'The Fountainhead' - one of the strangest films of the 1940s has an odd appeal
"The Fountainhead" (1949)
In 1949 Ayn Rand's surprise bestseller 'The Fountainhead' was made into a major motion picture by Warner Brothers, starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal. Rand herself wrote the screenplay. King Vidor directed. Rand had previously written screenplays for two other Hollywood movies, 'Love Letters' and 'You Came Along'. Since the novel 'The Fountainhead' is virtually inseparable from its controversial author, I have provided the following biographical material on Ms. Rand. Most of it is taken from the Wickipedia.
From an early age, Alisa Zinov'yevna Rosenbaum (Russian: Алиса Зиновьевна Розенбаум) displayed an interest in literature and film. Throughout her youth, she read the novels of Sir Walter Scott, Alexandre Dumas, père and other Romantic writers, of whom Victor Hugo was her favorite. Rand was twelve at the time of the Russian revolution of 1917, and her family life was disrupted by the rise of the Bolshevik party (her father's pharmacy was confiscated by the Soviets and the family fled to the Crimea.) The traumatic events of those years doubtless influenced her outlook and philosophy; she retained the views developed in her childhood unchanged throughout her life.
Rosenbaum later emigrated to the U.S.. She later returned to Saint Petersburg to attend the University of Petrograd, where she majored in history and studied philosophy. Here she discovered the literary works of Edmond Rostand, Friedrich Schiller, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and, most importantly, the philosophical works of Friedrich Nietzsche. (The influence of this author cannot be overemphasized. See especially 'Thus Spake Zarathustra', which Rand particularly admired, to see just how much the German philosopher influenced 'The Fountainhead'.) She completed a three-year program in the department of Social Pedagogy that included history, philology and law, graduating in 1924. During this time Rand continued to write short stories and screenplays. She entered the State Institute for Cinema Arts in 1924 to study screenwriting; in late 1925, however, she was granted a visa to visit American relatives.
In February 1926, she once again arrived in the United States, entering by ship through New York City, which would ultimately become her home. After a brief stay with her relatives in Chicago, she resolved never to return to the Soviet Union, and set out for Hollywood to become a screenwriter. Already using Rand as a Cyrillic contraction of her surname, she then adopted the name Ayn. Initially, the newly christened Ayn Rand struggled in Hollywood and took odd jobs to pay her basic living expenses. A chance face-to-face meeting with famed director Cecil B. DeMille led to a job as an extra in his film 'The King of Kings', and subsequent work as a script reader. (She also worked as the head of the costume department at RKO Studios.) While working on the film, she intentionally bumped into an aspiring young actor, Frank O'Connor, who caught her eye. The two married on April 15, 1929, and remained married for fifty years, until O'Connor's death in 1979 at
the age of 82. Rand became a naturalized American citizen in 1931.
In 1950 Rand moved to 120 East 34th Street in New York City, and formed a group (jokingly designated "The Collective") which included future Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, a young psychology student named Nathan Blumenthal (later Nathaniel Branden), his wife Barbara, and Leonard Peikoff, all of whom had been profoundly influenced by 'The Fountainhead'. According to Branden, "I wrote Miss Rand a letter in 1949 ... [and] I was invited to her home for a personal meeting in March, 1950, a month before I turned twenty." Rand launched the Objectivist movement with this group to promote her philosophy.
The group originally started out as an informal gathering of friends who met with Rand on weekends at her apartment to discuss philosophy. Later the Collective would proceed to play a larger, more formal role, helping edit 'Atlas Shrugged' and promoting Rand's philosophy through the Nathaniel Branden Institute (NBI), established by him for that purpose. Many Collective members gave lectures at the NBI and in cities across the United States, while others wrote articles for its sister newsletter, The Objectivist. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Rand developed and promoted her Objectivist philosophy through both her fiction and non-fiction works, and by giving talks at several east-coast universities, largely through the NBI. "The Objectivist Newsletter, later expanded and renamed simply The Objectivist, contained essays by Rand, Branden, and other associates ... that analyzed current political events and applied the principles of Objectivism to everyday life." Rand later published some of these in book form.
Rand's Objectivist philosophy holds that the only moral social system is laissez-faire capitalism. Her political views were strongly individualist, hence anti-statist and anti-Communist. She exalted what she saw as the heroic American values of rational egoism and individualism. As a champion of rationality, Rand also had a strong opposition to mysticism and religion, which she believed helped foster a crippling culture acting against individual human happiness and success. Rand detested many of the prominent politicians and intellectuals of her time, including, surprisingly, such conservative figures as Ronald Reagan, William F. Buckley and Joseph McCarthy.
In addition to the early inspiration of Friedrich Nietzsche (although she later rejected his approach) Rand also claimed Aristotle as an influence. She was vociferously opposed to some of the views of Immanuel Kant, particularly those claiming the impotence of reason. She also had an intellectual kinship with John Locke, who conceived the ideas that individuals have a right to the products of their own labor and have natural rights to life, liberty, and property, and more generally with the philosophies of the Age of Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. She occasionally reported her approval of specific philosophical positions, including some of Baruch Spinoza and St. Thomas Aquinas.
'The Fountainhead' was Rand's first major literary success and its royalties and movie rights brought her fame and financial security. The book's title is a reference to Rand's statement that "man's ego is the fountainhead of human progress". 'The Fountainhead''s protagonist, Howard Roark, is a young architect who chooses to struggle in obscurity rather than compromise his artistic and personal vision. He refuses to pander to the prevailing "architect by committee" taste in building design. Roark is a singular force that takes a stand against the establishment, and in his own unique way, eventually prevails. The manuscript was rejected by twelve publishers before a young editor at the Bobbs-Merrill Company publishing house, Archibald Ogden, wired to the head office "If this is not the book for you, then I am not the editor for you." Despite generally negative early reviews from the contemporary media, the book gained a following by word of mouth and sold hundreds of thousands of copies. In the sixty plus years since it was published, it has sold six million copies, and continues to sell about 100,000 copies per year. It has become a rite of passage for high school students to read it. Fortunately, like that other scourge of adolescence, acne, most outgrow their objectivist stage.
Rand died of heart failure on March 6, 1982 at her 34th Street home in New York City, years after having successfully battled cancer. She was interred in the Kensico Cemetery, Valhalla, New York. Her funeral was attended by some of her prominent followers, including Alan Greenspan. Many consider Rand, along with Rose Wilder Lane and Isabel Paterson, the three founding "mothers" of modern American libertarianism, although Rand herself rejected libertarianism and the libertarian movement.
The film of 'The Fountainhead' is pretty faithful to the spirit of the novel and a forceful presentation of Rand's philosophy. Those who are already in agreement with Rand will be mesmerized; those who are not will be baffled. The idea that selfishness is a virtue stands conventional Christian teaching on its head and doubtless will offend many. In addition - since it is delivered by characters that exist primarily as vessels of philosophical thought, not real people that interact with each other - Rand's dialog sounds melodramatic and positively stilted. It only works in the the courtroom scene, in which Roark, in a long monologue, defends his actions (in the story he blows up one of his buildings when the finaciers decide to make some changes to his design) on moral/philosophical grounds.
Speaking of the courtroom scene, I appreciate the fact that you held out for the inclusion of the entire speech from the novel (even threatening to disassociate yourself from the project if it wasn't included), but with all due respect Ms. Rand, it is simply too long! I can just imagine Director Vidor tearing his hair out trying to find ways to keep it interesting for the entire six minutes it takes Gary Cooper to deliver it.
The choice of Gary Cooper as Howard Roark, incidentally, is also a failing. It is obvious that Rand chose Cooper based her own physical attraction to the actor (she admitted that she liked Cooper because he resembled her husband), and not on his acting ability. Much like James Stewart in "Rope", Cooper is completely out of his depth. As fine a player as he was, it is not possible for a non-intellectual actor to play an intellectual character convincingly (James Stewart from "Rope" immediately comes to mind.) Cooper as Roark is surely one of the monumental miscastings of cinema history. His co-star Raymond Massey (who plays Gale Wynand) would have been a better choice, especially given his right wing political views.
Patricia Neal fares much better as Dominique Francon, the Rand stand-in character. She does quite well in the role of the rich bitch with an itch for Roark, the only man good enough for her. Incidentally, this neurotic character's relationship to Howard Roark reflects Rand's view of the essential sado-masacism of the Male/Female relationship. Even though the rape scene from the novel is toned down in the film, we still get the message; a real woman is only satisfied when forced to submit to an aggresive, fiercely independent, superior male (The image of Howard Roark standing proudly atop one of his phallic skyscrapers at the film's end - put blue tights and a red cape on him and you literally have Superman - serves to emphasize this point). I won't argue the validity/falsehood of such a claim; just let it be said that this idea is extremely problamatic for modern feminism.
The direction by Vidor is good. And Robert Burks scored big with his cinematography. The Noirish black-and-white photography must have provided him with lots of opportunities to show off and since the film is basically black and white in the philosophical sense, it works well. I can't imagine 'The Fountainhead' in color.
Legendary composer Max Steiner's emotional score is like Bernard Herrmann's scores for Hitchcock films - it can stand on its own and can bear repeated listening. Did you notice how the piano player at the Enright Building's housewarming party was playing the movie's theme song? I thought that was a clever touch.
Rand apparently held a pessimistic view of humanity that was morbid and spiteful in the extreme. According to her, all but a very few people comprise an incitable, easy-manipulated, stupid mob. Only the strongest (like Howard Roark) are able to withstand the pressure to compromise their values. In this sense the film is a successful examination of themes like resisting convention and finding one's internal independence and freedom, a la Chopin's "The Awakening." If the film is accepted on its own terms it can indeed be a provocative viewing experience. But the heavy dose of Randian anti-altruism that the script administers ultimately makes the characters unlikeable and hard to identify with. People just aren't like this in real life!