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She gave birth to the sitcom Add to ...

  • Country USA
  • Language English

Yoo-Hoo Mrs. Goldberg

  • Directed by Aviva Kempner
  • With Gertrude Berg
  • Classification: G

Who was The First Lady of Television? Most people would say mogul and star Lucille Ball, but as Aviva Kempner's charming new documentary, Yoo-Hoo Mrs. Goldberg , reminds us, Lucy's path was already paved by Gertrude Berg. As the creator and star of The Goldbergs , she played Molly, a plump, middle-aged mother with a sing-song Yiddish accent who lived in a Bronx tenement and gossiped with the neighbours in nearby apartments through her window. Berg won the first best-actress Emmy and, arguably, invented the family sitcom.

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Born Tillie Edelstein in 1898, she learned her writing and performing skills in her teens while working at her father's Catskills resort. She married a wealthy chemical engineer, Philip Berg, had two kids and then, in her late 20s, decided to go to work. She began writing scripts for radio in 1929 and, a month after the stock-market crash, began The Rise of the Goldbergs , a series that captured the experiences of immigrant families caught between the old world and the new. Berg wrote every episode herself (more than 12,000 scripts in all) and the show was hugely popular. In the 1930s she was voted the second-most-admired woman in America, after Eleanor Roosevelt, and the President himself reportedly said that Molly Goldberg got America through the Depression.

Twenty years later, she moved to television, where she essentially invented the family sitcom format, with its living-room set and revolving door of family, friends and guest stars. Though The Goldbergs spent almost a decade on the air, it was a rocky ride on various networks and in different formats. The show was forced off the air during its second season when the actor playing Molly's husband, Phillip Loeb, was accused of being a communist for his union activities. (The actor, who took his life in 1955, was played by real-life friend Zero Mostel in the 1976 film The Front ). I Love Lucy inherited The Goldbergs time slot.

A year later, Berg managed to have the show reinstated on another network, and the role of Mr. Goldberg was played by two subsequent actors. But various broadcast historians, colleagues and fans who are interviewed in this doc concur that the series had lost its essential chemistry. After the show was finally cancelled, Berg continued to be a guest star on other shows, and won the 1959 Tony Award for best actress in the play A Majority of One . In 1962, she attempted a comeback in a show called Mrs. G Goes to College (later retitled The Gertrude Berg Show ). She was still working when she died in 1966 of heart failure.

The Goldbergs was particularly important to Jewish Americans and among the interview subjects seen here are Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and National Public Radio host Susan Stamberg. All in the Family creator Norman Lear counted Berg as an inspiration. But The Goldbergs was a carry-over from a different kind of prewar comedy. Ed Asner recalls his discomfort with an ethnic show at a time when his generation was anxious to assimilate.

One disappointment in Kempner's generous and wittily edited documentary is that there's little sense of Berg the person rather than the star, but perhaps that's how Gertrude Berg would have preferred it. She may have created Molly, an idealized, energetic, empathetic matriarch, as an alternative to her own mother, who suffered from depression and died in a psychiatric hospital.

The only time we see Berg out of character is during an interview by Edward R. Murrow, as she stands in her elegant, antique-filled Park Avenue apartment. Well-spoken but humorously self-deprecating, Berg admits that, between the hours spent writing, rehearsing and performing, she spends more of her life as Molly than she does as herself.

Follow on Twitter: @liamlacey

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