#70. 42nd Street (1933)

I wasn’t expecting to like this movie at all and finally had to bribe myself into watching it with a personal pizza and some Wild Turkey. But I loved it. 42nd Street, like Scarface and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, are emblematic of the Great Depression. The stock market crash is actually one of the inciting events in this one. The movie’s about a cast of dancers trying to put on a show that’ll save them all from ruin. The famed Broadway director who helms the show (played by Warner Baxter) does it only because he’s broke and needs one more big success. But while those other movies, like Fugitive and Public Enemy, choose to reflect the mood of the early 1930s, with the vilification of greed and a flavor of doom to all the endings, 42nd Street embodies its era by choosing to distract its audience from nihilism. There’s hardly a single serious note in the entire movie. It’s pure fun. Almost a public service in that respect. 42nd Street isn’t trying to make a profound social comment, and probably isn’t even trying to be a great work of art. According to the List, Universal was facing bankruptcy and looking at this picture for rescue (which the picture provided).

Apart from the fun of it, and the insight it affords into the era, I was really endeared by everything the movie seemed to be saying about Work, the sanctity of it. The director gives a stirring speech (in my opinion) to his cast, a day before rehearsals are set to begin, about how he intends to work them until their feet bleed, until they’re too exhausted to go on, but then they’re gonna keep at it, he tells em, they’re gonna go on and on. I love the idea of what I guess is called the Hustle, and of being an underdog who’s gotta work like crazy to be acknowledged.

42nd street work Last night three of my colleagues, direct colleagues who share a front desk with me, gave their two weeks’ notice in protest of some new girl’s overnight promotion. As a result of it I’ve been addressed about receiving a promotion to one of the positions that’s been abandoned. That position is literally twice as stressful, I won’t say which, and yields a pay bump of like eighty cents per hour. It’s not worth it. Also: I think I’m tired. Not like sleep-deprived, or too sore to walk. Physically I think my gears are turning just fine. But there’s a dread setting in. I get in my car and just sit there for a moment before starting it, not even thinking, just savoring the silence. The calm. I feel like I’m being worked to the bone between both jobs and I’m proud of that, but I’m also getting this creeping vibe of, like, whyMainly in respect to the restaurant. The job is boring, and hardly remunerative, and it eats into the time I could be spending on the Project — which, yeah, isn’t remunerative either but at least there’s a feeling of purpose.

The other thing — and this isn’t even mentioned in 42nd Street but it’s something that’s always fascinated me about those who toil in the service of a stage play — is that all of my work at the restaurant fades with the moment. The completion of each task yields no real ahcievement, it only sets the stage for another one. I’m oiling the gears of a machine whose function yields no product but for money — and that’s fine. Money is a good thing for a business to generate. What I’m not sure I’ve reconciled myself to is the idea that my labor and pain isn’t going toward the construction of something. Were the restaurant my only endeavor, and I died today, there’d be not trace of my existence. Every mark of a worker’s efforts are eaten up instantaneously. But is that so bad? Do we all need a legacy? Is every stage actor haunted to think that their masterful performance of the night before was seen only by those eyes that could fit in the room, and that it’ll never again be captured?

Certainly there are different sorts of legacy. Powerful ones that also happen to be invisible, or anonymous. One that comes to mind, and that I think about pretty often now, is that of Mrs. Zwerner, my third grade teacher and the first person to ever tell me I was a good writer (one the basis of an in-class essay I wrote about Helen Keller), who’s retired now but lives in my area, I see her now and then at the bakery near my house, and actually she comes to my job at the restaurant every couple weeks and she sits with a friend for forty minutes or so and I pass her table a couple dozen times always wanting to sort of take a knee beside her and say, “I probably wouldn’t have found what I love if you hadn’t encouraged me.” I’m sure she’d like to hear that. And yet I never do it. I have all these opportunities, week after week, and one day, finally, the opportunities will be gone. And I’ll regret it.

But the fact that I know this probably won’t change a thing.


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