If you watched the Oscars, you know that this was the Academy Awards’ 90th year. The first ceremony was held in Los Angeles on May 16, 1929, ten days after Robert Melville Baker, Emilie’s brother, fell to his death from the window of his New York hotel. The host of the Oscars that first night was Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., for whom Robert wrote the silent-film screenplays, “Reggie Mixes In” and “Flirting With Fate.” All of the films considered by the Academy were silent that year, the first and last time that would be true.
Robert’s death changed the close relationship between the Lorings and his son, Melville Baker. Robert and Emilie had been so close, and their children had grown up together. But I imagine it was too hard to stay in New York, and Mel’s work was in Hollywood anyway. Like his father, Mel was a writer, first for the stage and then film. He left the past behind–including his first wife–and moved to Los Angeles.
“Last week I moved to this hotel—note the impressive letter-head—because I learned that many of the movies live here—that’s what the actors and actresses are called out here—what you see on the screen is a picture. Each time I go up or down in the lift I see one or two. It’s thrilling.” As Long As I Live, 1937
In June of the same year, 1929, Adolphe Menjou’s first talking movie, “Fashions In Love,” was released, adaptation and dialogue by Robert’s son, Melville Baker. In July, Lillian Gish’s first talking movie was announced, “One Romantic Night,” an adaptation by Melville Baker of his translated play for the stage, “The Swan.” (Incidentally, if you’ve never seen the 1956 remake of “The Swan,” do yourself a favor and watch it. It’s an all-time favorite among favorites!)
Mel married Humphrey Bogart’s agent, Mary Huntoon, and they built a home in Stone Canyon. The house is on tourist maps now, because Bogie’s third marriage, to Mayo Methot, took place there. Mel was Bogie’s best man.
Melville Baker’s next movies included the mystery “Darkened Rooms,” “His Woman” with Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert, and “Next Time We Love,” starring a newcomer, Jimmy Stewart.
Careers in Hollywood can flare brightly and die quickly away, but Mel Baker wrote stories and screenplays for nearly twenty years. His twenty, big-screen projects included: “Zoo in Budapest” with Loretta Young, “Now and Forever” with Shirley Temple, Gary Cooper, and Carole Lombard; and “The Last Days of Pompeii.” He played cards with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ogden Nash, and attended benefits with the elite of film-land society–Mary Pickford, Fred Astaire, Mae West, Bette Davis, Charlie Chaplin, Louis B. Mayer…
Mel Baker’s last film (1943) starred Fred MacMurray and Joan Crawford as newlyweds who agree to spy on the Nazis for the British Secret Service while they are on their European honeymoon. The movie’s title, “Above Suspicion,” came from the unlikely pairing of a honeymooning couple and espionage.
Mel divorced his second wife after the war, in 1945, and I don’t know what happened to his career after that. From 1933 to 1945, he was on the executive board of the Screen Actors Guild, which his friend Humphrey Bogart also supported. But in 1947, the Red Scare had begun, and citizens were summoned before the House Committee on Un-American Activities to testify about suspected Communist influence in labor unions, including the Screen Actors Guild.
It was a mess. Some cooperated, some refused and were sent to prison. Some admitted to Communist sympathies, some denied; some were black-listed, others were cleared.
It was into this environment that The Shadow of Suspicion was published in 1955. It speaks to the age, I think, to compare Mel’s title, “Above Suspicion” with the defining line of the novel:
“Every man and woman was in the shadow of suspicion.”
Don Bruce returns from the Korean War, where he was held prisoner and tortured. He is tracking four other discharged soldiers, suspecting that one of them is a Communist trying to sow seeds of discontent in the community. Julie Ames has broken her engagement to a self-centered fellow and goes to her aunt’s Maine lodge to clear her head a little. Blaine Lodge turns out to be a murderous, sinister place, everyone a possible criminal, no one entirely safe.
The Shadow of Suspicion was written from a fairly long manuscript that Emilie Loring left behind. By the time it was completed, her grandson Victor, a Marine, had returned from the Korean War–a detail she would not have known, but his brother and cousin would.
“I thought I’d never see this country again. The situation was–unspeakable.”
The book has the same, awful errors of tone, vocabulary, and story that I often rail about in the later books, but I will hand it two orchids:
It is a product of its times, as Emilie’s original stories were:
“You’ve been taken for a ride. You’ve been made fools of. And you let it happen. You’ve been getting a dose of propaganda. And do you know who paid for it? The Reds! That money came straight out of Communist pockets and into the pocket of some man here. You’ve been experiencing a first-hand course in brain-washing. How do you like it, boys?”
And it is an absorbing mystery:
Sudden death. Those had been Newton Brewster’s words. All the ingredients are there for battle, murder, and sudden death. And he had been right.
I wonder what Mel Baker thought of it? His cousin Victor remembered Mel as an intense man with dark, penetrating eyes. As a doted-upon, only child, who followed his father to a writing career, what scars did he carry from his father’s shocking death and three marriages that ended in divorce?
Mel spoke several languages, moved with ease in the Hollywood scene, and competed with an awful lot of other talent to turn out movies at the same rate as his aunt wrote her novels. Clearly, he was full heir to the Baker creative legacy. Then he stopped. Did he get black-listed? Lose interest? Run afoul of someone in Hollywood? What would make a prolific, successful writer simply stop?
There’s so much I would ask him, if I could.
Melville Baker started his writing career by traveling through Europe and finding scripts he could translate and adapt for the stage. In 1956, he packed two suitcases and a canvas bag and traveled to Nice, France where he stayed in the Cecil Hotel, in sight of the Mediterranean. He died there of a heart attack in 1958. He was just fifty-seven years old.