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.


Fred said...

I remember Automats (vaguely); after taking the train from Springfield to spend the day in New York, we would stop at the Automat. I think it was in Grand Central Station. This would be back in the early 1960s.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Welcome, Fred. So neat. I wish I'd had that adventure.

Caftan Woman said...

I know I would have got straight to the place where they kept the pie. Gee, that would have been fun. Just because you're broke doesn't mean you can't have fun - or pie.

John/24Frames said...

As a young kid I went there with my mother on a few occasions. It was fun at that age (ten or younger)because you popped a nickel into the slot and the little door unlocked with your purchase. It was like a game. I don't think the food was very good, but then again I really
don't remember. I do remember Easy Living with the always charming and funny Jean Arthur.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

CW, I'm with you. Pie forever. A Shane-sized piece.

John, I envy you that experience. I can see where a child would enjoy that. Jean Arthur is one of my very favorites. She could read the phone book, and it'd be okay with me.

Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

I remember reading the term "automat" in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler when I was a kid, and not knowing what it meant. Is that kind of like a laundromat? Now when I hear the word the first thing I think of is that wonderfully chaotic scene from Easy Living.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Hi, Elisabeth. EASY LIVING is such a fun movie. I'll be a lot of kids are thrown by references to the automat. It doesn't sound like it would have anything to do with food, does it?

KC said...

I love this tribute. I'm always fascinated by automat scenes in movies, and particular the ones featuring Crawford and Arthur. Can't help associating that name with cars though!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks, KC. I know what you mean, automat sounds like it should be a car wash or something.

Silver Screenings said...

I always feel a little ripped off when I see automats in classic film. They fascinate me. I could easily see myself visiting an automat every day for lunch.

Thanks for including the YouTube link. Will check it out! :)

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I know what you mean, Ruth. It would have been fun to visit one of these places back in the day.

Monte said...

FredG, the Automat of your memory was on Third Avenue near 42nd St., about a block from Grand Central Station. It wasn't as authentic as others, since it opened in 1958, but it was the last to close in 1991.

Unknown said...

I distinctly remember Marlo Thomas in a scene from that girl where she was at the automat trying to make soup out of ketchup and water I wish we could see that scene again that girl is on I'll have to start watching I
wish they were around I would go for the beef pie in easy living it looked great

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