The Automat Lisa Hurwitz documentary

Audrey Hepburn at a Horn & Hardart automat

The Automat explores an obscure corner of American restaurant history

Despite a conventional structure and rosy rearview, an all-star cast of talking heads makes Lisa Hurwitz’s documentary pretty compelling.

I first heard about the automat in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, starring Marilyn Monroe. Singing “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,” she says, “A kiss may be grand/But it won’t pay the rental/On your humble flat/Or help you at the automat.” Years later, watching an endless line of classic Hollywood films, the automat became ubiquitous during a certain period of American history. Part diner, part vending machine, patrons assembled at the cafeteria-style restaurant and paid a nickel for a fresh, hot meal kept behind glass. In her documentary, The Automat, director Lisa Hurwitz pays tribute to the dining establishment and the many lives it impacted.

As far as documentaries go, The Automat is rather conventional. It adopts a chronological structure beginning with the origins of Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart, who founded Horn & Hardart and opened a successful restaurant in Philadelphia in 1888. By 1902, they had bigger dreams and became the first non-European company to open a restaurant using patented vending machine technology invented in Berlin. Their company would only grow from there onward, hitting its peak during the desperate years of the Depression. These sections feature a large amount of really engaging archival images and footage.

Mel Brooks The Automat
Mel Brooks

The joy of the film comes from its talking heads, mainly the legendary Mel Brooks, who also contributes an original song for the film’s release (he’s also on the poster). The business side of things is undoubtedly interesting, but far less so than the more personal and intimate experiences offered by its all-star cast. We also have Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elliot Gould, Colin Powell and Carl Reiner, among the other talking head speakers. Even so, some of the aesthetic choices — such as including the slate claps and a cloying score, overshadow the more sensitive aspects of the storytelling. The double-edged sword of some of these star-heavy docs is that the power of celebrity often overshadows the storytelling. 

The Automat, however, fails where many “love letter” style documentaries do by glossing over more complex elements of history. One sequence, in particular, alludes to a strike by the workers at the Automats and the company due to unfair working conditions. The moment is covered in just a few sentences and is concluded with a glib (and I’m paraphrasing), “we were such great employers that they gave up on their strike!” It’s hard not to feel the weight of that story as far more important than the film might have you believe. The nature of the storytelling really favours those of the class that owned and ran the automat, rather than the ones who worked there daily.

The Automat review
African-American automat clientele

This incident feels especially irksome within a film that leans so heavily into nostalgia for a bygone era. The slanted weight of nostalgia for the past often ignores how life was not easy for everyone and has a way of erasing social movements. While, no doubt, our contemporary society (especially post-COVID) is lacking in communal spaces worth remembering, these types of stories sanitize the past not only by refusing to engage with unfair labour practices but also by minimizing the social movements that emerge to improve labour conditions (whether or not they’re successful is beside the point).

The Automat set out to gild and remember a rosy time in East Coast history that generations of young people have already forgotten. The documentary does a good job in that sense. It’s by no means a masterpiece and is livelier than a Wikipedia page primarily due to the calibre of the talking heads. For the curious who are happy to see a documentary that isn’t reinventing the wheel but offers insight on the part of American history they might not know much about, The Automat hits the mark. ■

The Automat, directed by Lisa Hurwitz

The Automat opens at Cinéma du Parc on Friday, April 29, 2022

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