Defying just about all the odds imaginable for women, an unassuming early 20th century portly thirtysomething housewife with untapped talent and enormous charm to spare, became the most famous female entertainer in America. And one of the first women of radio and televsion ever, penning no less than 12,000 scripts for broadcast, while being credited with inventing the sitcom. And at a time long before basic opportunities for women beyond domestic duties, or American Idol aspirations for that matter, Gertrude Berg came out of nowhere and grabbed hearts across the nation along with financial success, despite the most trying historical time for the masses of people here, The Great Depression.
Now nearly a century later, her story like her life and her once enduring radio and television persona Molly Goldberg, is being lifted out of obscurity and remembered and revered, in the documentary Yoo-Hoo Mrs. Goldberg. And the director, Aviva Kempner, herself going against the grain in bypassing all the usual documentary pitfalls such as a cult of personality socially isolated focus, situates Berg clearly within her historical context, as an influence and also product of that extended period. And crafting a documentary brimming with both vintage nostalgia and discovered revelations for younger generations.
Born in Harlem into a Jewish immigrant family (her grandfather and vivacious comic inspiration Mordeci was said to have once moonshined whiskey in a bathtub still in their apartment on Rivington Street), Berg emerged as the star, head writer and producer of the weekly radio series, The Goldbergs, just a month after the stock market crash of ’29. And she became a reigning influence on radio during the ’30s and 40s, and then on television from the late ’40s to the mid ’50s, with the reincarnated show.
Berg’s creation of an imaginary immigrant East Tremont Ave Bronx family rooted in ethnic pride, captivated the US population conversely at a time of tremendous pressure on immigrants to assimilate and conform, and essentially suppress their unique cultural identities. And she touched hearts as well, during the crisis period of economic desperation during the Great Depression, by advocating through her art the importance of family when the masses of people had little else in their lives. This, during a time way before cell phones and palm pilots, when human interaction played out on a far deeper level, even between windowsills across building courtyards. Hence the ‘yoo-hoo.’
But beyond the cheery facade of Berg and her show, was terrible darkness. Berg’s brother, her only sibling, tragically passed away as a child from diptheria, and her grieving mother never recovered from her emotional pain, withdrawing into chronic depression and later institutionalized in a mental hospital, where she died. And it’s very likely that Berg filled her imaginary family and her perfect on-air mother with so much love and warmth, as a fantasy creation of the family she never had and always yearned for.
Then when McCarthyism reared its head on television in 1950, Phillip Loeb, who played Molly’s husband, was blacklisted after The House Un-American Activites (HUAC) companion small screen witchhunt operation, the right wing Red Channels: Report Of Communist Influence In Radio And Television Publication, denounced him as a communist. Her close friend and ally, who had been such an instrumental labor advocate for entertainers in Actors Equity and with his founding of AFRA (American Federation of Radio Artists), was hounded and driven off the show. And, despite a devastated Berg’s efforts to challenge the CBS executives, who were more concerned with advertiser arm-twisting by General Foods Corporation.
And of course it didn’t matter what you were or weren’t, the Red Scare was all about the accusation, sufficient to ruin lives and terrorize the population into acquiescence and submission. Eventually Loeb withdrew from the show because he didn’t want to jeopardize the jobs of the rest of the cast. Unemployed and destitute, Loeb went to live with Zero Mostel and his family, where he was driven to suicide. That shameful episode among many in US history of the Red Scare era, was later immortalized by Mostel himself, playing Loeb in Martin Ritt’s 1976 anti-McCarthyite drama, The Front, which also starred Woody Allen. As for those who initially denounced Loeb, that dubious credit goes to Elia Kazan and Lee J. Cobb.
And Berg later honored the memory of Phillip Loeb and other countless Blacklist victims, starring in The World of Sholem Aleichem. With a cast of blacklisted actors no longer allowed to work in film or television, the show was in effect one of the first that broke the Blacklist.
The only pieces missing in this popular culture phenomenon puzzle, which would have scored this documentary a perfect four, is the absense of any explanation as to how this full time workaholic, the first woman to ever win an Emmy Award, also juggled motherhood on the side. And the impact on Berg in her formative years as a young newlywed in the Deep South where her husband worked at a sugar plant, of the horrific experience during the profoundly mischaracterized period of so-called American innocence, of Jim Crow and segregation. Beyond these glaring omissions, Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg is a more than impressive chronicle of an extroardinary life of a remarkable pre-feminist, along with a chronicle of the agony and ecstasy of a contentious historical time.
International Film Circuit
3 1/2 stars