The Fountainhead (1949)

The famous scene where Patricia Neal admires Gary Cooper’s, ahem, jackhammer.

While there have always been powerful, well-connected fans of Ayn Rand like Alan Greenspan and Paul Ryan, something about her ideas appeals, not necessarily to the weak, but to outsiders, to failures, to losers and malcontents, among whom, of course, I number myself. If society rejects me, it feels a lot better to fool myself into thinking I’m a misunderstood genius than it does to face the harsh reality that I’m physically unattractive or lack social skills. There are, of course, physically unattractive, misunderstood geniuses who lack social skills, but they are far more likely to become poets or novelists than film directors or architects. Anybody who can somehow make it back to his apartment drunk off his ass and write a few lines of poetry can imagine that he might someday be the next Charles Bukowski. To be even a bad architect or a bad film director, however, takes other people. You need actors, construction workers, building inspectors, sound engineers, and most importantly of all, people with money to back your project, or you’ll never really make it past the stage of “impractical dreamer.”

King Vidor, who adapted Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, was not a bad filmmaker. On the contrary, he’s one of the greatest directors American cinema has ever produced. One look at the famous opening of his silent masterpiece The Crowd will make it obvious just how much later directors like Orson Welles owed to his pioneering genius. Vidor, however, was also a rebel and a malcontent, whose self-produced film Our Daily Bread, flopped at the box office. Even though Our Daily Bread was a solidly leftist, even socialist film, Vidor ended his career as a reactionary and an anti-communist, a member of Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. The Hollywood studio bosses and the critical establishment which rejected Our Daily Bread lurched sharply to the left under Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. Vidor, in the aggrieved, contrarian manner every genuine loser and malcontent understands, did just the opposite. He turned to the right. What better director, therefore, to adapt Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead to the big screen?

Vidor’s adaptation of The Fountainhead has long divided critical opinion. While some people appreciate the acting of Gary Cooper and especially Patricia Neal in the roles of Howard Rourk and Dominique Francon, or the magnificent, and completely artificial – according to its IDMB entry there are no “on location” shoots in The Fountainhead – sets of New York City designed by its art director Edward Carrere, other people find the dialog ludicrous, Gary Cooper miscast and too old, and the movie’s politics a thinly veiled apology for fascism. Ayn Rand herself, even though she was heavily involved in its production, hated it so much that she refused to allow Hollywood to film an adaption of her later novel Atlas Shrugs. Her grievances seem to have been mainly centered on the way the adaptation edited down Howard Rourk’s final speech to under eight minutes. I come down firmly on the side of “it’s a great film.” It’s not because I agree with Rand’s or Vidor’s politics. On the contrary, I’m a Marxist and a collectivist who thinks the only thing that can save humanity from itself is communist revolution. It’s not because the film appeals to me as a contrarian and a malcontent. While I can certainly appreciate the twenty-two-year-old Patricia Neal lusting for Gary Cooper’s flaccid old dick in the famous granite quarry scene, I find Howard Rourk and Dominique Francon both such irritating characters that if they existed in real life — and I got to live out my fantasy of being Joseph Stalin — I’d send them both right to the Gulag. The short answer to why I think The Fountainhead is a great film is that it’s a magnificent triumph of form over content. Let me briefly summarize the plot then give you the long answer.

The Fountainhead opens with Howard Rourk, the forty-seven-year-old Gary Cooper, being expelled from a university that looks a bit like Princeton. The reason he’s being expelled is probably a first, at least for the Princeton of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Albert Einstein. He’s too individualistic. He won’t design buildings to please the public. He’s got too much integrity. After leaving the university, Rourk finds a mentor, and soulmate, in the form of Henry Cameron, another maverick architect played by Henry Hull. Cameron, who may be an individualist, but who certainly can’t be described as a “rugged” individualist, eventually breaks down in despair over his lack of clients, and warns Rourk to take the easy way out and conform. Forget about modern architecture, he cries in anguish. Give the people the trash that they want. Rourk, who’s rugged as well as an individualist, assures Cameron that far from giving in, he’ll carry on his legacy, but soon runs into the same problems. He can’t find any clients. We soon see why. While the local tabloid, “The Banner,” is owned by the honorable, but flawed, Gail Wynand – the sexually ambiguous first name is no accident – the newspapers domineering spirit is a man named Ellsworth M. Toohey. Rand was no Dickens but she could occasionally come up with an amusing name. Toohey, who smokes a cigarette in a holder – shades of Franklin Roosevelt? – is not only a dedicated collectivist, he’s basically Satan. He wants to control and then break Rourke, who he recognizes as a man of integrity, through his control of the stupid mob, the uneducated masses easily manipulated by tabloids like The Banner. Rourke, of course, is too strong to be intimidated by Toohey. When he runs out of clients, and money, he not only refuses to take a loan from his old classmate Peter Keating – a fashionable architect and caricature of the conformist who gets along by going along – he takes a job as a day laborer in a granite quarry.

While Ayn Rand and King Vidor may have been conservatives, and while Cooper may have been too old to play the twenty-five-year-old Howard Rourk, the sections of The Fountainhead that take place in the granite quarry works perfectly, almost in spite of itself. When Patricia Neal, a bourgeois “lady” in her fashionable clothes, comes to the quarry and observes the tall, muscular Cooper, who looks exactly like an idealized proletarian superman from Soviet mural, it’s a miniature Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Ayn Rand, like D.H. Lawrence, worshiped dick, as you can plainly see by the way Neal looks at Cooper as he applies a jackhammer to a wall of granite. Howard Rourke eventually gets a commission to build a skyscraper for an eccentric millionaire named Roger Enright, but doesn’t leave before he and Dominique Francon have a round of hot prole on bourgeoisie, and pretty explicitly rapey, sex in her father’s summer home. The Enright Building is, of course, a success. Rourk, who’s modeled on Rand’s hero Frank Lloyd Wright is a genius. After he and Francon meet for a second time at the Enright Building’s opening day party – for some odd reason she never asked him his name at the quarry – they get better acquainted. Rourk isn’t an uneducated day laborer at all, but a fellow bourgeoisie. Ellsworth M. Toohey, more determined than every before to destroy Howard Rourke, persuades Gail Wynand, who’s too busy pining after Dominique Francon to pay much attention to anything, to enlist The Banner in a smear campaign against modern architecture. The stupid masses, being stupid masses, are easily manipulated into rejecting the Enright Building’s pioneering design, and once again, Rourk finds himself without any clients. Dominique Francon, still pining for Howard Rourke’s Chrysler Building of a penis, resigns from The Banner in protest.

Rourk, the ruggedest of rugged individualists, works his way back, taking any small commission in any out of the way place from anybody who will let him design buildings, not for the public, but for himself. Eventually Gail Wynand, who in the intervening years has successfully bullied Dominique Francon into marrying him, commissions Rourk to build a dream house for his wife, who’s never loved him. Wynand, who’s long forgotten about the smear campaign that destroyed Rourk’s career, has enough taste to know he’s the man for the job. What he doesn’t realize is that Rourke’s already slept with his wife, and that the house, once built, might be, for lack of a better term, called The Cuck Palace. Wynand, who’s played in an almost catatonic manner by Raymond Massey, is not only a rich man trying to buy his way into his trophy bride’s heart. He’s probably a closeted homosexual who wants the Howard Rourk dick as badly as his wife does, but can’t admit it to himself. Eventually he and Rourk become good friends, recognizing each other as fellow men of integrity, and the not so subtle shift in the balance of power excites Dominique Francon like she’s never been excited before. Who will she choose? Raymond Massey or Gary Cooper? Of course she chooses Rourke. When Peter Keating, Rourk’s light-weight old “friend” from the university, once a fashionable architect but now down on his luck, manages to convince the all powerful Ellsworth M. Toohey, who by this point is as much Robert Moses as he is Franklin Roosevelt, into letting him design a gigantic new public housing project, and finding himself in over his head, he manages to convince Rourke to do it for him. Rourk, uncharacteristically agrees, but only on one condition, that his design be accepted as is with no changes.

Note: Ayn Rand seems to have anticipated the way blacklisted Hollywood screenwriters would use “fronts” during the McCarthyite 1950s, only here the victim isn’t a communist screenwriter but a libertarian superman persecuted by the stupid masses.

Rourke’s design for the housing project is, of course, a triumph. There’s really nothing Howard Rourk can’t do. Unfortunately, however, he decides to go on a long, slow cruise with his friend – gay lover? – Gail Wynand and is unavailable to advise Peter Keating when Ellsworth Toohey hires assistant architects to make a mess of Rourk’s original design. When Rourke returns to the city, he’s aghast, but unlike with Toohey’s previous attempts to reduce him to submission, he can’t just quit and walk out. Keating has already agreed to the modifications, and the housing project is already going up. The only solution left is to become, if not a terrorist, then at least a vandal on an epic scale, so he rigs the construction site with dynamite and blows the housing project to kingdom come. Rourke doesn’t mind if poor people get to live in his magnificent creation, but he does mind if mediocrities make changes to his “art.” It’s really not difficult to see the connection here between the architect and the screenwriter, more specifically, to Ayn Rand herself, who hated the idea, even of minor editing to bring one of her turgid speeches down to manageable proportions.

The trial itself, which seems besides the point since the police have found Rourk on the site of the construction site after the explosions, serves mainly to give Gail Wynand the opportunity to redeem, then disgrace himself in his wife’s eyes, initially throwing The Banner behind Rourk’s defense, then backing down after the paper’s shareholders threaten to pull out. Rourk’s long speech on the differences between the creator and the parasite so moves the jury that they nullify the charges, and Rourk, although he actually confesses during the trial to having blown up the housing project, walks free. Gail Wynand, who now admits that Rourk deserves possession of Dominique Francon, has only two more things to do. First he commissions Rourke to build the “Wynand Building,” the tallest skyscraper in New York, then he blows his brains out. The last scene in the film, with Francon riding a service operator to the top of Rourk’s creation, is the fulfillment of the scene in the quarry when she first sees Rourk with the jackhammer, an ode to the biggest dick in the world, not the Wynand Building, but the thing hanging between Howard Rourk’s legs.

The opening scene of King Vidor’s film The Crowd. Note how the Equitable Building eventually becomes a model.

The scene from The Fountainhead, where Gary Cooper takes his broken mentor to the hospital. Note the Equitable Building in the window of the ambulance, Vidor’s subtle allusion to the earlier film. The Fountainhead’s Henry Cameron, like the crowd’s John Sims, is overwhelmed by the scale and power of the city, only in the Fountainhead, unlike in The Crowd, Vidor celebrates the great machine that breaks the insignificant little man.

So why does so obviously stupid a film work?

I would argue that it’s not in spite of but because of Rand’s insipid script. The Fountainhead’s characters are so badly written and so difficult to connect with that we eventually ignore them, and they fade into the wonderfully designed sets. King Vidor, who decades earlier had directed The Crowd, easily one of the greatest movies of the 1920s, has brought some of the magic of the late silent film back into the theater. Indeed, it’s possible to look at The Fountainhead as the true sequel to The Crowd that Our Daily Bread tried, and failed to become. Where Our Daily Bread focused on the redemption through collectivism of The Crowd’s hero, an anonymous little man crushed by the weight of the modern city, The Fountainhead celebrates the great city that crushed him. Vidor probably didn’t intend it to turn out that way any more than George Lucas wanted so many people to find his evil empire, those magnificent star destroyers and death stars, to be the coolest thing about the Star Wars franchise, but that’s what’s on the screen. Nothing in The Crowd quite lived up to the great opening scene where Vidor’s camera pans up the side of the Equitable Building in lower Manhattan until it’s transformed into something so much larger than anything on the human scale that it becomes a model, but that scene is completely fulfilled in The Fountainhead. Everything about the film, the lighting, the shadow, the “deep focus” borrowed from Citizen Kane, the out sized offices and apartments, serves to diminish the people that inhabit it. Indeed, even Howard Rourke is subordinated in the famous ending – you should never shoot a middle-aged man from below lest you reveal his saggy chin – in favor of his creation. In the end The Fountainhead is pure cinema, a film, not about Howard Rourk, but about the beauty of the Manhattan skyline, perhaps the greatest film ever made about the impersonally vast, aesthetically overwhelming machine that is New York City.

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3 comments

  1. What I am most surprised regarding Rand’s ideal is that, while I understand that a Randian hero is supposed to be an iron willed visionary, i can’t help but think he was foolish when he turned down that lucrative commission because they modified his accepted design with some traditional features. I mean, can’t he make money first then promote his vision? I though business was about helping people get the things they genuinely want and wish to pay fair price for, not my way or the highway.

    1. I haven’t read the book but the movie seems to indicate what once you compromise you’re lost, and there are always devils waiting around to exploit any weakness. A good example of the price of compromise would be Peter Keating. He thinks it’s only about a few design issues, but eventually Gail Wynand just swoops in and takes his fiancee with an “offer he can’t refuse.”

      1. Good points, still, I find Rand’s ideals to be too either this or that, I feel someone of iron will like Roark should be able to compromise on little things to get power and advantage without collapsing completely, and then slowly deploy clever ways to acclimate the public with his new normal. Destroying a whole project over style concerns just adds to a housing shortage, which in reality i feel would ruin his reputation acquittal or not.

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