King Vidor’s version of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead is among the most neglected of classic bad movies. Scorned because of Ayn’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. (I’ll skip the damage Paul Ryan and the makers of the Atlas Shrugged trilogy have done to her.) 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 amusingly damning then as it is now? Not even the Harvard Lampoon appreciated the rants, naming the movie one of the year’s worst. Perhaps Tooheyed into public conformity, in private the snob commune may have cheered as current smartass viewers do now.

Coming out a few years after World War II, when the Communist scare was about to explode, 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 Objectivism, then anathema to religious and populist sloganeering because it proclaimed one’s self was 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 there’s simply no way out of comparison. 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. None of this takes away from—and in fact adds to—the wacky pleasure of the movie.

An erotic madness swirls throughout. While the novel’s arguably a glory to macho sex—jackhammers and high-rises as phallic symbols, possible sexual assault as prelude to love—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 Coop] 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 in 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 Coop’s face with a riding crop, urging him on to conquest. (Said Ayn: “If it’s rape—it’s rape by engraved invitation.”) Lifted from the book, these scenes don’t have the impassioned danger Neal and Coop 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 collapsing in his arms—we laugh at the high of unavoidable camp, aided and abetted by Max Steiner’s effluence. The book lacks the mocking merriment the movie 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 in Kentucky and nourished in Tennessee, evokes an imposing Tallulah, without the extension of satiric drawl, and she’s far more attractive to look at. Her demeanor is super charged—a defiant whose game-playing is so strongly catalytic it riles Coop’s Roark to conquer. In hoot couture-like modulation she sometimes relied on as acting, Neal’s a chic pressure cooker—when emoting, she’s edgy as if on a head trip during which mind and heart race while the face and outer body remain unrattled. Ayn wanted Garbo, who was briefly interested; others considered were Bette Davis (over Ayn’s dead body), Ida Lupino, Jennifer Jones and Barbara Stanwyck, who originally brought the book to the attention of Warner Bros.

Ayn’s only choice to play Roark, Coop 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 of his monotone and inflexible face, he managed to move audiences anyway. It’s his pure Americanness as 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 he admitted not fully getting the meaning of Roark’s defense.

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 endangering 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 in quite the way Douglas does.

Lividly anti-communist, Ayn’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.” Her personal life negates the idealism, though; she often engaged in frenzied and sometimes violent umbrage when a lover dumped her, when her closest acolytes modestly broached her private inconsistencies and abject hypocrisies. Brooking no dissent, she ended up with few friends and only distant admirers who continue to espouse and largely misinterpret her doctrine(s), clearly evident in the Atlas Shrugged trio. Its corruption of content didn’t happen with the movie of The Fountainhead since she had the stipulation written into her contract that nothing in her script could be changed without her approval. The original source a lot less so, the movie is impossible to dislike because the wildly ludicrous elements making it a (production designer’s) expressionistic attack against social, business and political peonage are not only comedy gold but also more torch-bearing than ever. (In the wrong way, of course: she’d be appalled at the way she’s currently being used to plunder.) It’s been reported King Vidor didn’t “get” her, either, and if true it’s one of the happiest accidents in movie history to have made the most liberating bad movie ever.

Recommended reading: Barbara Brandens biography The Passion of Ayn Rand. Helen Mirrens verson viewed here.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 1997 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.