By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
The American Dream comes in all colors, creeds and religious persuasions. Or at least that’s the way we were taught it should be at Bragaw Ave. School in Newark, N.J., circa the 1950s. For the primarily Jewish residents of Dewey St., only a couple blocks away, this opportunity was each week celebrated by watching “The Goldbergs.” No relation.
It was inspiring. It stood to reason that if this family that spoke with European accents, ate the food we liked and voiced our philosophy was being broadcast coast to coast, then we, too, belonged. To a little dreamer with a decent right arm, such inclusion meant all he need do was grow up and he’d be donning a pinstriped baseball uniform in the Bronx.
Director-writer Aviva Kempner’s splendidly realized documentary, titled “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg,” astutely examines the priceless role the pioneering Gertrude Berg’s brainchild sitcom played in fostering such life-sustaining fantasies. While the Lady in the Harbor welcomed the Jewish refugee, Berg’s Molly Goldberg issued him the guidebook.
Miss Kempner’s film does what the documentary medium was intended to do, and then some. While its affectionate and sentimental look at the first generation experience makes for satisfying, full-bodied nostalgia, the socio-historical aspect is astute, informative and responsible. Well earned is the place it will take in the Museum of Television and Radio.
One is constantly aware of the movie’s main mission: to pay Berg due homage. Just as few folks today under forty could tell you who Lilly Langtry or Will Rogers was—despite celebrity reputations that were far greater than Madonna now enjoys— Gertrude Berg’s star has all but vanished from our consciousness. The legacy fades, literally.
But you see, it’s not just the public recollection that worries; that can be brought back. A fickle audience is always open to recycling old ideas…especially if they were good. More troubling is the quality of the old kinescopes. While documentarian Kempner knows her library and how to use it, the often compromised original sources have seen better days.
Happily, the idea lives in newer if rarely as dignified versions. Noted via a sampling of humorous and touching scenes from “The Goldbergs,” the family situation format hasn’t really changed since Berg practically invented it. From performing in the Catskills, to radio, to TV, her career is ostensibly a chronicle of the entertainment business itself.
Winning our interest, Kempner, who specializes in resurrecting Jewish heroes she feels have been shortchanged (i.e.-Hank Greenberg), does a fine job combining the story of Berg’s show biz career with that of her personal life. Epitomizing Edison’s maxim that genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration, her drive amazes.
Complications, stumbling blocks and barrels tossed at the knees of the true saga’s cast of characters supply dramatic complement to the studious account. A sensitive delve into how the untimely death of Gertrude’s brother mentally hobbles her mom is affecting. Compounded by her dad’s feelings of inadequacy, it forces Berg to navigate a dark side.
External trials and tribulations range from the usual entertainment tale vagaries to the tragic and far-reaching un-American horrors perpetrated by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Especially shameful is the devastating attack that forever destroyed Gertrude Berg’s talented television husband, Philip Loeb.
Preceding Lucy as the First Lady of Television, Mrs. Berg’s Sholem Aleichem in a housedress is deconstructed with enchanting intelligence. Her homespun wit, warmth and ironically wise malapropisms filled a need and supplied building blocks of integrity for a nascent industry. Keen testimony by a wide variety of commentators smartly intersperses.
We can’t help but be impressed by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s fondly recalled remembrances of “The Goldbergs” and how it impacted her formative years in Brooklyn. She laughingly recollects staying mum and considering it a great compliment when Judge Thurgood Marshall mistakenly referred to her as Mrs. Goldberg.
More telling are dichotomous insights from Chris Milanos Downey and Ed Asner. Ms. Downey explains how her Greek-American family co-opted as their own Mrs. Berg’s Yiddishe momma image. Only the cross was missing. Whereas for Asner, a Jewish kid in Kansas hell-bent on assimilating, the show understandably caused mixed emotions.
All this firmly establishes the academic credentials Kempner’s work exudes. But it’s the loving, congenial and honest evocations of a bygone era that will doubtless stir discerning filmgoers’ emotions. As Molly herself might opine, Posterity shouldn’t be misplaced. “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” shouts out that message with ennobling conviction.
“Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg,” not rated, is an International Film Circuit Release directed by Aviva Kempner and stars Gertrude Berg, Philip Loeb and Arlene McQuade. Running time: 92 minutes
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