Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 9, 2009

Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg

Filed under: Film,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 7:10 pm

Opening tomorrow at the Quad and Lincoln Plaza theaters in New York City, “Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” is both an affectionate tribute to the first situation comedy on television as well as a rueful look at the McCarthyism that practically destroyed the show. Directed by Aviva Kemper, this is a documentary that will appeal to those with an interest in Jewish popular culture and the American left—in other words, just like the author of this review. But beyond our ranks, I can recommend it as a film that is equal to its subject matter in terms of its universality. Despite its ostensibly narrow focus—the vicissitudes of a very Jewish household in the Bronx—it was one of the most popular radio and television shows of the 30s through the 50s. This was directly attributable to the strength of the scripts written by Gertrude Berg and her performance as Molly Goldberg, the zaftig matriarch.

Born in 1898, Gertrude Berg’s roots were in the Catskill Mountains “borscht belt”, just like mine. Her father owned Fleischmann’s Hotel and she worked as a bookkeeper there in her teens. In a bid to entertain the Jewish guests who stayed there in the summer, she developed a skit based on a character named Maltke Talnitzky, a fiftyish woman who is always bickering with her husband. These skits were the germ of the idea that evolved into her radio and television shows. She eventually married Lewis Berg, a young engineer who she met at the hotel. As the inventor of decaffeinated coffee, he became quite wealthy and encouraged his wife in the arts.

On November 20, 1929 “The Rise of the Goldbergs” debuted on CBS radio and was an instant hit with the American people no matter their ethnicity. It seemed that it didn’t matter what country you came from, everybody knew somebody like Molly Goldberg even if they were named Rosa Cellini or Mary Xenakis. By the 1940s, Gertrude Berg was the best-known woman in the U.S. after Eleanor Roosevelt and also the wealthiest. She was, as the documentary points out, the Oprah of her day with a string of businesses connected to the show. Politically, Berg was a major supporter of the New Deal and the show reflected the populist themes of the day, along with moral exhortations to take part in civic affairs such as buying War Bonds and collecting scrap metal for the war effort. The show was in the forefront denouncing Hitlerism, both in Germany and in its nascent stage in the U.S. where the German-American Bund held mass rallies. At the time, Father Coughlin—the Rush Limbaugh of his day—spoke flatteringly of Hitler on his radio show.

In real life, Gertrude Berg was nothing like the character she played. She came from a wealthy family to begin with and became even wealthier through her show business conquests. During the Great Depression she lived on Park Avenue and probably never set foot in the Bronx. The documentary relates that she would visit the Lower East Side to listen to Jews kibitzing with each other to get inspirations for her next show.

The television show premiered in 1949 just as the Red Scare was taking shape. Celebrities everywhere in Hollywood and on radio or television found their names in Red Channel, a publication that was dedicated to rooting out anybody who had served on a committee to raise funds for the Spanish Popular Front war effort or to defend the Scottsboro boys.

One of them was Philip Loeb, who played Molly Goldberg’s husband Jake. Once CBS and the show’s sponsors got word that Loeb was accused of being a Red, they demanded that Goldberg fire him. She resisted until the very end, but only relented when it became clear that the show would be dropped if Loeb was retained. She did not want to victimize the other people working on the show. Loeb was crushed by this experience and spent the next few years trying in vain to relaunch his career. Eventually he took an overdose of sleeping pills in the Taft Hotel in 1956, an event that was dramatized in Walter Bernstein’s “The Front”—the sole difference being that the Loeb character (played by fellow blacklistee Zero Mostel) jumped out the window rather than taking pills.

Director Aviva Kempner has made other movies about Jews before. Her “Life and Times of Hank Greenberg”, the Detroit Tiger baseball superstar who never played on holy days is excellent, as is her “Partisans of Vilna”, a documentary that leaves the awful “Defiance”, a fictional movie based on the Jewish guerrilla fighters, in the dust. This is a fine addition to her body of work and a must see for New Yorkers starting tomorrow. The film opens in Washington and Los Angeles later this month and national distribution soon afterward. Look for it in your local film news.

Official website

12 Comments »

  1. I love it when you write about lefty Jewish culture.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — July 10, 2009 @ 3:28 am

  2. Luis, please take a look if you get a chance. http://amte.wordpress.com

    Comment by amte — July 10, 2009 @ 1:30 pm

  3. Louis’s informative review of this movie got the chronology right concerning Gertrude Berg’s resistance to the pressure on her to fire Philip Loeb, her ultimate decision to do “The Goldbergs” with a different actor cast as her husband, and Loeb’s suicide (but in 1955, not 1956 as stated by Louis).

    This is not the impression one gets, however, from the New York Times review by Stephen Holden, which contains the following two paragraphs:

    “‘The Goldbergs’ flourished until the publication in 1950 of ‘Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television’ named Philip Loeb, who played Molly’s husband, Jake, as a Communist sympathizer. When the show’s sponsor, General Foods, delivered an ultimatum that Loeb be fired within two days, Berg stood by him and threatened to persuade the public to boycott the company. Although General Foods backed down, the show was canceled several months later.

    Berg went so far as to appeal for help to Cardinal Francis Spellman, who agreed only on the condition that she convert to Roman Catholicism, which she refused to do. A broken man, Loeb committed suicide in 1955. Although a replacement was later found, and “The Goldbergs” returned to television, it was never the same, and when its setting was moved to the suburbs, it lasted for only one season.”

    It appears that someone, possibly Holden himself but more likely an editor, moved the sentence about a replacement “later” being found for Loeb from the first to the second of these paragraphs. As printed the second paragraph imples that the program was resumed with a new actor after Loeb’s death, and conforms to the article’s narrative that Berg, “a bighearted Jewish mother,” had a principal role in the defeat of the blacklist.

    Berg was decent enough to continue paying Loeb after he was replaced. She did, however, carry on with the series when it was picked up by NBC a year after its cancellation by CBS in 1951.

    The Times’s review is a small but characteristic example of how it massages the facts to fit the perspective of its audience and owners.

    Comment by Stuart Newman — July 12, 2009 @ 11:46 pm

  4. The film is great. Stuart you clearly haven’t seen it. It is all laid out in black and white and red exactly what happened to Phil Loeb and all that Gertrude did to try and save him. And how she ultimately failed. Kempner did a remarkable job with this story! Hats off. I sat in a packed house with people laughing and crying. Wonderful.

    Comment by Fred Rubin — July 19, 2009 @ 6:21 am

  5. Thanks, Fred. I wasn’t criticizing the film, which I look forward to seeing, or Gertrude Berg, whom I admire. It just seemed to me that the Times’s narrative was misleading. At least it misled several people I spoke with.

    Comment by Stuart Newman — July 19, 2009 @ 9:08 pm

  6. Interesting article. gave me facts and info I did not know before. I remember Molly Goldberg very well. I am from that era.
    NOW! How dare you compare Rush Limbough to Father Coughlin. These two have absolutely nothing in common. Are you one of those Liberal secular Jewesses whose religion consists of liberalism and humanism. If so, GOODBYE!!!

    Comment by avrohom katz — July 20, 2009 @ 1:26 am

  7. I saw the movie and enjoyed it thoroughly. Growing up and watching Molly Goldberg on a regular basis brought me great pleasure. However, now as a woman nearing 70, it is difficult for me to relate to it as much as I did when I was younger. I guess times have really changed and I’ve changed with them.

    Comment by Sandra Ezersky — July 20, 2009 @ 8:30 pm

  8. wow, fleischmann’s hotel! i haven’t thought about that place in decades. i grew up in monticello, a mile down the road from kutcher’s hotel. while the show aired before i was born, somehow watching that clip still brought back memories.

    Comment by nonnie9999 — July 21, 2009 @ 2:15 am

  9. Comparing Rush Limbough to Couglin is irresponsible and disgusting. How dare you. You may not agree with his opinions, but comparing him to Hitler is damn disgusting . He is the total opposite.
    I grew up with Molly Goldberg and soooo enjoyed her tv shows. Uncle David was the “also” as I remember. Loved it all.
    Judy Lupoff – July 23, 2009 @ 10:51P.M.

    Comment by judy lupoff — July 24, 2009 @ 5:51 am

  10. Thank you for this wonderful posting which highlights the role of Jewish humor and Jewish social conscience. The Jewish spirit comes through. The sense of reaching out to the “Other” even when making fun of yourself and him. Got some of this at home from my mom, Esther Zlott Widlanski, who was a broadcaster at WEVD and whose roots were basically socialist.
    On the political side, you ought to be aware of two things:
    1. The reference to Limbaugh, even if you disagree with him on everything, is really over the top. He’s not a Coughlin. Yes, he has a powerful radio audience, but your comparison is like comparing Jack Benny and HItler because they were both good at using a microphone.
    2. McCarthyism was a horrible movement, but some of McCarthy’s charges (and NIxon’s) had some substance, as is shown by Arthur Herman (Smithsonian Inst.) book as well as Soviet archives. So even if McCarthy and Nixon et al were destructive and disgusting occasionally drunken louts–ruining and ending lives–some of their charges were correct, as in Alger Hiss.

    I was too young for the shows, but saw some episodes at museums (Broadcasting and Jewish, respectively), and I really thank you for background info and the clip.

    Michael Widlanski, Jerusalem

    Comment by Dr. Michael Widlanski — August 7, 2009 @ 5:26 am

  11. Hello: I am 66+ years old. I remember, as a child, watching the show, “Yoo hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” or maybe another proper name for this TV show ( not everyone had a TV set in their home in those days – in the 50’s,) I think. As a child, I remember enjoying it immensely, maybe because I am Jewish, and had Jewish grandmothers, who associated with the show much more than I really did, although I do remember enjoying all its humor. I thank the computer “industry” for bringing items such as this to our attention, so I and others can reflect back on our younger days and pleasant remembrances.
    Respectflly,
    Harold Hashinsky

    Comment by Harold Hashinsky — September 17, 2009 @ 2:10 pm

  12. I remember this when i was a kid. She was great and gave us much enjoyment.

    Comment by teri — November 5, 2009 @ 4:42 pm


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