‘The Automat’ Review: A Documentary That Serves Up Tasty Nostalgia

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Long ago, in a distant and far away America (you know, the ancient days of 2018 and 2019), independent films could make their mark at the megaplex, and some of them could be documentaries. Remember the glory days of “RGB” (total domestic gross: $14 million), “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” ($22.8 million), “Three Identical Strangers” ($12 million), “They Shall Not Grow Old” ($18 million), and “Apollo 11” ($9 million)?

I’m not saying that Lisa Hurwitz’s “The Automat,” had it been released in those now possibly vanquished days, could have joined the commercial company of those films (though maybe it could have). But when I caught this marvelous documentary at Film Forum in New York, the audience for it was ecstatic. It was not an audience of young people; it was the kind of older folks who, statistically speaking, haven’t been going to the movies. But they turned out for this one, and when I left at the end, a bunch of middle-aged-to-older viewers were lined up for the next show. Sometimes the viral power of movie excitement is about anecdotal evidence.

The audience I saw “The Automat” with was high on the nostalgia of it all. But it wasn’t merely nostalgia. “The Automat” taps into so many resonant aspects of what America used to be that to watch it is to be drawn into an enchanting and wistfully profound time-tripping reverie. Granted, this is a movie with a very New York subject — the fabled Automat restaurants that were owned and operated by Horn & Hardart in exactly two cities, New York and Philadelphia. The Horn & Hardart empire lasted for more than half a century. Right up until the age of McDonald’s, the Automats fed more people, every week, than any other restaurant chain in America.

What was the Automat? The concept was as simple as a soda machine, as efficient as a cafeteria, and as magical as a nickelodeon. In an Automat, you faced a wall of small glass doors, and behind each one was an item of food on a plate: ham sandwiches, chicken or beef pot pies, macaroni and cheese, Salisbury steak, creamed spinach, baked beans, clam chowder, apple and rhubarb pie. You popped a nickel into the slot, opened the window and took out the plate, and voilà…a snack or a meal was yours! The coffee, which was also a nickel, came pouring out of a faucet with a copper head that looked like a gargoyle dolphin (it was modeled on the sculptures in Italian fountains), and at the end of each pour an adjoining pipe would spurt in a perfectly measured dollop of cream. Mel Brooks, who in the documentary leads a kind of Greek chorus of celebrities who worshipped at the altar of the Automat, claims that the coffee was the best he ever tasted. (It was New Orleans drip coffee, suffused with chicory, before anyone served that stuff.)

Never having experienced an Automat myself, and being the cautious skeptic I am, the first question I had was: Okay, sounds nice and quaint and cheap, but how good, really, was the food? Every single person in “The Automat” testifies that the food was delicious. This was all before the age of processed food (which was basically pioneered by the fast-food industry). The Automat dishes were cooked in a central Horn & Hardart commissary kitchen, which could churn out 2,400 pies an hour using fresh seasonal ingredients that Alice Waters would have approved of. Assorted witnesses testify to the luscious tastiness of the creamed spinach and the baked beans (which really were baked), to the crusty perfection of the pies. But the Automat was also an experience. The places were beautiful — tall and grand like churches, with ornate tin ceilings and gleaming marble surfaces, the display-window frames made of copper. “It shone!” says one witness.

Who went? Everyone. The late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, interviewed in the film, recalls that “There were all kinds of people, from poor people to matrons in furs.” Each table sat four, and if there was an empty space, you could feel free to sit down next to whoever. Celebrities went (we see shots of Audrey Hepburn, James Dean, Jack Benny); the Automats became fabled locales in movies like “A Touch of Mink” and Bugs Bunny cartoons. And the diversity extended, quite openly, to racial diversity. The film includes an interview with the late Colin Powell, who was raised in the South Bronx and says that the Automat was as close as his family ever got to going out to a restaurant. Powell explains that when he was rising up in the military, leading an attempt to build on the integration of the armed forces that had been a feature of World War II, he knew what total integration would look like because he’d seen it at the Automat.

The logistics of the Automat, as simple as they look now, represented a new everyday technology — the missing link between hand-to-plate service and the fast-food system invented by the McDonald brothers. The restaurants gave anyone with a few nickels an adventure that was tasty, affordable, democratic, and above all fun. “I got excited about the Salisbury steak,” says Colin Powell. Mel Brooks, whose one-liners in this movie keep on coming (right down to the closing theme song, which he wrote and performs), says, “The great thing about the Automat is that you never had to tip.”

Hurwitz is a deft documentary historian who fills in the history of how the Automat came to be — how it was inspired by the dumbwaiter Automat Restaurants of Berlin, and how its founders, Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart (both of whom were born in the mid-1800s), collaborated on an idea that merged smart business with a bottom-line humanity of purpose. The first Automat opened in Philadelphia in 1902; the first one in New York opened in 1912. (The last one to survive, located at Third Avenue and 42nd Street, closed in 1991.) Horn was a domineering patrician, but he believed in looking after his employees so they felt truly cared for. (That allowed him to find off an attempt at unionization in 1935.)

By the end of the ’50s, the restaurants had their first competition — from the Chock Full o’Nuts chain, which was built around a bargain cup of coffee. A decade later, the company was reduced to running commercials that said, “Horn & Hardart coffee. It’s so good we lose money on it.” (Which was true.) By the time they had to raise the price of coffee from that iconic one nickel to two, the writing was on the Automat wall.

In the two years of the pandemic, as Americans have grown more isolated from each other, much of the talk that’s evolved about the future — Zoom meetings! staying home from the office! streaming! — is rooted in the miracles of remote connection. Our technology now helps to keep us apart. But the Automat was the opposite of all that. It used a showpiece feat of American engineering as a magnet to draw people in. Says one witness, “It was an amazingly optimistic view of what the future could be.” “The Automat” suggests that maybe we need to get back to that future.

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