THE AUTOMAT – movie review


A Slice of Pie Productions
Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Lisa Hurwitz
Screenwriter: Michael Levine
Cast: Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Colin Powell, Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/21/22
Opens: February 18, 2022 at New York’s Film Forum

The Great Mel Brooks

If you want to know the date that America began her descent, look not to her defeat in Afghanistan or, farther back, the election of Donald Trump. Defeat in the Vietnam War? Not then. America became a banana republic when Horn and Hardart’s signature cafeteria closed forever in 1991. After that the dominos fell. Almost all of New York’s cafeterias went belly-up, including New York’s Dubrow’s and Belmore.

Horn and Hardart’s Automat, which began in 1902 in Philadelphia and closed near New York’s Grand Central Station in 1991, was unique. The only one of its kind. A cafeteria that the poorest person can afford and yet was patronized by executives during coffee breaks, even for breakfast. The chain was booming until our federal highway program encouraged people to leave the cities, so they no longer had dinner in the big cities but went home for heartier, albeit more expensive fare.

This brief documentary includes looks at several films from the silent days such as “The Early Bird” (1925) and a few from the 1950s that featured the brain-child of Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart. The two founders believed in democracy (unlike many of today’s Republicans); that people from all walks of life, all ethnic groups and races, and all bank accounts could gather at the tables, head to the automatic food dispensers, insert nickels (one cashier in one H&H restaurant was able to grab exactly 20 nickels every time she received a one dollar bill), and get your lemon meringue pie, peach pie, mac and cheese and best of all the baked beans.

The hot foods remained piping hot even though the Automat used a single commissary to churn out its dishes, then, like magic, when the dish of baked beans would disappear from the window, a new plate would pop up in its place. The cafeteria workers behind the walls would never be seen and receive proper credit for filling the boxes.

Mel Brooks handled the narration, using the doc’s time to reminisce about the good old days before Mickey D’s and Burger King replaced some of the automats, breaking up that old gang of mine.

In her interview the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg praised the diversity of people who patronized the H&H’s, where even the derelicts could sit all day without being chased out. For his part the late Colin Powell talks of the times he was growing up in the Bronx, feasting on the Automat during family outings.

Aside from the intrusive music and the repetitive nature of the documentary, “The Automat,” a look down memory lane, joins the films about restaurants as the low-budget choice that may not have won even a single Michelin star, but supplied nourishment to young and old, rich and poor, whites and folks of color.

79 minutes. © 2022 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – C+ (intrusive music)
Overall – B