I felt lulled and charmed by Lisa Hurwitz‘s The Automat, which I caught at last September’s Telluride Film Festival. It’s just a memory-lane trip, but smartly assembled and a very pleasant watch.
It’s an easy thing, it turns out, to rekindle the lore of those fine, professionally prepared food dishes and exceptionally good cups of coffee (not to mention slices of pie and cake) at popular prices, accessible through those little window slots that you’d drop coins into.
Call it a slightly melancholy saga about a great, enterprising idea that had its day — a franchise business that caught on, thrived, peaked between the ’30s and ’60s, and then started to go away in the ’70s and ’80s.
Managed by the Horn and Hardart company but located only in New York (40 locations!) and Philadelphia, automats were also great hang-outs for office workers, students, book readers, job seekers, workers on the go, poetry writers and the financially pressed.
Remember Dustin Hoffman sharing a fond Automat recollection with Justin Henry in Kramer vs. Kramer? Hollywood’s best Automat recall can be savored in Delbert Mann‘s That Touch of Mink (’62), a bizarre sex comedy about the priggish Doris Day struggling (at age 39!) to avoid having unwed sex with Cary Grant. There’s an Act One scene in which Day’s best friend (Audrey Meadows) slips her free food through the automat windows. There’s also a beautiful evening shot that captures one of the franchise’s midtown facades with that luscious red neon lettering.
The Automat is now playing at Manhattan’s Film Forum, and at three Laemmle theatres locally including West L.A.’s The Royal (which hasn’t been “royal” for quite a few years).