Did you know that goy god Steve McQueen got an early walk-on on a Jewish television sitcom? That's just one of the tasty tidbits in Aviva Kempner's celebratory but clear-eyed portrait of Gertrude Berg, the creator, writer, and star of The Goldbergs, which, against the odds, grew into a huge hit on radio and television from the stock-market crash through the 1950s. Berg was a complicated, labile woman, whose own mother never recovered from the early death of Berg's brother. Onscreen, she radiated a bosomy maternal warmth that brought this unmistakably Jewish show—about the everyday joys and sorrows of a modernizing family—a universal-immigrant appeal and badly needed optimism during the Depression. Kempner, who also made The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, blends footage from the show and Jewish New York with commentary from early fans, like Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Norman Lear, to show Berg as a canny, driven creature of her time. She knew how to adapt, but she also possessed grace under anti-Communist pressure. When the HUAC pushed the network to remove Berg's co-star Philip Loeb, she resisted until resistance became futile. Which didn't prevent Loeb from killing himself, but saved the series until suburbanization killed off working-class comedy, and Lucille Ball—another kind of mother altogether—stepped into the breach.
Berg in her radio prime.
Runs at Varsity, Fri., Oct. 2–Thurs., Oct. 8. Not rated. 92 minutes.