Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The art of a mensch

Flat documentary tells of a forgotten female power player

Posted on Wed, Oct 28, 2009 at 4:00 AM

Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg
Studio: Ciesla Foundation
Cast: Ed Asner and Norman Lear
Director: Aviva Kempner
WorkNameSort: Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg
Our Rating: 2.00

It's puzzling that a paean to Gertrude Berg's Jewish New York housewife, Mrs. Goldberg ' a character so beloved and enduring that she could serve as a travel guide through early-to-mid'20th-century history ' could fall so flat. After all, you couldn't ask for a fuller, warmer centerpiece.

Only a couple of generations removed from 'the old country,â?� Berg was saddled with a huge workload upon inheriting her father's Catskills hotel. She ran away to Louisiana, where she met her husband, then later moved back to New York with family in tow. There, she began writing and voicing The Goldbergs, a radio series about a nice Jewish family and their kind-hearted matriarch, Mrs. Molly Goldberg. The show premiered about a month after the 1929 Wall Street collapse and, in various media, ran through World War II, Pearl Harbor, the Communism scare and the Hollywood blacklist, all the way up until a redhead named Lucy took her spot as America's favorite woman on TV. In the meantime, Berg built an empire out of the Goldbergs, writing books and newspaper columns, winning Tony and Emmy awards, taking her act to Broadway and making herself as ubiquitous as Oprah is today.

This documentary covers nearly every aspect of Berg's (and Goldberg's) life in excruciating detail ' you know the film's run out of steam when pie-eyed talking heads are going on enthusiastically about whether or not Berg could cook well. It does contain some interesting moments with former cast members and luminaries, like a delightfully nostalgic Ruth Bader Ginsburg and a reverent Norman Lear, but sags dramatically after about an hour. It's around that point that the film explores Berg's impact on the cast's own families and the behind-the-scenes drama of a new actor filling in for the blacklisted Philip Loeb, who was outed as a Communist by Elia Kazan and later killed himself. There is tragic fascination in this storyline, but Yoo-Hoo gets distracted with Loeb's replacement and the mild fan backlash against him.

Director Aviva Kempner, who previously took on the story of Jewish baseball player Hank Greenberg, lacks the wit and storytelling verve of Berg herself, who wrote all the Goldberg shows. In Kempner's hands, Berg's tale rings oddly lifeless. Then again, any new life at all isn't bad for this forgotten icon.



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