Film Review: You-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg

This wonderful doc about radio and TV icon Gertrude Berg is a cornucopia of nostalgia for viewers of a certain age, but Berg’s signature Molly Goldberg character lacks “I Love Lucy” legs.

Press material for Aviva Kempner’s excellent Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg offers Gertrude Berg, the creator, principal writer and star of radio and TVs “The Goldbergs,” as a precursor to Oprah, Martha Stewart and Rachael Ray. More relevant analogues might be Berg female contemporaries like Helena Rubenstein, Estee Lauder and Lucille Ball, who were also self-made moguls of tremendous talent, drive and business acumen.

Kempner, the Peabody Award-winning director of art-house hit The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, delivers abundant footage detailing the rise and success of Berg’s popular 1930s radio show and her 1950s sitcom which featured Berg as Molly Goldberg, matriarch of a Bronx tenement family. (The signature “Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” shouted from a neighbor’s window kicked off the shows.) Famous talking heads like Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, NPR commentator Susan Stamberg and producer Norman Lear make clear how beloved the show and the characters were. Berg’s family also enlightens.

But Berg was no mere TV personality. She was also a gifted and tireless writer of the show and canny businesswoman who expanded into books, journalism and fashion. Furthermore, unlike her frumpy, ethnic Molly Goldberg invention, Berg, the former Tillie Edelstein who was born in Harlem, was well-spoken, stylish, elegant, worldly. Marrying a Jewish Englishman who made a killing in the States after inventing instant coffee might have helped her transition. And footage from Edward R. Morrow’s “Person To Person” visit conveys it.

Berg was also important for bringing the American Jewish experience to mass audiences, even during challenging times. “The Rise of the Goldbergs,” with its mix of family values, social commentary and warm humor, premiered a week after the stock market crash of 1929 and grew in popularity at the same time Nazism was growing in Germany.

Berg created TV’s first character-driven domestic sitcom when she brought “The Goldbergs” to television in 1949. She survived Senator Joe McCarthy’s devastating blacklist war against alleged Communists, which almost decimated the entertainment industry, although sponsors had to be reassured and beloved co-star Philip Loeb, who played Molly Goldberg’s husband, was ensnared and ruined by McCarthy’s sweep and ultimately committed suicide.

After the show’s TV run (it ended in the early ’60s when the Goldbergs’ move from the Bronx to the burbs didn’t grab audiences), Berg went on to become TV’s highest-paid guest star, appearing with TV hosts like Kate Smith, Milton Berle and Perry Como. No Jenny One Note, she wrote a best-selling cookbook, an advice column, had her own clothing line, and bagged a 1959 Tony Award for her Broadway performance opposite Cedric Hardwicke in A Majority of One.

Kempner’s rich portrait offers clips from relevant films like The Front, which was inspired by the plight of Loeb, and footage evoking related places and events.

Kempner has done everything right by organizing her bountiful material into a fascinating portrait of a worthy personality and her era and touching upon related issues like the impact of the blacklist and the alchemy of celebrity. Picking the right subject was most critical, so one hopes younger generations of viewers and not just the TCM-watching crowd will respond to this “yoo-hoo.”