“The Automat” is a guide to the marvels of mid-20th century town planning


The high style of films such as “The French Dispatch”, “Zola” and “Strawberry Mansion” is more than a matter of setting; their performances are stylized because style is as much a way of life as it is a viewing pleasure. In Lisa Hurwitz’s new documentary ‘The Automat’, which premieres today at the Film Forum, the equation is surprisingly reversed: it shines a light on the enduring power of everyday style at street level. The subject matter is a piece of New York (and Philadelphia) nostalgia: the once-ubiquitous Horn & Hardart self-service restaurants which, as Hurwitz’s film makes clear, were as notable for their decor and social life as for their cheap but tasty food. (I’m talking about personal childhood memory.) The film, which uses a series of conventional interviews with people whose lives have crossed paths with restaurants and a tangy selection of historical documents and archival footage, shows that the style in question was more than a matter of marketing; it was, as in the work of artists, the embodiment of an idea, even of an ideal.

Hurwitz’s main guide to the elusive marvels of mid-twentieth-century urbanism was none other than Mel Brooks, born in 1926, who grew up in Williamsburg and went with his brothers to Manhattan (which, he points out, he, they all called New York, as my own Brooklynite ancestors did) to eat, cheaply but well, at a Horn & Hardart Automat. Discussing a brief article by Brooks nearly ten years ago, I urged him to write a memoir, for his power of memory, with its profusion of vivid detail, is inherently literary, and his recollections in “The Automat ” do not make him a simple tourist guide. in the past but a veritable Virgil of a vanished world of ordinary graces. (I took particular delight at his mention of the booth where a clerk changed dollar bills into nickels, through a cutout in a window, passing the coins through a counter where “the wood was very smooth” due to constant use.)

The delight of “L’Automate”, which also features twenty-one other interview subjects from many walks of life and ties to the restaurant chain, is its blend of social and intellectual history with its anecdotal history – its evocation of the links between intention, practice and experience; his depiction of a largely lost aesthetic of everyday life. Hurwitz sketches the restaurant’s 19th-century roots: Philadelphia-born Joseph Horn’s desire to open his own restaurant, the dream of a German immigrant in New Orleans named Frank Hardart to export the coffeehouse style of this city. Inspired by German mechanized self-service restaurants, they opened their first Automat in Philadelphia in 1902, and their first in New York ten years later. They soon opened others in both cities: Horn remained in Philadelphia and ran the restaurants there; Hardart (and, after his death, his sons) led those in New York. The film connects the rapid expansion and success of the two chains to the economic boom in both cities (a growing workforce meant more people ate out of the home and near offices) and the increase in immigrant populations, who could eat in self-service restaurants. without having to order in English.

The very idea of ​​the Automat is a marvel of industrial design, a blend of form and function. Hurwitz considers the groundbreaking work of inventor John Fritsche, who was responsible for many of the chain’s innovations: the solid wall of small glass doors that tantalizingly displayed food platters and traded their treasures for a pair of nickels; the “drums” behind the walls that the workers filled with these pre-portioned dishes. (His fascinating and intricate design drawings appear briefly on screen; I wish they were discussed in detail.)

Horn and Hardart were obsessed with the quality and variety of their food. The dishes – creamed spinach, macaroni and cheese, baked beans, a wide variety of meats and sandwiches, pastries and desserts – weren’t just fast food, and the owners and managers exercised control of obsessive quality; the daily tastings at the central bakery are depicted in the photos as serious and demanding. (Many participants in the film, including Brooks, Carl Reiner, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, become nostalgic for these flavors of their youth and young adulthood.) They were also obsessed with the physical experience of high-style design; Horn, seeing a gargoyle on a fountain in Italy, borrowed his design for the metal faucets that dispensed coffee for a nickel. Interviewees remember the luxurious furnishings of budget restaurants – the brass frames of glass doors and chrome knobs, marble floors and Carrara marble tables, carved pillars, balconies, “all that beauty”, as so says a commentator, for food customers at five and ten cents. (Those customers, as Brooks recalls, also included the destitute, who would put mustard and ketchup in cups of hot water for what he calls a “condiment soup.”)

The bright, high-ceilinged, high-windowed spaces were considered safe for the many women who entered office staff in the early 20th century; the mixing of social types and classes occurred thanks to the unspoken rule that tables were to be shared by strangers who would take the vacant seats. As interviews with Colin Powell, who grew up at Automats in New York, and former Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode make clear, the chain (unlike other public accommodations) did not discriminate against race or ethnic. Extensive vectors of social history run through the film’s discussions of the rise and fall of the Automat, including the company’s personalized approach to employees and its resistance to their unionization during the Depression, inflation post-war era that made business precarious, federally planned suburbanization that emptied cities, and the rise of homelessness and the corresponding demand for guarded public spaces. “The Automat” is filled with clips from classic-era Hollywood films in which the restaurant serves as a familiar yet ornate setting; a former Horn & Hardart advertising executive shows how the company reacted when the very notion of style changed in the post-war years. (There’s also a remarkable sidebar, discussed by Elliott Gould, about the channel’s sponsorship of a children’s talent TV show that gave the start to many stars, including, he said, Rosemary Clooney, Gregory Hines, Madeline Kahn and Bernadette Peters.)

Yet the main story that “L’Automate” tells is that of a commercial vision mixed with an aesthetic vision, the transformation of cheap dining into a kind of theatrical experience, complete with a staging of craftsmanship. authentic and luxury, in which the banal purchase of food becomes a tour de force of industrial ingenuity; the drama and comedy are provided by the patrons themselves as they bring their own personalities into public view through the strangers’ table. The theatrics of the experience inspired a young Brooklyn shopper to launch his own chain of public entertainment consumption: Howard Schultz of Starbucks, who evokes the origins of his entrepreneurial ambitions in his childhood experience of the Automat. When Hurwitz asks architecture dealer Steve Stollman (who collects the chain’s furniture) about the “idealism” of Horn & Hardart, Stollman replies, “I think idealism has been infused into the lives of people who have experienced the Automat. I think he is right and that, like any ideal, like any original idea, its power of inspiration is uncontrollable. There is as much Automat influence in the decorative splendours of modern cinema—in the film styles of Wes Anderson and Mel Brooks, Peter Bogdanovich and Elaine May—as in the homogenization of the modern city.


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