Review: The Automat Serves Up Morsels of History, Memories of Bygone America

File this one under the category: Documentaries I Didn’t Know I Needed Until I Watched It. From first-time filmmaker Lisa Hurwitz, The Automat tells the all-but-lost history of the Horn & Hardart chain of restaurants, popular in New York and Philadelphia, where you would pop a nickel or two into a slot, a small glass door would open, and out would come all manner of quality food—from creamed spinach, baked beans and sandwiches to hot meals and legendary pies. Founded by Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart in 1888 and popular through most of the 20th century (long before the advent of fast food), the restaurants were surprisingly ornate (bronze accents, marble-topped tables, even dolphin-shaped coffee dispensers), open to rich or poor, and by all accounts, the food quality was second to none.

The documentary not only traces the history of the chain but brings in a surprisingly A-list group of testimonial presenters who wax poetic about the experiences they and their families had with the Automat restaurants. Mel Brooks acts as not only our unintentional guide through the Automat experience (he even ends up writing a theme song for the film) but quite humorously gives director Hurwitz a few tips about how to put her film together. The Automat also features what would appear to be fairly new interviews with a host of recently deceased dignitaries, such as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Colin Powell, and Carl Reiner, as well as Elliot Gould and Howard Schultz, who served as the chairman and CEO of Starbucks and spells out exactly how the Automat model for success helped him create and grow Starbucks.

Of particular interest are behind-the-scenes details on exactly how the Automat was able to feed so many people day after day (much of the food was made at a central location in the city and shipped out to the various restaurants) and why the timing of its creation (borrowed from a European blueprint) in the U.S. contributed to its success. Apparently, hundreds of thousands of women entering the workplace during the post-World War II years was a major factor in the Automat’s business boom; conversely, the massive numbers of families moving from the cities to the suburbs contributed significantly to its demise. Interviews with architects who designed individual locations and with the descendants of those who helped found and grow the company provide detailed context as to the success of both the business and the family feel of the organization. This was a company that not only cared about providing good food to customers but also believed in taking care of its employees in ways that would be unheard of today.

Much like the Automat itself, the film feels cozy and lived in, and satisfies us with quality morsels of information about this unique institution. The Automat tells the story of a handful of restaurants that were microcosms of the country itself—or at least the country the way it was meant to be: a place that welcomed all immigrants, classes, races, and genders. It’s a fascinating story, and the journey this film takes us on is both celebratory and melancholy. And Brooks’ “At the Automat” tune is pretty catchy.

The film is now playing in a limited engagement at the AMC River East, Streets of Woodfield, and Landmark Renaissance Place Highland Park. Director Lisa Hurwitz will appear at the Landmark Renaissance Place Cinema on Saturday, April 2, for a Q&A after the 7:30pm show.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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