Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg (International Film Circuit, NR)

yoohoo-header.jpg To her credit, Kempner clearly differentiates between Gertrude Berg and Molly Goldberg.

 

A few years back I caught a few episodes in a series presented by the Jewish Museum in New York City which screened American sitcoms which included Jewish characters. So, I got to see Molly Picon cook dinner for Gomer Pyle and Sally Field as the flying nun convince a Jewish girl that she could find a career helping people without needing to convert to Catholicism.

But what left the strongest impression were a few episodes of "The Goldbergs," which may be the only sitcom set in New York City in which the characters are seen living in something resembling a real New York apartment.

Click for a larger imageOf course it wasn’t just the set which attracted me: the characters were like a lot of people I knew, doing the best they could in less than glamorous circumstances. But with the keen eye for real estate which becomes second nature to New Yorkers, I particularly appreciated the fact that the Goldbergs didn’t live in a version of the Petrie’s sunken living room or the improbably spacious apartments occupied by Jerry Seinfeld and friends. No, they were crowded but cohesive in an apartment so small that the family couldn’t all sit down to dinner at the same time.

Anyway, that was my introduction to Gertrude Berg. Limited though it was, it put me ahead of a lot of people: according to the press notes when Judith Abrams brought a script about Berg to the head of CBS, he had never heard of either Gertrude Berg or her long-running program which made so much money for his network a few decades earlier.

But although I enjoyed what I knew of Berg’s work, I had no idea of the extent of her accomplishments. She wrote and starred on the radio version of The Goldbergs for 17 years, beginning in 1929. She wrote the scripts for television version as well as starring in it, and created many of the now-familiar conventions of the television sitcom. Berg also pursued a successful stage career including a Tony Award for Best Actress in 1959, developed a line of clothing, published a best-selling cookbook, and became a popular television guest star.

Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, a new documentary by Aviva Kempner, will provide a good introduction to Gertrude Berg for those who have never heard of her and a pleasant journey down nostalgia lane for those who grew up with her shows. It’s a conventional documentary constructed out of archival materials and talking heads which is a mile wide and an inch deep. You’ll learn how much celebrities from Ruth Bader Ginsberg to Norman loved Gertrude Berg and her fictional persona Molly Goldberg, and you’ll get a reasonable amount of historical scene-setting (albeit with fictional and historical footage annoying intermingled, often without sufficient identification) but you won’t find much in the way of analysis or criticism. The most interesting comment, which Kempner does follow up on, comes from Ed Asner, who notes that the Molly Goldberg, with her Yiddish accent and English malapropisms, represented the exact opposite of the goal of many American Jews, which was assimilation.

To her credit, Kempner clearly differentiates between Gertrude Berg and Molly Goldberg: Berg was an accomplished and sophisticated woman married to a successful businessman. But as a writer and actress she knew her market, and ethnic comedy was popular (Amos’n’Andy was the only contemporary radio program to run longer than The Goldbergs) so she created Molly Goldberg, who spoke with an accent and occasionally mangled the English language. That’s show biz, folks.

Unfortunately the business of television is not immune from political pressures. In 1950 Philip Loeb, who played Jake Goldberg, was named by Elia Kazan and Lee J. Cobb as a communist. Berg came under great pressure to fire Loeb but refused to do so. However, he bowed to the inevitable (the show’s sponsors threatened to drop it if he did not leave) and he accepted a financial settlement to resign. Loeb committed suicide in 1955: the oft-repeated description that he "died of a sickness commonly called the blacklist" is very likely accurate.

Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg is an entertaining and informative documentary which should bring greater appreciation to Gertrude Berg’s many accomplishments. If you want to check out some of her radio and television work, there’s quite a bit available on the internet from sources such as www.internetarchive.org and http://www.freeotrshows.com/. | Sarah Boslaugh

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