In 1949, CBS began broadcasting two heartwarming sitcoms about an older generation of immigrants who spoke heavily accented English while raising their Americanized offspring. Both shows were broadcast live and ran until 1956. One show was Mama (aka I Remember Mama), about a Norwegian-American family. It ran consistently on the same network and achieved such popularity that when it was canceled, public outcry briefly revived it. The other show was The Goldbergs, a phenomenal radio hit whose TV career was rocky, to say the least. Since both shows were live for most of their run, these benchmarks haven’t been easily accessible. Thanks to the archival restoration efforts of UCLA, what remains of The Goldbergs can now be seen, 60 years later.
It takes about five minutes of watching any random episode to conclude that there’s never been a more Jewish show on television. Then again, for all the Yiddish humor, we don’t initially see the Goldbergs observe Jewish holidays, go to temple, or show any signs of living Jewishly — aside from an almost concealed menorah on the sideboard. At least that’s how it seems in the earliest episodes here, but hold the phone. As we get deeper into the series, we go deeper into real Jewish tradition.
The show is an example of “melting pot” art from the tail end of the Ellis Island era in popular culture, when the wide variety of accents heard in city streets was reflected on the vaudeville stage, on radio, in comics, and wherever pop culture served the mythology of the mainstream. In this world, foreigners were amusing but good-hearted people who were just trying to be as American as apple strudel. So who’s that hanging on the wall over the piano? Nu, George Washington, the father of mein country, who else? The Goldberg’s Jewishness is conveyed in terms of such ethnic humor at the service of Americanism. The comedy, the very identity of the program unreels in heavily accented banter and gestures, full of “nu’s” and “so’s” and malapropisms and mispronunciations. “Don’t put words in my vocabalerry,” warns Molly.
Mind you, this show depicts an important side of Jewish life in America, and it was necessary for immigrants to see themselves in pop culture. Still, the more deeply represented Jewishness of the suburban family in the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man, where the plot turns on rabbis and bar mitzvahs, has largely been absent from pop depictions of Jewish Americans ever since Al Jolson told his rabbi father that instead of being a cantor, he wanted to don blackface (like a real American) and be The Jazz Singer in that classic paradigm of assimilation.
Gertrude Berg created, produced and wrote The Goldbergs for radio, where its combo of warmth, simple stories, funny accents, and determined universalism made it a hit. The mythological impetus can be seen in its original title from 1929, The Rise of the Goldbergs. Playing Molly Goldberg, Berg became a rare powerful woman in the industry who controlled her own program. This tremendously popular show ran almost continuously, sometimes on more than one network, through 1945. Twelve radio episodes from the war years are included as bonus MP3s in this set.
The radio series is famous for its catchphrase “Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Bloom!” as Molly hailed her neighbor for a good gossip. Molly discussed her husband Jake, a wedding dress wholesaler, and their thoroughly American kids Sammy and Rosalie, who were hep to the jive. The concept was partly autobiographical with Molly based on Berg’s grandmother, Jake on Berg’s father, and the kids on her own children. Rosalie can also be seen as a version of Berg herself, the girl who would grow up to mythologize her family, not unlike daughter Katrin in Mama.
According to the website of the Museum of Broadcast Communications, the radio version confronted Jewish problems directly on occasion: “One memorable episode, aired 3 April 1939, invoked Krystallnacht and the worsening situation in Nazi Germany as the Goldberg’s Passover Seder was interrupted by a rock thrown through their living room window. Other stories referred to family members or friends trying to escape from Eastern Europe ahead of the Holocaust.” Now that’s torn from the headlines.
For much of its run, it was a daily 15-minute show on the Columbia Broadcasting System, which branched into the fledgling TV industry. A natural impulse for “radio with pictures” was literally to depict radio’s hits. Jack Benny made the transfer with great success, and his program is a fascinatingly alternative template that, to quote a song from Cabaret, doesn’t look Jewish at all, and which resurfaced almost intact as Seinfeld, but we digress. When Berg’s radio run ended, she refashioned the material into a Broadway hit, Molly and Me, and eventually persuaded CBS to try a TV version.
The TV incarnation began auspiciously. Berg became the first winner of an Emmy for best actress in a comedy. The first three seasons aired on CBS from January 1949 to June 1951. Then the show went off the air in the midst of the Red Scare controversy, thanks to the blacklisting of co-star Philip Loeb. It returned sporadically over three networks and syndication. All but the final season were broadcast live, and therefore most of the episodes are lost. Of the 71 in this set, all that are known to exist, the last 39 comprise the season filmed for syndication. The first 31 are all that’s left of six seasons.
Only seven CBS episodes survive, the earliest from August 1949 and the latest from March 1951. They are produced by Worthington Minor and directed by Walter Hart (who did the 1950 movie version), with the last one directed by Matthew Harlib. Berg remains the writer. She was a prolific dynamo comparable to radio’s Norman Corwin or TV’s Nat Hiken, creator of Sgt. Bilko and Car 54. (“Nat Hiken! The man was a genius!” to quote Zippy the Pinhead.)
The basic situations are very simple, even flimsy. Somebody usually acts on a conclusion that turns out to be wrong, with Molly’s meddling either working out or not. “Molly, you’re going to leave your finger out of this pie even if I have to put my foot in it,” says Jake. The raison d’etre isn’t these plots but how they’re spun out (some might say padded) with the verbal comedy and character observation that really drives the series, all of which is performed with a combination of broad caricature and the naturalism endemic to live TV. “Not at all,” shrieks Mrs. Cramer in her nasal pitch across the airshaft, waving a hand for emphasis, “and if people can’t be people in time of an emergency, you don’t have to be a person at all, and finished!” If you left out all the gratuitous interplay, the stories would run five minutes.
Mrs. Bloom is referred to but never seen, at least not in the surviving episodes. Each show begins and ends with Molly at her window speaking directly to the audience, signing in and out with a pitch for Sanka coffee and how it has 97 percent of the caffeine removed and the sleep left in. (This was when it also had a picture of what looks like an Arab or Indian in a hooded robe and a beard.) Molly’s spiels feel both well-worn and spontaneous, complete with unfinished sentences and repetitions and endless bits of verbal business. She is a mountainous, bosomy woman with large, black, widely-parted hair like a helmet. I assume and hope it’s a wig.
As on radio, Molly is surrounded by hubby Jake (Philip Loeb), Uncle David Romain (Eli Mintz), and teens Sammy (Larry Robinson) and Rosie or Rosalie (Arlene “Fuzzy” McQuade). She yells out the window to her neighbors, Mrs. Esther Cramer (Betty Walker) and Mrs. Hermann (Dora Weissman). These two regulars aren’t mentioned in the standard reference books, Alex McNeil’s Total Television or Brooks & Marsh’s The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, but they appear in most of these surviving CBS programs. We’re lucky if the closing credits bother to mention anyone else who appears in an episode. Henry Lascoe makes two appearances as the self-centered and grasping Cousin Simon, who at one point stays with them when he thinks he’s dying.
The show’s charm and intimacy derives partly from its likeable characters and their ingratiating patter, partly from the single setting (we’re literally never outside Apt. 3B of 1030 East Tremont Avenue in the Bronx), and partly from a notable absence. This was too early in TV for a studio audience or a laughtrack, and this alone does wonders in allowing the show to breathe and to touch gently on serious emotions. It underlines the show’s intimacy and its origins as a serial. I Love Lucy, shot on film, would pioneer both the audience and the “sweetened” laughter. It’s not too early for a multi-camera system; at least two cameras are used and possibly three. I Love Lucy often takes credit also for the three-camera system, and that’s not completely fair.
We can see in The Goldbergs a quality also visible in another live show produced for CBS by Minor, who was in charge of the network’s dramatic programming. On a DVD collection of Studio One episodes, E.G. Marshall notes that Minor’s CBS had a house style that he calls subjective, following its characters around with an inquiring camera. He contrasts this with what he calls the objective style of Fred Coe’s NBC at the same era.
Although I’ve observed that Jewish realities don’t pop up on these shows, one shouldn’t be too hasty from partial evidence. One show opens with exciting news — Molly has been contacted by relatives in Europe from whom she hasn’t heard since before the war. As Jake observes point blank, it’s good news just to hear anything at all, and Molly talks about how smart her father was to come here because otherwise where would she be? This touches on truths the series is too discreet to dwell upon but smart enough to acknowledge, after all. Perhaps these are touches observed and appreciated by certain viewers, somewhat like the details of African-American heritage in the corners of The Cosby Show while it was busy being “universal”.
These seven episodes constitute our evidence of Loeb’s term as Jake. Berg insisted on keeping him and working to clear his name, and the stalemate with the network and sponsor ended the CBS run. According to some sources, Loeb voluntarily left the show and Berg kept him on salary after he was replaced for NBC. Loeb’s work dried up and he committed suicide by sleeping pills in 1955. Although the Goldbergs were always praising what a great country their families had moved to from Poland, at least one among them wasn’t so well served in the new world.
When the show returned to the air from February to July 1952, it had moved to NBC and was produced and directed by Hart. Formerly a weekly half-hour, it was now a 15-minute show three nights a week. Math tells us this must have yielded more than 60 episodes, of which exactly two survive. Molly now hawks kitchen knives and vitamins. Jake is now played by Harold J. Stone, a prolific TV actor who two decades later appeared in another sitcom with Jewish themes, Bridget Loves Bernie. He seems to have been cast to resemble Loeb, for they both were tall and distinguished, with touches of grey in a full head of hair.
Working Toward Self-Improvement
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.
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.
A Rebellious Nebbish
Berg still wrote the scripts, sometimes now with Michael Morris or Cherney Berg. Stories are still recycled. The 1949 incident of Uncle Simon’s illness is replayed (one of Simon’s three episodes this season), and so is the 1953 incident of Uncle David’s feud with Jake’s visiting uncle, though it’s a different uncle (Reuben Wendorff as Uncle Sam in two episodes). The remake is inferior in every way; its choices and timing are off. The Karl Marx line is out. In compensation, Molly utters the immortal “Patience is a vulture”.
Then comes a delightful episode about Cousin Seymour Sheppard, a rebellious nebbish whose mother (another appearance by Judith Malina) is even more of an ultimate Jewish mother than Molly. Seymour is another broad cartoon conceived with humane depth, even pathos, and played brilliantly by the great character actor Arnold Stang. I must praise Berg for resisting laughtrack-itis even in this syndicated version. Since we’re not prodded into giggling at Stang’s broadness, we have space to observe his depth.
More visiting relatives are the self-effacing Cousin Harold (Harvey Lembeck); Jake’s Irish second cousin Benjamin “Boojie” Romaine (Pat Harrington), who in a two-parter falls into a triangle with widow Eva Fisher (Edith Gresham); and the eternal Tante Elka (now Ludmilla Toretzka) at Sammy and Dora’s wedding in the series finalé. The Mendels also show up, and Mrs. Hermann visits several times, somehow losing one “N” in this season’s credits. Notable guest stars include Natalie Schafer running a fat farm, and an uncredited, barely recognizable Steve McQueen reciting Shakespeare in “Rosie the Actress” (the booklet incorrectly places him in another episode).
In the Bronx, the problems arose from the foibles of personality and the desire to repair hurt feelings and make others feel better. Many of the suburban episodes are anxieties of alienation, discontent, and even terror. Molly’s troubled transition from one environment to another is dramatized when she’s initially rebuffed in her attempt to make new friends; the neighbors speak in different codes with different values. Rosie believes she’s unattractive and needs a nose job, feeling alienated from her own face and, symbolically, her heritage. Her sobbing fit with her mother is carried on before a mirror that alternately reflects them both. For the record, she has a pert button while her mom has something of a schnoz.
A hot topic at the time was juvenile delinquency, and several episodes are obsessed with crime. Molly’s arrested, she’s on jury duty, she entertains pool-players and bookies. The family is even held hostage by escaped convicts. That’s an especially ridiculous and gratuitous episode, but observe how it exposes a fear of suburbia; such a thing couldn’t have happened in a Bronx apartment.
One episode is about the traps of consumerism as the family gets coupon-happy. Another combines two ’50s crazes, the quiz show and outer space, as Molly goes on the whimsical “Reach for the Moon”, a show with a rocket. This story turns on the difference between greed and generosity as motives. For Molly, winning only has meaning in the power to help others, and her failure can become a moral triumph. An episode about the perils of car ownership (another suburban phobia) also turns on Molly’s ultra-scrupulous and over-generous conscience. When Jake gets exasperated, she barks in equal exasperation “No one is an island!” It’s one of her oft-repeated phrases and defines her moral style succinctly.
Molly’s new neighbors aren’t Jewish stereotypes but WASP stereotypes. Although they serve as friends, they have a harsh edge that implies some conceptual hostility. The Jewish guests are likeable or at least amusing no matter how much they give Molly a pain, while the nominally friendly suburbanites are somehow always unpleasant. The regulars are the portly Daisy Carey (Susan Steell); her gangly, hayseed-ish husband Henry (Jon Lormer); the birdlike Julie Peterson (Paula Truman); and briefly Lucy Stevens (Florida Friebus). (Only the Careys are mentioned in Brooks & Marsh, and Steell is misspelled.)
An especially meddlesome neighbor, whose daughter has earned a degree in psychiatry (and who is getting married, so it’s all right), analyzes the dreams of the neighborhood wives and stirs them up with the news that they’re all subconsciously frustrated. She virtually berates Molly as a “hausfrau”. The wives say they never realized how unhappy they were until somebody told them.
This is supposed to be irony, but it has more than one level. The male characters criticizes the neighbor as a busybody with no credentials, and the story supports them with its grotesque depictions, yet this framework is used to touch on real themes bubbling under the suburban surface. The neighbor is clearly projecting her own issues upon others (a common tactic in the series), and the scenes where Molly’s behavior is explained as resentment of her family have a disturbing vibe.
Also, what of those running verbal gags like “I’ll slice you” and “Go and hang yourself in the closet” and “Should I fry you or poach you”? Then comes an unusual and outstanding episode that seems to validate the busybody’s point. Molly has a regular flirtation with a lonely gentleman on the train, a man who compliments her and reads Shelley with her, giving Molly a glimpse of something she’s lacking. This thoughtful episode ends with a resolution that lingers without quite resolving. Sometimes you just go on.
Even though the busybody episode makes fun of psychological jargon, the dialogue makes it clear that psychiatry as a profession is taken seriously. Indeed, psychology is at once a major theme, an often-used word, and a structural principle. Entire episodes are virtual case studies based on observing character, how people respond typically or ironically or inconsistently, how people can be manipulated. Characters discuss each other openly in terms of inferiority complexes, mother fixations, and other pop psych issues. Molly’s own psychological prowess is frequently cited as she orchestrates reversals and transferences. Clearly Berg was inspired by the subject, and she wasn’t unaware of the implications of Molly’s food fixation. Her constant cooking and eating is a source of comfort and sometimes also pain, as in the cases where she fails to lose weight on various regimens because of her “compulsion”.
Drama allows the show to say on one hand and unsay on the other. In this series written by a busy career woman, episodes routinely reassure us that a woman is happiest when raising children at home. Career ambitions are habitually sidetracked by love, except for men’s ambitions of course. At the same time, Molly is always shown exploring new outlets, pushing Rosie to practice the piano and go to college, and attending night school herself. Indeed, she seems to have more activities than humanly possible, including Girl Scouts and nurses’ aide work.
The final two episodes are highlights. “Silence Is Not Golden” explores whether and to what degree it’s better to talk out your issues in marriage. Of course the show votes for talking, but it’s not an easy answer because understanding isn’t easy, and that’s the real subject. Molly and Jake’s argument is a masterpiece of modulation. Like all the funniest Goldberg scenes, it’s poised on the edge of real pain. The highpoint of the finale, “Sammy Gets Married”, is Molly’s breathless, heartrending speech of marital advice, all of it solid. It’s a delicate, piercing moment, and when she ends with “And don’t just hope for the best — work for it, mein kind“, there is no longer any division between Molly and Gertrude. One woman is delivering a lifetime of hard-earned wisdom, and to those who listen, it has more force than a burning bush. Was your reviewer choked up? So who wasn’t?
The Goldbergs bicker loudly and often. They just as frequently indulge in kisses, compliments, and lavish displays of affection. The balance tips toward the heartwarming, that TV ideal more commonly simulated by hologram than carved of natural materials. Many families are like this, but they were going out of style on TV in the mid-’50s. The blacklist was a stumble, but the reason the show kept skipping networks and slipping ratings was time itself. To the modern young home-owners of the postwar era, The Goldbergs was their parents’ entertainment. As for their own kids, forget it — they had Elvis and hula hoops. Molly Goldberg was squaresville, man, and the whole ethnic schtick must have seemed tired, if not backwards, in the world of Eisenhower and the space age.
Retiring Molly after more than a quarter-century didn’t slow Berg down. She had a two-year run on Broadway in A Majority of One, for which she won a Tony. Then she developed Mrs. G. Goes to College, of which the premiere is included as an extra. Although the character’s name is Sarah Green, she’s a barely disguised Molly without the heavy accent. Now a widow whose two children are married with kids (Marion Ross plays the Rosalie-substitute), she uses her night school credits to begin attending college. What does she consider as a major but, naturally, psychology. An annoying, desultory laughtrack gurgles over what are supposedly jokes, but the evidence of this episode is that the show isn’t a comedy so much as a gentle, serious show of character and ideas, co-written by Gertrude and Cherney Berg. The laughtrack is a sign of TV’s growing insistence on pegging every genre rigidly, a stranglehold that didn’t begin to loosen until the last 20 years. This series only lasted one season. Berg moved on to more stage work before dying in 1966.
As often in 20th century pop culture, it took a Jew to invent America. If you think of the original radio serial as the first sitcom, as it’s possible to do, then Molly is the source of that Nile on whose shores everything has washed up since, from The Honeymooners to All in the Family to Roseanne to The Simpsons and Malcolm in the Middle. If she couldn’t sustain herself for long on TV, at least her grandkids are everywhere, and their English is poifect, dahling, poifect! Nu, for what else does a mother ask?