Monday, May 14, 2012

Pay the Two Dollars

The other day I said to a friend who was complaining about a 75-cent unspecified charge on his cell phone bill, “Just pay the two dollars.”  “What two dollars?” he replied, “it’s just 75 cents.” 
“Pay the two dollars” is an idiom once widely known, but now fallen into obscurity. It comes from an old vaudeville sketch by Willie and Eugene Howard in George White’s “Scandals of 1931."
The sketch commences on a New York subway. Willie is an inoffensive milquetoast, accompanied by a friend who is an aggressive and belligerent lawyer (which is, of course, a wildly improbable fictional creation.)
They argue, and Willie gets worked up and spits on the floor. The subway conductor points to a sign inidicating a $2.00 fine for spitting. Willie wishes to pay the fine, but the lawyer, as a matter of principle, will not let him.
Penalties escalate, as the lawyer unsuccessfully fights the fine and Willie pleads, "Let's pay the two dollars." But the lawyer is obsessed with vindication--and Willie is ultimately sentenced to death in the electric chair. The lawyer finally obtains a pardon for Willie, and as they return home on the subway, Willie denounces the lawyer for destroying his life. He becomes worked up again and inadvertently spits on the subway floor. Blackout.
"Pay the two dollars" became a catch-phrase meaning something like "Don't fight City Hall" or "Don't make a mountain out of a mole hill."

The sketch was re-created in the 1946 film Ziegfeld Follies by Victor Moore and Edward Arnold.

In Hitchcock's North by Northwest, Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is told jokingly by his mother (Jessie Royce Landis), "Pay the two dollars," after he futilely attempts to explain his kidnapping and win exoneration from a DWI charge.

Two dollars is on the high side of the estimated value of the collected works of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou. Here’s another of his 15-cent specials:

            Every time that someone hollers,
            “What can you buy for just two dollars?”
            I look on line and find with ease
            Two-dollar items just like these:

            Bottle opener key chains,
            Wooden model weather vanes,
            Ceramic custom coffee mugs,
            Rubbermaid two-gallon jugs,

            Mango-coconut lip balm,
            A fancy-schmancy card for mom,
            Three-packs of mini-writing pads,
            Children’s shorts in checks or plaids,

            Ninety-nine no-scent tea lights,
            Assorted tetrahedral kites,
            Harrods’ special Christmas crackers,
            The Colonel’s fresh grilled chicken snackers,

            A teeny-tiny picnic basket,
            A thermostatic housing gasket,
            Orchid-flavored Airwick candles,
            Multi-colored, salvaged sandals,

            American and other flags,
            Thirteen-gallon garbage bags,
            Tru-Turn blood-red snelled fishhooks,
            Old, remaindered Kindle books,

            One gallon “Gingrich gasoline,”
            A Game Role-Playing Magazine,
            Toddlers’, boys’, and girls’ tank tops,
            Plastic-handled toilet-mops,
            Nearly new young ladies’ skirts,
            Unused Herman Cain T-shirts,
            Five, or maybe six, bananas,
            Garish orange and green bandanas,

            A Chinese bathtub rubber duck,
            A flask of wine from two-buck Chuck,
            Large orders of McDonald’s fries—
            See how much two dollars buys!


  1. It also shows up in "The taking of Pehlam one two response to a million dollar ransom c1974

  2. Love this explication of the phrase, thank you! And in the 1954 "A Star is Born", James Mason's Norman Maine uses the expression to refer to his having helped Judy Garland's Esther Blodgett get a new apartment.

  3. Very educational and informative. Also, not as much filler content as in other Posts I have read about this topic so very nice to see that. Keep it up!

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