Huh? What? Why’d you wake me up? I was having this wonderful dream about Thelma Todd and Kitty Carlisle and they were…
Oh, a Marx Brothers thread.
Marley23 got it, and it’s been said many times. In fact, a new book about the history of Vaudeville No Applause–Just Throw Money : The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, by Trav S.D. [Travis Stewart] has extensive info on the effect of the outsider in vaudeville. You can say that all of vaudeville came from outsiders (and all of Hollywood too for that matter). Not heavy reading in any way, either. He’s top banana for the American Vaudeville Theater, so he ain’t no way academic.
To summarize, there was a “Hebrew” comic stereotype in the early days of vaudeville, just as there were Irish, Italian, “Dutch” (German), black, and others. Groucho did his time as a “Hebrew” with a heavy accent, although he also played Dutch. Weber and Fields and Smith and Dale were probably the most famous Hebrew acts, but there were lots of others.
As immigrants settled in, the heavy stereotypes became less funny in and of themselves. Although Chico kept the Italian accent forever, he did so as part of a larger troupe of comic types. Merely having an accent and being a naive immigrant wasn’t as funny to second-generation Americans who grew up speaking English.
Being Jewish remained a selling point in the heart of vaudeville and, later, Broadway, because New York City was as much as one-third Jewish in those days. Yiddish expressions entered show-biz language because everybody used them and the whole audience would understand them. The lines quoted from the Marx Brothers aren’t ones they came up with: it was all those Jewish writers of theirs - George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind, S. J. Perelman, Arthur Sheekman, Al Boasberg, and on and on. If they ever used a non-Jewish writer, it must have been late in their careers and we all know how that ended.
The problem was that this humor didn’t carry over very well when the vaudevillians traveled out of New York City or a few other large eastern cities. It was especially hated in the South and deep Midwest, where anti-Semitic prejudice was rampant. Movies just exacerbated the problem. The heavily Jewish acts never made it out of vaudeville, and the few single stars who tried - Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice - couldn’t get a major movie career started. (Brice became a radio star, but mostly because of her Baby Snooks character, not her Jewish adult pose.)
And the movie moguls, every last one of whom were Jewish, were deathly afraid of offending a single person in the audience. They ruthlessly cut out every piece of Jewishness of out their films and their stars. A few lines dropped into the endless babble of the Marx Brothers could go by almost unnoticed in the crowd, but that was it.
The Stooges started out as literal stooges, plants in the audience who would heckle the star, Ted Healy, and be brought on stage to be abused by him. (Healy was another one who started out doing blackface but gave it up when that stereotype stopped crowd-pleasing.) There was no need for Healy’s stooges to be Jewish or anything else: they were there to be slapped around. Eventually, of course, the Howard brothers and Mr. Fine got sick and tired of Healy, his stinginess, his ego, and everything else about him and went off on their own. But they never saw any reason to change the act, nor would their studio bosses have let them.
It’s not clear to me just how much the general American audience understood the pervasive Jewishness of the Hollywood hierarchies. The moguls played down their religion to the point of self-loathing, although in their personal lives they all went to synagogue, got married by rabbis, had their kids Bar Mitvahed, and ate Seders at Passover. Same with the stars. Most of that generation were striving to be assimilated Americans, though, and were more nominally Jewish than fervent believers. It’s hard to name any Orthodox, kosher-keeping Jews among the stars. And remember that many of them anglo-ized their names, like John Garfield, Edward G. Robinson, Joan Blondell, Douglas Fairbanks, and downplayed any ethnicity.
There are lots of books on this topic. Typing Jews Hollywood in Amazon’s search brings up a fascinating listing.