Friday, October 9, 2009

Film review: Affectionate documentary revives Berg's legacy

Gertrude Berg in The Goldbergs.


By Hap Erstein

Long before there was e-mail there were tenement windows, an almost-as-effective communications vehicle for ethnic housewives to yell “Yoo-hoo” to each other.

That was the catchphrase that kicked off each episode of a pioneering radio and, later, TV show called The Goldbergs. Written by and starring Gertrude Berg as an upbeat, wisdom-dispensing Bronx matriarch, Molly Goldberg, the show and its creative force are affectionately recalled in Aviva Kempner’s new documentary, Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg.

Kempner, whose The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg celebrated the first Jewish baseball player in the major leagues, has carved out a cinematic niche which she describes as “films about under-known Jewish heroes.” Berg certainly qualifies, having all but invented the domestic sitcom long before Lucille Ball, won the first Best Actress Emmy ever awarded, conceived and written every script of The Goldbergs and fought her network when it tried -- successfully -- to squeeze actor Philip Loeb, who played Berg’s husband Jake, out of the series during the Communist witch hunt of the 1950s.

Herself a housewife as well as a one-woman radio and television production mill, Berg, who died in 1966, was the most popular female entertainer of her day. Still, as the film recounts, when a writer pitched a script about Berg to the head of CBS in recent years, he had no idea who she was.

Kempner’s narrative style is fairly straightforward and chronological, leavened by extensive clips of kinescopes of Goldbergs episodes. Berg was big on imparting life lessons in each show, not unlike such WASPy latter day series as Father Knows Best. But she also sneaked in social commentary from Molly’s Bronx living room and, surely more significantly, she paved the way for product placements and in-character commercials.

Kempner includes talking head interviews with those connected with producing The Goldbergs, but all but the youngest cast members have long since died. More eye-opening are the selected figures who recall growing up watching the show, notably Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and National Public Radio’s Susan Stamberg.

Missing, unfortunately, is much footage of Berg herself talking about her creative process, success and the effects of the blacklist. The only glimpse of Berg as herself, as opposed to her accented fictional matriarch is on a Person to Person program with Edward R. Murrow, where she comes across as a witty, cultured woman, quite in contrast to Molly.

Born Tillie Edelstein, the daughter of a Catskills hotel owner, she simply announced her intention to become an actress, re-invented herself as Gertrude Berg and forged ahead, seemingly unaware of the odds against her goal. Following the demise of The Goldbergs, canceled after an ill-advised move by the family to the suburbs, Berg moved on to Broadway, winning a Tony Award in 1959 for playing a widow who finds unexpected romance in A Majority of One.

But in terms of leaving behind a legacy, the only other medium more ephemeral than those early TV kinescopes is the theater.

YOO-HOO, MRS. GOLDBERG. Director: Aviva Kempner; With Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Susan Stamberg, Norman Lear, Ed Asner; Not rated. Opens today at Regal Cinemas Delray 18, Regal Cinemas Shadowood 16 (Boca Raton), Sunrise Cinemas at Mizner Park, and Cobb Theatres Jupiter 18. Opens Oct. 16 at Emerging Cinemas, Lake Worth.

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