Adventures in Feministory: Gertrude Berg, screenwriter and television pioneer
Credited with inventing the family sitcom, a successful, decade-spanning career in television and radio, author of over 10,000 scripts, and a mother on-screen and off, Gertrude Berg is "the most famous woman in America you've never heard of."
An American-born daughter of immigrants, Gertrude Berg began writing short stories and scripts as a creative outlet from her domestic life as a mother of two. When her husband lost his job during the Great Depression, she looked towards radio as a home for her work, and after a few small successes landed a pilot with a hesitant NBC, as the piece focused on a Jewish family. "The Rise of the Goldbergs" became one of the most popular radio serials of its time, running from 1929 until 1946. Centering around a working-class Jewish family, the themes of family ties and economic hardships resonated with the majority of American families regardless of ethnicity or religion. "The Goldbergs" was successfully turned into a television show in 1946, and Berg has been credited with inventing the family sitcom.
As the writer (over 10,000 scripts!), director, and star of the television series (which ran until 1955), Berg made incredible strides in an industry sorely lacking in female leadership, let alone auterism. Berg played the lead role of the matriarch Molly Goldberg for over 20 years (and inspired a comic strip, advice column on parenting, a couple TV spinoffs, and an award-winning Broadway play) and won the first Emmy for a Lead Actress in a Comedy Series.
While The Goldbergs, like any sitcom, was an idealized version of family life, there were no mainstream Jewish characters in entertainment at the time, anti-Semitism was strong in the United States, and McCarthyism was on the rise in (the Rosenbergs were executed in 1953). Berg successfully walked the line between Jewish authenticity and popular entertainment. From You Never Call! You Never Write! A History of the Jewish Mother, Joyce Antler writes:
Berg's genius was to wed the iron qualities of traditional East-European Jewish women with a charm and humor that counteracted the threat of their power. During the Depression, when a negative stereotype of the Jewish mother as materialistic and pushy began to appear in the works of Clifford Odets and other Jewish male writers, Berg's Molly had a more positive appeal....Molly proved that immigrant mothers did not have to be left behind as Jews moved forward, nor would they pollute Judaic values with materialistic concerns. With mothers like Molly reliably steering the course, immigrants and other working-class citizens could make it in America.
Antler also describes the way that Molly Goldberg the character did and did not mirror the life of Gertrude Berg.
Through the 1930s and into the 1950s, when presumably "father knew best," Molly Goldberg presented a model of an American mother--and a decidedly Jewish one--who was impressively authoritative and self-aware....Molly does embody the wife and mother's role,but in these and other late shows, she reveals her attraction to alternative paths, or at least insists that she, and nobody else, will determine the parameters of her domesticity.
Similarly, Berg herself was aware of her power as a screenwriter.
The audience's quarter of a century acquaintance with the Goldbergs provided a cushion whereby Berg could experiment with new ideas. In command of her own repertoire of maternal wisdom, Berg/Goldberg steered her family's adjustment of the special challenges of modern American life, while demonstrating for the television audience that conflict could be easily contained if "normal" family values were followed.
It looks like you can watch at least a couple episodes of The Goldbergs online, but keep your eyes peeled for an upcoming documentary on Berg, Yoo-Hoo Mrs. Goldberg!, which premiers in New York on July 10th and Washington DC on July 17th before spreading across the country!
For further reading:
You Never Call! You Never Write! and The Journey Home: Jewish Women and the American Century both by Joyce Antler.
Gertrude Berg on Wikipedia
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