This affectionate, by-the-numbers doc about the most famous celebrity you’ve never heard of is an unabashed valentine to a woman called the Oprah of her generation. Director Aviva Kempner, eschewing traditional narrative voiceovers, lays out the remarkable life story of writer-actor Gertrude Berg (aka Molly Goldberg), who built a 25-year media empire (1929-1955) that bridged radio, television and stage. She also convincingly dispels the long-held assumption that Lucille Ball was the female pioneer of the modern sitcom. Not only did Berg create and write more than 12,000 scripts for the radio show that became a television hit, The Goldbergs, she was also the first woman to earn an Emmy for efforts.
Using descendents, former cast members and celebrity admirers (including Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Norman Lear and Susan Stamberg), along with extensive show footage, Kempner spotlights an inconceivably ambitious woman who exported her Jewish immigrant identity into the living rooms of everyday Americans and achieved unprecedented success. Audiences connected with her Molly Goldberg character; her gentle humor, dedication to family and relentless humanitarianism made her a pop icon. This accomplishment is more remarkable when you realize that it wasn’t until the "no hugging, no learning" Semitism of Seinfeld (36 years later) that an unapologetically (yet much darker) Jewish sensibility dominated television once again.
Though stumbling early, Kempner’s doc becomes a fascinating chronicle of American history once it starts charting Berg’s popular rise. Shedding the tragic underpinnings of her personal life, Berg’s creation — the round, insightful matriarch Molly Goldberg — offered a middle-class yet urban view of Jewish neuroses and affection. She was a genial force of nature that invited viewers in through the back window of her apartment, even as she convinced them to buy whatever the show’s sponsors were selling. Molly connected with Americans of every persuasion by focusing on the everyday worries of a simple family trying to comprehend the changing America around it. Ranked among the most important woman of her day, Berg took second place to Eleanor Roosevelt in terms of popularity (and first in wealth).
Kempner does well capturing media’s changing face during the transition from radio to television, and the insidiousness of the McCarthy era and the HUAC hearings. Berg, ever her own woman, valiantly but ineffectually stood up against Red Scare bullying, and though the doc hints that those dark times (and American’s fickle tastes) were her ultimate undoing, the footage suggests that technology played a role in Berg’s loss of popularity. Unlike I Love Lucy or The Honeymooners, which shot their episodes on film, The Goldbergs was presented live via kinescope. The difference in quality is startling, and though Kempner seems to miss the point, the contrast speaks for itself. Berg’s show reflected its aging heritage when the country was moving forward. And like most of our history, Americans quickly forget what came before.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.