YOO HOO, MRS. GOLDBERG
Written and Directed by Aviva Kempner
Starring: Gertrude Berg
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
By Scott Marks
Who invented the sitcom, was the first best actress Emmy winner and author of every script of her daily radio and weekly television show “Meet the Goldbergs,” which numbered in the thousands? This Jewish, Tony award winning actress was the Oprah and Martha Stewart of her day, and at a time when anti-Semitism ran roughshod across America,she was adored by both Jew and gentile alike. FDR credited her with getting America through the Depression.
While syndication has kept our love affair with Lucy alive and thriving, Gertrude Berg is an all but forgotten footnote in the annals of broadcast history.
“Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg,” an absorbing history lesson by Peabody award winning filmmaker Aviva Kempner (“The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg”), is well worth the schlep out to Landmark’s La Jolla Village Cinemas.
In the throes of the Great Depression, Gertrude Berg’s homespun charm and intimate exchanges with her audience netted her an astronomical $2,000 a week. Life magazine noted, “For millions of Americans, listening to the show… is a happy ritual, like slipping on a pair of comfortable old shoes that never seem to wear out.”
“The Goldbergs” made its debut on NBC radio just one month after the stock market crash of 1929. Unlike earlier depictions of Jewish mothers as selfless, sentimental martyrs, Molly Goldberg was a strong, assertive modern woman. Berg brought her phenomenally successful creation to Broadway in 1948, and a year later began a five-year run on CBS television.
Gertrude Berg was so strongly identified with Molly Goldberg that she told Edward R. Murrow, “When you live with a character as long as I have lived with Molly it gets a little confusing. I’m really Molly more hours through the day than I am Gertrude Berg.”
Onscreen she played a homey, down to earth Yiddisher mama, but when the cameras stopped rolling, Gertrude Berg was a perfectionist and a tyrant. No one was going to tamper with her characters and no one felt her wrath more than the House Un-American Activities Committee.
When her onscreen husband Philip Loeb’s name appeared in the Red Channels — Hollywood’s “blacklist Bible” — CBS and sponsor General Foods handed down an ultimatum: Berg had two days to rid the show of the suspected Communist. She tried everything in her power to save her co-star, even going so far as meeting with Cardinal Spellman, who asked that she convert to Catholicism in order to keep Phillip Loeb on the show.
Berg threatened to use her show as a platform to tell her listeners to boycott General Foods. The company placated her for a few months before withdrawing their sponsorship, which eventually caused CBS to cancel the show. Sales of Sanka, Molly’s java of choice, dropped 60 percent when the show left the airwaves. (Ironically, Berg’s husband, a consummate engineer, was co-responsible for the invention of instant coffee during World War I.) Philip Loeb eventually committed suicide.
As a history lesson, “Yoo Hoo” can’t be beat, but as a work of cinema, Kempner’s presentation leaves something to be desired. Visually, it’s little more than a succession of clips intercut with talking-head interviews with critics, celebrities, family members and several surviving performers from the show.
The director also violates a law of cinema that is almost as egregious a pet hate as excessive close-ups, zoom lenses, wasted pans, and an inordinate use of the hand-held camera. Instead of leasing archival photos or stock footage, Kempner resorts to presenting footage from narrative films as historical artifacts.
When the subject turns to a Florida hotel boom in the 1920s, she inserts footage of Groucho Marx from “The Cocoanuts.” A clip from Charlie Chaplin’s “The Immigrant” represents foreigners en route to Ellis Island. One can only imagine impressionable viewers thinking Chaplin emigrated from Italy to America.
As of today, there is only one collection of “The Goldbergs” available on DVD. Hopefully this documentary will change that.
Scott Marks was born and raised in some of the finest single screen movie theaters in Chicago. He moved to San Diego in 2000 and has never looked back. Scott authors the blog emulsioncompulsion.com and is co-host of KPBS-Radio’s Film Club of the Air. Please address any bouquets or brickbats to email@example.com.