WEB EXCLUSIVE: Et Tu Mrs. Goldberg?

WEB EXCLUSIVE: Et Tu Mrs. Goldberg?

George Robinson covers film and music for The Jewish Week.

American schools used to teach a version of the history of immigration to the New World that was based on a happy-talk model in which everyone came here seeking freedom and prosperity, faced a brief period of hostility, then assimilated painlessly into the "melting pot" of a universally healthy culture.

Every immigrant group made its contribution to America, which was usually highlighted by cuisine and a couple of ethnic heroes, preferably non-controversial ones like athletes and movie stars.

Why aren’t the Jewish groups that are heavily involved in the intensifying health care debate holding Israel’s efficient system up as a model?

It was a lie, an insult to the uniqueness of each group’s experience of its own identity and America. Mercifully, it is a pedagogic model that is long discredited in most of the United States.

Regrettably, nobody seems to have told Aviva Kempner, whose new film "Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg," like her previous documentary "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg," is a milk-and-water concoction from the past, a vision of an America in which the hard work of a Horatio Alger hero is all that is needed to turn aside anti-Semitism and achieve universal acceptance.

As in the previous film, Kempner has taken a genuinely fascinating person, writer-producer-actress Gertrude Berg, and reduced her to a bland cardboard cutout. And make no mistake about it, Berg – born Tillie Edelstein – who created the enormously popular sitcom "The Goldbergs," a huge success on radio and then on television, was a driven, self-willed woman of great energy. In the depths of the Depression, she became a one-woman media empire, adding to the radio show syndicated columns, cookbooks and more.

Kempner tells Berg’s story chronologically, almost slavishly so, with the result that themes and characters appear and disappear in almost random fashion. In the film’s first half, she is somewhat hamstrung by the paucity of visual materials to document the rising tide of Berg’s success; "The Goldbergs" began life on the radio, after all. Her solution is a rather promiscuous use of stock footage and clips from silent fiction films like Chaplin’s "The Immigrant" (which is becoming the primary go-to source for documentarians who either can’t or won’t look for the real thing). Standing in for film of New Orleans in 1916, we see a Crescent City street filled with cars of significantly later vintage. When the film talks about the Edelstein family’s pioneering efforts in the early days of the Catskills, we are treated to clips from at least a full decade later.

Fortunately, as the show moves to television, Kempner becomes both more fastidious and more expansive in her choice of period materials.

It may seem like carping to single out the film’s use of overly familiar or inappropriate stock footage, but that problem is merely symptomatic of a larger one. As in the Greenberg film, Kempner chooses her interview subjects in what can only be described as a seemingly random fashion. The presence of several of Berg’s family members is entirely understandable, and a few of them actually contribute some insights into her workaholic personality.

But do we need CBS news anchor Andrea Roane to tell us that her African-American family was just like the fictional Goldbergs or fan Chris Doweny to note the similarity to her Greek-American household, or NPR’s Susan Stamberg who speaks frequently on-camera but tells us nothing about the radio and TV show and its historical context?

Their presence is as useless as Alan Dershowitz’s in the Hank Greenberg film. The screen time would be better spent on Glenn Smith, Berg’s biographer, professor Robert Thompson, an expert on television history, or Joyce Antler, author of several elegantly written works on the roles of women in the Jewish-American immigrant community, all of whom contribute real understanding of the historical and cultural context in which Berg and her characters thrived.

To its credit, "Yoo-Hoo Mrs. Goldberg" doesn’t shy away from the single lowest point in the history of the show and its family-like company of actors, the blacklisting and subsequent suicide of Philip Loeb, who played Molly’s husband Jake. But even here the film takes a few false steps. Kempner never asks why Berg eventually decided to submit to the pressure to replace Loeb, rather than shutting down production as an act of defiance. More disturbingly, nobody seems to question the remark made by one interviewee that the real tragedy was that Loeb "wasn’t even a communist," as if the brutal railroading of someone for his political convictions would have been acceptable if they’d only hounded the right guy to death. Finally, since the film provides so little historical context, it makes it look as if the scurrilous bible of the blacklisters, "Red Channels," and the entire blacklist itself were the work of one grocery-store owner in Syracuse, rather than the culmination of a complex series of political trends and movements.

While none of this would be acceptable under any circumstances, some of it could be excused if "Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg" gave viewers a sense of what made the show so special and what it was like to work on the set every day. Despite access to kinescopes of the program and the presence of several surviving cast members, Kempner fails at this task as well. The result is an embarrassingly old-fashioned paean to an America that never existed, a film that does little credit to its complex and charismatic protagonist.

"Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg" opens on Friday, July 10 at the Quad Cinema (34 W. 13th St.) and the Lincoln Plaza (63rd Street and Broadway).

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