THE AUTOMAT – SLJFF Review
Mel Brooks, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Colin Powell, Carl Reiner and Elliot Gould were all fans of the Automat, the iconic automated cafeterias that dominated New York and Philadelphia in the first half of the 20th century. THE AUTOMAT, Lisa Hurwitz’s delightful, enlightening documentary, serves up pure charm, and Mel Brooks, in this look back at the Horn and Hardart Automat, a now-vanished beloved, and unique, American institution.
THE AUTOMAT is available to stream as part of the virtual St. Louis Jewish Film Festival through Mar. 13. For tickets and more information, visit their website https://jccstl.com/arts-ideas/st-louis-jewish-film-festival.
THE AUTOMAT delivers a dazzling array of memories from those who ate there, alongside the history of the rise and fall of the Automat. It delivers the same warm appeal as the Automat’s own delicious slice of pie and perfect cup of coffee.
It was once the country’s largest restaurant chain, although it was only in two cities. Founded in the last 19th century and enduring into the middle of the 20th, the Automat was a magical combination of contradictory things. It was single company but was known by different names in its two cities. In New York, it was the Automat, while in Philadelphia, it was called Horn and Hardart.
Before there was fast food, the Automat served up food fast but it wasn’t “fast food.” It was fine dining, delicious food served on real plates, in a beautiful space. The high-quality food was key to its success, but it was sold at low prices, with no tipping because the food was dispensed by an innovative coin-operated system that seemed thrillingly futuristic in the early 20th century.
On top of that, the dining rooms were opulent Art Deco palaces, with marble floors and tables and brass fittings. The high-quality coffee came out of spouts designed to look dolphin heads, inspired by Italian fountains. The food was dispensed from banks of gleaming metal and glass doors behind which were tempting dishes. Put a nickel in the slot and the glass door popped open so you could to take your pie, mac and cheese, sandwich or Salsbury steak.
Founders Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart wanted it to be a luxurious place but welcoming to everyone – immigrants, secretaries, kids, rich, poor, celebrities alike. The Automat welcomed both whites and Blacks, at a time when integrated spaces were rare.
You might meet anyone at the Automat, which helped make it a popular setting for movies. If you are a fan of classic films of the ’30s, ’40s or ’50s, you have likely seen the Automat on screen.
Lisa Hurwitz’s fine documentary gives you a glimpse of all that storied history, through entertaining interviews with famous people who went there, people who worked there, and historians and collectors who preserve its memory. Researching the Automat, Hurwitz was struck by the deep nostalgia it evoked.
Mel Brooks is a big part of the documentary, pretty much its star. Brooks composed a song for it, and even sings it in the film.
The documentary gets off to a quirky start, with Mel Brooks being interviewed about whether the wants to participate, and footage of the director Lisa Hurwitz entering a dilapidated old antique shop, in which there are the dusty and decaying remnants of the once glorious Automat’s food dispensers. We are not sure what to expect at first but THE AUTOMAT quickly finds its footing and draws us in.
The fascinating interviews include those with members of the Horn and Hardart families, former employees, customers, and historians. The well-researched film offers interviews with the famous, telling tales of other famous names, such as Jack Benny, who once hosted a red-carpet dinner at the Automat, handing out rolls of quarters to tuxedo-ed and fur-wrapped party-goers. Another interviewee is the founder of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, who credits the Automat for inspiring his own restaurant chain. Along with the interviews and stories, there is a wealth of rare archival images and footage.
The documentary, which was shot over the course of eight years, has a string of celebrities that is impressive. As mentioned, these include not just Mel Brooks but Elliott Gould and the late Carl Reiner, plus the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Secretary of State Colin Powell. RBG did her homework there, and Powell says he was introduced to the idea of integrated spaces there, which would serve him well in his military career. Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner met there regularly while working as gag writers for Sid Caesar;s comedy show. It was a favorite hangout for Broadway show people, particularly bit players and those in the chorus, who appreciated its low prices and egalitarian atmosphere.
It was one company but the each of the two founders ran it in its two cities, Horn in Philly and Hardart in NY. Horn came from the restaurant trade and wanted a place where office workers of all walks could have lunch, breakfast or dinner. Hardart came from New Orleans, with a commitment to fine food and especially outstanding coffee. There were no waiters but their excellent treatment of the staff, who were well paid and well-treated, built unparalleled loyalty.
The automated service seemed futuristic in the early 20th century, but the beautiful brass and marble fixtures spoke of Old World elegance. For kids, the coin-operated dispensers were a magnet. With a handful of nickels, they could get whatever they wanted.
The documentary’s rise and fall of an American business pattern gives the documentary a dramatic arc. The documentary has a exhilarating energy, tracing the blossoming of a clever food delivery idea into a beloved empire that once seemed unstoppable. Its heights are followed by tragedy, as it faded after it was no longer in family hands.
Changing times, the flight to the suburbs, and the rise of fast food all contributed to the decline and demise of the Automat. Director Hurwitz steers us through this chapter gently, and like most of the film, it is the interviewees, the people who witnessed it or their descendants who tell the tale. The sweet, wistful fondness of so many is captured by Mel Brooks, who comments near the end that someone should bring it back.
This documentary is a treat not to be missed. Combining rock-solid scholarship with charming storytelling, THE AUTOMAT casts a wonderful spell, making one wish they could be transported back in time to have a cup of coffee there with Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner.
THE AUTOMAT is available to stream as part of the 2022 St. Louis Jewish Film Festival through Mar. 13.For tickets and more information, visit their website https://jccstl.com/arts-ideas/st-louis-jewish-film-festival.