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Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg (DVD Review)

30 Aug, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Box Office $1.1 million
$29.95 two-DVD set
Not rated.

Someone in Aviva Kempner’s documentary about a multi-leveled pioneer calls Gertrude Berg an anomaly, which is as good a way as any to describe a well-dressed, opera-loving Park Avenue resident who created matriarch Molly Goldberg. For a couple decades on radio and then television, Molly struck her head out the window of the family’s Bronx apartment and yakked (but never kvetched) over an airshaft with lines of hanging laundry never too far away.

Berg took the Jewish immigrant experience and made it not just palatable but beloved in a network sea of non-ethnic entertainment — as we’re told first hand in growing-up recollections from an African-American newscaster and another who her found her Greek upbringing not all that dissimilar. First, Molly & family were on NBC, then CBS radio (after one of the first talent “raids” that soon became more common). Later, the character was the centerpiece of television’s first successful sitcom ever, premiering in January 1949.

But back to the anomaly consideration. Beyond the Bronx/Park Avenue differential, Berg’s brainstorm has to rank as one of the most premier “family values” programs of all time — even though, in real life, she had a mother who never recovered mentally from the death of Berg’s brother and a father who never supported her chosen profession (fortunately, a perfect husband did). And though apparently close to her children and grandchildren, she spent after day after day on scripts on a thoroughly consuming professional schedule (the final total was something like 12,000) and probably died, the documentary suggests, of overwork.

In terms of full disclosure, Yoo-Hoo is directed by my real-life baseball buddy Aviva Kempner, who every year bets me a Diet Pepsi that the Red Sox will finish higher in the standings than the Yankees. She’s a good baseball buddy to have because her previous feature was 2000’s awards magnet The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg. I think this one is basically as good, though the previous film’s subject inevitably offered the kind of majesty that 331 home runs in a war-interrupted career inevitably brings. Kempner picks her interviews carefully — family members, work associates, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, National Public Radio’s Susan Stamberg — and manages to come up with clips of outstanding quality from Berg’s appearances on her own shows and on guest shots with Perry Como and Steve Allen.

There’s also an equally compelling movie-within-a-movie involving actor Philip Loeb, who played husband Jake Goldberg, and, in real life, was a successful fighter for worker’s benefits in Actors Equity Association (in the twisted logic of the Blacklist, this apparently made him an obvious communist). The basis for Zero Mostel’s character in 1976’s Woody Allen starrer The Front, Loeb was listed as one by the notorious reactionary rag Red Channels. After a protracted battle on his behalf, Berg had to let Loeb go with a settlement, and he — with medical and family problems compounding the situation — eventually committed suicide. In a revelation (to me) that I’m surprised appears in the DVD bonus section instead of the film proper, “Goldbergs” expert Dr. Dean Smith Jr. — a hearty contributor to this documentary throughout — reveals that a week before Loeb’s death, the FBI had closed Loeb’s file for lack of evidence, though Loeb didn’t know this.

In the meantime, Berg lost her coffee sponsor even though her expert on-air hawking (in character) had sold a few zillion silos of Sanka — as “I Love Lucy” took over her Monday night CBS slot. Eventually, she returned to the dying Dumont Network and, for one final season, NBC. But the actors who replaced Loeb didn’t fill the void, and when the Goldberg clan moved to the suburbs, it seemed as lost as it had in 1950’s Paramount feature Molly, which was all WASP-ed up with a needless romantic subplot.

Kempner doesn’t miss many bets here, given that there’s even a Molly clip, though the movie is so rare I don’t even think it’s even been shown on cable since the early 1990s when I recorded it off the air. In addition to Kempner’s commentary, the extras are plentiful and require a second disc. They include a substantial tally of interview segments not included in the film and a sampling of complete episodes including one with young actress Anne Italiano, later renamed Anne Bancroft when she went to Hollywood. There’s even a funny anecdote and short clip involving Steve McQueen, who made, it’s alleged, his first acting appearance on the show (to the producers’ regret, in an anecdote too funny to spoil).

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