Gertrude Berg is described in this sympathetic and engaging documentary as an earlier version of Oprah. She wrote every word of over twelve thousand scripts. She played the lead role and oversaw every element of the programs on radio, in television, and in a feature film. She branched out to a line of clothing and a cookbook. She was the first “first lady of television” before Lucille Ball took the title. It is probably more due to Desi Arnaz’s three-camera system for making infinitely rerun-able tapes that has kept “I Love Lucy” in the forefront while shows of equal quality faded from the airwaves.
Aviva Kempner (The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg) has assembled archival footage and contemporary interviews to illuminate the life of this pioneering writer/actress/producer. The film may go too far in giving Berg credit for creating the sit-com, but it makes a convincing case for her stature and influence, even more impressive in light of the era’s bigotry and the restrictions on professional advancement for both Jews and women.
For many people, “The Goldbergs” was their first exposure to a non-stereotyped Jewish family. Among the film’s most affecting interviews are the comments from viewers who speak of what the show meant to them, including the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who says that since her mother had no family, they thought of the Goldbergs as their relatives, and from non-Jewish women who talk about how the series’ portrayal of family felt very much like their own experiences and cultures.
The saddest part of the film is the portion about Philip Loeb, who played Berg’s husband on the series until his name came up during the era of the blacklist. Berg showed great courage and integrity in fighting to keep him on the show and he showed great honor in insisting that the show go on without him. The tragic outcome is conveyed with great sympathy and feeling.
Kempner has a real gift for making these almost-forgotten lives fascinating and vital. Perhaps most important, the film made me sorry that the very intriguing clips from Berg’s television series didn’t go on longer. I’d like to spend more time with the Goldbergs.