If you haven’t schooled yourself on
— one of the first American sitcoms, a virtual one-woman show created by writer/producer/director/star Gertrude Berg, who won the first Emmy Award for Best Actress ever given — there’s no better time than now to start.
The new film Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg doesn’t do penance for this oversight, but it’s a great place to start. Documentarian Aviva Kempner’s previous film, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg covers the same time period and territory — that is, the early 20th century, where Jews have already come over to America in large numbers and are just starting to deal with the question of what it means to be here. It’s that question, and the various answers that are posited, that Kempner manages to express so eloquently.
If Yoo-Hoo has any major flaws, it’s that it doesn’t dwell long on the actual Goldbergs series. While Berg was a wild, compassionate, and multi-talented character — she was a writer/director/actor “triple threat” before a label existed for such things — so much of her public persona came from Molly Goldberg that it’s hard to minimize the fictional Goldberg’s influence on the real-life Berg. As Berg was fond of saying, she spent more time in her day writing, acting, and talking about Molly Goldberg than she did being herself.
That’s not to say that Berg’s struggle with her identity, as well as the struggle with the identity of her most-prized creation, don’t come across in the film. It’s exceedingly hard to follow the narrative rule of “show, don’t tell” in a documentary, but Kempner accomplishes it masterfully. One scene, which combines file footage of Berg showing a TV interview crew around their house with Adam Berg talking about his grandmother’s spending habits, it paints a picture that’s both understated and incredibly vivid. Berg was both a modern, material woman and a first-generation American, and she combined the two in a personality that was equal parts regality and awe — almost as if she couldn’t believe the life she’d stepped into, but still wanted to do it right.