As compact and enticing as all those windowed compartments that at the time dispensed tasty foods for mere nickels, the documentary “The Automat” requires an affectionate — and influencing — appear at the famed Horn & Hardart cafe chain and its singular position in eating history.
Producer-director Lisa Hurwitz shot the movie from 2013 to 2021. She included a treasure trove of archival content mainly from the early to mid 20th century into an pleasurable retelling of how the automat uncovered its way into America’s hearts, minds and stomachs.
Co-founders Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart, who grew to become partners in 1888, released their very first automat in Philadelphia in 1902. Patterned following comparable restaurants in Berlin, these early eateries made use of then-charming technology an egalitarian, consumer-1st philosophy and an sophisticated approach to day-to-day food. In 1912, the pair expanded the exclusive self-serve principle to New York’s Times Sq. and Union Square. By 1941, at the time of Horn’s dying, the firm was working a lot more than 150 retail locations (slogan: “Less Work for Mother”) and cafeterias among the two metropolitan areas.
In its heyday, the deco-designed automats featured 5-cent coffee (it rose to a dime in 1950) and shiny, chrome-and-glass vending machines featuring such favorites as Salisbury steak, macaroni and cheese, creamed spinach and an array of meat and dessert pies. The websites had been so well-liked they became a cultural touchstone. As found in energetic clips in the documentary, the restaurants appeared in numerous videos this kind of as “Easy Living” and “That Contact of Mink,” as well as in Edward Hopper’s vintage 1927 painting “Automat.”
Irving Berlin’s Despair-period tune “Let’s Have A further Cup of Coffee,” prepared for the Broadway musical “Face the Music” and set in an automat, went on to become Horn & Hardart’s unofficial concept tune.
But time marched on and, in spite of the chain’s very low prices, legendary food and welcoming ambiance, by the 1950s and ’60s a combine of suburban flight, elevating preferences, inflation, the expanding popularity of frozen food items and other things discovered the automat on a downturn. The decline ongoing into the 1970s and ’80s and the past Horn & Hardart cafe, at 3rd Avenue and 42nd Street in Manhattan, closed in 1991.
By the mid-1970s, when Horn & Hardart commenced changing a lot of of its destinations into franchises of this kind of rapidly-food stuff giants as Burger King and Arby’s, its automats experienced lost so substantially of their luster and attraction that they became mostly known as a magnet for downtrodden patrons. This, regardless of ingenious advertising initiatives to stay relevant to the common diner.
Hurwitz effectively tracks Horn & Hardart’s lofty record by using compelling, frequently amusing interviews with this sort of notables as Mel Brooks (at his most charming he also wrote the film’s concept track), Carl Reiner, Elliott Gould, Colin Powell and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who remember fond reminiscences of their young times frequenting the automat.
Rounding out this beautiful, deeply nostalgic tribute is vital input from descendants of the two Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart the chain’s past staff members and their families previous Philadelphia mayor Wilson Goode Sr. creator-historian Alec Shuldiner and ex-Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who says the automat encouraged him to begin his coffee corporation.
Running time: 1 hour, 19 minutes
Enjoying: Starts off Feb. 25 at Laemmle Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles Laemmle City Centre 5, Encino Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena