Film Review: THE AUTOMAT (directed by Lisa Hurwitz)

Post image for Film Review: THE AUTOMAT (directed by Lisa Hurwitz)

by Kevin Vavasseur on February 14, 2022

in Film,Theater-New York


The Automat is a well-directed and well-researched love letter to that once ubiquitous symbol of East Coast life — that distillation of Democratic ideals into cafeteria service — The Automat. The film is book-ended by footage of now rusted and forgotten front walls of the adored Automat food delivery system. That system famous for row upon row of little windows that opened to all kinds of goodies from individual slices of cake to a dish of their famous baked beans to a plate of sizzling roast chicken. With those starting and end points, director Lisa Hurwitz and writer/editor Michael Levine expertly weave archival footage, stills and interviews to tell the rise and fall story of this popular American institution and, by inference, the rise and fall of an idea of what America itself could be.

Actress Audrey Hepburn photographed in New York City
as part of a multi-day photo shoot for Esquire magazine, 1951.

Joseph Horn of Philadelphia and Frank Hardart of New Orleans opened their first restaurant together in Philadelphia in the late 1800s.  Initially conceived to serve New Orleans-style coffee, the popular coffee spot soon expanded by adding an automated food delivery system based on the then popular automated restaurants in Berlin. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The Automat at 170 W 72nd St. Photo by John W. Romas
(Collection of Horn Hardart Memorabilia; N.D.)

And what a fascinating history it is. As the company grew and developed in the early twentieth century, what set it apart from its contemporaries was the personal concern and equanimity with which Mr. and Mrs. Horn in particular treated their employees. They created a family feeling within their workers, garnering unshakable loyalty among their workforce. This largess extended through their workers to their customers, who were equally as loyal to the establishment.  With just a varying amount of nickels, and only nickels, a person could have some good food, some delicious coffee and a brief respite from the world — regardless of race, creed or color. Of course, in many American locales in early to mid-twentieth century, this ideal of equality existed only on paper. However at The Automat in New York, also known as Horn and Hardart in Philadelphia, this vision was put into practice to the best of management’s ability — both in front of and behind the counter.

The Automat. Courtesy of UC Berkeley and photographer Hikaru Iwasaki (1944).

There’s something innocent and endearing in the love for the company that underlies many of the interviews. Mixed in with former patrons are some notables, namely Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Colin Powell. All of course have very fond memories of their time spent at The Automat during their respective youths. Former Mayor of Philadelphia Wilson Goode credits Horn and Hardart with helping to establish early, student, Black Power movements in Philly. It was a place where the young organizers could meet for free and eat well on a budget.

Mel Brooks in The Automat.

The decline of The Automat — caused by competition, rising production costs, shifts in customer demographics and some bad management decisions — fairly mirrors concurrent societal shifts in America itself. With the personal touch giving over to mass-produced eating experiences, The Automat no longer had a place in its current society. Also, its respect for the person no longer had a place either. It’s sobering to realize towards the end of the documentary that Powell, Reiner and Ginsburg are no longer alive — with the values they espoused possibly nearing extinction in some quarters of American life too. However, the film ends on a hopeful and loving note with an original comedic song by Mel Brooks appropriately titled, “The Automat”. He seems to suggest that as long as something is remembered in love and fondness, it can never really go away. And those lucky enough to see this excellent documentary will probably leave their viewing hoping the human values underlying this now-defunct restaurant chain will never really go away either.

The Automat at 1557 Broadway, NYC. Photo credit John W. Romas.
(Collection of Horn Hardart Memorabilia; N.D.)

The Automat
A Slice of Pie Productions
documentary | U.S. | 2021 | 79 minutes
opens February 18, 2022 at Film Forum in New York City (US theatrical premiere)
opening February 25, 2022 at three Los Angeles Laemmle Theatres
for more info and screenings, visit The Automat

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