- Movie Rating -

The Automat (2022)

| March 26, 2022

A smart documentarian could do themselves no better favor then to gateway their work with an interview with Mel Brooks, and indeed The Automat opens with a narration by the comedy legend that sets off a subject that he knows all too well.  In fact, he not only gives his thoughts and ruminations, but Brooks is so infused with enthusiasm that he sings a song over the closing credits!

I first heard Brooks talk about The Automat a few years ago during an interview with Conan O’Brien and I remember the way his eyes sort of danced.  Lisa Hurwitz’s beguiling documentary sees this beloved facet of Americana in much the same way, as something once regal, once beloved but alas, like so many things, now rendered extinct by the crushing mandates of progress.  Given the current rendering of New York into a commercial landscape with little respect paid to the landmarks of the past, we’re not surprised that the last space once occupied by a Horn and Hardart Automat has become a Burger King.

But what is the Automat?  Through a nostalgic and historic lens, we see a lost and nearly forgotten fixture of the early 20th century commercial and architectural landscape that is probably lost on your average 30-year-old.  The concept was simple: a restaurant brimming with atmosphere – brass fixtures, marble tables, etc. – and your food came through a 9 x 6 glass window that could be opened by inserting just a few cents.  Meanwhile, your coffee or tea or hot chocolate came through a brass spout in the shape of a dolphin – the idea of which was apparently inspired by Rome’s Trevi Fountain and other such Italian architecture.  Brooks recalls being fascinated that the coffee spout had a second hidden spout through which poured the milk.

In the midst of a lot of ruminating about Horn and Hardart’s dream-like eatery from famous people like Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Carl Reiner and Colin Powell (who are all ‘good gets’ for Hurwitz since they are now all dead) we get a sense of how and why H&H was so successful, not simply by finding a hole in the market and filling it, but by offering quality that was affordable.  Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart borrowed the concept from a German eatery wherein patrons were served by a dumbwaiter, but they also understood that the way to keep things profitable was to maintain the quality.  We hear over and over in the film that the food was really quite good, and the choices plentiful, everything from soup to sandwiches to meatloaf to macaroni and cheese to creamed spinach.  At the time Horn and Hardart was one of the most successful restaurant chains in the country.  Not bad for a place that had locations only in New York and Philadelphia.

The golden age of Horn and Hardart ran from the late 1920s up through the 1950s and had its most glorious period during the depression.  Weary patrons with little money could eat quality food for pocket change.  And its fame grew and it became a fixture of popular culture.  We see footage of the Automat featuring stars like Sylvia Sidney, Jack Benny, Doris Day and Bugs Bunny, and indeed this Alabama boy was introduced to the concept of the Automat through American film – namely Midnight Cowboy.

But then, of course, all good things must come to an end, and so the third act of The Automat deals with the internal and external forces that would ultimately render Horn and Hardart extinct.  It wasn’t only, as I had suspected, the post-war rise of fast food highway stops like McDonald’s and Taco Bell and the aforementioned Burger King, but we learn that there was also the internal struggles and a shifting landscape that not only took the gloss and glow off of the automat but also the quality.

What is admirable is the way that Hurwitz remains consistent.  There is a temptation to blame the downfall of the automat on the current culture (I’ve done that myself in this review) but she wants to remain optimistic.  Can this glittering bit of Americana ever be recaptured?  Is there anything that resembles it?  Anything close?  There is a wonderful optimism that closes the film, and perhaps a touch naïve.  It’s what built an institution like Horn and Hardart in the first place.  Brooks describes it beautifully as being “Simple, naïve, eloquent and beautiful.”  That’s the stuff that the American dream is made of.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2022) View IMDB Filed in: Documentary