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Gertrude Berg (Photo: International Film Circuit)

Written, Produced & Directed by
Aviva Kempner
Released by International Film Circuit
USA. 92 min. Not Rated

If you didn’t listen to the radio or watch TV before 1956, then you weren’t one of Molly Goldberg’s neighbors to whom she called out “Yoo hoo!” with a strong Yiddish-inflection through her apartment window. For you, Yoo–Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg will be an introduction to the most famous Jewish mother of the 20th century, as well as a corrective lesson for all those television histories that claim Lucille Ball was the pioneer of the family sitcom and the first woman to control the rights to her shows. For those who do remember, the documentary will wash you in nostalgia and will open the window wider on Gertrude Berg, the auteur behind the character.

Filmmaker Aviva Kempner is emphatic, in the press notes, that her “goal has been to make documentaries about under-known Jewish heroes that counter negative stereotypes”. Like her affectionate and informative baseball documentary The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, she combines family photographs and rare period footage with interviews of colleagues, academics, and lots of famous and not famous fans, all set to an evocative musical score.

The turn of the last century world where Berg grew up is well invoked through scenes from Charlie Chaplin’s The Immigrant, Ralph Steiner/Willard Van Dyke’s documentary The City, and delightful footage of Catskills resorts, like her father’s, where she first wrote and acted in rainy day entertainments for guests. Many excerpts from her accent-free Person to Person interview with Edward R. Murrow anchor this film, where she spoke from her elegant, art filled Park Avenue apartment.

Born Tillie Edelstein, Berg created and embodied the ever-cooking, ever-meddling Bronx housewife through more than ten thousand scripts she also wrote and produced for radio and television from 1929 through the mid-fifties. The documentary recreates her first efforts to break into broadcasting through Yiddish commercials (that she had to learn phonetically) before she countered entertainment trends by focusing on the realism of family life during the Depression (during which she was the second most admired woman in America just behind Eleanor Roosevelt, according to the film). She frequented Lower East Side restaurants to listen in on conversations to find inspiration about ethnic assimilation and the amusing malapropisms she wove into the dialogue (a tradition now carried on by the Israeli agent Ziva on the hit NCIS, albeit sexier).

With no narration, Kempner opts for more fan testimonials than extended clips from The Goldbergs TV series that was first broadcast in 1949; even a landmark episode referring to Holocaust survivors is only glimpsed. Famous fans include Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (who contributes a revealing anecdote about Justice Thurgood Marshall confusing her with Molly Goldberg), NPR’s Susan Stamberg (though it’s not clear if she, and some other interviewees, are offering facts, rumors or personal impressions), and Norman Lear and Gary David Goldberg, who wrote and produced Goldbergs-influenced TV shows (Maude and Brooklyn Bridge, respectively). Though very repetitive, the nostalgic remembrances work well when women from different backgrounds fondly recall how personally they each related to Molly and her family.

Running a media empire, Berg recruited sponsors, wove their pitches into her show, wrote a movie, a cookbook, an advice column, and oversaw show related merchandise, besides winning an Emmy award and cannily retaining her copyrights. Her accomplishments put the cruel impact of the anti-Communist blacklist into vivid perspective. Actor Philip Loeb, who played Molly’s husband, is remembered tearfully for his leadership within the actors’ union and the pressures against him. (He was the basis for the tragic character played by his friend Zero Mostel in Martin Ritt’s The Front). After documenting her strenuous and unsuccessful efforts to get around the blacklist and retain Loeb, there’s a montage of the two actors who replaced him.

Network interference and the uprooting of the fictional family to the bland suburbs are blamed for the lesser quality of the final seasons and the disappearance of The Goldbergs from collective memory. But moves out of city apartments also weakened I Love Lucy and The Burns and Allen Show. A likely contributing factor to the show’s obscurity is that most of the series was produced on kinescope and only a limited number of episodes on film survived into reruns.

Concluding with how Berg continued to build on and successfully surmount her Molly persona, Kempner makes a strong case beyond nostalgia for Berg’s positive strong image and business acumen, even though far less loving caricatures of the Jewish mother in movies and TV have since dominated the public imagination. Nora Lee Mandel
July 10, 2009



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