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Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg: First Lady of TV

Rating: ***

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YOO-HOO, MRS. GOLDBERG
***
(out of four)
DIRECTED BY Aviva Kempner
STARS Norman Lear, Ruth Bader Ginsburg

MAKING LOTS OF DOUGH: Gertrude Berg, as seen in Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg. (Photo: Courtesy Goldberg Family Estate)
  • MAKING LOTS OF DOUGH: Gertrude Berg, as seen in Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg. (Photo: Courtesy Goldberg Family Estate)

The poster for the documentary Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg states that the film is about "The Most Famous Woman In America You've Never Heard Of," and that assertion doubtless applies to many learned Americans, even those well-schooled in pop culture.

This entertaining nonfiction film centers on the life of Gertrude Berg, who's described at various points as "the Oprah of her time," a feminist before feminism took off, and a progressive pioneer who was second only to Eleanor Roosevelt as the most respected woman in the country. Her fame was achieved through The Goldbergs, a show for which she served as both star and writer. Initially appearing on radio, the program made the jump to television during that medium's infancy, in effect becoming the first situation comedy (Berg also became the first Best Actress Emmy Award winner). Portraying the family matriarch Molly Goldberg, she exuded a warmth that made her welcome in American homes across the nation, and through archival footage as well as modern-day interviews with both fans and surviving cast members, it becomes clear that the show -- in both its radio and TV incarnations -- managed to be comforting even during those harsh periods when American Jews were tortured by the horrors of World War II and the nation as a whole was grappling with the Great Depression.

The despicable Communist witch hunt of the 1950s reared its ugly head in the direction of the series -- despite Berg's protestations, a fellow cast member was driven off the show because of the blacklist, and he committed suicide soon thereafter -- and viewers lost interest in the sitcom once the Goldbergs left the Bronx tenements and settled in sanitary suburbia. Yet Berg, who at times comes off as the hardest working woman in show business, always seemed to have one more trick up her sleeve.

All in the Family creator Norman Lear, Lou Grant star Ed Asner and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg represent the most familiar names among the interviewees, yet the real kick comes from seeing the stars of yesteryear in grainy film stock. Steve McQueen and Anne Bancroft appeared on The Goldbergs early in their careers, and Berg can be seen yukking it up with the likes of Edward R. Murrow, Perry Como and Steve Allen on their respective shows.

Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg doesn't really give us a sense of the quality of The Goldbergs -- to be honest, the scattered scenes make the series appear rather stiff, and certainly no I Love Lucy -- but as a fairly well-rounded portrait of a remarkable woman and a remarkable American, this documentary serves as a loving tribute.

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