The documentary “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” is tender, affectionate and exceptionally educational. And when I write educational, I mean it: not being a student of classic radio or television, I’d never heard of Gertrude Berg before this film. After watching the documentary on her life, I never want to forget her.
Born in 1898, Gertrude Edelstein struggled to avoid a life of expected service. Finding her voice in radio performance, Edelstein, now Berg, elected to try her hand at a dramatic creation, coming up with the character of Molly Goldberg and her New York City apartment-dwelling clan. A radio smash, Berg broke through untold barriers both as a woman and as a Jew as she climbed the ladder of success. Translating “The Goldbergs” to the television screen, Berg found her fame and creative powers at an all-time high, inventing the sitcom format as we know it today. But there was a price to pay for her celebrity, especially during the volatile years of the 1940s and ‘50s.
Directed by Aviva Kempner (“The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg”), “Yoo-Hoo” is brazen valentine to Berg and her blinding legacy as a radio and television pioneer. Fearing Berg’s achievements have been paved over by industry historians (who prefer to label Lucille Ball as the first lady of the sitcom), Kempner points the spotlight on a woman who took the reins of her career and created a pop culture icon using fragments of her life as inspiration, personally crafting over 12,000 scripts for the various incarnations of “The Goldbergs,” which ran off and on from 1929 to 1956.
Gathering family, living members of the “Goldbergs” cast, and celebrity admirers (including Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Norman Lear, and NPR correspondent Susan Stamberg), “Yoo-Hoo” aims to construct an overall ambiance of inconceivable accomplishment. Using her gifts for writing and performing, Berg struck pay dirt with the character of Molly Goldberg, the rotund, insightful matriarch of the Goldberg clan, who greeted television viewers every episode by opening her apartment window, inviting the audience inside to observe the whirlwind neuroses and setbacks of her beloved family. The show was a smash and catapulted Berg to massive fame (cashing in on numerous endorsement deals in the process), inevitably assuming a motherly role for the public at large. Berg was even awarded the first ever Lead Actress Emmy for her efforts, solidifying her place in television history.
Outside of some creative stubbornness and flashes of moody behavior, there’s not much dirt to sift through with Berg. Kempner instead focuses on what “The Goldbergs” meant to America, and how Berg tried to keep her creation afloat through the anti-Semitism of WWII and the “Red Channels” accusations of Communism, which pushed Berg’s revered co-star Philip Loeb to suicide. The dark fringes of the film are useful to identify amazing perseverance on Berg’s part, who kept to her vision of warmth and laughter while suits and naysayers from all sides wanted to stifle her instinctive brilliance. “Yoo-Hoo” provides a wealth of fascinating clips of “The Goldbergs” as it marched through radio, television, and even a feature film (1950’s “Molly”). The show was a modest effort to put forth familial comfort food, but it ended up a classic, due in great part to Gertrude Berg and her tremendous effort to retain the heart and soul of her artistic endeavors.
“Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” is a graceful, elevating reminder of Berg’s magnificent accomplishments. With any luck, this eye-opening documentary will go a long way to restoring her legacy as an entertainment pioneer, delighting old fans and making a few new ones as well.Rating: A-