Long-running television shows are like the proverbial elephant: they feel very different depending on where (or when, in case of a TV series) you touch one.  A few, like Bonanza or C.S.I., have gone for a decade or so without changing much, but those are the exceptions.  Most of the time, there are significant changes along the way in a show’s cast, producers, writers, premise, setting, tone, or budget, and these inevitably affect its quality.

I always think of Rawhide, a popular western which ran on CBS from 1959 to 1965, as the most extreme example of this phenomenon.  On the surface, one episode of Rawhide looks more or less like any other.  It began as the story of a cattle drive, and remained true to that concept for most of its eight seasons (actually, six and two half-seasons, since it began as a midyear replacement and closed as a midyear cancellation).  The stars were Eric Fleming as the trail boss and Clint Eastwood, a sidekick who almost but not quite achieved co-lead status, as his ramrod.  A few secondary cowboys came and went, but the only major cast change occurred in the last year, when Fleming was replaced by a worn-looking John Ireland.

Behind the scenes, though, the creative turnover was significant, and the types of stories that comprised Rawhide changed with each new regime.  A thumbnail production history is in order.

The creator of Rawhide was Charles Marquis Warren, a writer and director of B movie westerns who had played a significant role in transitioning the radio hit Gunsmoke to television in 1955.  Warren stayed with Rawhide for its first three years (longer than he had remained on Gunsmoke, or would last on his next big TV hit, The Virginian).  For the fourth season, CBS elevated Rawhide’s story editor, Hungarian-born screenwriter Endre Bohem, to the producer’s chair.  Vincent M. Fennelly, a journeyman who had produced Trackdown and Stagecoach West, took over for the fifth and sixth seasons.  During the seventh year, the team of Bruce Geller and Bernard L. Kowalski succeeded Fennelly, only to be fired in December and replaced by a returning Endre Bohem.  A final team, comprising executive producer Ben Brady and producer Robert E. Thompson, couldn’t save Rawhide from cancellation halfway through its eighth season.

Most Rawhide fans will tell you that the early seasons are the best.  I can guess why they think that, but I believe they’re wrong.  Warren’s version of Rawhide played it safe, telling traditional western stories with predictable resolutions.  The writers were second-rate, and Warren padded their  thin plots with endless shots of migrating “beeves.”  Warren was content to deploy totemic western tropes – Indian attacks, evil land barons, Confederate recidivists – in the same familiar ways that the movies had used them for decades.

During the Bohem and Fennelly years, things began to improve.  Both producers brought in talented young writers, including Charles Larson and future Star Trek producer Gene L. Coon, who contributed quirky anecdotes like “The Little Fishes” (Burgess Meredith as a dreamer transplanting a barrel of fragile Maine shad fry to the Sacramento River) and pocket-sized epics like the amazing “Incident of the Dogfaces” (James Whitmore as a malevolent but terrifyingly effective cavalry sergeant).  There were still episodes that coasted on routine genre action, but they alternated with meaty, character-driven pieces.

When Kowalski and Geller (the eventual creators of Mission: Impossible) took over Rawhide in 1964, they pulled off a daring experiment that has never been matched in the history of television.  The new producers upended Rawhide, dismantling western myths and muddying genre barriers with surgical precision and undisguised glee.  Geller and Kowalski commissioned teleplays like “Corporal Dasovik,” a Vietnam allegory which portrayed the cavalry as slovenly, dishonorable, and homicidal, and “The Meeting,” a surreal clash between the drovers and a prototypical mafia on a weirdly barren plain.  The two-part “Damon’s Road” was a rowdy shaggy-dog comedy, complete with infectious Geller-penned showtunes (“Ten Tiny Toes”) and a subplot that reduces Fleming’s square-jawedhero to buffoonery, pushing a railroad handcar across the prairie in his longjohns.

Geller and Kowalski’s Rawhide segments may be the finest television westerns ever made.  Taken as a whole, they represent a comprehensive rebuke to the myth of the Old West.  They anticipate the brutal, disillusioned revisionist western films made by Sam Peckinpah and others in the following decade.  Peckinpah’s The Westerner (1959) and Rod Serling’s The Loner (1965-1966) touch upon some of the same ideas, but they do not take them as far.  Not until Deadwood, forty years later, did television produce another western that looked, felt, and smelled like the seventh season of Rawhide.

The only problem with the Geller-Kowalski Rawhide, which the producers undoubtedly understood, was that it had little to do with the Rawhide that had come before.  Many observers just didn’t get it, including Eric Fleming, who refused to perform some of the material.   (Eastwood, apparently, got the idea, and Geller and Kowalski shifted their attention from Fleming’s character to his.)  Another non-believer was William S. Paley, the president of CBS, who was aghast at what had been done to one of his favorite programs.  Paley fired Geller, Kowalski, and their story editor Del Reisman midseason in what they termed “the Christmas Eve Massacre.”  Paley uttered one of television history’s most infamous quotes when he ordered their replacements to “put the cows back in.”

During the final year of Rawhide, the new producers did just that.  The series attracted some talented young directors and actors, including Raymond St. Jacques as TV’s first black cowboy.  But no one took any chances in the storytelling.

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Critics don’t have much value if they neglect to interrogate their own assumptions, question their long-held opinions.  Which explains why I’ve been slogging through the first and second season of Rawhide, screening the episodes I hadn’t seen before and looking for glimmers of life that I might have missed.  Most of the segments I watched in this go-round proved to be just as handsomely mounted, and fatally tedious, as the rest.  But one episode, “Incident of the Blue Fire,” triggered some doubts about my dismissal of Charles Marquis Warren, and led me to write this piece.

“Incident of the Blue Fire” (originally broadcast on December 11, 1959) is a little masterpiece about a cowhand named Lucky Markley, who believes he’s a jinx and whose frequent mishaps gradually convince the superstitious drovers that he’s right.  It sounds like one of those dead-end cliches that I listed in my description of the Warren era above.  But the writer, John Dunkel, and Warren, who directed, get so many details just right that “Incident of the Blue Fire” dazzled me with its authenticity, its rich atmosphere, and its moving, ironic denouement.

Dunkel’s script gives the herders a problem that is specific to their situation, rather than TV western-generic.  They’re moving across the plains during a spell of weather so humid that the constant heat lightning threatens to stampede the cattle.  The drovers swap stories about earlier stampedes, trying to separate truth from legend, to find out if any of them have actually seen one.  Eastwood’s character, Rowdy Yates, averts a stampede just before it begins, and explains to his boss how he spotted the one skittish animal.  Favor, the trail boss, replies that Rowdy should have shot the troublemaker as soon as he recognized it.  These cowboys are professional men, discussing problems and solutions in technical terms, like doctors or lawyers in a medical or legal drama.

Then Lucky appears, asking to join the drive with thirty-odd mavericks that he has rounded up.  “Those scrawny, slab-sided, no-good scrub cows?” Favor asks.  Not unkindly, he dispels Lucky’s illusions about the value of his cattle.  Lucky shrugs it off, and negotiates to tag along with Favor’s herd to the next town.  Then Favor and one of his aides debate the merits of allowing a stranger to join them.  In one brief, matter-of-fact scene, Dunkel introduces viewers to an unfamiliar way of making a living in the west and to a type of man who might undertake it.

Warren directs this unpretentious material with casual confidence.  He gets a nuanced performance from Skip Homeier, whose Lucky is proud and quick to take offense, but also smart and eager to ingratiate himself with others.  Warren’s pacing is measured, but it’s appropriate to a story of men waiting for something to happen.  Tension mounts palpably in scenes of men doing nothing more than sitting around the campfire, uttering Dunkel’s flavorful lines:

WISHBONE: Somethin’ about them clouds hangin’ low.  And the heat.  Sultry-like.  It’s depressin’, for animals and men.

COWHAND: Yep, it’s the kind of weather old Tom Farnsworth just up and took his gun, shot hisself, and nobody knowed why.

“Incident of the Blue Fire” features some unusually poetic lighting and compositions.  Much of it was shot day-for-night, outdoors, and the high-key imagery creates, visually, the quality of stillness in the air that the cattlemen remark upon throughout the show.  (The cinematographer was John M. Nickolaus, Jr., who went on to shoot The Outer Limits, alternating with Conrad Hall.)  There’s an eerie beauty to many of the images, like this simple close-up of Eric Fleming framed against the sky.

Does one terrific episode alter my take on the early Rawhide years?  No – they’re still largely a bore.  But now I can concede that Charles Marquis Warren was probably after something worthwhile, a quotidian idea of the old west as a place of routine work and minor incident.  That the series lapsed into drudgery much of the time, that the stories usually turned melodramatic at all the wrong moments, can be lain at the feet of a mediocre writing pool.  Or, perhaps, Warren capitulated too willingly to the network’s ideas of where and how action had to fit into a western.  But Rawhide had a great notion at its core, and that explains how the show could flourish into brilliance when later producers, better writers, were given enough room to make something out of it.

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Last month, writing about Wagon Train, I advanced the theory that long-running series sometimes wound their way into strange tangents that only a combination of ratings invulnerability and creative fatigue could explain.  Now that all of Wagon Train’s seventh and penultimate season has been released on DVD, alongside a selection of episodes from all the others, there is ample opportunity to study that phenomenon in practice.

By its sixth season, Wagon Train had experienced the sudden death of one lead, Ward Bond, and the departure of the other, Robert Horton, to pursue other opportunities (mostly dinner theater, as it worked out).  The actors who replaced them were not stars.  Veteran supporting player John McIntire (then best known as the sheriff in Hitchcock’s recent hit Psycho) became the new wagonmaster, and blond ex-movie Tarzan Denny Miller took over as the train’s scout.  I guess NBC figured that the real attraction was the guest stars, although by 1962, Wagon Train wasn’t even spending much money on those.  Judging by the evidence on the screen, Wagon Train barely had enough money to get a completed film in the can.  Episodes routinely opened with stock footage montages, overlaid with meaningless narration by McIntire, in a blatant move to pad their length.  In one case, this drivel runs for a full six minutes before the show gets around to an actual storyline.  I’m convinced that something so shockingly lazy could get on the air only in a  “flyover show” – one so unhip and purely commercial that none of the network or studio executives in charge actually watched it.

In other words, after five years, Wagon Train was a case study of a show that had outlived every reason to endure other than ratings.  Occasionally this creative exhaustion led to fascinating oddities like “The Abel Weatherly Story,” a January 1963 episode with a Twilight Zone-like flavor in which a shipwreck survivor (J. D. Cannon, very good) may or may not be haunted by the ghost of an artist he killed some years before.  Robert Yale Libott’s script takes place, variously, in a New England whaling city, on a ship and then a deserted island, and finally in a small Kansas town – everywhere, in other words, except on the wagon train.  McIntire and Miller do not appear at all; Cannon must make do with the show’s bit players as his interlocutors.  I wonder how Wagon Train’s loyal audience reacted that week, confronted as they were with neither of the show’s stars, and nothing resembling its original premise.

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Yuck: Art Linkletter and friends in “The Sam Darland Story.”

I enjoyed “Abel Weatherly” for its sheer strangeness, but a more typical example of Wagon Train’s sixth year was the preceding week’s outing, “The Sam Darland Story.”  Sam Darland, played by Art Linkletter in a disastrous bit of stunt casting, is an evangelical layman who attempts to settle a ghost town, in hostile Indian territory, with no one other than a band of young orphaned boys.  The one spinster (played by Nancy Reagan!) who ventures that the children should be removed from Sam’s care and adopted by the families in the wagon train is treated an antagonist rather than a voice of sanity.  Religiosity abounds and, needless to say, a modern audience could not watch this show and view Sam as anything other than a deranged pederast.

In 1963, in an effort to imitate the successful The Virginian, Universal expanded Wagon Train from the sixty minutes it could barely fill to a whopping ninety, and began to film the show in color.  Robert Fuller, fresh off the studio’s cancelled Laramie, joined the show as a rotating star, effectively demoting Scott Miller back to sidekick.  The same production team, led by Howard Christie and comprised of a small pool of regular freelance writers (Norman Jolley, Steven Ritch, Gene L. Coon, Allen H. Miner) and directors (William Witney, Virgil W. Vogel, Miner), remained the same as during the previous season.  There was no reason to hope that the changes in length and hue might give Wagon Train a shot in the arm, but somehow – and to my considerable relief, because the DVDs contain all thirty-two of these things – it did.

To skip straight to the top, Wagon Train produced one undeniable masterwork during its supersized year.  This is “The Robert Harrison Clarke Story,” which features Michael Rennie as a master hunter (with a Sikh attendant, played by an unrecognizable Henry Silva) who tags along with the train in search of American game.  Clarke hunts for sport, and the cowhands’ mechanical methods of rounding up cattle and slaughtering them for sustenance sicken him; at the same time, the westerners are put off by Clarke’s exoticism and veddy British hauteur.  Brian Keith takes a small part as a world-weary cavalry scout, and his presence is a mystery until some of the parties end up trapped in a ruined fort, under siege by Indians.  As this group contemplates its limited options, Gene L. Coon’s script turns into a thoughtful study of courage in the face of death.  Clarke and the Americans, represented by Keith’s taciturn Sergeant Galt, come to accept their differences once they realize that they share a kind of Hawksian stoicism and masculine competence.  At first Coon aligns our sympathies against the unbearably arrogant Clarke, but then he gradually redeems the character; it is Clarke’s fancy hunting rifle, seemingly useless on the rough-and-tumble frontier, which fires the shot of salvation.

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John McIntire, Robert Fuller, and Michael Rennie in “The Robert Harrison Clarke Story.”

Coon, best known as one of the producers of Star Trek, was one of the finest writers of westerns during the fifties and sixties, and sort of a secret weapon for Wagon Train (even though he also claims credit for “Clyde,” the unsuccessful comedy that I mocked in my earlier post).  Coon also wrote the seventh season’s premiere, “The Molly Kincaid Story,” which stars Carolyn Jones as a white woman reclaimed from captivity among the Indians.  The story is familiar, but Coon treats the subject with a startling toughness, beginning with the gruesome facial scarring that Molly suffered during her ordeal.

After Coon, Wagon Train’s other noteworthy auteur was Allen H. Miner, one of the few freelance writer-directors to work as a hyphenate on a multitude of fifties and sixties shows without ever creating his own.  (Douglas Heyes and John Meredyth Lucas, both overlooked talents, were among the others.)  Miner’s segments tend to start off with a catchy premise and then lose their way, either through a gradual dissipation of narrative tension or a sharp left turn into conventionality.  In “The Sam Pulaski Story,” Miner stages some effective comedy by dropping a trio of Runyonseque Brooklyn toughs into the old west, but the fun stops as soon as an element of genuine menace is introduced.  “The Kitty Pryer Story” begins as a dark, perverse love triangle, then shifts into a more conventional tale of lovers (Diana Hyland and Bradford Dillman, both superb) on the run.  Miner also wrote and directed the season finale, “The Last Circle Up,” which nostalgizes the camaraderie of the wagon train and suggests (without really explaining why) that the settlers may fall upon each other now that they’ve arrived at their destination.  John Ford, in his westerns, often addressed these notions of community versus individualism, but Miner does not know what to do with them.

Some of the other ninety-minute segments work because of an inspired guest turn.  Ronald Reagan, in one of his final acting roles, is surprisingly good as an army officer torn between his professional responsibilities and his duty to his alcoholic wife in “The Fort Pierce Story.”  Peter Falk, marshalling a steely restraint absent from his Columbo-era persona, faces off against McIntire after leaving the wagonmaster for dead to save his brother’s life in “The Gus Morgan Story,” an episode that espouses an admirable commitment to reason over vengeance and anger.  Even some of the failures are bizarre enough to hold one’s interest for an hour and a half.  “The Widow O’Rourke Story,” for instance, casts Broadway star Carol Lawrence as an elderly Chinese woman who runs her western plantation with an iron fist; flashbacks, in which Robert Fuller assumes a second role as the red-headed sailor who purchased her from slavers, explain how she ended up so far from home.

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Carol Lawrence and Robert Fuller in “The Widow O’Rourke Story.”

None of the ninety minute episodes that I’ve seen so far proselytizes as blatantly as “The Sam Darland Story.”  But Jesus does make a cameo in enough of them to make me wonder if Christie had a message to send, and no qualms about using a wagon train instead of Western Union.  “The Michael Malone Story,” written by my friend Gerry Day (who is in fact a devout Catholic), chronicles a priest’s crisis of faith without ever contemplating that the priesthood might not be right for him.  (Personally, I was rooting for Michael Parks and Joyce Bulifant, one of television’s stranger romantic pairings, to blow off those vows and get it on.)  “The Whipping,” bearable only due to Martin Balsam’s sensitive performance as a self-hating drunk, builds its story around the assertion that atheism and alcoholism are morally equivalent.  (Faith and sobriety, we are told, are also interchangeable).  The story’s climax contains an unambiguous miracle which, somewhat atypically for television, does not bother to offer an alternate, earthly interpretation of the events.  At least the writer, Leonard Praskins, had the courage of his convictions.

That may sound like I’m anti-religion – and I am.  But I’m capable of enjoying programs that examine faith with respect and intelligence, and from more than one point of view.  Wagon Train does not take this approach; it simply turns preachy now and again.  Commentators who actually believe we have a “liberal media” ignore not only the underlying truth that our media companies are all controlled by wealthy conservatives, but that there have always been popular television shows which espouse a semi-overt, pro-religious agenda.  This is just as true today (this decade’s Joan of Arcadia was especially obnoxious) as it was in the era of Wagon Train.  And then there’s the “new” Battlestar: Galactica.  Watching the series’ finale this year, I was bemused to discover that the answer to many of that show’s long-running mysteries was, in essence: God(s) did it.

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Continuing on with the third season of Ironside, one of my favorite undemanding popcorn shows of its era, I find it harder than ever to ignore the budgetary constraints that are so obvious on screen.  Universal was always cheap, even going back to Wagon Train; those ninety-minute shows cut back and forth between outdoor locations and unconvincing soundstage “exteriors” in the same scene, with complete indifference to the jarring lack of resemblance between the two.  But it wasn’t until 1969 or 1970 that the studio’s legendarily penny-pinching production department really clamped down, hobbling the efforts of even the most creative or defiant producers.  Except for some second unit shooting, I don’t think Ironside left the backlot once during the whole season.

The nadir is “Good Will Tour,” a romance in which Eve (Barbara Anderson) gives a visiting prince (Bradford Dillman, sporting a stillborn mittel-European accent) a lengthy rear-projection tour of San Francisco.  It’s a decent if slight script by another writer friend, the late Norman Katkov, but why on earth would the producers commission such a location-dependent story?  Ironside overlapped with The Streets of San Francisco for three years of its original run (on the same night of the week), and I can’t understand how the contrast with the actual Bay Area locations of Quinn Martin’s superior cop drama didn’t get Ironside laughed off the airwaves.

On the other hand, I can report that Ironside returned partly to form in the latter half of its third season, offering a few of the traditional cop stories that distinguished its first two years.  One such episode is “Programmed For Danger,” in which Ironside and undercover singleton Eve go up against a dating service operator cum serial molester (slick Roger Perry, well cast) who uses a punch-card computer to select his victims.  Along with the computer, True Boardman’s script places an odd emphasis on gadgets like Ironside’s telephone answering machine and the portable cassette player that Perry carries along on his attacks.  Did you have something you wanted to say about modern technology, Mr. Boardman?  The message was clearer in that Twilight Zone where Richard Haydn gets taken out by a homicidal electric razor.

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Also during my staycation I pulled down a pair of memoirs that had been gathering dust on the bookshelf for a couple of years: Richard L. Bare’s Confessions of a Hollywood Director (Scarecrow, 2001) and John Rich’s Warm Up the Snake: A Hollywood Memoir (University of Michigan Press, 2006).  Bare and Rich (insert name joke here) were two of the very top television directors of the sixties.  Their books complement each other in a rather amusing way.

Richard Bare directed the pilots for Cheyenne and 77 Sunset Strip, thereby launching both the western and detective cycles that swelled the coffers of Warner Bros. and ABC in the late fifties; he later helmed nearly every episode of another certified classic, the subversive Green Acres.  John Rich directed the first three years of The Dick Van Dyke Show, and the first five of All in the Family.  Before James Burrows, he was the undisputed king among sitcom directors.  At his peak, Rich could command huge fees just for consulting on finished pilots and pointing out what was wrong with them.  Rich’s brief association with Gilligan’s Island amounted to little more than that but, according to Warm Up the Snake, Sherwood Schwartz rewarded him with a ten per cent ownership of the series.

Rich has given a lot of interviews about Dick Van Dyke and All in the Family, but even if you’ve read or heard them already, his book offers a concise, revealing portrait of both series from a director’s point of view.  Rich’s stories about shows with which he is less often associated, like Gunsmoke and MacGyver, have even more value.  Unfortunately, Warm Up the Snake is padded with a lot of really stale jokes and anecdotes that have little to do with Rich’s own career, and those will be old news for most readers.  There’s a whole chapter devoted to explaining odd industry terms like “M.O.S.” and the “Abby Singer shot,” and when Rich finally explains his title, it’s not exactly a gutbuster.  (In fact, Walter Grauman, another veteran director, told me a much funnier story about defrosting a snake for a TV scene, which I will share one day.)  Rich and Bare even recount one of the same old Hollywood jokes, about the director who ordered a crowd of spear carriers to “Lunge!” and instead the whole company went to lunch.  But Rich says the director in question was Michael Curtiz, while Bare fingers Cecil B. DeMille!

Rich’s prose has an impersonal, smoothed-over feel to it, and he includes hardly anything about his childhood or non-professional life.  The closest he comes to a confessional tone is a good-natured admission that he sometimes wielded a bad temper on the set.  (He once broke his foot by kicking a chair during an All in the Family table read.)  I found Rich’s reticence particularly disappointing, because I would haved liked to know more about his older brother, David Lowell Rich, a director of television dramas who did some fine work on M Squad, Route 66, and Kraft Suspense Theater.  David Lowell Rich retired to my home town of Raleigh and, while I was in college, he drove me crazy by turning down repeated requests for an interview.  After I sent him (without being asked) some tapes of his rarer shows, Rich thanked me and finally agreed to a meeting – but then died before my next trip back to Raleigh.  I have heard, from several sources, that the Rich brothers did not get along, and that they were not on speaking terms for much of their adult lives.  So I guess I’m not surprised that David receives nary a mention in John’s autobiography.

In contrast to Rich’s approach, Confessions of a Hollywood Director focuses mainly on Richard Bare’s personal life.  He’s still in film school (at my alma mater, USC) on page 100, and when he gets to Green Acres around page 290, Bare has only a handful of anecdotes to tell.  That may make the book sound as dull as unbuttered toast and, indeed, I wish Bare had chosen to share more about his contributions to Maverick and The Twilight Zone and The Virginian.  But Bare’s memoir is so breezy and detailed, and his enthusiasm for old friends and childhood shenanigans so infectious, that I thoroughly enjoyed it.  A Modesto native, Bare (whose childhood friends included George Lucas’s father!) was a true Zelig of the California coast, who stumbled into amusing encounters with everyone from Walt Disney to Dwain Esper to Langston Hughes to Marilyn Monroe.

Richard Bare is still with us, and his name made the rounds on the internet recently because his last birthday, on August 12, was alleged by many sources to be his one hundredth.  Except that when I chatted briefly with Bare ten years ago, he insisted that he was actually born in 1913, and even named the reference book (Ephraim Katz’s The Film Encyclopedia) in which he felt the inaccurate date had originated.  Bare expressed anger at the error, because he felt it had cost him work toward the end of his career.

At the time, I was convinced.  But Confessions of a Hollywood Director gives no birthdate for Bare, and his narrative remains a bit, well, slippery on the subject.  At one point Bare claims that he was nineteen in 1934, and a subsequent mention of his age also supports a 1914 or 1915 birth.  If Bare was willing to cheat his age forward a little in the book, could he have been fibbing to me as well?  In the book Bare states that Julio Gallo, the winemaker, sat next to him in an algebra class at Modesto High School.  Gallo was born in March 1910, so either he was an unusually slow math student, or . . . well, with all due respect to Mr. Bare, let’s just say that I’d welcome a peek at his driver’s license.

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