[10 July 2009]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“Let me think. Let me gather together my brains.” Molly Goldberg was never lacking for colorful phrasing. The creation of Gertrude Berg, Molly was a pioneer, a sitcom star during the Great Depression, a model mother, supportive wife, and exceptionally good neighbor. Berg won the first Best Actress Emmy for playing the part, and also produced and wrote the series (some 12.000 scripts in all), in addition to writing an advice column, selling a line of housedresses, and winning a Tony for her work on stage. She was “the Oprah of her day.” And yet, now she is largely forgotten.
Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg means to change that, to remind us of the woman who was once the “highest woman wage earner” and “second most popular woman” after Eleanor Roosevelt. Aviva Kempner’s documentary traces Berg’s life pretty much year by year, via interviews with relatives, friends, and fans, and an archive of photos and footage to illustrate their uniformly affectionate memories. Like Kempner’s The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (1998), which recovered the forgotten story of Major League Baseball’s first Jewish star, the new film is amiable and formally conventional, a portrait that doesn’t mean to provoke, but to revere.
It is also blessed with a vivid subject. Invoking Gertrude Berg in her most iconic pose—looking out the Goldbergs’ Bronx window to offer observations on her neighbors’ romances and children’s behavior, not to mention the scientific brilliance of Sanka, the series’ longtime sponsor. Not only did Berg write every situation and line of dialogue in her show, the film notes, she also wrote her own commercials: “Now you can do something about everything,” Molly advises, “You can take the rain from the heavens, you can split atoms, and you can take the caffeine out of coffee. Now isn’t that a miracle?”
Certainly, Berg’s marketing savvy was prescient. When she “invented the sitcom”—first for radio and then on television, running from 1929 to 1946—she had in mind the depiction of an ideal family, where the mother was wise, the father was gentle, and the children were smart and well-behaved. This was, the film suggests, unlike her own background, which included an older brother who died when she was just three and a mother who succumbed to depression and was eventually institutionalized. As a child, Gertrude was known as Tillie, and as she grew up in her father’s hotel in the Catskills, she took it on herself to play mother to the younger guests, organizing stage shows and writing playlets.
As charming as this story is, here the film embarks on a representational strategy that is alternately allusive and distracting. Lacking images to illustrate Berg’s experience in the hotel, the film picks from Chaplin’s The Immigrant, laying these images alongside generic period photos and shots of Berg’s own family. The effect of this repeated arrangement is curious and not entirely consistent, sometimes drawing connections among popular iconography and ideals of the era, and sometimes seeming a mishmash of analogous visuals, not necessarily having anything to do with one another.
A similar effect—not quite coherent, occasionally evocative—is produced in the film’s choice of interview subjects. Grandsons and a granddaughter appear to recall Berg’s warm personality and dedication to her career, while fellow actors remember her generosity and sometimes daunting perfectionism. Her biographer, Dr. Glenn Smith, shows up to fill in narrative, with congenial anecdotes and sometimes random facts and dates (“She was looking for something operatic” for The Goldbergs’ theme song, and somehow alighted on “Toselli’s Serenade”). Smith makes his observations with a kind of breathless enthusiasm, which speaks well for his interest in his project, but doesn’t help you to pull together or contextualize the minutiae he’s apparently got at his fingertips.
Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg benefits from several choice clips. Foremost among these is Edward R. Murrow’s Person to Person segment with Berg, which provides a model of how an interview can be compelling and provide what seems like great insight. As much as Molly was associated with a basic middle class liberalism, Berg shows herself in these clips to be quite aware of the role’s limits (its use of malapropisms, a certain cultural affect, and heavy accent), as well as its potential for expressing a community’s needs, beliefs, and desires.
The movie points out that The Goldbergs and, by pop-cultural extension, Berg, came to represent a range of experiences. No matter that she insisted on casting Jewish actors to play Molly’s family members (save for Larry Robinson as her son, who notes now, “I think Gertrude wanted him to be as American and as modern as possible”). According to interviewees, the show was significant for Greek and WASPy and black audiences too, as it offered up a demonstration of “American” values, like getting ahead through hard work and education. To make this point, the movie offers repeated testimonials from fans who believe their parents learned from Molly and their own politics were shaped by the Goldbergs’ discussions in the living room. Susan Stamberg recalls a probably apocryphal story that has FDR saying, “I wasn’t the one who got us out of the Depression, it was the Goldbergs.”
Still, Ed Asner worries that the show was less progressive than full of stereotypes. “I probably was concerned that people weren’t laughing with the Goldbergs, but were laughing at them.” The film doesn’t press this point, but does note that the series occasionally addressed Hitler and the U.S. participation in the war. While this context is granted rather short shrift, the documentary does dig more diligently into the particular consequences of McCarthyism on Berg, namely that she was pressured to fire Philip Loeb, who played Molly’s husband, when his name was blacklisted. One of HUAC’s many tragic victims, Loeb is here remembered in relation to Berg, who openly battled with her employers on his behalf. Celebratory and sincere, Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg does its part to ensure that Gertrude Berg is remembered for such courage and conviction.