The Rehoboth Beach Independent Film Festival just wrapped up last Sunday, and while I can't say they screened two of my favorite films of the year as they did last year with "Tell No One" and "Let the Right One In," it was still a great weekend jam-packed with good movies (11 in four days for me, a bit much, but that's how I like it.)
Though it somehow didn't finish in the top three for the audience award for best documentary (despite selling out at least one showing and being packed with clearly appreciative filmgoers at the one I squeezed in to), Aviva Kempner's "Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg" is a real winner. (It also somehow didn't make the cut of 15 for the Oscars ... what a load of rubbish!)
Documentaries can serve many purposes, and I like them in many forms. So far this year I've seen three great ones, "Every Little Step," "Tyson" and now Kempner's latest. You may remember her from "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg," which, if you have any love at all for baseball you should see right away. "Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg" follows a similar formula in shining the spotlight on Jewish figures who haven't received the respect they clearly deserve.
In this case, the subject is Gertrude Berg, born Tilly Edelstein before she entered show business. I have to confess that going in I had no idea who she was, but that's certainly not a handicap, because Kempner's movie works as either an introduction or a trip down memory lane.
When I first heard the claim that Berg "invented the sitcom," I was certainly skeptical, but it is indeed pretty darn close to the truth. She created a radio show, "The Rise of the Goldbergs" and later "The Goldbergs," that was a hit during the Great Depression, and when TV was finally invented, she practically had to beg CBS TV to let her bring the show to that new format, but it would go on to be a big hit and garner Berg the first Emmy award for Best Actress.
But what about Kempner's documentary? Well, it treats its subject with reverence that occasionally does verge on fawning, but doesn't gloss over the rough patches the show hit in its many forms. Particularly touching and troubling is the story of Philip Loeb, who played Berg's TV husband before being blacklisted. If you don't know the thoroughly depressing story of Mr. Loeb, who eventually committed suicide, watch Martin Ritt's 1976 film "The Front," in which Zero Mostel played a character based on him. In Berg's case, she pulled her show off the air for a year and a half after Loeb was forced to resign, though I understand she continued to secretly pay him a salary on the side (that wasn't addressed in the movie, just something I've read.)
But that's only one small aspect of Kempner's documentary, which mostly just makes Gertrude Berg the star she once was and deserves to be remembered as. I'm not sure there's any place on TV today for a show that was so proudly ethnic, and that's a real shame, because even if watching her in action will occasionally make you wince, it will mostly make you smile, especially in her opening pitch for Sanka.
It's exactly this pride in heritage that makes Kempner one of my favorite filmmakers. A quick bit of research (well, as much as you can call it that at this early hour of the morning) shows she's now at work co-writing and producing a documentary about Native American activist Larry Casuse, another figure of which I most confess I am woefully ignorant.
As for "Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg," you can "save" it now on Netflix. I'm not sure when it will actually be available on DVD, but it's well worth catching as soon as you can.