Movie as Manifesto: The Fountainhead (1949)


Forget for a moment the philosophies of Ayn Rand. Forget the unrelenting stoicism of every character involved. Forget, if you can, that the dialogue, from beginning to end, plays like an ever flowing stream of talking points, slogans and mottos rather than actual words any normal human being would ever utter. Forget all of that and simply revel in the fact that, once upon a time, someone put Gary Cooper, Patricia Neal and Raymond Massey together in a movie in which they, ostensibly, form a love triangle and as an endlessly engaging commercial entertainment, it worked. It worked like gangbusters. Then go back to all the other stuff because, let’s face it, you couldn’t avoid it if you tried. The Fountainhead(1949), directed by King Vidor from a screenplay by Ayn Rand based on her own novel, is one of the most ludicrously naked political tracts ever filmed. But, damn, is it fun to watch.

The Fountainhead begins in a universe that does not, nor ever has, existed. It’s a universe where people constantly tell you they hate you because you’re original. You know how, when you’re a kid, you tell yourself that anyone who doesn’t like something you’ve done is just jealous? Well, in The Fountainhead‘s universe, that’s actually true and people will tell you that to your face. They will tell you they don’t like your new building design because it’s too good, and you’re a genius, and civilization will crumble if men are allowed to think for themselves. They won’t imply that, they will actually use those words. That’s the screenplay of The Fountainhead in a nutshell. Oh yeah, and sexual innuendo. Lots of sexual innuendo. But back to how it begins.

It begins with Howard Roark (Gary Cooper) being kicked out of school for being too original (yes, really). Told by his friend, Peter Keating (Kent Smith), that he will fail unless he follows the crowd, Roark finally gets a job with independent thinker Henry Cameron (Henry Hull), only to be told repeatedly by Cameron that he is too original and the world will hate him. He gets only four commissions in the years that follow, Cameron has a heart attack (which doesn’t stop him from lecturing Roark in the ambulance about the individual versus the collective), and when he hits bottom, he gets a visit from his old friend Peter who tells him “I told you so.”

When Roark finally gets another commission to build the headquarters for a bank, he turns it down because the bank wants to alter his design. This is, naturally, done as didactically as humanly possible without actually reading from a “Conformity for Dummies” handbook. They tell him if he doesn’t alter his ingenious and innovative design, the public will be horrified and afraid because it’s so original. Why, they won’t know what to think! He turns them down rather than go against his principles and the movie makes it easy for us to sympathize as the additions are, indeed, utterly abysmal in every possible way. Post-modernism never looked as bad as the clash of architectural types on display once the bank’s board is finished, and that’s saying something.


Roark then goes to work as a day laborer and it is here that he comes into contact with Dominique Francon (Patricia Neal), an architectural critic for a paper run by Gail Wynand (Raymond Massey), who is taking a summer break at her father’s estate. When we first meet Francon, she is dropping a statue from her window because, as she tells Wynand, who loves her, she loved the statue and didn’t want to submit to it and become a slave. You know, just like any normal person would. She’s engaged to Roark’s friend, Peter Keating, until Wynand offers him a job if he dumps Dominique, which he does. That sends Dominique to her dad’s house and down to his quarry to watch the day laborers pound stone. That’s when she sees Roark pile driving rock, working his drill like a master, and, gee, if you’re wondering if that imagery is meant to stand in for something else, no need to wonder, it is. The Fountainhead makes the sexual innuendo of James Bond films look like indecipherable code compared to its brazen lack of subtlety. Later, Dominique sits in her room and we see what she is thinking in optical overlay next to her head; the arms of Howard Roark working that drill.

She lures him up to her room by breaking the marble base of her fireplace so that he has to fix it. He cracks it apart with his mighty hammer and chisel before leaving her desperate for his manhood. When the new marble arrives, Roark purposely sends someone else to install it, infuriating Dominique. She chases him down on horseback, whips his face and leaves. Later, he enters her room and, there’s no way to candy coat this, rapes her. It uses the ages-old cliché of “she resists but she really wants it” to give Roark a pass, but the scene ends with no other interpretation left for the viewer to grant such a pass, cliché or not. She runs out of the room, trips and falls, whimpers, and Roark walks up to her, stands over her and smirks. Fade to black. So, like I said, he rapes her.

He leaves the next day and within a year is a successful architect. That’s when Dominique meets up with him again, marries Wynand and the bizarre triangle begins. Oh yeah, and there’s a lot of stuff about the individual, the collective and doing whatever you want to whoever you want as long as you’re not conforming.

The Fountainhead is a marvel of a movie. Visually, it’s stunning. That’s no surprise with King Vidor as director and Robert Burks as cinematographer. Burks was one of the best cinematographers Hollywood ever had. The art direction by Edward Carrere is equally impressive, giving life to the universe of Howard Roark. And, of course, Cooper, Neal, and Massey all do the best job they can with the platitudes they’re forced to spout. Which brings us back to the screenplay.

Ayn Rand wrote it based on her own novel and it is truly wretched in almost every conceivable way. While the story itself may be preposterous in its setups (Roark just happens to be college friends with Keating, who just happens to be engaged to Francon, who just happens to visit the quarry where Roark just happens to be working, then quits her job at Wynand’s paper out of protest over the treatment of a brilliant new architect she doesn’t know just happens to be the guy that trapped her in room and on and on and on), many movies have stories based on extraordinary coincidences. No, it’s the God-awful dialogue that both dooms the movie and makes it endlessly entertaining, all at the same time.

Rand cannot extract herself from the piece and simply write a story that espouses her ideas. She must make the characters act as her mouthpiece and spew them for her. Her screenplay doesn’t just outline exactly what you should think, it never contains a moment where it doesn’t outline what you should think. After only a few minutes, and I do mean only a few minutes, the preponderance of didacticism makes it impossible not to start chuckling at each new line. It doesn’t matter what a character does (drop a statue, read a paper, drink a cup of coffee) you can be damn sure that before, during, and after doing it, they will tell you how it relates to the eternal struggle of the ego versus the collective.

Ayn Rand became famous for the philosophies outlined in her books and her screenplay puts them on full display. Roark can destroy anything he makes, even if paid and contracted by someone else to do it. His arguments at the end win his freedom in Rand’s universe but in any other, he would have been laughed out of the courtroom while the judge asked, “You’re joking, right?” Her screenplay is filled with ludicrous setups, condoned rape, and sexual innuendo blunt enough to seem sophomoric to a fifth grader. And yet, its very outlandishness also makes it eminently watchable. When Francon rides that elevator up to her demi-god, Roarke, in the final shot, Rand’s notion of the self-serving individual is on full display. Roarke has beaten everyone by standing his ground and now the woman who thought she might best him is riding up to meet him. He lowers himself for no one, not even the woman who loves him.

Greg Ferrara

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30 Responses Movie as Manifesto: The Fountainhead (1949)
Posted By S stranger : July 14, 2017 12:32 am

The Fountainhead is extreme Rand, but has some beautiful scenes…in both book and film. I’ve always regretted Peter Keatings haircut! Which really dates the film. You can’t take Rand too literally with Dominic’s character but it’s all compelling.

Posted By Susan G : July 14, 2017 12:36 am

This movie might have the worst screenplay in the history of movies. As you said, it’s a screed, not a screenplay.

Posted By Gamera2000 : July 14, 2017 12:59 am

This is probably as good an example I can think of as a proof of the Auteur theory. A great director (King Vidor) and a group of talented technicians can take a pedantic and idiotic script and make a kind of great film out of it.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 14, 2017 8:16 am

Susan and Gamera, yes and yes. Putting Hollywood’s best and brightest to work, they managed to make a visually beautiful and interesting film out of a screenplay that, as I said, is truly wretched. The screenplay could be studied as an example of how not to write a script unless your goal is to endlessly talk down to your audience by hammering home every single intention, motivation, and meaning of every word.

Posted By Cool Bev : July 14, 2017 9:04 am

Amazingly, Rand wrote a very good script for Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones, Love Letters. It is an odd script, about PTSD and amnesia and mistaken identity, and it has some of her crotchets (amnesiac calls herself Singleton), but very entertaining.

Or is it everything but the script that make this entertaining? Now I’m not sure.

Posted By Susan G : July 14, 2017 10:11 am

Cool Bev, wow, I did not know that Rand wrote the Love Letters script! I like that movie (even though Jennifer Jones has ruined every movie for me, in which I’ve seen her–unpopular opinion, I know). I’d like to watch it again, now, knowing that Rand wrote it.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 14, 2017 11:00 am

Rand has three screenplay credits, You Came Along, Love Letters, and The Fountainhead. The last is the only one I’ve seen. The first two were based on other works so I wouldn’t expect too much of Rand in them but who knows?

Susan, I think we’ve covered this before here, but I pretty much agree with you on Jones. Despite her several Oscar nominations and one win (while Joseph Cotten inexplicably got zero!) I never warmed to her as an actress. I love Portrait of Jennie because of the paranormal love story, Dieterle’s direction, and Joseph Cotten. Jones just happens to be in it. Love Letters having no paranormal angle like Jennie to hook me in, I have avoided it over the years.

Posted By Doug : July 14, 2017 12:48 pm

I think it boils down to this: a writer needs a strong editor to keep them in check. Adapting her own work, no one could tell Rand anything. a better editor, a better movie.

Posted By George : July 14, 2017 2:30 pm

When I watch this movie, I focus on the striking visuals and try to ignore the pompous, self-righteous pontificating that never seems to end. This is a movie where people make speeches rather than exchange dialogue.

Posted By Susan G : July 14, 2017 3:54 pm

Yes, Greg, I remember our exchange about Jennifer Jones. If she had not been in Portrait of Jennie, it would be on my all-time favorites list. It’s kind of hard to ignore the lead actress–try as I might. You should give Love Letters a shot and let us know what you think.

Posted By LD : July 14, 2017 4:56 pm

The one word that describes THE FOUNTAINHEAD to me is “pretentious”.

Posted By George : July 14, 2017 5:46 pm

I always confuse LOVE LETTERS with I’LL BE SEEING YOU, another wartime romance with Joseph Cotten that spawned a popular song. Difference: Ginger Rogers is in I’LL BE SEEING YOU (which can be seen on YouTube, while copyright issues keep LOVE LETTERS off that site).

Posted By Susan G : July 14, 2017 5:56 pm

I like I’ll Be Seeing You, also.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 15, 2017 8:11 am

Doug, slightly off topic but connected to the idea you mention, I have always noticed that many writers of the past 50 years start out with tighter, leaner works that make them famous, and then once they become big, they are too big to be edited and their novels grow fatter and fatter but not necessarily better.

To your point here, Rand didn’t want to leave out even a split second of her “ideas” and we see the result of that.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 15, 2017 8:15 am

George, the visuals are amazing. It’s my theory that the reason Burks isn’t more widely known, like say Gregg Toland or Jack Cardiff, is because he worked so much with Hitchcock and people tend to give Hitch 100% of the credit for everything in his movies. Of course, he deserves a lot of the credit, but without Burks, I don’t know if Vertigo would have been the great movie it is entirely. His photography in that is perfectly done.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 15, 2017 8:16 am

LD, when thinking of the dialogue, the word “ripe” also comes to mind.

Posted By George : July 15, 2017 2:40 pm

Burks’ first credit as cinematographer was the musical short “Jammin’ the Blues” (1944), which defines the term “visually dazzling.” And it’s a movie that required black-and-white photography for its impact.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 15, 2017 5:33 pm

George, it’s available on YouTube and it’s amazing. Not sure if I ever saw it before but I just checked it out and was quite impressed. Great music too. Thanks for bringing it up.

Posted By Kathy Shaidle : July 16, 2017 10:19 am

The Fountainhead is the anti-It’s a Wonderful Life. Why watch a movie about a failed architect surrounded by losers when you can choose from The Fountainhead instead?

Posted By Kathy Shaidle : July 16, 2017 10:27 am

Oh, and this, along with subtler variations:

“It’s a universe where people constantly tell you they hate you because you’re original.”

Has actually happened to me. :-) So there’s that.

Posted By George : July 16, 2017 2:35 pm

I suspect THE FOUNTAINHEAD had an impact on writer-driven “prestige” TV dramas of the ’60s, such as Twilight Zone, Route 66 and Star Trek. Rod Serling, Stirling Silliphant and Gene Roddenberry also had a weakness for long-winded speechifying in which characters state (and restate) their philosophical positions.

Those are three largely great shows. But when their writer-creators didn’t restrain themselves … well, I think the word “pretentious” has been used here.

Posted By George : July 16, 2017 3:06 pm

Greg: YouTube has another Burks-lensed Warner short worth seeing, the Oscar-winning “Star in the Night” (1945). It was the first film directed by Don Siegel.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 16, 2017 10:09 pm

Kathy, people tend to hate me because I’m brilliant. They dislike me because I’m original, but they don’t hate me.

As to which movie one chooses to spend time with, it’s not about the success or failures of the characters but the dialogue and story elements they’re given. Hell, I’d rather spend time with the Corleone family over almost any other family in movie history and it’s sure as hell not because I kill my rivals or cut off horse’s heads. It’s because the acting, directing, and writing are all so damn good. I think The Fountainhead, adapted by another Hollywood writer at the time could have been a lot better with the same exact story. Even so, as I said, it’s still one hell of an entertaining movie anyway, despite Rand’s inability to write decent dialogue for her characters.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 16, 2017 10:11 pm

George, Rod Serling and a lot of writers of the thirties through the sixties underlined their philosophies in the scripts. Obviously Rand is the example here, but Odets is another one who didn’t know how to make his characters just sound like people. Serling was probably the best of the lot.

Posted By George : July 17, 2017 2:56 pm

Another reason for the long-winded speeches in ’60s TV: there was rarely time or money for creating mood and atmosphere (though Twilight Zone sometimes achieved it, as did Outer Limits). A lot of shows in those days were “illustrated radio”: actors talking in closeups and medium shots. And not much else.

Actually, a lot of TV is still like that, even though home screens have gotten larger and wider. Eventually shows will focus more on visuals, instead of scene after scene of expository dialogue. Then people will have even less reason to go to a movie theater.

Posted By Susan G : July 17, 2017 3:46 pm

George, I agree–Outer Limits was shot with great mood. Unfortunately, the remake, some years back, did not have what the original had.

Posted By Doug : July 17, 2017 6:23 pm

George wrote: “Actually, a lot of TV is still like that, even though home screens have gotten larger and wider. Eventually shows will focus more on visuals, instead of scene after scene of expository dialogue.”
One show that I see ‘getting lazy’ is “The Big Bang Theory”. Now, perhaps because each actor is raking in the big bucks, most of the action is inaction-three or so of the group sitting on comfy chairs/lying in bed whipping zingers at each other. They don’t even bother reacting anymore.
One show that kept action/visuals going till the end was “Psych”, which is coming back for a Christmas movie. Or New Years. I’ve heard it both ways.

Posted By Renee Leask : July 17, 2017 6:44 pm

I could write a book about how talky TV is! But I want to write about The Fountainhead, which I saw on TCM one morning as I waited to be picked up and taken to a clinic for minor surgery. So I was a little nervous and very hungry and the film was like a hallucination. The shot compositions and the intensity of the chemistry between Cooper and Neal — wonderful! Everything else makes the viewer think they must have heard wrong. A strange, annoying, unforgettable (I’ve tried) film.

Posted By George : July 22, 2017 2:27 pm

Renee: I wouldn’t discourage anyone from seeing The Fountainhead, for all its flaws. It’s still a unique film, although a lot of people regard it as high camp (thanks mainly to Patricia Neal’s unhinged performance).

“I could write a book about how talky TV is!”

There’s been some discussion online about how the silent reaction shot has all but disappeared from movies. Now, unless it’s an action scene, characters have to be jabbering and yammering in every shot, and spelling out what is happening and why. I assume this is borrowed from TV.

It’s rare to see a movie now where a character is looking at something, or trying to make a decision, without talking. Movies from as recently as 20 years ago now seem quiet and — I’m sure to young people — slow.

Posted By Paul Dionne : December 22, 2017 3:41 pm

Oy – The Fountainhead what a movie! Definitely either you’re all in, or you’re not. It’s a movie experience, rare – kind of like Zardoz.

As for Jennifer Jones vs. Ginger Rogers. I will take Jones over Rogers any day. Ginger Rogers was great very early, the Astaire/Rogers movies – wonderful. However, when she got her name and started “acting” she is egotistical and pretentious as all get out. And much too old to be playing the roles she did (The Major and The Minor, I’m looking at you…)

Whereas, Jennifer Jones, insecure and trying as incredibly hard as she can, to be a good, or even great actress. Yeah, I know which I prefer, with Jones it’s will she pull it off, or won’t she?

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