Saturday, April 25, 2015

"Pay the Two dollars!"

Eugene and Willie Howard
A highlight of the Broadway show "George White's Scandals of 1936" was Willie and Eugene Howard's comedy sketch "A Slight Case of Murder."  Literature scholar Jim Bernhard, author of the "Words Going Wild" blog, described the routine as follows:
The sketch commences on a New York subway. Willie is an inoffensive milquetoast, accompanied by a friend who is an aggressive and belligerent lawyer [Eugene]. . . They argue, and Willie gets worked up and spits on the floor.  The subway conductor points to a sign indicating 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.
The routine was re-created with Victor Moore and Edward Arnold for the 1946 film Ziegfeld Follies.

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The routine was extensively reworked for a 1952 episode of the Abbott and Costello Show called "Jail."

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Bernhard explained that the phrase "Pay the two dollars" became a widely known idiom.  It came to essentially mean "Don't fight City Hall" or "Don't make a mountain out of a mole hill."  The line turned up in the Alfred Hitchcock classic North by Northwest (1959).  Screenwriter Ernest Lehman specifically credited the Willie and Eugene Howard sketch in the film's DVD commentary.

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Additional Note

I expanded my handcuff routine article to acknowledge additional renditions of the routine, including an early version performed by Johnny Arthur and Anita Garvin.

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