Monday, November 8, 2010

Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg

I always want to like Aviva Kempner’s movies. For one thing, her stepfather and my dad were great friends when we were kids in Detroit. For another, she makes films about Jews in America, a topic that interests me. But I haven’t managed to fall for one of her movies since her first, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.

In the DVD commentary for Yoo-Hoo, Kempner says her beat is “films about under-known Jewish heroes.” That description surely fits Greenberg, one of baseball’s few Jewish stars, but I wouldn’t call Senator Joseph Lieberman, the subject of her second short film, either under-known or a hero. As for the creative force behind Molly Goldberg, a fictional Jewish earth mother who was popular on radio and TV for nearly three decades, I might buy “under-known,” since Gertrude Berg’s fame has faded faster than that of contemporaries like Lucille Ball or Jack Benny. But a hero? Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg tries to canonize Berg as an inspirational proto-feminist, but the evidence it offers is thin and sometimes contradictory.

Kempner’s 20-minute 2002 short, Today I Vote for My Joey, implied that the worst thing about Al Gore’s loss in the 2000 presidential election was that it prevented Lieberman from becoming America’s first Jewish vice president. Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg suffers from the same tunnel vision, too interested in whether Berg’s shows were good for the Jews to ask whether they were good, period. Was her show as groundbreaking as this film would have us believe? One of the talking heads, an author who wrote a biography of Berg, calls her show “the first successful television situation comedy,” and another implies that Berg invented the convention of people bursting through the door to juice up a fading storyline. But even if that convention was new to TV, it had been alive and kicking in theatrical farces for hundreds of years before Molly Goldberg was born.

Some of the shorter clips we see from the show – especially the ads Berg wrote and delivered in character as Molly – feel faux-folksy, and the longest and best excerpt is just a pleasant bit of pop pablum, though it’s taken from what the voiceover says is one of her best episodes. So the only thing that makes this forgotten show seem worth remembering is the case Kempner makes for giving Americans its first prototype of a warm, wise, halfway Americanized Jewish mother.

The film outlines Berg’s personal history as well, but that too is quickly glossed over reveal much. We learn almost nothing about the relationships she maintained with her real-life husband and children while working so hard to play the perfect mother (she was the sole writer as well as the star on a show that started out weekly and went daily for a while). There are a few hints at a Joan Crawford-like gap between Berg’s broadcast persona and her real self, including speculation that Molly was the mother Berg had always wished for, since her own mother was mentally unstable and wound up in an institution. Apparently she was a terrible cook, too, though she thought she was good – and even published a cookbook, under Molly’s name (her coauthor, cookbook writer Myra Waldo, may have done the real work).

Berg was obviously driven, but to do what exactly? The talking heads and Kempner’s voiceover laud her as a proto-feminist pioneer as well as a Jewish role model, but her sentimental show didn’t appear to be interested in launching any Roseanne-style assaults on cultural beachheads. Kempner stresses the courage it took Berg to stage a Seder at the Goldbergs’ and have someone throw a rock through their window after the horror of Kristallnacht, but she doesn’t mention how rarely Berg took stands like that. According to a 2000 editorial in the Dallas Morning News, Berg generally steered clear of "anything that will bother people ... unions, fund raising, Zionism, socialism, intergroup relations. ... I keep things average. I don't want to lose friends."

Kempner alternates between talking heads, clips from the show and from an interview Edward R. Murrow did with Berg, and generic archival footage, like the shot of Variety’s Wall Street Lays an Egg headline that clues us into the 1929 stock market crash that preceded Berg’s radio debut by two months. Berg’s biographer and a couple of her relatives provide some personal information while the rest of the talking heads, who include Susan Stamberg and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, talk about what the show meant to them and their families when they were young.

The best bits are from the Murrow interview, but none of it goes very deep and the contradictions that emerge in the narrative go unexplored. After all the talk about the show’s positive portrayal of a prototypical (if idealized) Jewish family, what are we to make of the African American journalist who says: “Listening to Molly Goldberg, you didn’t think about religion or ethnicity. You thought about family.” And was Berg’s set a warm and nurturing place, as one person says, or was she the mercurial and demanding tyrant others report on the job?

Looks like Gertrude Berg will have to remain under-known.

Written for TimeOFF 

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