By Gerald Peary
What could have been a fantastic 20-minute short becomes a tedious slog as a stretched-out feature.
The Automat, directed by Lisa Hurwitz. Screening at the Coolidge Corner Theatre
What was not to adore about the late lamented Horn & Hardart Automat chain? It was a miracle place when I visited New York as a child, putting nickels in the slots, opening up those little doors in the wall with brass knobs and pulling out my food order. Others went for the burgers, the mac and cheese, or — an exotic order then — creamed spinach. I always opted for the extraordinary baked beans. I was too young to go for the acclaimed coffee, French-pressed the New Orleans way. But I could feel there was something special about the marble-topped tables, the high ceilings, and (though I didn’t know the term then) the Art Nouveau-style design and architecture. A novel, very classy venue for someone whose family never went to restaurants because we couldn’t afford them. But this place was so cheap, and there was no need to tip!
When Mr. Horn met Mr. Hardart, they started their first restaurant in Philadelphia in 1902. They expanded to New York City, but that was it: many branches, but only two cities ever. Not even Chicago. The height of H&H was probably the early 1950s, with 800,000 customers a day. But the chain was challenged in the ’60s by the upstart Chock Full o’ Nuts and by the move of many of their city regulars into the suburbs. The last Philadelphia H&H, and the original, shut in 1968. The last hurrah H&H in Manhattan, at 3rd Avenue and 42nd Street, somehow made it until 1991.
My testimonial above to the glories of Horn & Hardart is repeated in Lisa Hurwitz’s The Automat, her feature documentary love-in to the restaurant chain. It’s repeated far too often, person after person in on-camera interviews saying how much they enjoyed going there and eating there. Did anyone ever get food poisoning? Was anyone thrown out on his or her ear? I longed for even one juicy negative story about the place. Not in this worshipful film. We’re informed that a workers strike in the ’30s failed because people were so loyal to the place. (No unions ever? Not discussed.) We learn that H&H was always a spot where African Americans felt at home. (Perhaps.) And forever: the rich and the poor mixed there openly. That I do believe. The Automat was always a fun place for the privileged to go slumming: for example, a famous Jack Benny party, where the self-proclaimed world’s cheapest man handed out rolls of nickels at the door to his dressed-to-the-nines celebrity friends.
Thank the good Lord that Mel Brooks signed on to appear in this documentary. As you might expect, this kid from Williamsburg, Brooklyn was a Horn and Hardart regular, and everything he says in the movie about H&H is quotable and marvelous: “If you put two nickels in the slot, the window would open up. And you could take out … a slice of lemon meringue pie. And you could eat it! You could smash your face into it! … And the coconut custard pie! … God made that!”
But who can follow after Brooks? Not all the boring, unfunny people who appear in The Automat and offer the most pedestrian, obvious anecdotes. Even the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg proves to be a listless H&H storyteller. The film drags on and on, and it becomes obvious that what could have been a fantastic 20-minute short is a tedious slog as a stretched-out feature.
Gerald Peary is a Professor Emeritus at Suffolk University, Boston; ex-curator of the Boston University Cinematheque; and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema; writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty; and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess. His latest feature documentary, The Rabbi Goes West, co-directed by Amy Geller, has played at film festivals around the world.