(director: Aviva Kempner; cinematographer: Tom Kaufman; editor: Judith Herbert; cast: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Ed Asner, Norman Lear, Larry Robinson, Susan Stamberg; Runtime: 92; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Aviva Kempner; Ciesla Foundation; 2009)

“An engaging, straightforward documentary on Gertrude Berg (1898-1966).”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An engaging, straightforward documentary on Gertrude Berg (1898-1966), who made a career of playing Molly Goldberg and writing the script for the popular radio and television show. It uses photographs, archival footage from the shows, and interviews from family members, friends, people in the entertainment business, actors on the show, and those influenced by growing up listening to the shows. It also includes Edward R. Murrow’s interview with Gertrude.

Director/producer Aviva Kempner (“The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg”) tells how this daughter of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, who was born in NYC and grew up in East Harlem, had married at 18 the supportive English-born Lewis Berg, whom she met when she was 13 at her father’s hotel in the Catskill Mountains when he was 15. Lewis became a successful chemical engineer and inventor of instant coffee, and with his support Tilly (when going on radio changed her name to Gertrude) became a key pioneer for actresses on both radio and TV and one of the most famous and wealthiest women in the world during the 1930s.

Her showbiz career started when she began her Molly Goldberg family sitcom on radio in 1929, called The Rise of the Goldbergs, a few weeks after the Stock Market crash. Gertrude’s show about a fictitious lower-middle-class Jewish family who live in the Bronx in an apartment building and where Molly, played by Gertrude, would start out every show with someone shouting out the show’s trademark call of “Yoo-hoo! Is anybody…?” and then the women neighbors would gather by the window to chat and gossip–that would give way to a foreign accented kind-hearted but meddlesome Molly dispensing common sense advice and acting like a modern-day Jewish matriarch who wears fancy hats but still sports an old-fashioned apron when she’s in the kitchen. In 1931 it went from a weekly 15-minute show to a daily show. In 1936 it switched from NBC to CBS and received a shortened name, The Goldbergs. The Depression-era radio show was second to the Amos and Andy show in popularity and gave families of all religious groups some hope in getting out of the bad economic times if they could have family support like the Goldbergs–an idealized Jewish family living out the American Dream. The radio show lasted until 1945, when the war ended. In 1949 it went over to TV and became the forerunner to family sitcoms that now are commonplace on TV.

In 1950, when the show was at the height of its popularity, a Red scare group called the Red Channels went after the show through its sponsor, General Foods, for hiring as its costar Philip Loeb and got him blacklisted as a commie sympathizer even though there was no proof–he was just a union organizer and a liberal. Gertrude backed him. But the show was canceled in 1951 and CBS put a new situation comedy in its place called “I Love Lucy,” which took over and soon became America’s favorite TV show. A few months later the Molly Goldberg show was back on the air on NBC with someone else replacing Loeb, but it never regained its popularity (it mistakenly moved the Goldbergs out of the Bronx to the suburbs) and was canceled in 1956. Loeb was so affected by the blacklist and the economic hardship it caused him, that he committed suicide in 1955.

It’s a well-produced doc that is nostalgic for old-timers like myself who remember watching with great glee the Molly Goldberg show on TV. It should also prove interesting for those youngsters who never heard of this Jewish icon from another century, who brought us the first sitcom on TV and made her ethnic radio show a pleasing one that all Americans could easily relate to.

This film was supported by Kempner’s Ciesla Foundation – an organization devoted to profiling Jewish personalities.

Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg Poster

REVIEWED ON 6/13/2009 GRADE: B+       https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/