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The Fountainhead (1949)
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Gary Cooper, Patricia Neal, Raymond Massey, Kent Smith, Robert Douglas, Henry Hull

Written By: Ayn Rand Directed By: King Vidor

The Short Version

Ayn Rand adapts her own novel for the screen.

This isn’t dialogue; it’s sociopolitical blustering.

And let’s not forget the very strong dom/sub relationship overtones.

The cinematography and overall art direction are excellent.

If you must watch The Fountainhead, do so for the visuals; the rest is jaw-droppingly bad.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


Highly overrated.  Also, this only counts if it’s never been inspected and you get it directly from the farmer himself; no government interference or collective processing allowed!

Pairs Well With...


None of this mass market collectivist crap; if you didn’t make it yourself from start to finish, it’s worthless!

“There's the building that should have been yours.  There are buildings going up all over the city which are great chances refused and given to incompetent fools.  You're walking the streets while they're doing the work that you love but cannot obtain.  This city is closed to you.  It is I who have done it!  Don't you want to know my motive?”

On the one hand, The Fountainhead is one of only a handful of motion pictures adapted from a novel wherein the silver screen result is actually better than the book upon which it is based.

On the other hand, all that means is that while slogging through The Fountainhead can be a mind-numbing, head-shaking experience, reading the book is worse.  Really, they’re both pretty bad, though if you fall into one of three niche groups of movie goers, there may be something in The Fountainhead for you anyway.

For those unfamiliar with the tome that put Ayn Rand on the popular map, The Fountainhead is the story of Howard Roark (Gary Cooper, High Noon), a visionary architect who rejects conventional styles and who absolutely refuses to compromise about any details whatsoever.  This apparently makes him the most dangerous man in New York, and everyone (from potential clients to fellow architects to newspaper critics) considers it a vital mission to break Roark’s resolve at all costs and force him to either conform or die.  Against all odds, Roark becomes a success anyway, and even wins the love of a woman who hates the thought of loving anything (Patricia Neal, The Day the Earth Stood Still) through the combined superpowers of bullheadedness and emotional abuse.  When someone dares to make changes to a building he designed, he feels that he has every right to blow it up, and does so.  Will a jury buy the argument that his rights as the individual who designed the building trump the collective rights of everyone else?

In a world that isn’t populated by crazy people who support sociopathic terrorists, of course not, but I believe I already told you that this was written by Ayn Rand…

With that said, it doesn’t matter whether you think that Ayn Rand is several sandwiches short of a picnic or that she’s the One True Savior of Capitalism and Individual Achievement: The Fountainhead absolutely cannot be taken at face value.  Any objective attempt to do so must inevitably lead to the same unassailable truth: The Fountainhead is jaw-droppingly awful.

Supposedly, “The Fountainhead” began as Ayn Rand’s exercise to prove that she could be a novelist with range and not just a producer of thinly (if at all) veiled political tracts.  Taking a man she greatly admired – Frank Lloyd Wright – as the template for her protagonist, she then went on to write her take on a “triumph of the human spirit” story… which, whether or not it was her initial intention, ended up being a thinly veiled political tract, though at least this one did have the benefit of being fleshed out enough to capture the attention of a casual audience.  Interestingly, its bulkiness contributed to its popularity, for the fact that it took so long to digest made it a good companion for soldiers who needed a distraction during World War II, and the result was her first real bestseller.

Never mind that the story is completely absurd.  Is the common American really that passionate about architecture above all other things?  You can’t get six New Yorkers (or Americans of any origin) to agree on pizza toppings, much less rally the entire city’s population against one architect.  Collectivst?  Unless one’s referring to a collective hatred of the Boston Red Sox, not a chance.  The “architecture critic” of a newspaper being not just the most powerful man on staff, but in all of New York?  Seriously?  Yes, I understand to take it as an allegory… but I’m not sure that the author herself does.

Framework aside, just listen to the dialogue and see if you can go for more than thirty seconds without adopting the facial expression of someone who’s eaten an entire lemon in two bites.  Sane human beings simply do not converse this way; hell, even crazy people don’t talk to each other this way.  Unfortunately, Ayn Rand has no ear for dialogue (at least in her second language of English), and so every line is either a political statement or a challenge for anyone in the room to ask what the speaker’s motives are (to which the answer is always a riff on “no, because I don’t care”).  One could legitimately listen to five minutes of this stuff and wonder if Rand ever held a normal conversation with anyone in her entire life.

Of course, one could also listen to Patricia Neal’s dialogue and consider it evidence against the notion that Rand had ever heard a woman speak, never mind that Rand was a woman herself.  Through a traditional lens, Neal’s character of Dominique is the worst kind of doormat: a woman of genuine talent and insight who not only fails to use it but who goes out of her way to become a pawn of emotionally (and physically) abusive men.  Modern eyes with a broader perspective may instead choose to see Dominique’s name as a silly joke, because she is an outstandingly blatant example of a sub looking for the strongest “alpha” in a dom/sub dynamic.  She goes to great lengths to be used and humiliated, and Rand herself said that the character deliberately opens herself up to be sexually assaulted by Roark (which she blatantly is in the book and which also occurs obviously enough in the film), calling it “rape by engraved invitation,” which in turn led one critic in the 1970s to actually call Rand “a traitor to her own sex.”

Unfortunately, while all of the propagandistic diatribes and sexual/power dynamic stuff may make for lively academic debate, the fact is that it makes for horrifically boring storytelling that is actively painful to watch and listen to, especially when presented by the standards of 1949 Hollywood.

This is made even worse by the way that it’s handled by most of the actors, who spend the entire movie sounding as though they’re tone deaf, rhythm-challenged beatniks reading off of barely legible cue cards with instructions to be melodramatic.  Particularly awful is Gary Cooper, who is hideously miscast to begin with, and whose performance in this movie is so terrible that a person coming in cold might never guess that he was actually one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars.  Cooper puts forth a wooden effort worthy of a Cigar Store Indian, tonelessly shoving and stumbling his way through dialogue that some have claimed he couldn’t understand.  Whether or not that accusation is true, it’s certainly plausible during his climactic courtroom speech, during which Cooper very much looks as though his sole desire on Earth is to go home and never have to read another line ever again.

Director King Vidor (War and Peace) had some sympathy for this; he openly considered the speech to be dull and rambling and planned to shorten that sequence in the film.  However, like her protagonist Roark, Ayn Rand had given Warner Brothers the rights to make The Fountainhead only if her entire script was filmed word-for-word without any changes.  Upon learning of Vidor’s intentions, she threw a fit and complained to the studio, which overruled Vidor and ordered him to film the scene as written.  (One cannot help but wonder whether they felt it best not to test just how closely related Rand was to her character of Roark.)  Though he of course complied, the end result has only served to prove Vidor’s original instinct correct.

Nevertheless, he did retain control of certain other aspects of the film, and it is primarily those aspects of The Fountainhead that give it any degree of watchability to those who live outside of the extreme right wing political fringe or are not dom/sub enthusiasts.  Yes, the story is absurd; yes, the dialogue is wretched; yes, most of the performances are wooden…  but Vidor, cinematographer Robert Burks, and art director Edward Carrere do a fabulous job of polishing the pile and making it look beautiful anyway.    

Taken solely as a visual piece, The Fountainhead is gorgeous.  The production design is lavish.  The sets are stunning.  Light and shadow are used to wonderful effect.  Even the simplest of moments are treated by the camera as majestic undertakings and are framed accordingly.  Who knows?  Maybe if it had been cut as a silent film and had its dialogue rewritten by someone who knew how to hold a normal human conversation, The Fountainhead might have had a chance to make it as a really good movie.

But no.  Blustering, emotionally abusive melodrivel, wooden performances, and continually bludgeoning the audience to death with a political hammer are the order of the day.  Besides, Rand hated the film’s art direction anyway; she thought it was ugly.  Go figure.

Bottom line, beautifully filmed though it may be, The Fountainhead is just a bad movie, plain and simple.  It doesn’t matter what your politics are; this dialogue is horrible, and so are most of the performances.  Technique buffs may still want to sit through it for the visuals, but there’s really no reason for anyone else to waste his or her time on this dental procedure of a film.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, August, 2012

You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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