Thursday, May 26, 2016
The Automat in the Movies
It's 1934, the worst year of the Great Depression, and Joan Crawford goes to the Automat in Sadie McKee because she can't afford better. She can't even afford the Automat, scraping just enough nickels for a cup of coffee.
But The Little King, who is rich, and a king, also goes to the Automat in 1934 in Sultan Pepper, just for a lark, for the fun of it.
The Horn and Hardart Automat of New York City seems to bear the dual reputation of being a place of stark frugality and also a place of playful ingenuity. It was nothing if not egalitarian.
It's fun to see it pop up in classic films from time to time. Jean Arthur, down on her luck as Joan Crawford was, visits the Automat in 1937 for Easy Living, but finds rich boy Ray Milland slumming there, not unlike The Little King. She determinedly tries to eat in the middle of riotous food fight.
By 1950, in Mister 880, which we discussed in this previous post, Burt Lancaster and the feds are trying to track Edmund Gwenn down for counterfeiting, and the Automat here seems less stylish, and more utilitarian. A place where counterfeiters might hang out.
By 1956 and The Catered Affair, a serious young couple played by Debbie Reynolds and Rod Taylor discuss marriage. Again, the Automat seems even more dour in this setting than it did for poor Joan Crawford in the depths of the Depression. Perhaps it was no longer novelty and just another cheap cafeteria?
In 1962 in That Touch of Mink, Doris Day has a conversation with Audrey Meadows through the open food service slot, and because Doris is unemployed, pal Audrey, who works there, slips her food. Here the Automat is fun again, and we don't take the hunger pangs seriously.
For more on the Automat have a look at this brief documentary on YouTube. Someone also put up a series of movie automat scenes, starting here. Apparently one of the first, if not the first, was The Early Bird (1925). The Automat had been around since 1912. It closed in 1991.
Come back next Thursday for part six of our year-long monthly series on the classic film fan, and we'll have a look at John Greco's new book, Lessons in the Dark, a collection of essays from his blog Twenty-Four Frames.