Yet another archival collage-cum-documentary set on tracing the root of a pop-culture phenomenon to its Semitic germ, Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg benefits from a charismatic if elusive biographical subject that has all but faded from public view. Expounding the wildly successful if now obscure media career of celebrity Gertrude Berg, the film revises common knowledge with varying persuasiveness to suggest her family-oriented program The Goldbergs as both the first domestic tube drama and original sitcom blueprint.
Seething with the same dormant Judeo-feminist pride that prefigured Berg’s ascendancy from the hospitality industry to showbiz, the documentary proves most engaging during her early years, where a collection of public domain silent film sequences act as surrogate historical illustrations. While Chaplin fills in for ancestors immigrating by boat, and the Marx Brothers run the hotel Berg’s husband owned in Florida, director Aviva Kempner seems to be carving out a deserved space for her forgotten star among the titans of early big-screen comedy. And when Berg’s big chance arrives after she lends her voice to a popular radio spot for a pastry company, the film trenchantly reads the birth of her character Molly Goldberg as a mitotically produced, Tyler Durden-esque alter ego meant to fuse, and thereby disintegrate, the duel stereotypes of the homily-spouting all-American matriarch and the non-assimilating Yiddish babushka. As described in the documentary, the character’s reign on radio—with a supporting cast handpicked by Berg herself—featured some of the most daringly wholesome propaganda around; even Kristallnacht was symbolically referenced without intimidation or preachiness.
When Goldbergs becomes a TV program, however, the film starts to become more of a laundry list of accomplishments than a probing character study. Gertrude Berg may have been a proto-Oprah with full creative control over her productions (she handwrote every episode) and a honey of a merchandise deal, but quite tantalizingly, little of her private life or her long-term relationship to her most enduring creation is revealed. The documentary’s interviewees also fail to burrow properly into Berg as an icon, or into her curious decline: Aside from a few family members and random fans, the talking heads are padded with authorities on distaff Jewishness (e.g. Ruth Bader Ginsberg) rather than media critics. They bitterly argue that Lucille Ball purloined Molly Goldberg’s status as the “first woman of television” in an implicit, nationwide act of anti-Semitism, but neglect the groundbreaking aesthetic of I Love Lucy, which developed the three-act, three-camera sitcom formula still used to this day.
The true significance of Gertrude Berg’s work, which only occasionally bubbles to the surface of Yoo-Hoo, was not as influential as it was transitional in the trajectory of television programming. Berg effectively killed the once ubiquitous technique of fourth wall-breaking, diegetic sponsorship since no one could pitch a product like Molly, and while her scripts weren’t laugh-out-loud funny or situation-driven enough to bear more than a passing resemblance to today’s shows, they progressively toyed with old-fashioned morals in a non-threatening manner that opened the door for more acidic topical satire. More than that, the death of Goldbergs may have represented the end of unabashed, public Jewish-American pride in U.S. culture: When Mort Sahl and Woody Allen transcended the borscht belt a decade later, their schlemiel personas were jaundiced, skeptical, and self-deprecating. Ultimately, Gertrude Berg proves too opaque an American hero for an A&E-style documentary to properly deconstruct, but it’s an admirable shout-out from across the brownstone alleyway.