Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Jason goes to Jewfest North--Day 10

I think...anyway, it was last Sunday, and one of two days I'm spending in Palo Alto.

The day started with a Molly Goldberg-palooza, starting with four archival episodes of "The Goldbergs", the very first TV sitcom, running from 1949 to 1956 (with a hiatus due to blacklist issues, which cleared a spot for a show called "I Love Lucy", but I'm getting way ahead of myself). The show focused on a Jewish immigrant family in the Bronx (and in the final season, the suburbs), but their stories are all-American (Molly, the matriarch of the Goldbergs, even once mentions how Christmas is just around the corner. I've always secretly believed some Jews love Christmas more--they can enjoy the presents and parties without worrying about the religious meaning). Anyway, Molly (Gertrude Berg) was famous for calling "Yoo hoo" to her neighbors out the window, and for giving advice about anything--especially Sanka instant coffee (her sponsor). We saw four episodes:

Matchmaker: Her cousin comes to visit with her unwed daughter (a fact that gives her no end of worry). Molly's friends, neighbors, and relations have all sorts of fix-up ideas, and they end up having dinner with 4 eligible bachelors. Which just overwhelms and enrages the young lady.

Mother-in-Law: A newlywed couple (including Anne Bancroft in her TV debut) come to visit, but her mother-in-law is furious. She thinks her daughter-in-law won't call her "mother" because she hates her.

Molly's Fish: A suburbs episode, where Molly's famous fish balls are such a huge hit that a local Pied Piper grocery store owner wants to mass produce them. If only she had ever written down the recipe.

Rent Strike: Molly's husband Jake (Philip Loeb, who was blacklisted for his work with actor's equity, eventually leading to his suicide) tries to organize the building against the new landlord, who's done a horrible job with repairs. Molly's meddling just makes everything much worse.


I feel like before all that, I should've written up the second show of the day. YOO HOO, MRS. GOLDBERG is Aviva Kempner's excellent and thorough documentary on Gertrude Berg, the woman behind Molly Goldberg. Not just the actress, she invented the show (on radio for a couple of decades before she it came to TV). She was always head writer, and has been called the Oprah of her day and "The most famous woman you've never heard of." In her day, she was the second most recognized woman in America (behind Eleanor Roosevelt), and the number one highest paid (just ahead of Eleanor Roosevelt). She wrote 12,000 scripts for "The Goldbergs", and introduced America to Jewish immigrant (but still totally American) life. The movie follows her whole career, from her home life to putting on plays for guests at her father's Catskills resort (rainy days she's keep the kids entertained--and the families there--by writing plays for them to act in). Although she practically invented the TV sitcom, her career was marked with struggle--most notably the blacklisting of co-star Philip Loeb. She stayed by him, and lost sponsors (although Sanka instant coffee enjoyed a 60% increase in sales among TV viewers). The show, and her career, never really recovered from the forced hiatus. By the time "The Goldbergs" was back on the air (sadly, without Loeb), Lucille Ball (who had inherited her time slot) was the queen of TV. Still, she was a much-sought after guest on countless programs, she won a Tony award (she conquered radio, TV, and the stage, but never made it in movies). The movie interviews a wide range of people who knew her or were inspired by her, from Norman Lear to Ruth Bader Ginsburg (who laughs about a time early in her career when a judge called her Goldberg by accident--she took it as a compliment). And it also used tons of archival footage (not just her TV show, but a lot of her guests spots joking with the likes of Groucho Marx, Milton Berle, or Perry Como). Excellent fun.

And then the third show of the day (and the last I stayed for, since I had already seen the remaining ones), started with the short WITH A LITTLE PATIENCE. In one unbroken 14 minute shot, a young woman goes to work (she's an office clerk), files papers, goes about her business, looks out the window, and stoically observes a scene of shocking brutality.

That led in to the feature, CYCLES (LES MURS PORTEURS). A story of a middle-aged woman's losses. Judith (Miou-Miou) has already lost her husband to divorce. Now she's losing her mother, as her memory is fading into the past and she is constantly wandering around trying to get into buildings she swears are her old ghetto home. Meanwhile, she's also losing her daughter to adulthood and independence. Her brother Simon is so absurdly out of touch that losing him might not seem to be much of a loss. She makes some attempts to reconnect, even looking up her old boyfriend, who is now married with children, but that doesn't stop one little fling. But ultimately, it's family that clings together even as it slips apart. If nothing else, Shulamit Adar (as Judith's mother Frida), shows the fragility of memory and heritage, and thereby why it's so important to record survivor's stories while we can.
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