Monday, August 24, 2009

Film Review #208: Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg
Director: Aviva Kempner

The film opens just as the first episode of the television show did on January 10, 1949. Ample-bosomed Jewish mother Molly Goldberg (Gertrude Berg) leans out the kitchen window that faces the air shaft of a brick tenement building in the Bronx and greets her neighbors across the way – what NPR correspondent Susan Stamberg calls the urban equivalent of neighbors talking across back fences – “Hello! Such a little word for such a big feeling! I want to say hello to you in all the letters of the alphabet. That would be a hello!”

Washington, DC-based Aviva Kempner’s richly detailed film about the life of Gertrude Berg isn’t currently scheduled to screen in Central New York, but let us hope that changes. Opening on just two screens July 10th, it’s up to a dozen theaters this week and has bookings through the end of the year. Intriguing in several ways, Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg also has enough Syracuse connections to make it a natural here.

Before Oprah, Ellen, Martha, Rachel Ray, or I Love Lucy (which, incidentally, replaced “The Goldbergs” in 1956) there was Gertrude Berg’s creation, Molly Goldberg. Berg, a New Yorker who grew up at her father’s Catskills resort and married the Englishman who invented instant coffee, produced, wrote the scripts – in the end, some 12,000 – and played the starring role in both radio and TV versions. Before transitioning to television in 1949, Berg’s live 15-minute radio vignettes ran five days a week from 1929 – beginning three weeks after the Stock Market crash that launched the Great Depression – until 1945. The Yiddish-accented Goldberg family comprised Molly, her husband Jake, Molly’s Uncle David, and their first-generation American kids Sammy and Rosalie. Their stories provided solidarity and identification to Jewish listeners and to other Americans a window on how Jewish immigrants assimilated, found spots in US business and neighborhoods, navigated raising their kids in American culture while preserving their own, coped with a Depression economy laboring under 25% unemployment and lived through the rise of anti-Semitism both here and abroad and World War II.

Though often folksy and comedic, the show addressed political issues through the lens of a single family. During Hitler’s rise in 1933, radio audiences listened to the real rabbi that Berg invited onto her show as he performed a real Passover Seder. After the infamous Kristallnacht rampage in Germany in November 1938, during which wandering mobs killed Jews and burned their homes, shops and synagogues, Berg aired an episode for the next Passover in which a rock is thrown through the window during the Goldbergs’ Seder and Molly calms the family so the ceremony can proceed. Kempner includes archival footage and photos that recreate the social tensions on this side of the Atlantic during those years. The late 1930s saw Nazi clubs who marched on Long Island and in Detroit the popular radio commentator Father Charles Coughlin, whose broadcasts lionized Hitler and blamed the world’s problems on Jewish conspiracies.

Berg’s post-war transition to television was hugely successful and earned her the first Emmy Award given for Best Actress in 1950. Kempner includes interviews with many of the surviving actors from that cast as well as generous clips from episodes. But Molly’s husband Jake Goldberg was played initially by actor Phillip Loeb, who committed suicide in 1955 after he was forced off the show and black-listed as a Communist during the McCarthy era. This past spring, the Syracuse-based simply new theatre’s production of Trumbo, followed by ArtRage Gallery’s screening of Johnny Got His Gun, re-acquainted Syracuse audiences with black-listed Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, plus the unlikely part played by a Syracuse grocer named Laurence Johnson in strong-arming Madison Avenue ad agencies representing radio and TV sponsors to pull their support from shows who employed suspect cast and crew, or risk national product boycotts.

Kempner’s film (which also details the lengths Berg went to defend Loeb) features the Newhouse School’s television authority Robert Thompson, who relates how Johnson convinced General Mills that he and the American Legion could brand them as Communist sympathizers unless the show fired Loeb, a founder of Actors Equity and union activist.

As it happens in this city of sometimes surprising cultural extremes, Syracuse University Press also published Glen Smith’s 2007 biography of Berg, and SU Library’s Special Collections houses Berg’s papers. Kempner was here to research her film and she uses Smith as a major source as well. Now somebody needs to bring her movie here too.

This review appeared in the August 13, 2009 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” is screening in limited release. Thanks to mPRm Public Relations for providing a preview DVD screener.