“Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” does an exemplary job of celebrating the seminal achievements of Gertrude Berg and reaffirming her status as a broadcasting pioneer. A triple-threat producer, writer and star, Berg snagged the first-ever comedy actress Emmy for her hugely popular radio-turned-TV show “The Goldbergs,” in which she played Yiddish mama Molly, ensconced in her Bronx tenement window, dispensing gossip and advice with yoo-hooing neighbors. Opening July 10 on two Gotham screens, director-producer Aviva Kempner’s well-researched but unchallenging docu, like “The Goldbergs” itself, has cross-cultural appeal for Jews and goyim alike.
Re-creating the immigrant experience via a curious mix of newsreel and fictional sources, Kempner charts a milieu that more closely resembles Molly’s background than Berg’s own middle-class, second-generation upbringing.
Helmer takes pains to distinguish between Berg’s warm, malaprop-prone persona and the well-spoken, savvy businesswoman (one photo shows Berg dwarfed by the 12,000 scripts she penned) who became one of America’s most respected females, second only to Eleanor Roosevelt in a national poll. Edward R. Murrow’s “Person to Person” conversation with a gracious Berg alongside her husband Louis (the inventor of instant coffee) makes the distinction clear.
Docu carefully places “The Goldbergs” (which began in 1929 as a 15-minute radio series, “The Rise of the Goldbergs,” before moving to the tube in 1949) in its social context; the show proved a cozy comforter in the dark days following Black Tuesday and presented a positive image of Jewish family life in the face of Father Coughlin’s anti-Semitic rabble-rousing at home and the rise of the Third Reich abroad. But pic’s finest moments trace Berg’s spirited defense of her TV husband, Philip Loeb, founder of the American Federation of Radio Artists and a tireless labor activist, whose Theater Guild support led to his denunciation in the communist witch-hunt rag Red Channels.
Berg’s refusal to bow to sponsor pressure by firing Loeb led to the show’s cancellation. After trying fruitlessly to find an alternative, Berg accepted Loeb’s resignation, and “The Goldbergs” resumed with various actors in his role and eventually regained its footing — but not before “I Love Lucy” stepped into the breach and Lucille Ball replaced Berg as the first lady of television. Loeb’s eventual suicide, enacted in an excerpt from “The Front” by his longtime friend Zero Mostel, reps the docu’s emotional flashpoint.
Kempner, whose work (“The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg”) delivers iconic Jewish figures from undeserved obscurity, wears her agenda on her sleeve. Despite the abundance of audio and excerpts from selected episodes, the film’s emphasis on Berg as creator tends to downplay her creation; clips are used solely to validate interviewees’ comments.
The eclectic bunch of talking heads, ranging from original cast members to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, present a nearly united front of positive feedback. Kempner dotes on a Greek woman’s gushy testimonial to the similarities between Greek and Jewish mothers but gives short shrift to Ed Asner’s trenchant comment that, for many Jews, the Goldbergs were anathema to the shining goal of assimilation.