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JAMES HILTON

YOU CAN'T TOUCH DOTTY

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RGL e-Book Cover 2014©

ILLUSTRATED BY GEOFFREY BIGGS

First published in Collier's Weekly, October 1, 1938
This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2014

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Illustration

JOHN CRESSWELL was forty-two, a New Yorker, good-looking, quiet-mannered, cultured, sensitive-minded. He was also, rather surprisingly, a bachelor. Perhaps even more surprisingly (though why, after all?), he was an accountant. You left him alone in a room with a sufficient number of books and papers, and in a week or less he'd locate a missing million in the TVA or a missing nickel in the Standard Oil Company. Therefore, when a New York bank sent him to Hollywood to inquire into the affairs of Suprematone Pictures Incorporated, it did not take him long to reach the embarrassing question: "What about Dorothy Perkins?"

Embarrassing, at any rate, to Mr. Mengelberg, head of Suprematone, for he replied: "Oh, my goodness, you can't touch Dotty."

"Why not?"

"Well, you just can't. She's... she's... well, you know who she is."

Cresswell knew, of course, but the knowledge did not entirely satisfy him. He glanced down at the salary list, confirming that the noughts after Miss Perkins' name were really four and not three. "I should like to meet Miss Perkins," he said quietly.

Mr. Mengelberg, who always agreed with everybody about everything and then went away to act on his own with completely random inconsistency (this had earned him a reputation for tact, quick decision and independence of mind), nodded suavely. "Of course you shall, Mr. Cresswell. And please understand that I welcome this investigation—unreservedly. I want you to meet everybody, ask questions, go everywhere you like... But there's just this snag—if our folks once suspect what you really are, they'll shut up like clams—every one of 'em, from stars down to script girls. So you see how it is?"

"I don't need to meet everybody. But Miss Perkins—"

"Of course. All the same, we want to have things looking right, so I've an idea... we'll put you in an office with your name over the door and a secretary... Why, yes... with your accent—English, isn't it?"

"I didn't know I had one."

"Well, the idea's all right, anyhow. You're a visiting producer. From Europe. England. You were with Korda. Everybody's been with Korda, or else Korda's been with everybody—it's the perfect alibi... Gee, that's an idea—see how things come to me?—just like a flash... you'll have a sort of roving commission—go anywhere you like... Now don't tell me you don't know anything about pictures—you don't have to. Ideas, Mr. Cresswell—that's what counts in this industry. There's no science in it, and not much art as yet, and only as much sense as you could scoop up on a fly's leg. But ideas—why, a good idea can shoot you sky-high any day of the week. See how it is?"

Mr. Cresswell did not entirely see. But he saw a little during his first week in a studio office, during which time he compiled an itemized report to take to Mr. Mengelberg. The two had lunch together with the report on the table between them.

"...considerable wastage of office stationery. For instance, Mr. Mengelberg, I asked for some long envelopes. They brought me a box containing a thousand. Fifty would have been ample...

"...the telephone also. When I visited one of the writers in his office he was talking to his mother in Terre Haute. Quite a long private call...

"...and the spring-water coolers. I don't know why they should be necessary—in New York we drink the city water without harm—but if they are, surely one on each floor is enough..."

Mr. Mengelberg nodded sagely. "Very valuable, Mr. Cresswell. All these things shall be looked into immediately. We'll put a stop to these fellers phoning their mothers... I hope your bank is satisfied that, on the basis of your report, we shall do our best to..."

"Wait a minute, Mr. Mengelberg. That's only the first page of the report." He turned it over. "Now we come to a somewhat larger matter." He paused and asked again that somewhat embarrassing question: "What about Dorothy Perkins?"

Mr. Mengelberg smiled. "She's joining us for coffee in a few minutes. I'll leave the two of you together, then you can ask her any questions you like."

"That's kind of you, but really, you know, the question I'd most like to ask is one that I can hardly put directly to her."

"No?"

"Tell me frankly. Is Miss Perkins worth ten thousand dollars a week?"

"You couldn't get her for less."

"I'm afraid that's not quite the point."

"Look here, Cresswell, I know you're A-1 at the efficiency game, but you can't play it quite the same in a picture studio as in a bank. You're dealing with human beings, Cresswell, not figures in a book. And Dotty Perkins is a human being—"

"I don't deny that. I only suggest—"

"Why, man, she's our biggest star! Don't you know that? Don't you realize what Dotty is—she's a—she's a household word! Folks think of her like they think of—of George Washington or... or..."

"Al Capone?"

"Yeah, Al Capone if you like. You couldn't build up names like that by ten million dollars' worth of advertising! Even the picture industry don't make 'em like that any more! Here today and gone tomorrow, all these new stars; but Dotty and Chaplin and Garbo and Crawford and a few others—those are the names the public don't forget. Why, if Suprematone didn't have her, what would we have? And she's loyal, Dotty is—she wouldn't go anywhere else except for more money, and she knows we pay the top prices."

Cresswell digested most of this with a gulp. Then he said: "Tell me something about her—and her career. How did she begin?"

"From the bottom up—like all of us. Drugstore gal in some place. Made her first big hit in Waste."

"When?"

"Oh, ten or twelve years ago. Waste was one of the last of the big silents."

"And it was a success?"

"Success? It hit the ceiling for two million dollars. And then Dotty wrote another just like it called Want, and that made another million."

"You say she wrote it?"

"Oh, yes. Dotty used to write her own stuff. Of course she don't do it now—we have the best writing team in the whole industry working for her."

"She's versatile, then."

"Versatile?"

"I mean, she can do a good many different things."

"Oh, you bet she can. I tell you, Dotty's been pretty near everything in this industry except the cop at the gate. She and I knew Hollywood Boulevard when it ended up in a trail through orange groves."

"That doesn't make her so young."

"Or so old, either. You wait'll you meet her. You'll be surprised."

It was a true forecast, for when Mr. Cresswell met Miss Perkins a few minutes later he was surprised. She was not quite like anything he had expected—if, indeed, he had expected anything definite at all except the kind of face that leers from the front covers of film-fan magazines. He was immediately aware of something—of a slightly inane roguishness in the way she greeted him, of a silly little giggle between her deeply scarlet lips, of a queer schoolgirlish charm lingering behind the desperate efforts of a woman of forty to look twenty years younger. Though he didn't realize it until a subsequent meeting, he fell in love with her instantly; and she was the first woman he had ever fallen in love with—all the rest had been girls when he had been a young man.


Illustration


AS soon as Mr. Mengelberg left them together she started off: "Oh, Mr. Cresswell, I'm so glad to meet you—I've always admired your work—Alex never stopped talking to me about you..."

"Alex?"

"Alex Korda... isn't he a dear? Mengy said you worked with him in England. Funny we never met there, isn't it? I love London—the Savoy Grill and all the cute little streets—don't you love them too? I can't tell you how glad I am we're going to work together at last. Why don't you dine at my house tonight and we can discuss things in comfort?"

He thought: You're an awful little liar, but I really don't mind accepting your invitation... He actually said: "That's kind of you. Thanks. But since we're here, let's begin talking now. This new picture of yours—I wish you'd tell me something about it."

Dotty arranged her pocketbook and gloves on the table before her, sipped coffee, giggled, and began: "You see, Mr. Cresswell, you're an Englishman—you wouldn't know much about our Civil War. It was between the North and the South. The South believed in slavery, but it was all very romantic, and the North was right, but wasn't romantic at all—so there you are, you have your background. I'm a beautiful girl of the South—her father has a plantation—slaves, of course, but he's always kind to them—and she falls in love with a Northern boy who's down there on business—falls passionately in love—not anything sexy, you know, but just passionate—then the war starts and the boy has to go back and fight for the North. Meanwhile the girl meets another boy, a Southerner, and is just about to marry him when the Northern boy gets wounded in battle near the plantation and is carried into her house to die. But he doesn't die—"

"I suspected all along he mightn't."

"Well, naturally, he couldn't, could he? She nurses him back to health and eventually—"

"...marries him..."

"...after a lot of old-fashioned objections from her family, but at length they consent and the happy pair..."

"Yes, I know. But what about the darkies?"

"Oh, there's a chorus of them. They sing plantation melodies."

"And there's a comic darky married to a very fat mammy..."

"You've read the script already?"

"What I really want to know is the idea behind the picture—if there is one."

She laughed. "Dinner is at seven. Not dress. There won't be anyone else."


ACTUALLY, when the time came, there wasn't even Dotty. About eight o'clock, when Cresswell had drunk three cocktails by himself, she telephoned the house from the studio and offered profuse apologies—she was still working on the picture and couldn't get away till ten or thereabouts. Would he care to wait? He said, well no, he didn't think he would—he usually went to bed early—perhaps some other time.

That evening, feeling a little put out, he was better able to attempt a coldly scientific assessment of her value to Suprematone Pictures. He arrived at a full and frank recognition of a fact that had occurred to him as likely even from the beginning—viz.: that Dorothy Perkins was not worth ten thousand dollars a week. Few people in the world were, he conceded: but among those doubtful few there was not even the benefit of a doubt for Dotty.

Wherefore, being an honest man as well as a shrewd accountant, he said the following morning: "This question of Miss Perkins, Mr. Mengelberg..."

"Well?"

"Ten thousand a week is a lot of money. It's just about what I earn in a year."

Mr. Mengelberg looked somewhat shocked by this confession—it seemed to give him a new and poignant interest in Mr. Cresswell. He answered: "I grant you it's not a bad little pay check. But I tell you frankly, if that's what you're driving at, I'd rather take a cut in my own salary than suggest one in Dotty's... well, almost."

"That's not quite what I'm driving at. May I tell you exactly what's in my mind?"

"Sure."

"I've come to the conclusion you've been losing money on Miss Perkins for years."

"But—but—" Mr. Mengelberg spluttered feebly while Cresswell waited: presently he added: "But—you can't say that—maybe some of her pictures haven't been as good as others—but— but—don't you realize?—we've built her up! She's one of our chief assets—"

"I'd call her your chief liability."

"But—but—why?"

"Hardly my job to explain. I'm not a judge of acting. But, as you yourself know, the Perkins pictures don't make profits. And that means that Miss Perkins not only isn't worth ten thousand a week—she's not worth ten a week! At least, as a complete stranger to Hollywood and Hollywood finance, that's how it seems to me."

"See here... what have you got against Dotty?"

"Nothing at all, personally. Far from it. I like her. In fact, I think she's charming—off the screen."

"She must be charming on the screen, or how d'you suppose she ever became a star?"

"I don't know. Public taste changes. I suppose people expect something more sophisticated than the stuff that made Miss Perkins famous ten years ago."

Mr. Mengelberg listened attentively. He always listened attentively to anyone who talked about what the public wanted, because he didn't know himself and always hoped that somebody else might let out the highly lucrative secret. After a moment's reflection he replied, in a somewhat chastened voice: "Maybe you're right, Cresswell. Sophisticated stuff is the goods. I think I'll throw out those two writers and put Lushington on for a few weeks."

"Another writer?"

"Oh, no, he don't write. Just thinks up gags."

"To come back to the point, Mr. Men­gelberg... as you know, I'm in some sense a servant of the bank—what I mean is, they'll probably act on any advice I give them. So that it would be—don't you think?—far better if what has to be done is done tactfully. You realize that Miss Perkins' option comes up for renewal next month?"

Mengelberg stared hard for a moment, then said: "You don't really mean that? That we should let Dotty go?"

"I do mean it."

"But... but what about the picture she's working on now?"

"Scrap it if it hasn't gone too far. If it has, finish it off as quickly and cheaply as you can. You'll lose less that way."

"You don't think it's so good, then?"

"I'm no judge, but if you want my opinion, I think it's downright bad."

Mengelberg scratched his head. "Funny... I thought it sounded all right when Dotty told me about it."

"She could make a bus timetable sound all right if she talked about it privately—I'm quite aware of that. Unfortunately, that's not what you pay her a salary for..."

"Yes. I get you. I suppose you're right. But I'm sorry for the gal. She's a human being. It'll be a blow to her."

Cresswell tried to remember that there were millions of unemployed in the country, and that therefore the cruelest blows of all were not those suffered by a woman faced with compulsory idleness after earning half a million dollars a year for over a decade.


NEVERTHELESS it wasn't easy to engineer the professional demise of the woman he was beginning to fall in love with, and perhaps for that reason it was just as well that Cresswell had delivered his ultimatum to Mengelberg before his first dinner with Dotty at her Beverly Hills mansion. It was the first of many. They had, he soon discovered, many kindred interests as well as nicely complementary personalities. She liked to gossip, he liked to listen. To his relief, she didn't ask him much about his picture experiences in England, but she led him gently on to talk of the things that he really knew about—books and politics and business and world affairs.

He found, to his surprise, that though she had many acquaintances, there were few intimacies in her present life, whatever there might have been in her past. Perhaps that was because Hollywood was so young, young enough to think of her as old. Once she said: "Marie Dressier and Will Rogers and John Gilbert... they were my friends. How can I feel the same about Power and Taylor and that Rainer girl? They wouldn't feel the same about me, anyway. On the screen they think I'm a ham, and off it they think I'm a grandmother. I am too, for that matter. I never told you, did I? I was first married when I was sixteen and my boy's just married and had another boy—so I heard the other day. He's an aviator somewhere in South America—Paraguay or Uruguay, I never can remember which."

Upon the thought of Dotty as a grandmother came perhaps obtusely to Cresswell the realization that he had been in love with her ever since their first meeting. Of course it was absurd. He knew that. An accountant in love with a movie star! Anyhow, he told himself, it didn't and couldn't matter, because in a week's time he would be back in New York.

Afterward Dotty became serious. "John," she said, offering him coffee and cognac in front of a crackling fire, "I'm going to give up the screen after this picture. Do you know that?"

He felt appallingly traitorous, but thought again, as his heart guiltily pounded, of the millions of unemployed.

She went on: "As a matter of fact, Mengy won't take up my option next month. I know that. It means I'm through. I don't think any other studio wants me—at any price. It's all or nothing with people like me. But of course I don't really have to worry. Probably, when I get used to it, I'll be happier than I've been for a long time. All I want is a little house in the country—one maid—I can manage all the rest by myself. There must be lots of little places where I could find something to suit me. Do you think I could afford it?"

He said, gravely and with a touch of irony, that he felt sure she could.

She went on, looking at him with tear-filled eyes: "John, you've been so kind to me... I wonder if you could spare a few minutes to help me figure out how I stand?"

"You mean financially?"

She handed him pencil and paper from a near-by table. "Yes, dear. Something tells me you're good at arithmetic."

"Certainly I'll help you," he answered, disguising his discomfort under a poker-face mask.

"Of course you know my salary. I dare say you think it's a lot, and so it is, but half of it goes out straightaway in taxes. Then there's over a thousand a week in wages—maids, gardeners, secretaries, agents, and so on. I've got some old aunts and uncles in Missouri I send money to—and then there are special police and bodyguards and insurance and what not... Heavens, I'll be able to economize when I leave here, won't I?"

He said he hoped so.

"I always knew I'd have to retire some day, but I never thought I'd get fired." She giggled. "Well, that's what it practically amounts to. I like to call things by their proper names. And people too."

She looked at him, still with those tear-filled eyes even though she was laughing, and under their gaze he felt himself flushing brick-red. Something inside him made him reply in a rush of words: "Dotty, before we go any further... I want you to know the truth... from me... rather than from others after I've gone... I'm not an English producer at all—I'm an accountant from a New York bank sent here to investigate the studio finances."

She stared into the fire. He waited nervously for her to speak. At last she said: "Of course I've known that for some time."

"What?"

"It was sweet of you to try to hide it from me, though."

"What?"

"Might have been embarrassing—for both of us—if we hadn't pretended. Of course it doesn't matter now."

He stammered: "You really are an extraordinary person, Dotty. You'll forgive me for saying it, but if you were half as charming on the screen as you are off it, I'd tell Mengelberg you were worth a million a week."

"Thank you, dear. And now you'll go on helping me about my position, will you?"

"Of course."

K went on: "Coming back to the money question. You know, when I first began in pictures, I could really save—I used to buy stocks and apartment houses and diamonds and things. But I was cleaned out of most of the stocks in 'twenty-nine, and I had to sell the diamonds to pay for losses on the apartment houses. I don't believe I'm worth very much now I've got a ranch in the valley, but nobody wants it, because the place simply eats its head off in expenses. Oh, and I've got an oil well somewhere—at least, I used to have—maybe they've pulled it down, and a Goya that's worth ten thousand or so. There it is."

She switched a light over a picture on the opposite wall. Cresswell moved over to look at it. After a few seconds he came back. "I'm sorry to tell you, Dotty, it isn't a Goya."

"No? Gee, the man swore it was—you just can't trust anybody nowadays. Well, anyhow, leave it out of count." She went to a bureau and unlocked a drawer. "There's some stocks here—some of 'em may be all right. Do you think I could raise a hundred thousand on the lot?"

After a few minutes of scrutiny Cresswell answered:

"I'm afraid they're worth very much less than that."

"I might have guessed it, mightn't I?"

"Haven't you got any real estate anywhere?"

"Only the ranch, and some corner lots on Pico. All mortgaged."

"I suppose you own this house, though!"

"No—just rented. Six hundred a month. And when I leave I suppose they'll bill me for a couple of thousand for dilapidations. They always do."

"Why?"

"Oh, it's a sort of racket."

"It's not fair."

"I suppose people think it's not fair I should earn as much as I do."

"No reason why you should be victimized, anyhow. Don't pay."

"Then they'll sue, and I can't afford any more court actions."

"Any more?"

"Well, you see, there's a man suing me for fifty thousand, but I think my attorney'll settle for five or so—he says my dog bit him and he's had neurasthenia ever since."

"Another racket?"

"Well, no, not exactly. My dog did bite him. He always bites men with mustaches. But as a rule it doesn't cost me more than a thousand to settle. This fellow's just being obstinate about his neurasthenia."

Cresswell looked doubtful. She smiled and went on: "I don't care. I've had my fun. But I had most of it years ago when everything in Hollywood was on a shoe­string. Doing your outdoor scenes on actual street pavements—making up most of the stuff as you went along... somehow one kept fresh, that way. I got a hundred a week, and every one of those dollars I could have exchanged for gold—that's what money was worth in those days."

"A pity you didn't exchange them for gold."

"I did, for a time. But when Roosevelt said we all had to turn it in, I didn't want to, and then I got scared when it said in the papers they'd search our safe deposits, so I let a man take it into Mexico for me—he said he could change it into English pounds, but he didn't come back... I guess he just sold me another Goya."

Cresswell poured himself out a second glass of brandy. "Of course," he said, "what you need is somebody to look after you."

"Well, I've had enough people to do that in my time—d'you know my attorney says I owe him thirty-two thousand dollars?"

"What for?"

"Some case I had two years ago against an agent."

Something rushed suddenly, effervescently and uncontrollably to Cresswell's head. "Supposing I asked you to marry me, Dotty?"

"Darling! You don't mean it!"

"I did, but if you think it's too ridiculous of me even to have thought of it, please forgive me."

"Forgive you? Dearest, you... you don't know how I adore you!"

"You adore me?"

"I adored you right from the moment I met you in Mengy's private lunch­room. I said to myself, 'That's the sort of man I'd marry if he weren't in the picture business.' So you can imagine how I felt when I found you weren't."

"But... But..."

"You see, dear, you're so dependable. That means such a lot—you've no idea. With you I wouldn't have any more worries about whether the new cameraman knows how to hide that bad left profile I have, and whether my publicity man is doing me more harm than good, and whether I was gypped over that page ad in the trade paper, and whether it's the cook who steals caviar out of the ice­box—"

"Darling..."

"Of course I'm forgetting the chief reason of all—I love you. I always love funny people—I was once crazy about a snake charmer in a circus... I do love you, John. And that's just why I wouldn't marry you. You don't want to have the bother of a person like me—you don't want to have me depending on you all the time."

"I think you'd do that very nicely in some little house outside New York—say in White Plains or Scarsdale—that is, if you didn't mind being a commuter's wife and doing without caviar. Maybe, though, we could afford one car... how many have you?"

"Four... And—we almost forgot!... there's the income tax."

"Income tax?"

"They haven't yet settled what I have to pay for Nineteen-thirty- three, -four, and -five. It might make you bankrupt, darling."

All Cresswell said, while he kissed her, was:

"You seem to have led the untidiest life of anyone I've ever met, Dotty. But you've found the right person in me, my dear—I happen to be an expert on income tax."

"I think you're wonderful. And I'd love a tidy life myself if only someone would make it tidy and keep it tidy for me."

"I will, I promise you. When will you marry me?"

"Are you sure you want me to, darling? I'll have to finish that damned picture first."


FINISHING the picture kept Dotty very busy during the next few weeks. Cresswell returned to New York, his mission ended, and every day came Dotty's scribbled report on what was happening. It was quite clear to Cresswell, reading between her lines, that Mengelberg was making every possible economy in production and winding up the whole enterprise as speedily as possible. This had been Cresswell's advice and he was glad to think it was being followed. "Mengy's turned off the writing team and we're making the scripts we already have do—there seems to be about forty of them, so there's plenty of stuff to choose from. And he's put off that French director I didn't like and he's doing most of the directing himself—as a matter of fact he takes my advice in quite a lot of things, he's being such a dear."

Then, a few days later: "We came to some new stuff today that wasn't in any of the scripts and I sat down on the set and scribbled out a scene that Mengy liked a lot—it was kind of human, he said."

Cresswell smiled as he read on. So she was entering the economy crusade with a vengeance? Well, well, no harm in that—it didn't very much matter what happened to the picture so long as it ended quickly. "Quite like old times, John," she wrote. "I've re-written some of the scenes in the plantation house—I never did like the way those writers wrote 'em—kind of too highbrow. And I've written in a new scene where the nurses go through the hospital wards carrying lanterns and the wounded men look up and smile. Maybe Mengy'll let me do a bit of the cutting and take some of the stiffness out that way. I must say it's fun doing things yourself..."


CRESSWELL was still in New York when the Hollywood preview took place. Hiding in a loge seat, he prepared himself for a couple of hours of acute embarrassment.

Nor, to begin with, was he either pleasantly or unpleasantly disappointed. The picture was just about as bad as he had expected it to be. But about two thirds through the picture a change became noticeable. It was a change, not so much in the quality of the story or the dialogue or the acting or anything definite, as in the degree of indulgence one found oneself prepared to accord to it. Suddenly one felt easy-minded, benevolent, cozy about the whole thing, and this coziness, beyond doubt, was evoked by Dotty herself. Her personality flowered; all at once she became as adorable on the screen as Cresswell had known her off it. She giggled, she looked silly, she said and did silly things, but always you could love her.

Never for one moment did you believe in the ridiculous lines she spoke or in the ridiculous situations she got into, yet somehow, more and more convincingly, you believed in her. And by the end of the picture you had wholly surrendered to a mood in which Dotty could go on doing anything she liked, however absurd, and have you adoring her eternally.


TWO weeks later Cresswell met Dotty in New York. They were at a cabin in the Catskills when this wire arrived:


BANNERS PACKING EM IN ALL OVER CONTINENT STOP READY
TO MAKE NEW CONTRACT WRITE YOUR OWN TICKET STOP
PLEASE RETURN HOLLYWOOD IMMEDIATELY  MENGELBERG


"Well?" Cresswell said, when she handed it to him and he had read it.

She said, with a touch of sadness: "Even if I went back it wouldn't do any good. Now that they've had a success they wouldn't let me be free any more. I'd have to work with all those writers and directors again—Mengy would never let me have my own way except in something he thought didn't matter. We've had our chance, and it was a last one—we both knew that. In a way I'm too old for Hollywood now, but in another way Hollywood's too old for me— it's got too many rules and too many dotted lines and too many experts to draw them. I'd still be happier doing a street scene at the corner of the Boulevard and Vine, with all the crowds watching, than making a seventeenth re­take that nobody would know from the sixteenth without the number on it..."

"Well?" Cresswell repeated, handing her back the wire.

She answered, after a pause: "I suppose if I can write my own ticket I can do this to my own ticket too." She tore up the message and threw it into the fire. "But there's one thing I'm really glad about," she added, more cheerfully. "I'm glad Mengy's going to make some money. Maybe he'll make enough to pay off the mortgage to your bank."

"Oh, you don't have to worry about that," said Cresswell. "The bank won't press him now. There was never anything personal in it, you know—merely a desire to protect the public's money."

Dotty giggled. "Darling," she said, "I think it's you who are adorable. When the movie companies have lost a hundredth part as much of the public's money as the banks of this country have, then it'll be time for the banks to begin to talk...."


THE END