Film chronicles sitcom pioneer Gertrude Berg
By MICHAEL FOX
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The easygoing matriarch of a fictional Jewish family, Molly Goldberg was simultaneously the salt of the earth and doggedly Herculean. But her gently insistent persistence paled next to that of her creator Gertrude Berg.
An influential yet largely forgotten figure in the annals of both American broadcasting and American Jewry. Berg is revived and celebrated in the lively, detailed documentary, “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg.” Aviva Kempner’s fast-paced film also makes room to indulge in nostalgia for a beloved radio and television program that enjoyed a central place in the hearts and lives of countless Jewish listeners and viewers.
“Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg,” which opens at Portland’s Regal Fox Tower on Friday, Oct. 2, is a solidly crafted work that rarely aspires to be inventive or inspired. Yet it is essential viewing for anyone interested in American Jewish culture and assimilation in the 20th century.
Gertrude Berg was born Tillie Edelstein in New York City in 1898, and discovered her flair for writing and performing by devising skits for weather-bound children at her uncle’s Catskills hotel. Married at 18 to a soon-to-be-successful engineer, Berg was nonetheless too ambitious and creative to be content with the roles of homemaker and mother.
Her first paid broadcast gig was delivering a radio advertisement for a Christmas cookie in Yiddish—phonetically, for she didn’t speak the mother tongue. Berg was so popular with the sponsor that she found herself with a regular gig, and in time developed her own show. “The Rise of the Goldbergs,” a haimish 15-minute program airing five days a week on NBC, which she wrote, produced and starred in, made its debut one month after the Crash of 1929.
In 1930, CBS lured Berg away, a clear indication that the show had instantly developed a following. “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” describes how Jewish listeners recognized the Goldbergs as relatives or (at least) neighbors, while general audiences found a beacon of low-key reassurance during the Depression. For her part, Berg did some genuinely daring things, including a show depicting a seder in the Goldbergs’ apartment.
Berg parlayed her success into a syndicated newspaper column, among other ventures, and at one point was the highest-paid woman in the country. Unfortunately, we don’t learn how she used her bully pulpit, what she spent the money on or how she raised her children in the midst of scripting, rehearsing and broadcasting a show every weekday.
The end of World War II brought the end of the radio program and, soon, a new medium. It took all of Berg’s skills of persuasion simply to get an audition from CBS for a TV show—strange, given her status as a household name—but she prevailed and “The Goldbergs” premiered in January 1949, laying the foundation for what came to be called situation comedy.
Given that the vast majority of television sets in those early years were located in New York and other Eastern cities, it’s curious that CBS didn’t see the immediate appeal of “The Goldbergs.” But Kempner, a Washington, D.C., resident who hit a home run with “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” her 1998 portrait of another Jewish icon of an earlier era, doesn’t allot time to examining this contradiction.
The film has a lot of ground to cover, admittedly, But some cultural undercurrents, along with Berg’s private life, take a back seat to the subject’s professional pursuits and, perhaps unduly, the audience’s relationship with the show. A key element of the doc is a parade of (mostly female) interviewees, including NPR correspondent Susan Stamberg (overly affected and overused) and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (a kindly figure whose participation marks a coup of sorts, though she doesn’t add much insight), wistfully reminiscing about the influence of mother Molly and daughter Rosalie as Jewish role models.
Along with the wealth of comments attesting to “The Goldbergs”’ ethnic accuracy and special resonance for Jewish audiences, the film takes pains to portray the show as thematically inclusive and universal enough to appeal to African-Americans. The show provided matter-of-fact guideposts for assimilating Jews (and other immigrant groups), while humanizing Jews to non-Jewish viewers.
Kempner succeeds in portraying Gertrude Berg as a singularly impressive woman—who penned an unbelievable 12,000 scripts during her long run, then triumphed as a stage actress after the TV show went off the air in 1955—but not an inspiring one. Indeed, the only genuine drama and pathos in “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” involves the blacklisting of Philip Loeb, the enormously respected actor and union activist who played Molly’s husband. This high-stakes, too-brief segment makes us sit up straight in our seats, but also exposes the breezy superficiality that infuses the rest of the film.
Ultimately, “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” isn’t a penetrating cultural critique so much as an exceptionally valuable feel-good film. For most viewers, including future generations curious about the nitty-gritty of the evolution of Jews in America, that’s plenty.
Michael Fox is a film writer, critic and reviewer in San Francisco.