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Friday, September 18, 2015

FAMOUS NATHAN -- DVD Review by Porfle

Heartfelt and finely-crafted, the documentary FAMOUS NATHAN (2014) is a glowing tribute to filmmaker Lloyd Handwerker's celebrated grandfather Nathan, the hot dog maven of Brooklyn's Coney Island.  It's a story of dedication, a work ethic the like of which is long past, the will to succeed, and, most importantly, family values. 

Lloyd has combed his way through mounds of ancient home movies and audiotaped interviews in order to give voice and image to long-deceased grandfather Nathan, who tells of leaving Poland, where he toiled as a youngster to help feed his family, and coming to America to work his way from menial jobs to owning one of the most wildly successful restaurants in the history of fast food.

We learn of Nathan's Famous (the name given to his renowned eatery) from its humble beginnings in 1916 to its preeminence with Coney Island visitors who purchased, at its peak, tens of thousands of hot dogs a day.  Nathan's employees churned them out at record speed and took pride in performing at their peak at all times for a boss to whom they were intensely loyal.  Both they and Nathan's friends and competitors gladly attest at length, sometimes emotionally, to what a wonderful guy he was.

Relatives and family also speak highly of him but in more measured terms.  There were the usual squabbles with his sons, Murray and Sol (Lloyd's father), who felt they could never measure up to Nathan's high standards while often waiting in vain for words of praise.  (Sol remarks that if Nathan wasn't criticizing him for something, that was as close as he came to actual praise.) 

Unrest between the brothers themselves over how to run the business once Nathan was urged to take an unwanted retirement (he said he preferred to die on the job over a life of leisure) and subsequent unwise decisions that lead to the company's eventual downfall help give the narrative the same depth and drive of a fictional family saga. 

All the while Lloyd's artful use of montage--many of his faded film clips of a New York that no longer exists are priceless--gives us a sense of the bustling joy that was a day at Nathan's Famous while also humanizing the man whose name sits atop the sign. 

There's a warm humorous element to several of the interview segments with family friends (I loved watching some of the aging Jewish couples lovingly kvetching at each other as they argue over long-ago details) and Lloyd's likable dad Sol himself.  Sol's visit with now-senile brother Murray in an old folks' home is touching, especially the following exchange:

MURRAY: How old are you?
SOL: Eighty-five.
MURRAY: Eighty-five? (Shakes his head) How old am I?
SOL: You're eighty-nine.
MURRAY: Eighty-nine? (Laughs in disbelief)

Finally, FAMOUS NATHAN takes us through the final stages of the Handwerker empire which, no longer in Nathan's hands, takes on increasingly unsuccessful spin-off ventures and franchise operations until the family is forced to sell out to a corporation.  And thus, the once-bustling hot dog palace joins a crumbling Coney Island itself in a slow descent into oblivion.  Lloyd Handwerker manages to make us feel as melancholy about this as he obviously does. 

The DVD from Film Movement is in 1.78:1 widescreen with Dolby 5.1 surround sound.  There are no subtitles but closed captions are available.  Extras include a director's commentary, bonus and deleted footage, and trailers for this and other Film Movement releases.

I've always enjoyed a good, nostalgic documentary about fast food and novel tourist attractions in America (the History Channel's "American Eats" and "Highway Hangouts" are two of my favorites), and FAMOUS NATHAN pays off richly in that regard.  Better yet, though, is its wonderfully engaging portrait of an admirable man who dared to dream and then, against staggering odds, made that dream come true.

Buy it at
Street date: Sept. 29, 2015


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