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Film Friday: "The Fountainhead" (1949)

This week on "Film Friday," I bring you a little melodrama about individual creativity, power and compromise, set in an era of communism and modernistic architecture.

Promotional release poster
Directed by King Vidor, The Fountainhead concerns the life of Howard Roark (Gary Cooper), an individualistic and uncompromising architect who chooses to work as a driller in a stone quarry rather than sell out his ideals. While working at the quarry, Roark meets the sensual and emotionally charged Dominique Fancon (Patricia Neal), a writer who works for a newspaper that opposes Roark's individualism. They never exchange names, but they are instantly drawn to each other. After a brutal sexual encounter, Roark returns to the city to accept a new architectural commision.

At a party for the opening of the new building Roark has designed, Dominique learns for the first time the identity of her mysterious lover. They proclaim their love for each other, but she tells him that she will not see him anymore because she cannot bear to see him destroyed by his struggle against a conformist society. After she leaves Roark, Dominique marries her boss, the wealthy and influential publisher Gail Wynand (Raymond Massey). Eventually, Wynand asks Roark to build a country home for him and Dominique and he becomes a frequent guest of the couple. Meanwhile, Roark discovers that his designs for a new housing complex have been severely altered. With Dominique's help, he literally blows up the building and then admits his guilt. At his much-publicized trial, public opinion is against him and even Wynand is forced to condemn him in order to save his paper. Roark's impassionate speech about individualism, however, causes the jury to acquit him. Wynand then commisions Roark to design the Wynand Building and kills himself after the contract is signed. The last scene shows Dominique, now Mrs. Roark, taking an elevator to meet her husband, who awaits her at the top of his magnificent new building.

Howard Roark: I loved you from the first moment I saw you, and you knew it. You tried to escape from it. I had to let you learn to accept me. Are you gonna leave me?

After purchasing the rights to Ayn Rand's novel in late 1943, Warner Bros. announced that Mervyn LeRoy was to direct The Fountainhead with stars Humphrey Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck, who claimed to have brought the book to the attention of the studio while it was still climbing the best-seller lists. However, wartime restrictions and Rand's anti-Russian politics led to the project being put on hold for nearly four years. When production resumed in 1948, King Vidor was hired to replace LeRoy and the lead roles were offered to Gary Cooper, whose wife, Rocky, had read the book, and newcomer Patricia Neal, who beat other young actresses such as Gene Tierney, Eleanor Parker and Lauren Bacall. 

Cooper was initially hesitant to take the role of Howard Roark, fearing that the selfish personality of the character might have a bad effect on his reputation and career. Though she never interfered with her husband's decisions in choosing roles, Rocky strongly advised Cooper to accept the part, especially since Rand had already said that he was her choice for Roark. Legend goes that the 41-year-old Barbara Stanwyck was so enraged when she learned that she had been replaced by a 22-year-old actress, that she immediately terminated her contract with the studio.

Roark and Dominique's first meeting
The filming of The Fountainhead began with the drilling scene, shot on location in California's largest and oldest stone quarry in July 1948, for what would be Roark and Dominique's first meeting in the film. Shot with Neal's character looking down upon Cooper's as he relentlessly thrusts his drill hammer "into the tight hole in the unyielding rock," the sequence is extremely suggestive and sexually charged. Though the scene caused a bit of controversy due to its obvious erotic overtones, the Hollywood censors did not edit the Freudian symbolism of Dominique's encounter with Roark. They did, however, find the female character a little too sexually compliant and eventually asked that some more provocative scenes be reshot and toned down enough the pass the censors.

Soon after The Fountainhead entered production, Cooper and Neal embarked in their own complicated love affair. Since he was married and scandal could damage or even ruin their careers and public image, they tried to keep their relationship as discreet as possible and were careful not to be seen in public outside of studio functions and other social events. However, in time, everyone found out about the affair and the two broke up in late December 1951, after three years of romance. Though their relationship had a bittersweet ending, Neal would always remember Gary Cooper as the love of her life. To learn more about Cooper and Neal's relationship, click here.

Problems with The Fountainhead began as soon as the company return to Los Angeles to resume shooting on the Warners lot, the great majority prompted by Rand's domineering attitude on the set. She was so consumed with her efforts to put forward her virtues of individualism, idealism, integrity and power, both artistic and sexual, that she simply could not write for the so-called "common man." As a result, Rand kept having extensive conferences with the production staff and heated arguments with King Vidor over ideological and stylistic issues.

King Vidor, Ayn Rand and Gary Cooper on the set

The most problematic situation occurred during the filming of Roark's trial. Arriving on the set one day, Rand was shocked to learn that Vidor had shortened her hero's speech, the very thing that in her view gave meaning to both the book and the film. The studio had considered it dramatically overlong and rambling and Cooper had had a hard time understanding it. Rand also found out that the Hollywood censors, as well as Cooper's lawyer, were concerned about the uncompromising principles of Roark's individualism and demanded that she lighten her central philosophical theme of the morality of selfishness. Since neither were able to justify their objections, their questions only resulted in Rand lenghtening the speech for clarity. When the writer threatned to take her name off the film and publish ads telling her millions of readers not to see it, Jack Warner finally allowed the speech to be shot as written. With a running time of six and a half minutes, Roark's speech was the longest in film history at that point.

Roark presenting one of his designs
Rand's screenplay also instructed that Howard Roark's buildings must be modelled in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright and only of Frank Lloyd Wright. When The Fountainhead began production, Jack Warner sent art director Edward Carrere to negotiate Wright's involvement in the film, but the architect refused the offer to work on the picture. Wright enjoyed Rand's portrayal of architecture in the novel, but disliked Roark the person and didn't believe in Rand's fictively formulated thesis of individual integrity and freedom. Furthermore, he wasn't interested in being a part of a film in which architecture served as a "background theme for sexual rape". Not even Rand's begging was able to convice him to take the job.

Ultimately, Roark's designs in the film were created by Carrere himself, who had trained as an architect, inspired by the corporate "International Style" of the East Coast in the late 1940s rather than Wright's architecture of the mid-West in the 1920s, when the book is set. Rand disliked Carrere's designs, judging them as "embarrassingly bad", but she couldn't do anything to change them. Despite all the troubles during production, filming on The Fountainhead finished one day ahead of schedule and everyone seemed to be happy with what they had done. Even Rand herself seemed to be satisfied with the film.

Upon its June 1949 premiere, however, The Fountainhead was a financial and critical failure. Critics called it scrambled, pretentious and embarrassing, "a story fit for the tabloids and the trash basket." Neal, who was escorted to the premiere by Kirk Douglas, felt humiliated when no one said a word to her about her performance. Finally, Virginia Mayo approached her and exclaimed, "My, weren't you bad!" (Why would she say such a thing?) Cooper's performance was considered to be wooden and pathetic and when he saw the film as a whole, he agreed with the critics, feeling that he had not delivered the final speech as he should have. He would often say in interviews about The Fountainhead: "Boy, did I louse that one up!"

Kirk Douglas, Patricia Neal and Gary Cooper after the premiere

Personally, I really enjoyed the film, but maybe that's because I interpreted it differently. Though it does makes a strong point about the struggle between individualism and collectivism, a lot of those themes completely passed me by. To me, The Fountainhead is simply a love story; a rather complex and aggressive love story, but a love story nevertheless. Besides, Cooper and Neal's sex appeal and fiery chemistry is enough to distract anyone from the more serious political and philosophical overtones of the film.

I think The Fountainhead is one of those films that people will either love it or absolutely hate it. If you haven't seen it yet, give it a go. And if you don't like, you can blame me for stealing 114 minutes of your life.

Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne C. Heller (2005) | Gary Cooper: American Hero by Jeffrey Meyers (1998) | Patricia Neal: An Unquiet Life by Stephen Shearer (2006) | The Fountainheads: Wright, Rand, the FBI and Hollywood by Donald Leslie Johnson (1998) | TCMDb (Articles)


  1. Maybe Virginia Mayo meant "bad" as in "naughty?" Regardless of Mayo's intent, I hope Patricia Neal interpreted it that way. "Oh, nobody commented because Gary Cooper is the sex object and I'm the one in the Hugh Hefner role? Hrm." Gary Cooper is the one who felt like a prostitute afterwards. Or is that pout of hers just sarcasm?

    1. This is the same commenter as above. I mentally caption the above photo: "Gary, you loused me up? Yeah, but when you gave me crabs you forgot the butter!"


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