script-writing, acting, directing, and camera work. The school has a “camcorder”, and we will be able to call upon the Center for Theatre Techniques for technical assistance.
At this point such a project looms large in my mind. I am cogizant of the fact that this is a project which can evolve only through the cooperative efforts of a variety of players, and that I cannot with any certainty map out a comprehensive plan for film production at this point in time.
Yet, ideas are beginning to emerge even now through discussions with my seminar fellows and others. Perhaps we will be able to film the process of learning about film which will culminate in another film making activity.Perhaps we will go beyond film adaptation in order to create a film which will cature th thoughts, dreams, or themes which are foremost in the minds of our students. If this idea of film production seems am biguous(and surely it is), it is exciting in its possibilities as well. Realizing that one must begin the process—even amidst the initial brain-storming phases of creation—I include below one final exercise for students which is simply meant to encourage a preliminary discussion on the film adaptation of a particular short story.
- 1. What kind of film stock would you choose for the particular story at hand? Why?
- 2. What use would you make of lighting? Why?
- 3. What would be the composition of your first shot? (Would you use a long-shot? Close-up? High-angle shot? Low-angle shot? Why?)
- 4. How would you use either camera movement or subject movement to make a statement about the character(s) presented?
- 5. Discuss the pace and volume of the dialogue presented in the inital scene.
- 6. What use would you make of synchronous and asynchronous sound effects? Why?
- 7. Choose a song or a melody which would serve as background music for the opening scene. Why is this song particularly appropriate?
“Clothe the Naked” by Dorothy Parker
“Slipping Beauty” by Jerome Weidman
“Prelude” by Albert Halper
“The Standard of Living” by Dorothy Parker
“Eight-Oared Crew” by Harry Sylvester
“The Girls in Their Summer Dresses” by Irwin Shaw
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This fascinating book providessa”back-stage’. Iook at film creation. It is a comprehensive technical study of Citizen Kane which includes discussions on scripting, art direction, and cinematography.
Crane, Milton, ed. 50 Great American Short Stories. New York: Bantam Books, 1963.
This fine collection of American short stories is representative of the USA, for it includes regional and ethnic works.
Giannetti, Louis. Understanding Movies. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1987.
This fine text deals with such cinematic subjects as: theory, acting, editing, and sound.
Goodman, Robert L., ed. 75 Short Masterpieces. New York: Bantam Books, 1961.
This anthology of short fiction from world literature includes many well-known and lesser-known masterpieces. Sobochack! Thomas and Vivian. An Introduction to Film. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1987.
This text provides the film student with easy-to-follow explanations of a variety of film elements. Many illustrations both visual and written—serve to delineate (a working) film vocabulary.
Taggart, Ernestine, ed. 20 American Stories. New York: Mantam Books, 1947.
This anthology provides many student-tested/ high-interest American short stories.
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The 39 Steps
Contents of 1988 Volume IV | Directory of Volumes | Index | Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute