Movie Review: Aviva Kempner's Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg

But there’s more to Gertrude Berg. In addition to being a producer, writer and actress, Berg was also a trailblazer for women in entertainment (beating Lucille Ball to the punch by a decade), an ace marketer (her pitches for Sanka basically made the product), and a brave defender of her co-workers in the face of the communist blacklist of the 1950s. She accomplished all of this by playing a Jewish woman from the Bronx who enjoyed kvetching with the neighbors out the window and guiding her diverse-yet-quintessentially-American family through the ebb and flow of everyday life during the Great Depression.

[image-1]The popularity of The Goldbergs is largely a credit to Berg’s instincts as a writer and entertainer. Berg was careful to keep the stories rooted in everyday life, allowing the show to become a hit with people who were neither Jewish nor living in the inner city. (The same would be said about Seinfeld some 50 years later.) For this, she made an excellent living — the film highlights Berg’s love of shopping and her simple-yet-elegant fashion sense — and earned the admiration of her peers, including an Emmy win for Best Actress in 1950, the first year that award was given out.

Watching the TV incarnation of The Goldbergs, it’s striking how much of the form of the sitcom is already in place. The Goldbergs was set first in a New York apartment, then in a suburban house — both standard TV settings to this day. The show included the earliest catch phrase (“Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Bloom!”) and the first breakout character (Uncle David). Every episode of The Cosby Show, Family Ties and Home Improvement owes something to The Goldbergs. About the only sitcom-ism that Berg didn’t create is the special Christmas episode.

Director Aviva Kempner brings Berg to life through old photographs, recordings from the early days of radio and television, and interviews with a few surviving relatives and original actors from The Goldbergs. Berg passed away in 1966, and her husband and most of the people who knew her personally are also long gone. And therein lies the rub: If there’s a weakness to Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg as a film, it’s that the viewer is left with more of a feel for the television Mrs. Goldberg than for Gertrude Berg herself. Of course, that may have been unavoidable. During an interview with a chain-smoking Edward R. Murrow, Berg talks about how she has been playing Molly Goldberg for most of the day, every day, for decades. Berg says this matter-of-factly and with a smile, but there’s a sense that not even she knew where Molly stopped and Gertrude began.

I’m embarrassed to confess that I had no idea who Gertrude Berg was before I watched You-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, an enlightening if somewhat stock documentary from director Aviva Kempner (The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg). A radio and television pioneer, Berg enjoyed a long career playing signature character Molly Goldberg, a stereotype-shattering Jewish matriarch who maintained a decades-long run in the public eye. Berg starred in and wrote every episode of the radio and TV incarnations of The Goldbergs (and we’re talking thousands of shows), in the process inventing the sitcom and many of the tropes we find commonplace today.

Read more of Joe Bardi's review after the jump …

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