Friday, August 28, 2009
Film critics Beth Accomando and Scott Marks discuss "Yoo-Hoo Mrs. Goldberg" with These Days Host Maureen Cavanaugh on the KPBS Film Club of the Air
If you don't know who Gertrude Berg is then you're probably like most people... but you and everyone else should know who this radio and TV pioneer is. The documentary "Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg" (opening August 28 at Landmark's La Jolla Village Cinemas) addresses this and works toward getting Berg her proper place in the spotlight. Listen to our Film Club of the Air discussion.
When I was a kid, my dad used to play old radio shows for me, ones he used to hear when he was growing in in the 30s and 40s. One of the shows on thos old collections was "The Goldbergs," with Gertrude Berg playing Molly Berg. "Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg" was the catch phrase that caught on as neighbors would call Molly to the window to get the lowdown on the local gossip. So while I had a vague familiarity with what the radio show was like, I had no idea who Gertrude Berg was. The radio show became a TV show and Berg created the first character-driven domestic situation comedy or sitcom. But "The Goldbergs" never got syndicated and "I Love Lucy" did, so everyone knows Lucille Ball and almost no one knows Gertrude Berg. The reasons may not be quite that simple but syndication, or the lack thereof, certainly contributed. It didn't help that one of the actors on the TV show was targeted by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee or that her show could also be dramatic and not prone to physical comic antics.
Filmmaker Aviva Kempner (who also directed "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg") gathers old clips of Berg's TV show and the astonishing thing is how contemporary some of it still feels. Having this film come out the same week as "Taking Woodstock" is ironic since the Jewish characters in Ang Lee's new film feel far more dated and stereotyped than the Jewish characters in "The Goldbergs." The clips show the character of Molly dealing with racism and with getting a letter from Jewish relatives in Europe during the war, serious issues. Berg, who not only starred in the radio and TV shows but who was also the show's creator and lead writer, was an American icon that FDR credited with helping get Americans through and out of the Depression. In 1949. Berg received the first Best Actress Emmy in history, and paved the way for women in the entertainment industry. Kempner includes interviews with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, actor Ed Asner, producers Norman Lear ("All in the Family") and Gary David Goldberg ("Family Ties"), and NPR correspondent Susan Stamberg.
"Yoo-Hoo Mrs. Goldberg" (unrated but suitable for almost any age) serves up a fascinating subject but in a mundane manner. Kempner is more a researcher than a filmmaker. She digs up amazing archive footage and pieces together a fascinating and well documented timeline of Berg's life. But she's no visionary documetary filmmaker like Errol Morris or Les Blank. But in some ways that's okay here. She's not the star, Berg is. Kempner's unadorned approach to the material allows Berg to be the center of attention and that's appropriate -- especially after the actress has seemingly been neglected by entertainment history for so long. And Berg is such an amazing talent and personality that she more than carries the film. In the end, "Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg" is not a great documentary but rather a great subject and we owe Kempner thanks for re-introducing Berg to audiences. This documentary was an eye-opener for me and I hope people will see it and come to appreciate what a phenomenal talent (she wrote thousands of scripts) and person (she stood up to McCarthy's HUAC) Berg was.
Companion viewing: "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg," "My Favorite Year," "The Front"