The Macomber Affair (1947), Ernie and the Movies

*Spoilers Abound Below*

Ernest Hemingway may have loathed most of the translations of his own stories to film, and sometimes with good reason. Happy endings were tacked on to many of his stories. In The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952) a conflicted hero lived, despite a touch of systemic septicemia, a gangrenous leg, and a heckuva death wish. (The author fumed and called it ‘The Snows of Zanuck’ in private). Political realities were sometimes lost. For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) does not seem to have a commie in sight and only one mention of a fascist is made, at least by name. Evocative situations were embellished. The Killers (1946) left Hemingway’s terse masterpiece behind after the first superb fifteen minutes, but the author expressed some liking for that one despite this amplification, (his acceptance of the film may have been partly due to the presence of Ava Gardner and the likability of the producer, Mark Hellinger). “A fat actor”–in Hemingway’s words–played one of his best characters when an aging Spencer Tracy took the lead in The Old Man and the Sea (1958)  a novella that led to the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to the writer in 1954. Other, lesser known adaptations of Hemingway stories fared a bit better, with glimmers of the writer’s elusive style in A Farewell to Arms (1932), and The Breaking Point (1950).

Of course, Ernie wasn’t allergic to the money the studios tossed in his lap for these tales, though he was miffed when he learned what some of them eventually earned after he sold the rights to the books to filmmakers. He reportedly didn’t speak to Howard Hawks for six months after he challenged the director to make a movie from what Hawks called “his worst book”; only to have To Have and To Have Not become a giant hit, even though the story had little to do with the original novel.  Nor did he disdain the company of the beautiful and the gifted people who sometimes took roles in these movies. Who can blame him for feeling the pull of the glamorous company of his hunting buddy Gary Cooper, beautiful Ava Gardner or the glorious Ingrid Bergman, among others?

As early as 1926, when The Sun Also Rises became a best selling account of the wounded and rootless members of The Lost Generation adrift in Europe, Maxwell Perkins, the renowned Scribner’s editor, asked his suddenly famous author how he wanted him to field inquiries from the movie capital. Hemingway replied “As for movie rights please do the best you can i.e. the best money you can get–I do not go to the movies and would not care what changes they made. That is their gain or loss. I don’t write movies.”

Later in life the writer gave this advice to other scribes: “Let me tell you about writing for films. You finish your book. Now, you know where the California State Line is? Well, you drive right up to that line, take your manuscript and pitch it across. First, let them toss the money over. Then, you throw it over, pick up the money and get the hell out of there.” According to his last wife, Mary Hemingway, her husband “sold his books to the movies, then he paid absolutely no attention whatsoever to what they did with them. He made no effort in any way…his theory being that whatever he might try to do wouldn’t be effective anyhow.” Hemingway probably had that right, since writers tend to be the lowest men and women on the Hollywood totem pole–especially in the studio era.

I’m probably in the minority, but I enjoy many of the Hollywood adaptations of Hemingway‘s work–sometimes for some unintended yuks, (the rather long in the tooth casting in The Sun Also Rises in 1957, for instance), and other times for the tangential characters, (Errol Flynn’s touching if sodden Mike Campbell in The Sun Also Rises, the raft of marvelous character actors in For Whom the Bell Tolls, certain silent moments in George C. Scott’s performance in the uneven Islands in the Stream). My enjoyment of these movies may be a bit of a guilty pleasure at times, but that is not because they are necessarily equal to Hemingway’s storytelling or better than the author’s original, (they’re not), but because they can send viewers such as me back to his writing.  After reading Hemingway‘s short stories again recently, I felt as if I’d rediscovered some forgotten treasure, able to appreciate with new eyes how he captures the unspoken experiences of this world and gracefully revealed the depths of ambiguity in our every day life.

I can understand this writer’s impatience with Hollywood’s sometimes literal-minded and censorious way with his often beautifully written, honest stories. Unfortunately, I grew up in the period since the writer’s death, when his macho image was often confused with his writing, and his sad, elderly frat boy tendencies–particularly during his last years, was not really indicative of his creative achievements.

I’ve been in English classes where professors seemed almost apologetic about his former reputation as the Great American Novelist, seemingly as embarrassed by his one-time status as if they were personally responsible for his macho posturing and alleged misogyny that have too often overshadowed his words. It was as if the academics were ashamed to admit that their profession had once proclaimed a Sara Teasdale on a par with John Milton.

Personally, I tend to think there were two Hemingways, one a writer and one a celebrity. One is the fine prose stylist and craftsman whose acknowledgment of the ambivalence of our lives sometimes made him an artist, despite all the folderol that went with his fame. The other one was a public blowhard, blustering and proclaiming his manliness. The latter always sounds pretty insufferable and only occasionally endearing, especially when you realize how much fear must have been behind the facade. I suspect that each of us has met his ilk (or imitators) more times than we like to recall in numerous pubs, parties, gas stations, golf courses and college campuses.

After deciding that I ought to stick with his words and try to skip the movies, I was sucked back into one of the cinematic adaptations of Hemingway’s finest short stories recently when The Macomber Affair (1947), directed by Zoltan Korda, came my way. It may be one of the best Hemingway stories on film, though it’s not without its troubles as a movie. First published in Cosmopolitan Magazine in 1936, “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber” explored the disintegration of a marriage, as well as the themes of fear, death, and sexuality that were constants in the writer’s works. Based at least in part on an incident on an actual event during safari that Hemingway may have learned from his friends and African hunters Philip Percival or Baron Bror von Blixen, the characters may have been based on actual people, but the story is compelling on its own terms.

The story concerns events set in Africa between the wars. When a veteran hunting guide, Robert Wilson (Gregory Peck) escorts a moneyed American couple (Robert Preston & Joan Bennett) on a safari in Kenya, the wife, it becomes clear, loathes hunting almost as much as her husband, and even herself, scoffing at them as they chase “some helpless animals in a motor car [enabling] you [to] talk like heroes.”

The underlying tensions of the triangle that forms among these people becomes clearer after the title character, Francis Macomber, disgraces himself by running away while pursuing a lion with Wilson. His humiliation is complete after his fuming wife, Margaret, brazenly kisses the dumbfounded hunting guide in front of her shattered husband. The journey, it becomes clear, is not so much a pursuit of wild animals and a test of skill, but a test of wills. The scales of power in the married couple’s relationship, already frayed by the wife’s past infidelities and the husband’s outward swagger compensating for his own sense of his inadequacy, wavers further as they torment one another. Macomber, an insecure man who knows that his wife is only with him because of his money, finds himself haunted by a sense of fear when he hears a lion’s roar in the night, eroding any sense of self-worth further.

Gradually, the fissures in the resentful couple’s marriage play out as they continue their pursuit of animals on the Serengeti Plain. When Macomber awakens from his restless sleep in the middle of the night to discover that his wife is not in her cot, she returns near dawn, explaining only that she had gone to get a breath of air. The following day, after Wilson and Mrs. Macomber ignore the husband’s simmering rage, the trio depart camp in pursuit of buffalo, though this time, the husband doesn’t run from an encounter with a wounded wild beast. His new found fearlessness leads him to experience a sense of confidence he has never known. As he stands in the path of a charging buffalo that he, Wilson and the gun bearers prepare to shoot, Mrs. Macomber, left back in the car, also lifts her gun and tries to prevent the animal from overwhelming Francis. As shots ring out from behind him, Macomber falls dead. Margaret insists that she was trying to kill the animal before it could trample Francis and missed. Given her previous contempt for her husband, the crying widow is confronted by a disgusted Wilson, who says “That was a pretty thing to do,” and is left to face the inquiry alone. Softening a bit, Wilson concedes that “Of course it’s an accident…I know that.” In the original story, the conclusion is as follows:

“Stop it,” she said.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “There will he a certain amount of unpleasantness but I will have some photographs taken that will be very useful at the inquest. There’s the testimony of the gun-bearers and the driver too. You’re perfectly all right.”
“Stop it,” she said.
“There’s a hell of a lot to be done,” he said. “And I’ll have to send a truck off to the lake to wireless for a plane to take the three of us into Nairobi. Why didn’t you poison him? That’s what they do in England.”
“Stop it. Stop it. Stop it,” the woman cried.
Wilson looked at her with his flat blue eyes.
“I’m through now,” he said. “I was a little angry. I’d begun to like your husband.”
“Oh, please stop it,” she said. “Please, please stop it.
“That’s better,” Wilson said. “Please is much better. Now I’ll stop.”

Inevitably, the brutally elegant minimalism of the story and its nuanced qualities were augmented by the cinematic version. The eleven thousand, two hundred and forty word story is written largely in dialogue, and leaves a bitter and tragically ironic impression, with shifting viewpoints among the people and even the animals that they are hunting. When this movie was made, however, the viewpoint of the story shifted to the Wilson character, who seems to be a man cast in a heroic mold, but who isn’t averse to a bit of discreet adultery or chasing animals from bush vehicles, which could cost him his license and, in his own words, “simply isn’t considered sporting.”

Another aspect of the story that is changed in the film is that it begins with an awkward flashback, giving Wilson an omniscience that his character did not enjoy in the story. I suspect that this change was done in order to exploit Peck‘s relatively new star status, just as the advertising slogans touting that “Gregory Peck makes that Hemingway kind of love to Joan Bennett” were intended to bring in audiences, (even though there is precious little love in this movie).

Peck‘s casting as Robert Wilson, an English hunter who acts as a guide who escorts rich people on safaris in Kenya was unfortunate, even if it was box office insurance. While the remarkably handsome Peck became a better actor as he grew older, at this stage, the actor’s humorless and serious mien makes Wilson a conventional heroic character, without suggesting the character’s inward nature and a man with the gravitas of a person who has been tested by many experiences in life. Instead, he is a tad ambiguous and a bit of a stinker, (which, come to think of it, is also how Peck appeared in the later Hemingway film, The Snows of Kilimanjaro). The part, which would have been perfect for Trevor Howard, is a bit stiff in Peck’s then callow, self-conscious hands. His character only superficially appears to be a noble character in the story, but we eventually learn that he is a man who “brings a double cot” on safari to take advantage of anything (or any wife) that falls into his lap.

Wilson is also intolerant of much of human weakness and dismissive of women, entreating the ineffectual Macomber to order his wife to stay in camp whenever they venture on a hunting expedition. Wilson’s perceptions often seem deliberately obtuse, though his vacillations and fluctuating sympathies might have indicated a man who has accepted that he can only know a part of any other person’s life. Ultimately, he seems to be a man who goes through life accepting people as they come, believing that understanding the joyous moments in a man’s life is best left unexamined. When an exhilirated Macomber tries to talk about the sensation he experiences during a successful hunt, he cuts the man off, explaining that it “[d]oesn’t do to talk too much about all this. Talk the whole thing away. No pleasure in anything if you mouth it up too much.”

Hemingway, according to a story told by A.E. Hotchner, once received an urgent long distance call from 20th Century Fox’s Darryl F. Zanuck.  The mogul requested that the author help his staff to shorten the ironic title of “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,”  and asked for the author’s suggestions.  Hemingway was said to have asked Darryl if he had his pencil ready and proceeded to say  “you want something short and exciting that will catch the eye of both sexes, right?” He then proceeded, using the letters drawn from the bigger Hollywood studio names, he spelled out the F-word. “That should fit all the marquees and you can’t beat it as a sex symbol.” Eventually, Zanuck titled the film “The Macomber Affair,” though he never made the movie. Ultimately, the film project kept that title but was made independently by Benedict Bogeaus, a real estate magnate who distributed the film through United Artists along with veteran Hollywood hand Casey Robinson.

Robinson, a veteran screenwriter, whose deft adaptations of everything from Captain Blood to Tovarich to Now, Voyager had led to an Oscar nomination for Captain Blood‘s script and a fine reputation. Robinson was also close to Gregory Peck, who owed his friend a picture, as the result of an agreement made when he first arrived in Hollywood. With Peck as an uncredited producer, Korda, Robinson and Bogeaus made the movie appear to be shot in Africa, using second unit footage of Africa and location shooting in remote Mexico. Praised when it was released for the realism of the settings, Variety said that the “closeups of lions and other denizens of the veldt, and scenes in which lion and water buffalo charge, caught with telescopic lenses by camera crew sent to Africa from England, will stir any audience”, though the seams show rather badly today when viewing these portions of the movie. Part of “opening up the story” also included adding British femme fatale Jean Gillie of Decoy (1946) fame to the cast in a small part as a bitter bartender pining after Greg. This throwaway role would be her last appearance on film, since she would die the next year of pneumonia at the age of 33. The always reliable if unnecessary Reginald Denny also appears in one of his stalwart representative of the Empire parts, as a British official who offers a sympathetic, if nosey, ear to Peck’s allegedly conscience-stricken White Hunter. (Denny‘s character seems to have taken a wrong turn on the road from Manderley, winding up pushing papers in Nairobi, with no de Winters in sight).

Thanks to the overriding requirements for a neat, conventional moral ending to appease the Production Code office, the film ending goes on to imply that Mrs. Macomber is valiantly going to take her medicine and that Wilson, suddenly feeling love underneath his lust and disdain, might be waiting for her once she finishes her likely prison sentence. Despite this leaden compromise, and the miscasting of Peck, the redeeming features of the story are upheld by two under-appreciated actors in this film: Robert Preston and Joan Bennett.

Preston, near the end of his long term contract with Paramount, where he had often played second lead to Alan Ladd, gives a performance of eloquent, palpable discomfort portraying a character who is both disturbingly paranoid and full of bluster, but also a tragically immature and lonely man, hunting for some meaning in a rich man’s distractions and meaningless acts of aggression. Hemingway describes his character this way: “Francis Macomber was very tall, very well built if you did not mind that length of bone, dark, his hair cropped like an oarsman, rather thin-lipped, and was considered handsome. He was dressed in the same sort of safari clothes that Wilson wore except that his were new, he was thirty-five years old, kept himself very fit, was good at court games, had a number of big-game fishing records, and had just shown himself, very publicly, to be a coward.”

The actor plays Macomber against his normal wholesome, hearty types in films of this period, as one of “the great American boy-men,” conveying his discomfort when he hears the lion roar on a par with his anxiousness to keep on good terms with his wife, claiming that he’s “fallen in love with her all over again,” even as she rolls her eyes and rolls over to go to sleep. Preston lends this normally unlikable but vulnerable and vaguely comic character a poignancy despite his fear and shame–even though these qualities repel his wife and compels Wilson to regard him coldly, at least until his experience with the buffalo leads the guide to like him again rather than pity him. His transformation after this event, seemingly so life-changing, becomes a brief coda to a largely pointless life, tragic for just a moment because he loses that life by accident or design when he was finally freed of his anxiety. Preston, whose work on stage, live television and in smaller films (notably Blood on the Moon (1948) and Cloudburst (1951), among others), helped to develop his gifts, leading to his most popular role in The Music Man (1962) on stage and screen–though his excellent work in The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1960) nd All the Way Home (1963) also deserve revival along with The Macomber Affair to appreciate the range of this man’s talent.

Joan Bennett, whose 100th birthday passed by last Saturday on Feb. 27th, may have done her best work in the 1940s, beginning with her appearance in director Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt (1941) and continuing through The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945) as well as The Secret Beyond the Door (1948).  Never given her full due as an actress, she was more than a film noir femme fatale, and her work with Lang as well as Jean Renoir in The Woman on the Beach (1947) Max Ophuls in The Reckless Moment (1949) and her comedic work with Raoul Walsh and Vincente Minnelli–not to mention her early role as Amy in George Cukor’s Little Women (1933) makes her career deserving of a true retrospective. This role, as Margaret Macomber, required Bennett to play “an extremely handsome and well-kept woman of the beauty and social position which had, five years before, commanded five thousand dollars as the price of endorsing, with photographs, a beauty product which she had never used.”

Using her dark, rather sulky beauty and soft, yet brittle voice to convey her gift for off-hand, silken sarcasm to indicate this unhappy creature’s boldness was probably easy for the actress by this time. Bennett gets a great deal of mileage out of Mrs. Macomber’s needling of her mate, bringing a touch of humor to the story. When being served meat at the dining table in their tent on the day when her husband has proven himself a coward, she brightens visibly and Wilson comments that she’s “very merry.”

After saying pointedly that she didn’t come out here to be dull,” she expands on this line of emasculation masking as dinner conversation: “It’s been charming. And tomorrow. You don’t know how I look forward to tomorrow.” Wilson points out that “That’s eland he’s offering you,” to which she replies, with a straight face, “They’re the big cowy things that jump like hares, aren’t they?”  In arch dialogue that was taken directly from Hemingway’s story, Wilson says drily, “I suppose that describes them,”

“It’s very good meat,” Macomber said. “Did you shoot it, Francis?” she asked.
“Yes.”
“They’re not dangerous, are they?”
“Only if they fall on you,” Wilson told her.
“I’m so glad.”

This seemingly bland banter became a highly polished game in the hands of this actress, whose smooth handling of the peevish dialogue and the explosive subtext is one of the reasons she is such a pleasure to watch working.

What is unexpected about Joan Bennett‘s performance was the manner in which her mood changes, from bitchy gayness to cold rage to melancholy despair, expressed her character’s sense of futility over the miserable existence she, as well as her husband, knew that they had created for each other in their marriage. Despite that tacked-on ending that was, according to Gregory Peck, “the best they could to do,” given the PCA’s requirements of the time (and Hemingway‘s silent refusal to write an alternate ending), her bleak expression and tortured realization that even she is unsure if she shot her husband by accident or by design belie the rather pat, conventional ending.

Director Zoltan Korda was the less well known brother of Alexander and Vincent Korda, the Hungarian brothers whose high standards and storytelling ability helped to develop the British cinema, all the while–at least when Alexander held the reins–upholding the values of the British Empire. Zoltan, (seen below at the right with his brother Alexander sipping tea on the left) was a much more liberal man, whose pugnacious style and political sympathies put him in some conflict with his more powerful brothers and his co-workers at times. A former cavalry officer, the director had begun as a camera man, been an editor, and helmed movies after joining London Films, controlled by Alexander Korda. Stubborn and fiery, he was intolerant of others at times, but a man whose determination, flair for depicting stories of high adventure in a realistic way may have helped to make him a good choice for The Macomber Affair. A man who did not like noise, or distractions on his sets (or in life, apparently), he could be curt and seemed rather rude to some.*

Many of Zoltan Korda‘s films, especially those set in Africa and Asia, often tell stories sympathetic to the underdog, and a native people’s POV, as seen in Sanders of the River (1935),  Elephant Boy (1938, directed with Robert Flaherty), and Sahara (1943), among others–though his work in collaboration with his royalty-loving brother Alexander usually reflects an identification with the British. Zoltan Korda also had a gift for eliciting some very good performances from actors whose work had previously been lackluster. Ralph Richardson’s moving portrayal in Four Feathers (1939) and Canada Lee’s exceptionally fine acting as a grief stricken father in apartheid South Africa in Cry, the Beloved Country (1951) are examples of Zoltan‘s gift in coaxing fine work from actors who had previously not had many opportunities to shine on film. Interestingly, though the African characters played by Earl Smith and Hassan Said, are given some dignity on film, bristling when Macomber’s bullying steps over the line, their characters remain as shadowy as the trees and noble animals being seen in the background of The Macomber Affair.

Instead, Korda brought out the values of the story through the intimate frames of Karl Struss‘s cinematography, evoking the heat of the African plains, the dramatic Miklós Rózsa score, and the screenplay of Casey Robinson (who is credited with the script and story along with Seymour Bennett and Frank Arnold). Their efforts to flesh out some of Hemingway‘s story and amend the adult aspects of the story may not have been entirely successful, but some hard kernel of misanthropic truth, the mystery of human relations, and the bitter heart of the original can still be savored on screen, despite some distortions.

We are left to wonder what destroyed Francis Macomber? His wife’s enmity or his own foolish pursuit of manliness and escape from fear?  I suspect that Ernie would have liked his open-ended story remaining just a bit elusive beyond Hollywood’s grasp.  This film, which was hailed by most critics upon release as catching the tone of Hemingway‘s story (despite that denouement),  used to be shown on television regularly, may occasionally show up in an archival or revival theater showing, but is not currently available commercially nor has it been broadcast in recent years, to the best of my knowledge. If anyone knows more about the fate of this film, I hope they will share their information here.

_____________________________________

*In one story that is told by several sources with variations, Zoltan Korda is said to have lost his temper with the sometimes blundering Bogeaus on the set of The Macomber Affair. Producer Benedict Bogeaus, arriving during a tricky scene involving the filming of a wild buffalo, enthused to the frustrated Korda that he’d come up with an even better title for the movie, exultantly saying that it should be called “Congo! Congo!” Removing a knife from his pocket (some reports claim it was a switch blade), Korda “encouraged” the producer to leave his set after promising, in his Hungarian accent “to remove his leever” if he returned. Maybe this story is apocryphal, but it is undeniably colorful. Other Zoltan Korda stories include one in which the director told a luncheon companion to stop making crunching noise by eating Melba toast. When she persisted, Korda is alleged to have reached across the table to forcibly suppress her munching. While the director may have had a temper, Joan Bennett wrote in a letter home from location that “Mr. Korda couldn’t be nicer and is a wonderful director.” I guess Joan didn’t make noise when she supped on those “big cowy things that jump like hares.”

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The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber by Ernest Hemingway, (complete text online here in PDF format at Duke University site).

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Sources:

Haney, Lynn, Gregory Peck: A Charmed Life, Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2005.

Hemingway, Ernest, The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, Simon and Schuster, 1998.

Hemingway, Ernest, Bruccoli, Matthew J., Perkins, Maxwell, The Only Thing That Counts: The Ernest Hemingway/Maxwell Perkins Correspondence 1925-1947, Univ. of South Carolina Press, 1999.

Hemingway, Ernest, Hotchner, A.E., DeFazio, Albert J., Dear Papa, Dear Hotch: The Correspondence of Ernest Hemingway and A.E. Hotchner, Univ. of Missouri Press, 2005.

Kellow, Brian, The Bennetts: An Acting Family, University Press of Kentucky, 2004.

Korda, Michael, Charmed Lives: A Family Romance, Random House, 1979.

Mason, Alane Salierno, A Comedy With Animals, Boston Review, February/March, 2001.

Reynolds, Michael S., Hemingway: The Final Years, W. W. Norton & Company, 2000.

6 Responses The Macomber Affair (1947), Ernie and the Movies
Posted By Suzi : March 6, 2010 4:18 pm

I am also fond of Hemingway adaptations by Hollywood. I always like the romanticized characters, especially if they are expatriates. And, Errol Flynn is downright touching in THE SUN ALSO RISES. I think my favorite is THE SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO, even if EH himself didn’t like it. Susan Hayward gives a lot of weight to her character because of her tough-as-nails star image. Great post as always, Moira.

Posted By Suzi : March 6, 2010 4:18 pm

I am also fond of Hemingway adaptations by Hollywood. I always like the romanticized characters, especially if they are expatriates. And, Errol Flynn is downright touching in THE SUN ALSO RISES. I think my favorite is THE SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO, even if EH himself didn’t like it. Susan Hayward gives a lot of weight to her character because of her tough-as-nails star image. Great post as always, Moira.

Posted By mongo : March 6, 2010 6:09 pm

Another winner, Moira. The last time I saw “The Macomber Affair” was on the Million Dollar Movie in Brooklyn, New York.
I guess my favorite is “The Old Man and the Sea”, Spencer Tracy was outstanding.

Posted By mongo : March 6, 2010 6:09 pm

Another winner, Moira. The last time I saw “The Macomber Affair” was on the Million Dollar Movie in Brooklyn, New York.
I guess my favorite is “The Old Man and the Sea”, Spencer Tracy was outstanding.

Posted By kingrat : March 8, 2010 5:16 pm

Great post! I’d love to see THE MACOMBER AFFAIR, and thank you for the references to Robert Preston’s other films. Later in his career, he steals every scene from Steve McQueen in JUNIOR BONNER, the same way Bonner appropriates Junior’s horse. I don’t like the film, but Preston is super.

Posted By kingrat : March 8, 2010 5:16 pm

Great post! I’d love to see THE MACOMBER AFFAIR, and thank you for the references to Robert Preston’s other films. Later in his career, he steals every scene from Steve McQueen in JUNIOR BONNER, the same way Bonner appropriates Junior’s horse. I don’t like the film, but Preston is super.

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