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'Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg' gives recognition to sitcom pioneer

Gertrude Berg established the formula for TV sitcoms with female leads, like I Love Lucy.

Jan Mitchell & Associates

Gertrude Berg established the formula for TV sitcoms with female leads, like I Love Lucy.

Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg (Not rated, probably PG) (92 min.) — Molly Goldberg isn't a household name these days, although in the 1940s and '50s her household was America's favorite place to visit. As lead character on The Goldbergs, television's first sitcom, Molly dished about her family's latest issue while dishing out warm, fuzzy homilies on the way to reassuring resolutions.

The woman behind Molly — and, indeed, the whole show — was producer-writer-actor Gertrude Berg, accurately described by filmmaker Aviva Kempner as "the most famous woman in America you've never heard of." Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg is Kempner's adulatory attempt to correct that.

Using rare kinescopes of the series and interviews with innovators influenced by The Goldbergs, Kempner makes a convincing argument for Berg's overdue recognition, not only as a TV pioneer but a social role model. Kempner previously profiled another Jewish groundbreaker in The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, tracing the Detroit Tigers slugger's struggle against anti-Semitism. Berg apparently didn't have that problem; she was too beloved for even bigots to discriminate against.

Replacing that tension is the shadow of McCarthyism, dogging Berg's TV husband, Philip Loeb, who was suspected of being a Communist. Berg stuck by her friend and colleague until replacing him was the only way to keep the show going. That's only a small part of Kempner's film, though, which could use more controversy and less unfettered hero worship.

Kempner draws a succinct path from The Goldbergs to I Love Lucy to Seinfeld, establishing the formula of eccentric neighbors and familial comfort. Berg scripted the series and won the first Emmy ever presented to a female actor. Hearing a future groundbreaker like Norman Lear (All in the Family) credit Berg with his career speaks volumes about her influence. But that's nearly all that we hear, and the praise gets a bit repetitive.

Nonetheless, Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg is recommended, as nostalgia for some viewers and a fascinating pop culture footnote for later generations. B

Steve Persall, Times film critic

'Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg' gives recognition to sitcom pioneer 10/28/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 28, 2009 4:30am]
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