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Working Toward Self-Improvement

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Both episodes involve Molly’s many relatives and are as packed with character observation as if they still had half an hour. The lugubrious Cousin Hanalea (Bertha Walden), who appears in one of the CBS episodes with her daughter Frieda (Florence Anglin), shows up again. Both episodes have Tante Elka (Sarah Krohner), whose fourth son Georgie (Michael Morris, also the show’s script editor) lives in the building. Also seen is Elke’s husband Chaim (John Edelstein), Cousin Jennie (Nancy R. Pollock) and several more relatives. They’re still talking about Cousin Simon, who has a house in Florida. Without more episodes, it’s difficult to guess who’s recurring or just a guest, but clearly this little apartment hosted a world.

“At my age, I should be a wallflower?”

It’s also mentioned, surprisingly, that Molly is attending classes with midterms coming up. Later episodes sometimes mention her night classes. This element of working toward self-improvement interested Berg (who embodied it), and she developed this idea in her second TV series, the short-lived Mrs. G. Goes to College (aka The Gertrude Berg Show, 1961-62), in which she played a widow attending college.

The Goldbergs went back to a weekly half-hour, sponsored by RCA, for a brief run the following summer (July to September 1953), and we have one episode. The producer is Cherney Berg (Gertrude’s son) and the director is Martin Magner. Sammy, now in the army, isn’t present. Brooks & Marsh say that at last we see Mrs. Bloom (Olga Fabian) in this 1953 season, but she’s not in this episode.

Robert J. Harris plays the final and most well-remembered incarnation of Jake, now bald. With heavy-lidded eyes and bearing a certain resemblance to Donald Pleasence, this busy character actor played milquetoasts, villains, or villainous milquetoasts—the kind of nervous, put-upon little man who was always being wrongly sent to jail or finally killing his nagging wife. In other words, he was perfect for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which is why he was on eight times. McNeil makes the curious claim that Harris had previously appeared as Jake’s partner Mendel, but this can’t be confirmed.

McNeil also claims falsely that Menasha Skulnik played Uncle David during this 1953 season. He may have been confused by the fact that Skulnik played David on radio and that he does show up in this 1953 episode as a different character. It centers on David’s hilarious rivalry with Jake’s buzzingly nasal, particular, self-satisfied Uncle Berish (Skulnik) from Indianapolis, who sails around whining “Everybody loves me!” He arrives for a visit with his parrot and his aquarium of fish with names like Shakespeare and Schopenhauer. “I had a Karl Marx but I had to give him away,” he tosses out. (Is this a little shot from Gertrude the writer?) Even this extravagantly broad and peculiar caricature is presented as sympathetic and likeable, a testament to Gertrude Berg’s writing and Skulnik’s decades in Yiddish theatre. In the summer of 1950, Skulnik starred in his own sitcom, Menasha the Magnificent, quite probably lost to time.

The following year (April to October 1954), the series was still produced by Cherney Berg and directed by Magner, but now it aired on DuMont. Ironically, from this long-defunct network we retain an almost unbroken run of 22 episodes from May onward. Sponsored by the Vitamin Corp. of America, Molly still pitches her Rybutol out the window (not physically), and kids are supposed to have something called Juvenal poured down their throats (along with Horace and Cicero?). She’s so charming in her little ads that we’re reminded of how powerful it could be to have the show’s characters hawking the sponsor’s products. This strategem is safely dead, or at least replaced with the kind of product placement that Molly also indulges here and there.

Sammy has returned home to be played by Tom Taylor, a dead ringer for the previous actor. He’s now dating Dora Barnett (Pat Breslin), who lives upstairs with her mother Carrie (Ruth Yorke) and father Joe (Somer Alberg). They appear in a few early episodes and disappear until 1956, at which time Joe mysteriously changes his name to Jerome, and Breslin is replaced by Betty Bendyk (misspelled in Brooks & Marsh).

There’s now a picture of Lincoln next to Washington, and just wait until the armchair upholstered with American eagles shows up in the final season. More remarkable makeovers are in store. Molly is more modern in comfortable dresses and hair that no longer looks like Mrs. Katzenjammer, and her projects (or interventions) make her more than ever a powerful if subtle force of will. By the way, we see that she and Jake sleep in the same bed, thus debunking the idea that such things weren’t allowed on TV. (The earliest episode of I Love Lucy, in which Lucy thinks Ricky want to kill her, also has a double bed.)

More significantly, the show finally gets out of that apartment, and regularly. The first of these episodes has the two families going dancing, and it’s nice to see how the camera navigates the dance floor and the live scene changes. The visual punchline is Molly doing the samba, another sign of her will to learn, improve, and keep up with the times. “At my age, I should be a wallflower?”

The family even leaves New York for Pincus Pines, a Catskills resort of the kind Berg’s father used to own, and where she first evolved her comedy skits. This six-week storyline features Mr. Pincus (Joseph Buloff), his wife Katie (Lilia Skala, Oscar nominee for Lilies of the Field), and assistant Stella (Ann Teeman). Some actors who appeared as Molly’s relatives in bygone seasons (Bertha Walden, Nancy R. Pollock) show up in different roles in this arc. The earliest episode in this box, from the first season, featured the family returning from Pincus Pines, so maybe there had always been episodes away from home.

A fixture since the first season, Mrs. Hermann still lives across the airshaft. Tante Elka still drops by, and in one episode has the same issue with much of the same dialogue as in one of the 15-minute episodes of two seasons ago. That’s another secret of prolific and longterm writing: recycling. The new variation is resolved in more complex and satisfying fashion, as she whines about naming the new baby of her son Joe (Carl Don) and his wife Sylvia (Judith Malina, an important actress who co-founded The Living Theatre), while the still-objectionable Cousin Simon (now played by Louis Sorin) wants the baby named after his mother.

We finally get a look at characters often mentioned: Uncle David’s son “Solly the doctor” (Gilbert Green) in Westchester, and Jake’s argumentative partner Mendel (Bruce Gordon) and his wife Minerva Mendel (Viola Harris). Two episodes have Jake’s ne’er-do-well Cousin Muttel (Michel Rosenberg), and one of these brings back Cousin Jennie from a 1952 episode, although the same actress played someone else at Pincus Pines a few episodes ago. In fact, actors are recycled as frequently as scripts. Even while Dora Weissman is a regular as Mrs. Hermann, she manages to show up in disguise once as Johanna, who speaks only Yiddish.

Having more episodes reveals signs of more than skin-deep Jewishness. Sammy makes a speech about his bar mitzvah, and, in a particularly mordant bit of Jewish humor, Jake throws out the startling line “This is the first dinner I’m enjoying since the Holocaust.” However, possibly the greatest moment in the set is the powerful Yom Kippur episode in which the Goldbergs are finally seen in temple attending a real service called Kol Nidre. In recognition of the special qualities of this episode, it ends with Molly simply wishing us well from her window without trying to sell us vitamins. It’s a classic, moving bit of television, and an idea that plays better on TV than radio.

As for TV, DuMont was on its last legs, but Molly’s legs were a little longer. The Goldbergs were no longer welcome on the networks, and boy, did they change their venue. The filmed syndicated season of 1955-56, the one most familiar in the distant memories of TV nostalgists, is about the Goldbergs moving to the suburbs. In the season premiere, the Goldbergs forsake their box in the Bronx for a house in the New York town of Haverville, thus anticipating the Ricardos’ move to Connecticut by one year. Indeed, Berg was further ahead of the curve than that. In the radio version, the Goldbergs had already moved from the Bronx to Connecticut back in 1939! This was crucial to their “rise” as Americans.

The evolution of ‘50s sitcom families is essentially the transition from loud apartment-dwellers in a heterogeneous environment (Molly, Lucy, Ralph Kramden, and for practical purposes Sgt. Bilko) to blander “midwestern” folks in the quiet suburbs, where Ozzie and Harriet lived next to the Beaver and father knew best. It’s also about replacing prominent ethnicities (Molly, Ricky Ricardo, Amos and Andy, Mama, Life with Luigi) with a theme of homogeneity disrupted by increasingly outlandish fantasies of subversive power trying to adapt to the neighborhood as wackiness ensues (Beverly hillbillies, identical cousins, witches, genies in bottles, monster families). I also observe a taxonomy of sitcoms based fundamentally on order and those based on chaos, but let’s not get into it here.

Although the syndicated season represents a decline in the broadcasting fortunes of the Goldbergs, there are great episodes here. Perhaps more significantly, the image and sound quality are sharp as a new suit after the eye and earstrain provided by the restored kinescopes. There’s only so much you can do with 16mm films of live broadcasts from studio monitors. A bonus feature discusses how flicker was removed and other problems were addressed digitally, but kinescope images can’t help looking lousy. By comparison, the filmed season is practically an aesthetic pleasure. It’s also a pleasure that, without having to depend on a national sponsor, Molly no longer hawks products out the window (with a single exception).

Some sources say that this syndicated show was called Molly. It may have been referred to as such in some venues, because the opening credits first say THE GOLDBERGS, then give Berg’s credit, and conclude with “as MOLLY” in huge letters, so you can take it either way. A few episodes that open just with MOLLY seem to be in rougher shape, as of a later generation of prints, though these usually say THE GOLDBERGS at the closing credits instead. As a title, Molly isn’t so Jewish, nu?

William Berke produced the final season for Guild Films by William Berke, with Cherney Berg as associate producer. The director is Marc Daniels, best known for the first season of I Love Lucy. The use of film means, among other things, that there are now inserted close-ups instead of a gliding camera pulling back or across to encompass everything. That subtly alters the dynamic of intimacy established in the live version, and it unwittingly implies that the move to the suburbs is a move away from communal identity towards fragmentation and isolated individuals. This message is concealed in the style itself, and perhaps it’s an inevitable product of what may be called mainstreaming.

Not for nothing is their new address 1021 Central Avenue (furnished by Macy’s). By moving to the center, by becoming “have’s” in the town of Haverville, the Goldbergs make it not so easy to swim in a close-knit community.

Michael Barrett is a San Antonio-based freelance writer who tries not to leave the house. He has degrees from Trinity University in San Antonio and University of California at Davis. He watches one film a day. In addition to his features and reviews on PopMatters, see also his PopMatters column, Canon Fodder. Since the early '90s he has written a monthly video column for the San Antonio Express-News, and his national publications include Library Journal and the Chicago-based Nostalgia Digest.

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