Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Doc Watch: Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg

(Looking back at 2009's documentaries - those in the running for Oscar nominations as well as those left out).

Some chapters of pop culture history are only halfway remembered, like the offshore UK rock 'n' roll goings-on fictionalized in the cute if underwhelming Pirate Radio.

Other tales of celebrity found and lost, though, are all but forgotten, as one of the talking heads in Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg discovered when she contacted CBS, former home to bigger-than-life broadcast personality Gertrude Berg, the subject of the aforementioned documentary. Some execs there had never heard of Berg and her creations.

Filmmaker Aviva Kempner (The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg) effectively fills in the blanks with the often fascinating story of a gifted writer, actor and producer who was something of a closet feminist before there were feminists, a female entertainment-world brand builder and empire owner decades before Oprah appeared on the scene.

Berg was also a barrier breaker, presenting positive images of Jewish-American life during an era when anti-Semitism was in full effect, to say the least. In front of a national broadcast audience, she dared to broach the subject of homegrown hatred, and, overseas, the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, topics generally ignored by entertainers at the time.

Turned on to showbiz when she sang and acted in her own productions at her father's Catskills hotel, Berg first gained national attention with her radio show, "The Goldbergs," which began airing shortly after Wall Street crashed in 1929.

Mom and dad Goldberg (Philip Loeb originated the role) and the other older relatives were all old-school Jewish New Yorkers, while the kids were all-American, just trying to fit in. Each show opened with the decidedly maternal Mrs. Goldberg leaning out her apartment window, gossiping with the neighbor ladies across the way.

"The Goldbergs" later migrated to television, essentially keeping the same format, and Berg's lovable family even made it to the big screen. The TV show didn't falter until the mid-'50s, when the program's setting relocated from the Bronx to the suburbs. D'oh - didn't work.

Kempner, using lots of television footage, as well as radio clips, shots of Berg speaking about her life and career, and interviews with such fans as Norman Lear, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and NPR's Susan Stamberg, illuminates the life of a gifted performer who worked tirelessly and also remained committed to family life.

In that respect, she was entirely modern. Berg also demonstrated no small amount of moral courage, making a strong stand against the McCarthyites who labeled Loeb a communist, successfully sinking his career. Distraught, he later committed suicide.

Call it a pop-culture rescue operation: Kempner gives Berg her due and, if only temporarily, brings back to life the Goldbergs, whose misunderstandings and misadventures paved the way for countless sitcoms that followed.


Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, is NOT one of the 15 documentaries on the short list for Oscar nominations.

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