By Gerald Peary
What could have been a fantastic twenty-minute short film becomes tedious work as a feature film.
The Automaton, directed by Lisa Hurwitz. Screening at Coolidge Corner Theater
What wasn’t to love about the late Horn & Hardart automaton chain? This was a miracle place when I visited New York as a kid, putting nickels in the slots, opening these little doors in the wall with brass knobs, and taking out my food order. Others opted for burgers, macaroni and cheese or, exotic order then, spinach with cream. I have always opted for the extraordinary baked beans. I was too young to opt for the acclaimed, French-pressed, New Orleans-style coffee. But I could feel there was something special about the marble tables, the high ceilings and, I didn’t know the term, the Art Nouveau style design and architecture. A quirky place, very classy, for someone whose family has never been to a restaurant because we couldn’t afford it. But this place was so cheap, and there was no need to tip!
When Mr. Horn met Mr. Hardart, they opened their first restaurant in Philadelphia in 1902. They expanded to New York, but that was it: many branches but only two cities. Not even Chicago. H&H’s peak was probably the early 1950s, 800,000 customers a day. But the chain was challenged in the 1960s by upstart Chock Full of Nuts and many city regulars who moved to the suburbs. The last H&H in Philadelphia, and the original, closed in 1968. H&H’s last hurray in Manhattan, at 3rd Avenue and 42n/a Street, in a way, did it until 1991.
My above testimony to the glories of Horn & Hardart is repeated in Lisa Hurwitz’s The automaton, his romantic feature documentary about the restaurant chain. This is repeated too often, with person after person in on-camera interviews saying how much they enjoyed going there and eating there. Has anyone ever had food poison? Has anyone been thrown over their ears? I even yearned for a juicy negative story about the place. Not in this cult movie. We are told that a workers’ strike in the 1930s failed because people were so loyal to the place. (No union ever? Not discussed.) We learn that H&H has always been a place African Americans have called home. (Maybe.) And forever: the rich and the poor mingled openly. Which I believe. The vending machine has always been a fun place for the privileged to go to the slum: that is, a famous Jack Benny party, where the self-proclaimed cheapest man in the world handed out rolls of nickels at the door at his celebrity friends dressed to the nines.
Thank goodness Mel Brooks signed on to appear in this documentary. As you’d expect, this kid from Williamsburg, Brooklyn was a regular at Horn and Hardart and everything he says in the movie about H&H is quoteable and wonderful: “If you put two pennies in the slot, the window goes will open. And you could take away…a slice of lemon meringue pie. And you could eat it! You could break your neck in it! …And the coconut cream pie!… God made that!
But who can follow after Brooks? Not all the boring, unfunny people that appear in The automaton and offer the most banal and obvious anecdotes. The film drags on and it becomes apparent that what could have been a fantastic twenty-minute short film is a tedious job as a feature film. Even the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, interviewed before her death, is an apathetic H&H storyteller.
Gerald Peary is professor emeritus at Suffolk University in Boston, former curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and editor of the University Press of Mississippi’s Conversations with Filmmakers series. A critic for the deceased boston phoenixhe is the author of nine books on cinema, scriptwriter-director of documentaries For the Love of Cinema: The History of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Bettyand a featured actor in the 2013 Independent Narrative computer chess game. His latest feature documentary, The rabbi goes westco-directed by Amy Geller, played at film festivals around the world.