The Fountainhead

Year 1949

Gary Cooper as  Howard Roark
Patricia Neal as Dominique Francon
Raymond Massey   as Gail Wynand
Kent Smith as Peter Keating
Robert Douglas as Ellsworth M. Toohey  
Ray Collins as Roger Enright
Director - King Vidor
Screenwriter - Ayn Rand
Book Author - Ayn Rand

This movie, The Fountainhead is not a great technical work. The acting is wooden and the direction is pedestrian and unsure. But the subject matter is important. It deals with how an individual is defined in The United States of America and what made the U.S.A. the greatest nation ever on the face of the earth. It promotes the belief that a single individual is more important than a society.

I'm sure that this movie, which I saw for the first time in the 60s, influenced my belief in the rights of invidiuals.

If you're not familiar with the movie, the plot is that a visionary architect named Howard Roark (Cooper) refuses to compromise his life and beliefs. Fighting against all odds, he remains true to his inner vision and produces wonderful works. Then, his work is corrupted and he destroys the results. The opinion of the author, Ayn Rand, is that the destruction of a work by a creator is within the rights of that creator.

I happen to agree, even if this does pose a moral dilema. Someone once asked about a hypothetical situation. What if a single person has developed a cure for a plague that is wiping out humanity and that person refuses to share? Can the government step in and take it away "for the greater good"? Personally, I don't believe that the government has that right, even if it means saving the lives of millions. Why? Because the ends do NOT justify the means. But for at least as far back as Lincoln, the government has not cared about an individual's rights.

Enter Ayn Rand, a woman who left Russia when the communists took power and applied their brand of socialism to the detriment of the population. She loved the American idea that one person is more important than the whole. She wrote to warn people of what could happen if that concept were to ever be betrayed. She knew that she was fighting a war of entropy and that she'd lose in the end, but she'd try and delay the inevitable.

Her books, and this movie, champion the idea that not only is the concept of donating to society nothing more than a means by those in power to reap a harvest for their own benefit, but also that certain individuals should have a separate set of rules and laws to allow them to be the geniuses that they are.

I don't agree with that last part. But as for the first part, I'm on-board. Her philosophy even has a name. It's called Objectivism.

The term "fountainhead" means original source. Roark, based on architect Frank Lloyd Wright, would rather work at manual labor than have his orginal, creative ideas suborned. It's a tough road for this man of unwavering strength and belief, but he meets other men who have become successful because they, too, have never compromised their identity or goals. With these men as patrons, Roark's need to create is satisfied.

The Roark character is stripped down to the parts that Rand needs to make her point. The same is true of most of the other characters. They contain nothing but what makes them necessary to the telling of the story. Ellsworth M. Toohey (Douglas), the architectural editor of a popular newspaper called "The Banner" is one of the great villains of cinema. He uses people to further his agenda. His agenda is to promote socialism and he builds up and destroys from the shadows.

Peter Keating (Smith) is a minimally talented architect who rises to the top by selling out anything that doesn't advance his career. Roger Enright (Collins) is an individualist who answers to no one and is quite cavlier regarding the need to be accepted. Gail Wynand (Massey), the owner of "The Banner", is what Roark would have been if he'd sold out. Wynand has pandered to the masses and despite his wealth does not have the backbone to take a real stand. In the end, he finds that he is nothing more than a puppet rather than a puppet master.

Dominique Francon (Neal) is a wealthy woman who wants to feel no emotion. She'd rather destroy than care. She wants to care but no one is worthy of her. Until Roark shows up, that is.

I never understood why Gary Cooper is considered such a great actor. He's so understated that it's nearly somnanbulism. I once heard it said about him that watching him during filming, he did nothing exciting or evocative. But then, during the dailies you could see why he was a star. "The camera loved him," was the quote.

Raymond Massey was always a bit of a ham. Here, it's no different. But this movie is a parable and so hamminess is okay. Patricia Neal is another one like Cooper. Is she acting or reciting? The words she is tasked to say are stilted. Things like "wish" as in, "If you wish it." No one I know of says things like that unless they're genies. (No, I don't know any genies. Maybe a garage door opener that I once knew, but that's it.)

Neal's resemblance to Rand is unmistakable. The Francon character is obviously based on Rand as well. Rand had some sort of rape fantasy going on where the man who was worthy of her would be confident and assured enough to take her as he wanted her not as she imagined that she wanted. Something similar happens in Atlas Shrugged, Rand's other great work.

When it happens, of course it's a hot, sweaty night and Francon is beside herself with desire even though she won't admit it. The wind is blowing outside and the French doors to her boudoir fly open to reveal the silhouette of Gary Cooper. Every scene in this movie is that over the top. People die rather than sell out or they die of shame if they do sell out. It's a parable, remember.

Enright (Collins) is the most human of all of the characters. Part of his appeal may stem from the fact that Collins played Lieutenant Tragg on the series Perry Mason for years. He is one of the few characters that is enjoying himself.

Toohey: I play the stock market of the spirit and I sell short.

Roark: I don't build in order to have clients. I have clients in order to build.

Keating: But it's a humanitarian project. Think of the people who live in slums. If you can give them decent housing, you can perform a noble deed. Would you do it just for their sake?
Roark: No. A man who works for others without payment is a slave. I do not believe that slavery is noble, not in any form, nor for any purpose whatsoever.

Enright: God gave you eyes and a mind to use. If you fail to do so, the loss is yours, not mine.
Female critic: Don't you want to convince me?
Enright: Is there any reason why that should be my concern?

Then there's the final speech by Roark, but it's too long to quote here.

I guess that at the time the film was released, there was more made of the anti-charitable aspects of the film than the rape scene. That's surprising. The message regarding altruism is supposedly anti-religious. Perhaps. I've always managed to reconcile individualism and religion. If charity is not given from the heart, then it's called looting.

In Keating's passionate plea for Roark to build the housing development for the good of society, Roark says that what Keating is asking for is slavery. So then you wonder, if the housing is to help the poor and no one does it unless they get paid for the help, then how do the poor get helped? The answer, in Rand's world as well as in life, is that the self-made men give something back. Private schools are financed by robber barons, for example. In the movie, Enright sponsors the housing development. It's not done without reward and everybody wins.

No blasphemy, profanity, or nudity. There's not even provacative clothing unless you're a fetishist (how weird was Ayn Rand?). It has some chick flick potential because of the off-beat romance. Come to think of it, the romance in that great chick flick Gone with the Wind was off-beat as well. The Fountainhead is interesting, if stodgy, and must be seen even if you've read the book.

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