'Famous Nathan': Film Review

Tribeca Film Festival
A surprisingly compelling labor-of-love doc

Lloyd Handwerker's doc tells the story of his Polish immigrant grandfather Nathan and the eponymous hot dog business he founded nearly a century ago.

Any theater showing Lloyd Handwerker's documentary about his grandfather Nathan Handwerker and the legendary Coney Island establishment that bears his name would be well-advised to serve hot dogs at the concession stand. Throughout Famous Nathan there are enough scenes of customers gleefully wolfing down juicy frankfurters to convert even the most staunchly vegetarian viewer.

You wouldn't think that a film about a hot dog restaurant that eventually evolved into a national chain would be the stuff of compelling cinema. But this effort, no less than thirty years in the making, offers enough family drama to fuel a Shakespeare play.

We learn that Nathan's Famous was founded in 1916 by Handwerker, a Polish immigrant who managed to get to America with barely two nickels to rub together. He learned English by taking orders at the counter of a Manhattan restaurant, and his eponymous business wasn't a success until he cannily lowered the price of a hot dog from ten to five cents.

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Nathan's quickly became a Coney Island institution at a time when the seaside area was thriving, with archival footage showing the throngs of customers clamoring for franks. Parking in front was never a problem, since Handwerker paid local cops two dollars a day to not give tickets to the double and triple-parked cars.

The film provides a vivid portrait of Handwerker, a hands-on proprietor who believed in the virtue of hard work and who personally oversaw every aspect of his operation. Seen in copious home movie footage, he's also a significant commentator via excerpts from an hours-long audio interview conducted by a relative a year before his death.

Also included are interviews with many former employees who worked at Nathan's for decades. They attest to their workaholic boss's combination of tough discipline, fanatical attention to detail and unwavering kindness, the latter illustrated by such acts as providing interest-free loans so they could buy homes.

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Handwerker's relationship with his sons Sol (Lloyd's father) and Murray, who both entered the family business, was far more complicated. An undemonstrative father, he was disinclined to bestow praise, which inevitably led to tensions. Sol eventually left to start his own hot dog business, a virtual replica of Nathan's, in midtown Manhattan, which lasted fourteen years before going belly-up. Murray pressed for the business's expansion, which his father firmly resisted as being both unnecessary and impossible to manage.  He was right, as the overambitious rollout led to multiple failures. The business was finally sold in 1987, leading to the endless franchises, which, as seen today, fail to match the original's quality.

A clear labor of love, Famous Nathan is occasionally ragged in its structure and pacing. But it's also surprisingly compelling, with the complex family dynamics on display in both archival footage and contemporary interviews, lending poignant emotional content to the story. Most of all, it's both a wonderful true-life rags-to-riches tale and a vivid portrait of a colorful era that, as anyone who has been to Coney Island recently can attest, is now sadly gone.  

Production: Loquat Films
Director/screenwriter/director of photography: Lloyd Handwerker
Producers: Lloyd Handwerker, Leslie Siegel, Madeleine Molyneaux
Editor: Russell Green
Composer: Ergo Phizmiz

Not rated, 86 min.

 

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