Gertrude Berg was one of radio’s great stars and a television pioneer who set the template for the family situation comedy, but she’s largely forgotten today—a fate that’s happily rectified by this stylistically unpretentious but highly informative and enjoyable documentary that traces her life and influence with affection and insight.
Berg created the character of Molly Goldberg, whose cheerful greeting to the neighbors she talked with—and theirs to her—at the windows facing the Bronx courtyard they shared provides the picture’s title. “The Goldbergs” was a radio staple for two decades before it moved to the fledgling medium of television (first CBS, then NBC, and finally Dumont) in 1949, continuing through 1954. (It was succeeded in the Monday night CBS lineup in 1951, as the film notes, by “I Love Lucy,” which emulated it in many ways and is often credited wrongly as the trailblazer in the genre.) The documentary traces the origin and development of the program, which was in fact Berg’s baby, and its enormous success and influence over the years.
But it also goes back to her youth, the chafing under the demanding thumb of her hotel-owning father, the death of her older brother and the devastating effect it had on her mother, and her marriage and family life. All that background material is covered intelligently, using stills, archival footage, audio recordings and recollections from friends, relatives and colleagues.
But the meat of Aviva Kempner’s film deals understandably with “The Goldbergs,” employing excerpts from the show to capture its flavor and found footage (including an episode of “Person to Person”), along with commentary from cast members and others, to describe its influence. Berg is treated for the most part with great affection, though it’s noted she could be exceedingly demanding off camera despite her lovingly maternal character on set. And special attention is given to the Red Scare and the blacklist that caught up Philip Loeb, her co-star, for whom she fought tooth and nail, and whose eventual removal from the show (and tragic death) marked the beginning of the end for the program.
A coda covering Berg’s post-“Goldberg” career is included—she won a Tony appearing on Broadway with Sir Cedric Hardwicke in “A Majority of One” in 1959 (a role that Rosalind Russell assumed on screen, with no more success than when she became Mama Rose in “Gypsy”), was a frequent guest on TV variety shows, and made an abortive attempt to return to situation comedy with “Mrs. G. Goes to College” in 1961. But even her successes in the sixties have a valedictory feel, and after her death in 1966 her memory faded.
Happily, “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” restores it in some measure, and it’s a labor of love well worth sharing.