An excellent documentary about the talented comedienne, Gertrude Berg, who wrote, produced and starred in her own comedy series, first on radio and then very early on television, essentially inventing the family situation comedy for TV in the process, Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, has been released by Docuramafilms and New Video. Directed by Aviva Kempner, the movie has the advantage of being about an entertainer, so that it can always cut to the entertainment to keep its energy up, but Berg’s life was rich and fascinating—as a little girl, she helped out the family Catskill hotel business by ‘entertaining’ the guests—and parallels with equal fascination the epic transition in America from radio to TV. It was her show, The Goldbergs, begun in 1949, that worked out the initial production strategies for live television while, week after week, she turned out basic but often brilliant scripts exploring the emotions of family life. In doing so, she also aided greatly in the assimilation of Jewish culture into the American consciousness. After the horrors of World War II, her weekly demonstrations that urban Jewish Americans, outside of the funny accents and a few exotic traditions, had the same problems, the same feelings and the same dreams that all Americans had, cannot be underestimated as a critical factor in the long term healing process, especially with those who had been influenced by reactionary American firebrands during the Depression and lived too far from urban centers to have any direct contact with Jews themselves. In any case, Berg was a pioneer, an innovator, and an artist sensitive to the most delicate nuances of the human heart, and the 2009 feature certifies her deserved placement in the pantheon of American heroes (at the very least, as Kempner points out, they should issue a stamp already…).
But this is a two-platter DVD, and the 93-minute film is just its foundation. As with all of the great documentary DVDs, the supplements, including several complete episodes of The Goldbergs, enhance the viewer’s experience significantly. Kempner, for example, somewhat amazingly got Ruth Bader Ginsburg to sit and share stories of how The Goldbergs had influenced her as a child, but there was only so much of that footage that could be included in the movie itself without diverting its primary purpose. On DVD, however, there is no such shortcoming.
The film is presented in full screen format and the transfer is solid. Some of the music has a mild stereophonic dimensionality, and the program is captioned. A trailer appears on the first platter, and Kempner supplies a commentary track. Although she spends some of the time highlighting the 20 minutes of deleted scenes that can be found on the second platter, she talks extensively about Berg’s background, the backgrounds of the co-stars on the show—Philip Loeb played Berg’s husband until he was forced off the show by the blacklist (and served as the model for Zero Mostel’s tragic character in The Front)—and her adventures in securing the various interviews and archival footage she used to put the film together. Given the opportunity to enhance the film’s themes and expand on its details, Kempner leaves no stone unturned.
The deleted scenes are mostly digressions that move the focus too far away from the central narrative, although that does nothing to diminish their value or worthiness, and anyone watching the movie will want to follow up with them immediately upon its conclusion. Series co-star Arlene McQuade, for example, has a terrific story about how she helped a friend living in her apartment building land his very first screen role, of which excerpts are included in the clip. Her friend, who gave the producers trouble when it came time to pay him because he insisted that the fantasy part qualified as two separate performances, deserving two separate paychecks, was Steve McQueen.
Also featured on the second platter are three complete episodes of The Goldbergs from various stages in its life, including a kinescope recording of a live broadcast and an episode from the final season when the show moved the family, somewhat unsuccessfully (although, from a writing standpoint, the setting gave Berg many fresh options) to the suburbs. The episodes are undated. The earlier ones are particularly fascinating even beyond the quality of their stories, for the strategies they employ in blocking and shooting. Rather like Citizen Kane, the cast members are always moving around one another as they converse, as if it would be deadly to have them just stop and talk, although the times that they do stop and talk work like close-ups in emphasizing an emotional point or narrative climax. And BTW, Berg’s character and her character’s husband sleep in one twin bed, even cuddling as they talk, something that hadn’t happened in movies for years and wouldn’t happen again on TV for at least a decade.
Berg’s scripts are outstanding. In classic TV sitcom tradition, they take one simple, clear idea and riff with it for 30 minutes (the commercials were semi-integrated with the story), but the delicacy with which Berg explores the emotions of the various characters and develops the gradually burgeoning crisis the situations are causing is superb, and is especially remarkable when one considers that she was doing so many other things besides writing the weekly scripts. Anne Bancroft had her first screen appearance in one of the episodes presented, in which she plays the new daughter-in-law of one of the friends of Goldberg’s character. Out of fear, she hesitates in calling the woman, ‘mother,’ but the woman thinks it is because she doesn’t like her and it is up to the heroine to sort everything out, which she does with a beautiful Shakespearean delicacy. In another episode, one of the suburban shows, McQuade’s character wants to get her nose fixed, and Berg’s character has to be extra clever in devising a way to talk her out of it. Again, the raw emotions of the piece are just as potent as the earlier mother-in-law episode, and it is, perhaps, because the emotions of the characters are so immediate and graspable that when a point of comedy is inserted it carries an extra resonance—we certainly laughed out loud several times while watching the episodes—as a release of tension. The third episode is a good example of how the show’s Jewishness was nevertheless transcribable as a universal conflict that any viewer could identify with. A friend has his third child and is torn between naming it after someone on his wife’s side of the family and someone on his own side. There will be severe repercussions from whomever gets slighted and again, the heroine must use her wits to find the acceptable compromise.
Also featured is a 2-minute clip from another episode that depicts the sort of stage show Berg herself put on in her youth at the resort hotel; an outstanding for so many different reasons 12-minute segment of Edward R. Murrow’s Person to Person in which he interviews Berg and lets the viewer see the dichotomy between the sophisticated writer/actress and her more down home character; a lovely 4-minute monolog Berg delivered on The Ed Sullivan Show about assimilating Hanukah with Christmas; and a 2-minute sketch from The Steve Allen Show where Berg imitates Alfred Hitchcock. Featured as well is a text profile of Kempner, 2 minutes of video with Kempner’s family that was intended to be inserted in the film, a half-minute clip of a billboard being put up that promotes the movie, and an unsettling 2002 short film directed by Kempner entitled Today I Vote for My Joey, about Jewish senior citizens participating in the 2000 presidential election in Florida (they are excited about casting a vote for the Jewish Joe Lieberman as vice president). Running 20 minutes, it ends on a remarkably prescient punchline but also gains an added irony in light of Lieberman’s later political antics.
Finally, there is a 14-minute episode of a special radio program broadcast in 1942 that adapted (along with other popular shows in other episodes) Berg’s Goldbergs radio show (which, again, she wrote, directed and starred in), to patriotically themed stories in support of the War effort. In the piece, Berg’s character encourages a newlywed to go forward with her plans for having a baby even though her new husband is shipping out. As with all of the other works presented, it establishes a powerful emotional message with just a few simple strokes, but it also, as a sample of Berg’s radio work, showcases the lovely rhythmic dialog of English with Yiddish accents, which may have been one major reason that the program, even as it dealt with everyday events or ‘nothing at all,’ remained so transfixing to listeners and, later, to viewers.