The Automat

October 24, 2022
The Automat

5 Movies | November 22nd

With a handful of nickels and a strong appetite, you could build yourself quite the meal at a Horn & Hardart Automat. This spacious and beautifully designed cafeteria space offered comfort food at reasonable prices. Underneath signs that read Hot Dishes, Sandwiches, Salads and Pie, small cubicles lined the walls offering one delectable treat visible behind a small pane of glass. Just add some nickels into the slot, turn the knob and the glass door would click open and you could help yourself. The coffee station featured the iconic dolphin head spout that would pour out just the right amount of coffee—finished off with a spurt of cream—to fill your coffee cup for just a nickel or two. While everything seemed “automatic,” behind the wall of food was a team of servers making sure there was a constant flow of food and drink. The best part about the Automat is how welcoming it was. Anyone from any social or economic class could sit with their fellow man at an elegant white marble table and enjoy a delicious meal together.

Even if you have never stepped inside of one, seeing images of an Automat will trigger feelings of nostalgia. Chances are it's because Automats have been featured in movies from the 1920s to the 1960s and beyond. While the final Horn & Hardart Automat closed its doors in 1991, its legacy lives on in the memories of its many patrons and in the movies. This month TCM will be airing five movies featuring the beloved Automat including a new documentary.

Directed by Lisa Hurwitz, The Automat (2021) explores the history behind Horn & Hardart as well as the Automat’s cultural influence. It playfully starts with comedian Mel Brooks pondering the significance of making this documentary and his own personal memories of Automats being “one of the greatest inventions and insane centers of paradise.” The film is bookmarked with Brooks’ performance of his original song, a sweet tribute to the Automat. In between we hear from well-known names including Elliott Gould, Carl Reiner, Colin Powell and Ruth Bader Ginsburg who all share their personal memories of what the Automat meant to them. Hurwitz interviews experts including Automat historian Alec Shuldiner and Lorraine B. Diel and Marianne Hardart, authors of “The Automat: The History, Recipes, and Allure of Horn & Hardart’s Masterpiece”. Then there are the interview subjects with intimate knowledge of the business side of Horn & Hardart. The most fascinating of these was John Romas, the former Vice President of Engineering who had many stories to tell, as well as a treasure trove of gadgets stashed away from when the final Automat closed. What The Automat documentary excels at is offering viewers a contextual history of how this business was born, how it thrived and how it became part of the social fabric of New York City and Philadelphia. It was a 20th century phenomenon that was truly of its era.

One of the greatest contributing factors to the Automat’s incredible success, especially from the 1930s and into the 1960s, was the rise of women in the workplace. The Automat was a safe space where a working woman could get an inexpensive meal while also enjoying the pleasant ambiance. The following movies all happen to feature working women, in dire financial straits, seeking out a meal and a bit of solace from their local Automat.

First there’s Thirty Day Princess (1934). Written by Preston Sturges and Frank Partos and directed by Marion Gering, this pre-Code comedy was one of many B pictures produced by Paramount during the Great Depression. Sylvia Sidney stars in a two-part role as Princess Zizzi of the Kingdom of Taronia as well as Nancy Lane, the impoverished actress hired to double for the Princess. Cary Grant also stars as newspaper editor Porter Madison who is torn between his feelings for the fake Princess Zizzi and his desire to expose a Taronian bond scheme orchestrated by corrupt banker Richard Gresham (Edward Arnold). In one scene, Nancy Lane (Sidney) is approached by her landlady for overdue rent. Nancy only has 17 cents to her name and her landlady allows her to keep it and pay another time. She takes those cents to the local Automat and uses her spare change for a bowl of soup, a roll of bread and a cup of coffee, poured from the famous dolphin spout fixture. Nancy then spots a sign reading “Roast Turkey, 8 nickels” and her eyes begin to water. She bangs on the glass door activating the spring device and steals the turkey dinner. When two men stare her down, she assumes they’re security guards and flees from the Automat, with only a turkey leg in hand. These scenes give the viewer a great sense of Nancy Lane’s professional and financial situation which leads her to take on a questionable job impersonating a foreign princess.

Directed by Clarence Brown for MGM, the pre-Code drama Sadie McKee (1934) stars Joan Crawford as the title character, a working woman jilted by her fiancé Tommy (Gene Raymond). When Sadie suddenly quits working for her employer, successful lawyer Michael Alderson (Franchot Tone), she and her beau Tommy move to New York City for a new start. Tommy has already developed a bad reputation and when he abandons Sadie for the seductive Dolly (Esther Ralston), Sadie is left high and dry with hardly any money to her name. In one scene, Sadie leaves the courthouse where Tommy jilted her and with nowhere to go she stops at a local Automat. The signs on the wall read Pies, Desserts, Sandwiches but all she can afford is a 5-cent coffee. While adding sugar to her coffee at the condiment stand, Sadie observes the man beside her as he is about to leave most of his lemon meringue pie. Hoping to eat it once he walks away, she’s disappointed to see that he stabs the pie with his burning cigarette. Like with Sylvia Sidney’s character in Thirty Day Princess, the Automat scene demonstrates Sadie’s hunger and despair which sets her on a trajectory to reluctantly pursue a career that will allow her to survive.

The next two movies utilize the Automat as a space for both chaos and comedy. Based on a story by Vera Caspary, who often wrote about working women, and adapted for the screen by Preston Sturges, Easy Living (1937) is a hilarious screwball comedy about income inequality and mistaken identity. Produced by Paramount and directed by Mitchell Leisen, Easy Living stars Jean Arthur as Mary Smith, a secretary for a boys magazine. While riding atop a double decker bus, a sable coat suddenly falls on her. In a fit of anger, eccentric millionaire J.B. Ball (Edward Arnold) had just thrown his wife’s new coat off the side of a skyscraper. When the millionaire meets Mary, he offers her to keep the coat and buys her an expensive hat to go with it. Rumors spread; Mary loses her job but gains a fancy new apartment. Desperately hungry and with not a bite to eat in her new fridge, Mary makes a visit to the local Automat. The neon lights welcome her inside where there are many offerings of hot dishes, fruit salads, cakes and pies. When she puts in her nickel and pulls the lever, she almost misses the perfectly timed pour of coffee from the dolphin spout. She meets J.B. Ball’s son (Ray Milland), a bus boy at the Automat who offers Mary some free food. When his boss catches him, a fight ensues that causes all the levers to open followed by a mad rush of patrons grabbing as much food as they can. The comedic build up in this scene is sure to elicit laughter especially as we witness the utter chaos around Jean Arthur as her character Mary calmly eats her pie. This scene also serves as a means of introduction for the two romantic leads. 

Perhaps one of the best known Automat scenes, That Touch of Mink (1962) is a charming romantic comedy starring Doris Day and Cary Grant. Produced by Universal and directed by Delbert Mann, That Touch of Mink is set in bustling New York City where suave businessman Philip Shayne (Cary Grant) works across the street from a Horn & Hardart Automat. After his Rolls-Royce splashes mud on working girl Cathy Timberlake (Doris Day), she heads over to the Automat, prior to her job interview, to grab a quick meal. Spotting her from afar, Philip sends his assistant Roger (Gig Young) to bring her to his office to offer to have her outfit cleaned and as an excuse to meet her. The Automat here is like a little palace and unlike the other movies discussed, this one shows us the space shot in brilliant Eastmancolor. The cafeteria signs read Beverages, Hot Meat, Vegetables and Salads. Cathy’s best friend and roommate Connie (Audrey Meadows) works behind the wall of glass cubicles and offers her friend free portions of chicken pot pie, vegetables, jello and a piece of cake along with bits of advice exchanged through the open glass doors. Roger meets with Cathy in the Automat, beckoning her across the street to meet his boss. On two occasions, Connie mistakes Roger for Philip and feeling protective of her friend she offers Roger a plate of food and a slap across the face. In a later scene at the Automat, Roger gets a face full of salad. The food window as well as the Automat itself serves a portal of social activity happening between three of the main characters. With the combination of aesthetics and comedy, the Automat scenes are some of the most enjoyable ones in the movie.