by Jessica Mosby
- USA -
Gertrude Berg is the most famous cultural icon you’ve most likely never heard of. The Jewish-American writer and actress played her most famous character, Molly Goldberg, for over 25 years on radio and later television in the first situational family comedy. At the height of her long career, Berg was named by Billboard magazine as “the first lady of radio,” won the first Best Actress Emmy ever awarded, and was voted the second most-respected woman in America after First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
The heart of the documentary is Berg – a complicated, driven, and talented woman who created her ideal family through her writing – one she never personally experienced with her own unsupportive father and mentally unstable mother. She depicted Goldberg (a combination of her married name and her own mother’s last name) as the perfect mother heading up a middle-class Jewish family living in the Bronx. The Goldbergs’ shenanigans and charm transcended ethnicity, religion, class, and location, and made Berg famous, respected, and wealthy.
At one time the highest paid woman in America, Berg led a Park Avenue life. She further capitalized on her fame with a Molly Goldberg cookbook (even though Berg did not actually know how to cook), a clothing line, and an advice column. But at the height of her fame, Berg’s life took a dramatic turn. Her TV husband, Philip Loeb, was named in The House of Un-American Activities publication Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television. Sponsors then left the show despite Berg’s great success as a pitch woman, and soon the sitcom was off the air. Eventually The Goldbergs did return to the small screen having replaced Loeb, but the show and Berg were never the same.
Kempner is a talented documentary filmmaker as Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg plays like a feature film, complete with an inspiring heroine and an unbelievable dramatic climax (the Red Scare). While in town to receive the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival Freedom of Expression Award, I met with Kempner for an entertaining and insightful interview.
Born in Berlin after WWII, Kempner immigrated to the United States as a small child with her Holocaust survivor mother and U.S. Army officer father. Currently a Washington D.C.-based documentarian, Kempner has devoted her filmmaking career to documenting “under-known” Jewish heroes.
Were you a fan of the radio and TV show?
She (Berg) was already [on] my radar because with [my previous film] The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg there is a scene where the women in the neighborhood are claiming Hank Greenberg is a bum, and I used a scene from Going My Way with women yelling out the window. So that was Molly Goldbergesque…she was a figure in the back of my head. And then when I walked into the Jewish Museum in New York they had this great exhibit called “Jews Entertaining America” and there was the [Goldberg’s] living room recreated. I said “That’s got to be my next film.”
But you’ve never actually watched the show or listened to the radio?
I did, but when I was very, very young. I can’t remember what I did yesterday! (laughs)
I ask, because so many people interviewed in the film – who haven’t heard the radio show or watched the TV show in decades – have such vivid memories.
I came to America in 1950 – I was born in Europe…the first TV I remember watching was my dad watching the McCarthy hearings. I think what I realized – I was really doing [a film about] Molly Goldberg – is that it was the Philip Loeb story. I realized I could document something my dad was so upset about.
That is interesting because one of my favorite parts of the film is when it really becomes very political.
Can you imagine someone said there was too much Loeb? It’s the dramatic arch of the film! I thought Gertrude Berg’s career was worth it itself, but what’s the real dramatic arch? What’s the third act? It’s Philip Loeb.
When you started making the film, what really attracted you to Gertrude Berg?
She was a genius. 12,000 scripts, a producer who owned her own show, a woman in that period developing the most Jewish-positive show you’ll ever see at the height of domestic anti-Semitism, at the height of the destruction of European Jewry – and she totally pulled it off. And she seamlessly walked on the set. One of the geniuses of TV, and then she was forgotten. I do under-known Jewish heroes, and this time I had the pleasure of doing an under-known Jewish heroine.
Why do you think she was forgotten?
I think there are several things. One, she was never syndicated. So, that hurt her. Two, the blacklist hurt her. And three, sometimes the pioneers just don’t make it. But can you imagine no one knowing in 50 years from now who Oprah was?
What’s even more of a scandal, this summer [the United States Postal Service] is releasing a stamp “Legends of TV.” And not one picture of Gertrude Berg. So that’s why we’ve started a stamp campaign.
Why was her show never syndicated?
They were shot in Kinescope and [the shows] weren’t in the best condition. [I Love] Lucy is shot on film. So that has a lot to do with it, too.
I also thought it was interesting that you explored how Gertrude was living out her ideal life on screen.
You know, it is interesting you say that to me because I’m very disappointed…I don’t think one writer has said this is a woman who developed the most idealized mother when her own mother was mentally ill and institutionalized. I thought there would be a lot of psychobabble discussion about that because it’s a double whammy: her own mother is unhealthy [so] she develops what she couldn’t have, and she does it at a time when it’s the worst time for the Jews. Again, she’s a genius that defies all odds.
What about her own family? What was her relationship like with them?
Unfortunately her kids weren’t alive when I decided to make the film. I heard a lot from the son-in-law. I think her granddaughter talks about how [Berg] was afraid to be alone. And I think that has lot to do with the situation with her mother.
She was a very busy woman, but all the grandchildren said she was a very generous grandmother. She wasn’t always with her kids. She had servants helping her bring up the kids. But you know, why is it always that with a woman that if you’re not there with your kids you’re a bad mother? This is a woman that if she hadn’t pursued her genius that, to me, would have been a sad story.
It’s amazing to me how much she could balance, because especially with the radio show it was an intense production schedule.
Look at me as a documentary filmmaker. I’ve been up since 5:30 a.m. trying to distribute my film, be a nice woman being interviewed by everyone. It’s your passion in life, your work.
[Berg] loved to work. She said, “Molly learned everything from me!” She just thrived on that artistic expression. She couldn’t be alone; it was maybe when she was alone with her feelings and that sadness from Philip to her father to the mental illness of her mother. But many great artists express through their art what they weren’t able to get growing up. And I think Gertrude Berg is one of the best examples of that.
Do you think that Gertrude Berg played into a stereotype? Actor Ed Asner brings this up a little bit in his interview.
I don’t think it’s a stereotype because I think this mother image was wise. She wasn’t nasty and domineering like Woody Allen’s mother in New York Stories. It’s a very different kind of mother, at least for me.
Did her fans realize that the real Gertrude Berg lived a very posh life?
Yeah, I think after awhile…everywhere she went in New York she was outed. She always dressed to the nines. She made the society pages. She was in Life magazine.
So her fans were able to differentiate between the Molly Goldberg on the show and the Gertrude Berg who lived on Park Avenue?
That’s good acting. I don’t think it hurt her. She would have a column and she would answer people, she had a clothing line, she brought Molly to you – literally.
The film almost plays more like a feature film than a documentary because Berg’s life is just so dramatic.
Because of that and because I took a 2.5 hour version [of the film] and whittled it down. And [the film] doesn’t have boring narration, which is really a problem. I [also] spent a lot of money getting the best footage possible to illustrate what is being said.
I love the movies! I want my movie to look like a feature!
About the Author
Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in Oakland, California. In the rare moments when she's not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.