King Vidor’s version of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead is among the most neglected of classic bad movies. Scorned because of Rand’s Objectivism, the movie never found its audience until revival houses flourished in the 60s and 70s and, later, became available on video, DVD and TCM. Hard to imagine smart audiences in 1949 not liking it, since the rapid fire invective against collectivism is screamingly funny: “Give in, compromise, you’ll have to later anyway”; “You can’t stand alone, give in, become one of us”; “Be middle of the road, why take chances?”; “Can’t you give in just once?”; “Don’t defy common standards.” Wasn’t all this as amusing and damning then as it is now? Not even the Harvard Lampoon appreciated the rant, naming the movie one of that year’s worst. (Perhaps in private those smartasses cheered; they may have been Tooheyed into public conformity.) What’s possible is that many simply didn’t get Rand’s diatribe-warning about the “world of the mob” and how it destroys creativeness, individuality. Coming out a few years after World War II, when the Communist scare was exploding, when the middle class was the verge of being tracted to death with suburban living, there wasn’t much tolerance for a movie advocating the virtues of self. (Objectivism was and remains anathema to religious and political demagoguery because it loudly proclaims that the one’s self is more important than the denial of self for the sake of others.) And while Rand claimed her hero-architect Howard Roark wasn’t entirely modeled after maverick Frank Lloyd Wright, readers and viewers of The Fountainhead can’t escape similarities: Roark’s architectural style and his difficulties with the establishment and his insistence on not compromising to “the drooling dolts” of sameness parallel Wright’s so closely that there’s no way out of comparison. In fact, when Rand wrote the screenplay, she instructed that “among present day architects, it is the style of Frank Lloyd Wright—and only of FLW—that must be taken as a model for Roark’s buildings.” Though Wright* was asked and subsequently declined to do the movie’s concepts of Roark’s architecture, the final results included a rip-off of the masterpiece Fallingwater and an “Enwright” skyscraper. Whatever the validity of her on-again off-again disclaimers, no one was fooled. None of this takes away from the sheer pleasure of the movie.
An erotic madness swirls throughout; while the novel is arguably a glory to macho sex—possible sexual assault as prelude to love, jackhammers and high-rises as phallic symbols—the movie has something authentic added to the mix: the heat of a red hot real-life affair between Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal. (Said Vidor: “I remember the day we drove up to Fresno to do our location shooting. We met Neal there that night. It was the first time [Neal and Cooper] had met. They went for each other right away. After dinner we never saw the two of them again except when we were shooting.”) Countless other movies have dealt with submission to the penis in much the same way—the heroine first pounding on or clawing at what she surrenders to—but here Neal’s pent-up desires must first be stoked by swacking Cooper’s face with a riding whip, urging him on to sexual conquest. (Though Rand herself said that “If it’s rape—it’s rape by engraved invitation.”) Lifted straight from the book, these scenes don’t have the impassioned danger that Neal and Cooper bring to them. Coop’s stoic impassivity and Neal’s arched, caustic instability comically implode; while they’re combusting with lust—“I’ll do anything to get away from you,” she says while collapsing in his arms—we laugh at the high of the unintended camp. The book lacks the mocking merriment that the movie hopelessly flaunts: Neal’s Dominique is like a feminist hustler seeking rough trade; she can’t experience sex, much less love, without pain—she’s the personification of her s & m name. Neal’s accent, born out of Kentucky and nourished by Tennessee, suggests an imposing Tallulah, without the extension of satiric drawl, and she’s far more attractive to look at. Her hot ice demeanor is super charged—she’s a vaporous defiant whose game-playing dare is so strongly catalytic that Coop’s Roark is compelled to conquer. In her hoot couture modulation that she sometimes relied on as acting, Neal’s a pressure cooker—when she emotes, it’s as if she’s edged-out on one of those grass-induced paranoiac highs during which the mind and heart race while the face and outer body remain chicly unrattled. Rand wanted Garbo, who was briefly interested; others considered were Bette Davis (over Rand’s dead body), Ida Lupino, Jennifer Jones and Barbara Stanwyck, who originally brought the book to the attention of Warner Bros.
Rand’s first and only choice to play Roark, Cooper wasn’t much of an actor, yet his granite stolidness was and still is appealing because it seems indestructible; there’s no way he’d let us down us in the moral crunch. Seldom believable in anything he played because his monotone and inflexible face never had any depth, he managed to move audiences anyway. It’s his pure Americanness that’s his reel virtue; he’s the independent, sturdy God-like WASP who reassures audiences against corruption. (Clark Gable coveted the role: could he have achieved this sort of unassailability?) Defending himself in The Fountainhead—having deliberated dynamited a housing project he designed after it was changed to meet mediocrity’s demands—Coop’s the pinnacle of the stalwart, resolutely honing in on the blessings of the “creator” and the evils of the “parasite.” Even if Cooper admitted that he didn’t quite understand the full meaning of Roark’s defense/speech, it’s still persuasive more than sixty years after the novel first appeared.
While Cliffton Webb was the author’s initial selection, Robert Douglas is incomparably snakey as Ellsworth M. Toohey, the “impractical intellectual” architecture critic for the yellow-streaked N.Y. Banner. The character is modelled after general columnist Heywood Broun, the Atlantic Monthly’s architectural critic Lewis Mumford, and The New Yorker’s Clifton Fadiman. The ultimate bourgeois, with cigarette in filtered holder, penciled mustache, receding hair, Douglas’s Toohey, out to destroy originality that endangers the mainlining of the mediocre, is the emblem of those wanting to control all others and rule the world in their own image. We’ve had the snobs-leeches before and since—George Sanders won an Oscar for his “Ratsputin” DeWitt in All About Eve—yet none incarnate the calculated viciousness we know exists in many of them in quite the way Douglas does.
Despite her protestations, Rand’s likely the first 20th Century Libertarian, the pontess of freedom advocating “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievements as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” Sounds a little like ideal Republicanism before the fundamentalists and thugs took charge, but even when the holier-than-thous and fascists weren’t in power, right-wing had the connotation that we must conform to a singular idea of what democratic happiness stands for: the rich get richer, while the rest become slaves. Clear that Rand, through Roark, would rather suffer hardship before becoming another’s lackey. Lividly anti-Communist, capitalist foremost, she certainly wasn’t a Democrat, because she railed against social welfare. But she also knew political labels were restrictive and dangerous, and in their nebulous meaning they were sold as having implicit definitions, mostly dictates to subservience. Its original source a little less so, the movie The Fountainhead is impossible not to like because the crazy, wildly ludicrous elements that make it an expressionistic attack against social and political peonage are more torchbearing than ever. It’s been written that King Vidor didn’t “get” Rand, either, which means he didn’t have the prescience in seeing that what he made would become just about the most liberating bad movie ever made.
Recommended reading: Barbara Branden’s biography The Passion of Ayn Rand.
* Wright was asked to do the Roark designs but Warner Bros. refused to pay his price—10% of the cost of making the movie. When Wright finally saw the production, he responded, “Any move I make against such grossly abusive caricatures of my work by this film crew would only serve their purpose.” But he did like the novel, and even designed a house for Rand, who couldn’t afford the asking price.
Text COPYRIGHT © 1997 RALPH BENNER All Rights Reserved.