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History is replete with countless stories of exceptional individuals. Unfortunately, when people discuss famous women, African Americans, Hispanics, ,etc. they tend to lean towards those individuals who are better known. Every so often there is the exception, the telling of those not remembered or forgotten, this documentary being one of them. Going into the theater I carried with me only the knowledge of who Getrude Berg was. I came out with a deep appreciation of what she accomplished in her life as a writer of 12,000 scripts; first lady of television, etc. and her overall impact. I was impressed especially at her work on behalf of her costar Phillip Loeb during the Communist witchhunts of the 1950s. This is an exceptional documentary and worth taking the time to see.
Gertrude Berg was a force to be reckoned with. In 1929,she produced, wrote & acted as the head of a Jewish American household,by the name of Tilly Goldberg,in a series called,The Goldbergs (how original!). Five times a week,America tuned in on the original Jewish mama,and her family. The series made it to early television in 1949,and was a runaway hit.Gertrude Berg even wrote the commercials that intertwined with the episodes (one minute Tilly would be talking about recipe's,then seamlessly segueing into an ad for coffee). Aviva Kempner (The Life & Times Of Hank Greenburg)directs a pleasant enough documentary of a pioneer of early television,who by the end of the 1950's,was pretty much forgotten in the wake of Lucille Ball,etc. During it's initial run (1949-1951),the show experienced an unpleasant run-in with the goon squad that was the House Of Unamerican Activities Commitee (H.U.A.C.),due to the fact that co star,Phillip Loeb was an accused Communist sympathizer. When sponsors started pulling out funding for the show,Berg was forced to replace Loeb with another actor to play her beloved husband (only after the show went on a brief hiatus). When the show was revived (on another television network),the letters of protest over Phillip Loeb being replaced flooded the network, but it was already too late (I won't spoil it by revealing what happened).The series would continue to run until 1955,when it was eventually phased out. The film gets support from spoken testimonies from such personae as Supreme Court Justice,Ruth Bader Ginsburg,and producer,Norman Lear (creator of 'All In The Family','Maude' & 'The Jeffersons'). The film also gets some nice mileage from original grainy black & white kine scopes of 'The Goldbergs',as well as the one off feature film,'Molly'(also known as 'Meet The Goldbergs')from 1950 (basically an extended 90 episode,minus the commercials). This film will be of interest to anybody who follows early television,or obscure pop culture. Not rated,but contains absolutely nothing to offend even the most blue-nosed prude.
Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg is American pop history with a twist. Gertrude
Berg was a radio and television pioneer who created a persona, the sort
of immigrant Mamma a Greek woman could connect with, though the family
of her "Molly Goldberg" character (she wrote and acted the part) was
Jewish and came from Eastern Europe. In the bland Fifites "Leave It to
Beaver" era, Berg created a counter-image that was urban and ethnic.
Documentary filmmaker Kempner made a 1988 film about Hank Greenberg. As
she tells it, Gertrude Berg created the sit-com, a field ultimately
dominated by Lucille Ball, but only when "Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg" faded
due to political pressures. So Jewish ethnicity paved the way for WASP
But Gertrude Berg's creation was a pop, bland (and middle-class) creation too, though this generally upbeat documentary doesn't analyze it much, except to point out that the TV show's final version, when the Goldbergs make it financially and resultantly move to the suburbs, lost the show's original spark. We don't get a very clear idea of what episodes of "Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg" were like from the film, except to experience Berg's personal warmth, sweet smile, melodious voice, and ample bosom. The emphasis of clips shown is on gestures and brief interactions rather than plot-lines.
Because it relies on the visuals from old TV shows rather than (perhaps rare?) radio recordings (which may not even exist), it's not much emphasized that Molly Goldberg on radio actually went all the way back to 1929 (Gertrude Berg was born in 1998 and died in 1966). It's claimed that she did the first effective radio advertising, writing her own ads, notably for Sanka coffee. She also sold War Bonds. Her creation throughout its long run boldly provided, in an age of anti-Semitism, a relatively realistic and respectful, if gently comic, version of Jewish New York immigrant life shipped out to be consumed in the American heartland. What effect this had on Middle American thinking is not chronicled, though Ms. Berg's biographer, interestingly, is a young southern WASP type, Glenn D. Smith, who provides much detail of the life. His book is called "Something on My Own": Gertrude Berg and American Broadcasting, 1929-1956. The radio show, also interestingly, was originally called "The Rise of the Goldbergs." What is clear is that out-the-window air-shaft shouted "Yoo hoos" (the way of calling out to people, now old-fashioned) represent the interconnectedness of Brooklyn apartment dwellers in those days who hung out their windows and visited with one another on a day-to-day basis. Molly is always in an apron and always cooking. Yet women in the film remember her as a "feminist" figure because she was strong.
The idyllic state of a Jewish family included in pop mainstream American Fifties (and earlier) culture was to hit a terrible snag when McCarthy ad the Red Baiting era came along. Philip Loeb, who played Mr. Goldberg, was a media union activist involved in multiple liberal causes. He was blacklisted and CBS shut down the show when Gertrude Berg refused to replace him. (She later relented and the series got two other Mr. Goldbergs.) The show had a more than year-long hiatus. Loeb committed suicide, and Zero Mostel (himself a blacklisted artist) played a version of the destroyed Loeb in Martin Ritt's 1976 movie, The Front. Neither Gertrude Berg nor Molly Goldberg was quite the same after this. And as a famous Edward R. Murrow "Person to Person" TV interview stresses, the difference between Molly and Gertrude was hard to draw since the writer/actress spent more hours of the day being Molly than being Gertrude Berg. And her real name was Tillie Edelstein and her family and close friends always called her Tillie. The lovable Jewish earth mother's own mother, depressed from the death of a younger son, was cold and withdrawn: "Molly" was a hopeful fantasy (though late-Fifties TV was rich in some high culture and realism such as Playhouse 90, which gave live presentations of versions of Hemingway and Faulkner, William Saroyan and Clifford Odets).
During the Mrs. Goldberg hiatus time Lucille Ball began "I Love Lucy" and Ball took over the reigning iconic-TV-woman role. When "Mrs. Goldberg" folded Berg triumphed on Broadway in A Majority of One (1959), a comedy about a Jewish widow involved in a romance with a Japanese millionaire. She, director Dore Schary, and co-star Sir Cedric Hardwicke swept the Tony Awards. Berg was devastated when Rosalind Russell was chosen over her for the movie version, and she was reduced to touring plays and summer stock thereafter and ultimately died, the narrator says, of overwork.
This affectionate and nostalgic documentary is full of information but could use more analysis. Some of its talking heads, which include Supreme Court Jutice Ruth Bader Ginzberg, indulge in numbingly vague and euphoric recall. Somehow both the magic and the shortcomings of "Molly Goldberg" and Gertrude Berg don't emerge as clearly as they might.
When is a Jewish mother not a Jewish Mother? When she doesn't act just
like Molly Goldberg, the heroine of a popular radio and television
comedy, The Goldbergs, in the first half of the 20th century. Aviva
Kempner's informative documentary about the life of Gertrude Berg, who
played Molly, is more a survey of radio and TV culture at that time
than an insightful probe into the life of one of broadcasting's pioneer
Kempner's ability to weave in segments from shows, videos, interviews, and archival photographs puts the audience into the creative hotbed of the Depression through the post-WWII '50's. No one, not even Zero Mostel, can steal the stage from the affectionate, strong-willed character and actress (indeed, the two seem the same, so thoroughly did Berg develop Molly from within herself and her life).
Remarkably, Berg also wrote all the shows, a precursor of the all-in-one writer, producer, and actor talents of later generations. Perhaps because of her assimilation into the character of Molly, the film is unable to penetrate the character of the real Gertrude, although I suspect the two sides of Gertrude are just that character. The documentary comments on Berg's sometimes tyrannical off-stage persona, and it does a reasonably good job showing the sacrifices she made to defend her radio and TV husband, Phillip Loeb, from accusations of Red Channels that he was a communist. That conflict and the decision, not hers, to locate the TV show from the Bronx to the suburbs, helped the closing of her career.
It is probable that the notion of the benign, caring Jewish mother, was shaped in part by Gertrude Berg. It is almost certain she was a force behind the TV sitcom paradigm and the emergence of Lucille Ball as the new model of modern TV housewife-comedienne.
Yoo-Hoo is a winning history lesson in broadcasting and women in all media.
If you liked "Good Night and Good Luck," one of the most
under-appreciated movies of the last few years, you will also enjoy
this movie, which is being marketed the wrong way and will probably
miss its most potentially appreciative audience.
Unlike GNAGL, this is a documentary. It raises a lot of fascinating questions that it does not pursue, and that can get frustrating at times. Why, since it had been such a hit - and it was - on radio in the 1930s was the radio show canceled in 1946? What reasons did CBS give for not wanting to pick up the TV program that Gertrude Berg developed out of it, when so many early TV programs were in fact continuations of popular radio programs?
A lot of the 50+ year old recollections of people who heard the radio program or saw the TV program don't ring true, and are really a misleading waste of time. Several of those people remark, for example, that "no one saw the Goldbergs as Jewish, but just as a family," yet Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who I believe is one of those who says something to that effect, also recounts that on her first day on the Surpreme Court, Thurgood Marshall addressed her as Mrs. Goldberg. Obviously, American audiences viewed the Goldbergs as not just any American family, but as a Jewish family.
On the other hand, a fair amount is made of the originality of portraying a Jewish family on the radio (and then TV). This is completely out of context, and again very misleading. Most of the big figures in 1930s radio and early television were Jewish - Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Fred Allen, Burns and Allen, etc. - and on radio there was Fanny Brice. How was "The Goldbergs" different from those programs?
At one point the issue is raised of whether the program presented Jews as negative stereotypes. This is hastily dismissed with a remark that unlike Amos and Andy, who on radio had originally been acted by two white men, Berg chose only Jewish (the exact word is Yiddish) actors to take roles in her show. But that doesn't prove that the characters weren't negative stereotypes, as Amos and Andy continued to be when it moved to TV and was played by Black comedians. That line also gets forgotten when it is explained that for TV Berg picked a gentile to play the part of her son, a fascinating issue that gets no development.
There are also simple factual errors. When the narrative gets to the beginning of "The Goldbergs" on radio, it is stated that there were two radio networks: ABC and CBS. There were, in fact, two radio networks then, but they were CBS and NBC. ABC was not sprung off NBC until World War II. There are other historical errors as well.
All of the foregoing is negative commentary, I realize. Please do not read it as saying that I did not enjoy the movie, however. Quite to the contrary, I was fascinated by every moment of it. Berg turns out to have been a very intelligent, fascinating workaholic, and is presented as interesting enough by this movie that you want to know a LOT more about her and how she was viewed during her time.
Anyone with an interest in the blacklisting of the McCarthy era and the beginnings of network radio and television will find this movie fascinating, as I did, and I heartily recommend it. But it leaves you, or at least me, wanting to know so much more. I can only hope this leads to a new interest in Gertrude Berg and the shows she created, so that we can get answers to some of those questions.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Although "Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg" is not superbly edited, it is fun to
watch, fascinating, and certainly historically significant. The film,
like Mrs. (Gold)Berg - and perhaps many of our own Jewish mothers and
grandmothers - is a pivotal feminist entity with a sense of humor.
This documentary also touches on the blacklisting/red scare era in America, of which we need constant reminders.
Kudos to Director Aviva Kempner for finally recognizing a woman whose prolific accomplishments, until now left on a dusty old shelf, shaped the future of American media and culture.
A film worth seeing!
The intense rush of nostalgia that Aviva Kempner's film floods the
audience with is carefully interrupted with well-placed--though
brief--darker sides of the facets of Gertrude Berg's extraordinarily
unique life. For instance, we're shown the close relationship with her
mother in earlier years, but later told a more troubling aspect which
adds depth but never spoils Berg's optimism that was such a hallmark in
This technique is constantly employed and keeps us engaged with one exception: The McCarthy era is given a longer sequence into how the Red Channel affected those in Berg's circle and brought shame to a country that ironically also provided opportunity to many mentioned in the film, many of whom were broken beyond repair by rumor and suspicion.
There's generous archival footage that covers the entirety of Berg's life, and reminds us of her contribution not only to early radio and television, but of a rare driven talent that can still touch us today. We're fortunate this film was made when it was since some of the original cast and friends and colleagues provide primary source material. This is a warm and loving portrait that also touches on difficulties most pioneers face.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The story of Gertrude Berg, creator of Molly Goldberg, is told in a
slow-starting but ultimately affecting documentary that concentrates on
her professional life as the better story -- when you write the script
for a five-times weekly radio show for twenty years, star in it twice a
day and follow that up with half a dozen years in a weekly situation
comedy for television, you don't have that much time for a personal
But the story of Miss Berg and her ultimate failure-by-success -- it reached the point where instead of Molly Goldberg being a recognizable expression of the American spirit, she became too old-fashionedly Jewish, viewed as caricature -- is only half the story. Within the context of her life is told the tale of her television husband, played brilliantly by Phillip Loeb, smeared by the Blacklist, forced off the air and ultimately driven to suicide. That's the real heart-breaker of this movie.
The clips with which fill this movie seem to have been deliberately chosen to be grainy and scratchy, perhaps because that would show their age. Instead they wind up being annoying in their choices. That, however, is a rather small complaint and, should you see this on television instead of in a theater -- as I did -- you probably will not notice.
It is always fun to go back and see the early days of TV. Coming as it
did mostly or frequently from radio, this early look at a woman that
was as popular as Oprah in her day.
To see a strong woman like Gertrude Berg, who came from a difficult childhood due to the death of her brother and the resulting mental difficulties that beset her mother, develop a character and a family show that everyone in the country followed, was amazing.
To see people like Edward R. Murrow and Ed Sullivan, and the evil red scare that brought about the show's eventual demise is a telling reminder of why Fox News and the Tea Party is so dangerous today.
It was an enjoyable journey into the birth of TV, and the birth of sitcoms.
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