Pauline Frederick in "The Fear Woman"

Rarely the scene of a feature length shoot, Berkeley has always been more of a second unit city, a place where Hollywood could send a camera and an assistant director and add local color to films like Shadow of the Thin Man, The Graduate, or Who’ll Stop the Rain. The cost was minimal, and you were almost guaranteed great shots of Golden Gate Fields, Sather Gate, or Telegraph Avenue.

While previous entries in this series have focused on some of those well-known films, this week’s column is going to take a metaphorical look at a film virtually no one has heard about. What’s more, none of us can even see it anymore — and though the preponderance of evidence suggests it was indeed shot in Berkeley, the precise location of that filming remains uncertain.

The Fear Woman was produced by Goldwyn Pictures in 1919 and directed by a gentleman named John A. Barry, none of whose films has survived the ravages of time. A melodrama starring a pair of well-known silent-era thespians, Pauline Frederick and Milton Sills, The Fear Woman’s plot is synopsized thusly by the invaluable American Film Institute Catalog:

“After her drunken father dies subsequent to falling down stairs on the night of her engagement announcement, Helen Winthrop (Frederick) finds a note from him warning that drinking has ruined the family’s past four generations. She breaks her engagement to lawyer Robert Craig (Sills) so that she can test herself as she fears that her children might inherit the habit. After sacrificing her reputation to save that of her adulterous married friend Stella Scarr (Dort Clark), Helen goes to a resort hotel where she wins a tennis tournament and flirts with plump Percy Farwell (Walter Hiers), the son of parvenu Mrs. Honorah Farwell (Lydia Yeamans Titus). In order to break up her son’s romance with a supposedly disgraced woman, Mrs. Farwell hires Robert Craig. During a party, Percy announces their engagement, and Helen acts intoxicated to test Robert’s feelings for her. When Mrs. Farwell convinces Stella’s husband Sidney to accuse Helen of wrongdoing, Robert fights him. Helen then accepts Robert’s love and admits she was only drinking ginger ale.”

The AFI goes on to note that “tennis tournament scenes were shot in Berkeley, CA, according to publicity for the film.”
The question then arises, which tennis courts? Based on this synopsis, which refers to a resort hotel, the logical answer would be at the Berkeley Tennis Club, which had moved to the newly opened Claremont Hotel in 1917. Goldwyn would have needed a good reason to shoot on location (still something of a rarity in the period, unless your name was Erich von Stroheim), and a club at a brand new and rather exclusive resort might have provided it.

Though several contemporaneous reviews of The Fear Woman survive, none of them have much to say about the tennis scenes (Variety bluntly opined that “a tennis match is handled effectively from a photographic standpoint”). No still images of these scenes survive, either. Simply put, there’s no solid evidence to support my theory.

The film cannot have been of much significance. Neither it nor director Barry are mentioned in Kevin Brownlow’s exhaustive history of silent film, “The Parade’s Gone By”, or Terry Ramsaye’s ground-breaking “A Thousand and One Nights” (a truly remarkable and massive tome first published in 1926). All we can do is hope that one day a print might show up, and we’ll be able to see whether or not Pauline Frederick really was returning serve at 1 Tunnel Road.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.  

This is the seventh article in an occasional series by John Seal on “locally grown” movies . The other movies reviewed in the series are: Shadow of the Thin ManChangesHarold and MaudeTear Gas and Law Enforcement,The Assassination of Richard Nixon and The Graduate.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...