Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Fountainhead (1949)


The Fountainhead, with a screenplay by Ayn Rand based on her own novel, is not an easy movie to judge. The first difficulty of course is that the movie is a presentation of Rand’s philosophy, a subject that people tend to feel very strongly about, either for or against. But there are other difficulties as well - this is a very odd movie indeed, a movie that breaks most of the accepted rules, and judging it by conventional standards won’t really work. Regardless of all that, whether you’re pro-Rand or anti-Rand there are very good reasons to see this movie. Even if you disagree with Rand’s politics you’ll find this movie to be at the very least interesting and provocative.

When Warner Brothers employed Rand to write the screenplay they rather surprisingly gave her complete creative control. Her contract stated that not one line of her dialogue could be altered. Perhaps they assumed that she would not make an issue of it if changes had to be made. If they thought that they were very mistaken indeed. Rand held them to the letter of her contract.

King Vidor was brought on board as director, with Gary Cooper and newcomer Patricia Neal as the stars. The movie was released in 1949.


The movie is, on the surface at least, the story of an architect. Howard Roark (Gary Cooper) stubbornly insists on going his own way, refusing to compromise his vision in any way. If nobody wants to employ him as an architect, if nobody wants to build the buildings he designs, it makes no difference to him. He will not alter a design to please a client. At first he has virtually no clients and is forced to take a job as a labourer in a quarry. Finally, after many years, he starts to make a reputation for himself, and when success comes it comes in spectacular fashion. Then potential disaster strikes. He wants to design a huge housing project but he knows that he will not get the job, so he designs it anyway and allows his old friend Peter Keating (Kent Smith) to claim the credit. Keating is a third-rate architect who had enjoyed enormous success but has now fallen on hard times as fashions have changed. When Roark’s design is changed he takes drastic steps to assert his right not to have his work altered to please others. Those drastic steps will land him in court facing a possible lengthy prison sentence.

In his early days when he was working in a quarry to make ends meet he had encountered a woman named Dominique Francon (Patricia Neal). It had been a violently sexual and passionate encounter. Years later he encounters her again. She is now married to newspaper magnate Gail Wynant (Raymond Massey). Dominique is as stubborn and willful and uncompromising in her own way as Roark. She had refused to marry Roark because she believed that the world would inevitably destroy so individualistic a man. But the passions ignited years before are still smouldering beneath the surface.


Any hero has to have a nemesis, and in this case the role is played by Ellsworth Toohey (Robert Douglas), a columnist on Wynant’s newspaper. If Roark represents individualism, then Toohey represents collectivism. Toohey espouses equality, and he believes that the best way to achieve equality is to grind down anyone who is exceptional in any way. In fact what Toohey really believes in is power.

The first thing that should be noted is that Rand had no interest in writing a realistic book or creating realistic characters. The characters are not people; they represent ideas. The events that unfold in the novel would never happen in real life - they happen in order to allow Rand to explicate her ideas. The movie takes exactly the same approach. This should be a fatal weakness, and probably would have been in the hands of any other director.


Luckily the choice of Vidor as director turned out to be an inspired one. Vidor approaches the movie as pure melodrama, and melodrama was something he understood and was not afraid of. Nor was he afraid of going completely over-the-top, which is of course the only way to do melodrama successfully. The result is a bizarre mixture of deliciously trashy melodrama and uncompromising philosophic didacticism, but surprisingly enough Vidor gets away with it. It’s unquestionably the only way this movie could have succeeded. The biggest mistake you can make in trying to get a message across is to be excessively earnest. The Fountainhead’s extreme melodramatic approach allows it to get the message across whilst remaining highly entertaining.

Gary Cooper was perhaps not an obvious choice to play Howard Roark but he wanted the part very badly and he carries it off superbly. Cooper always was good at playing stubborn characters. Patricia Neal’s performance is bizarre but fascinating. Raymond Massey is delightful as always, while Robert Douglas is wonderfully sinister as the villain of the piece, Ellsworth Toohey. Kent Smith gives what is possibly the performance of his career as Peter Keating.


Max Steiner’s music complements Vidor’s approach to the material perfectly. The art direction is also extraordinary, with some amazing sets. If you get bored with all this The Fountainhead contains enough sexual symbolism to keep any Freudian very happy indeed.

Whether you agree with Rand’s philosophy or not she  does make some telling points, especially in regard to herd-like behaviour. It is much easier to be a Peter Keating and let other people tell you what to think than it is to be a Howard Roark and think for yourself. Today, in an age where group-think is more all-pervasive than ever before, this movie is even more relevant than it was in 1949.

The Warner Home Video DVD looks terrific and includes a brief documentary on the making of the movie.

The Fountainhead is the sort of movie that could never be made today. Not because of its political message, but because it takes so many risks. It is an uncompromising film and all in all it’s one of the most unusual Hollywood movies of the 40s. Highly recommended.

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