Fountainhead, The (1949): Revisiting Controversial Melodrama of Ayn Rand Novel–and one of King Vidor’s Best Films, Starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal

Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead was published in May 1943. Stanwyck read it and wanted to play the novel’s heroine, Dominique Francon. She asked Jack L. Warner to buy the rights to the book, which the studio did in October 1943.

Rand agreed to write the script, contingent that not a single word of her dialogue be changed. Mervyn LeRoy was hired to direct, but the production was delayed, due to the influence of the War Production Board, spurred by Rand’s anti-Communist politics.

Three years later, production commenced under the direction of King Vidor, despite disputes among Rand, Vidor, and Warner throughout the production. Vidor wanted Humphrey Bogart to play Howard Roark, and Rand wished for Gary Cooper.

Stanwyck continued to push for the role of Dominique, appealing to Rand and to producer Henry Blanke, but Vidor thought she was too old. Some reports in 1948 mentioned Lauren Bacall (Bogart’s wife) would be cast as Dominique, but in June, Vidor hired Patricia Neal for the role.

Cooper criticized Neal’s audition as badly acted, but she was cast against his judgment; then, during production, Cooper and Neal began an affair. Rand called Stanwyck to tell her about the decision. Stanwyck was upset about losing the role and that no one from the studio informed, leading to her leaving Warner.

Rand wrote the script based on her novel in June 1944.

The setting of The Fountainhead is collective society in which individuals and new ideas of architecture are not accepted, and all buildings must be constructed “like Greek temples, Gothic cathedrals and mongrels of every ancient style they could borrow,” in the deathbed words of Roark’s patron Henry Cameron.

Rand’s version criticized Hollywood film industry and its self-imposed mandate to “give the public what it wants.” Roark, in his architecture, refuses to give in to this demand “by the public.” He refuses to work in any way that compromises his integrity, and in which he would succumb to “popular taste.”

Rand wrote a new scene in which Roark is rejected as architect for the Civic Opera Company of New York, an allusion to Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Civic Light Opera Company of Pittsburgh.

While communism is not named, the film is interpreted as a criticism of that ideology and the lack of individual identity in a collective life under a communist society. However, the novel’s criticisms were aimed at Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, which is reflected in Rand’s endorsement of modernism in both the book and the film. In adapting her novel, Rand used the melodrama genre to dramatize the novel’s sexuality and the aesthetics of modernistic architecture.

Rand often visited the set in order to “protect her screenplay.” During filming, Vidor felt that Roark’s speech at the end was too long, and decided to omit segments of it. After learning of Vidor’s decision, Rand appealed to Jack L. Warner to honor her contract, and Warner persuaded Vidor to shoot the scene as she had written it.

However, Rand altered the film’s plot in order to be approved by the Production Code Administration. In the novel, Wynand divorces Dominique, but because the Motion Picture Production Code prohibited divorce, Rand has Wynand commit suicide instead.

Rand’s screenplay instructed, “It is the style of Frank Lloyd Wrigh–and only Wright–that must be taken as model for Roark’s buildings. This is extremely important to us, since we must make the audience admire Roark’s buildings.” Famed architect Wright turned down an offer to work on the film.

The architectural style Roark advocates, realized in the production designs of Edward Carrere, is closer to the corporate International Style of the East Coast in the late 1940s than to Wright’s architecture of the Midwest from the 1920s. The style is rooted in German, rather than American, modernism. During filming, Rand told Gerald Loeb that she disliked his work, describing his designs as copied from pictures of “horrible modernistic buildings” and “embarrassingly bad.”

The film’s closing image, depicting Roark standing atop the “tallest structure in the world,” is deliberately phallic, calling for Freudian interpretation.

The film’s score was composed by legendary composer Max Steiner. The music suggests strong affinity for The Fountainhead, conveying the novel’s shifting tone. Steiner’s music accents the story’s themes of redemption and renewal, providing insight into Roark’s opposition, Francon’s sense of life, and Wynand’s flaw.

For the film’s Hollywood premiere, Warner erected two banks of bleachers on Hollywood Boulevard for the expected mob of fans. Neal attended the premiere with Kirk Douglas as her date, and the two signed autographs for fans. The Los Angeles Times wrote that the audience “strongly responded to the unusual elements in the production.”

Cooper felt that he had not delivered the final speech as he should have. Around this time, Cooper and Neal’s affair became public knowledge, and the scandal (Cooper was married at the time) might have had negative effect on the film’s box office.

Rand’s Response

Sales of Rand’s novel increased following the movie’s release. She wrote, “The picture is more faithful to the novel than any other adaptation of a novel that Hollywood has ever produced,” and “It was a real triumph.” Rand conceded to friend DeWitt Emery that “I can see your point in feeling that Gary Cooper’s performance should have been stronger,” but concluded, “I would rather see the part underplayed than overdone by some phony-looking ham.”

In later years, she would state how she “disliked the movie from beginning to end” and complained about the editing, acting and other elements. After the film, Rand said that she would not sell any more of her novels without the right to pick the director and screenwriter and to edit the film.

Critical Reception Then and Now

The Fountainhead was panned by critics upon its initial release.

The Hollywood Reporter wrote: “Its characters are downright weird and there is no feeling of self-identification.”

The Los Angeles Times wrote that the film would not “catch the interest of what is known as the average movie audience — whoever they may be nowadays”.

The communist newspaper Daily Worker deemed it to be “an openly fascist movie”.

Variety called the film “cold, unemotional, loquacious [and] completely devoted to hammering home the theme that man’s personal integrity stands above all law.”

John McCarten of The New Yorker thought it was “the most asinine and inept movie that has come out of Hollywood in years”.

Cue described it as “shoddy, bombastic nonsense.”

Bosley Crowther, of the New York Times, called the film “wordy, involved and pretentious” and characterized Vidor’s work as “vast succession of turgid scenes.”

Nonetheless, in recent years, The Fountainhead has been reappraised. Emanuel Levy described the film as one of the few examples of an adaptation that is better than the book upon which it is based. Dave Kehr wrote “King Vidor turned Ayn Rand’s preposterous ‘philosophical’ novel into one of his finest and most personal films, mainly by pushing the phallic imagery so hard that it surpasses Rand’s rightist diatribes.” Architect David Rockwell, who saw the film when he visited New York City in 1964, has said that the film influenced his interest in architecture and design and that at his university, many architecture students named their dogs Roark as a tribute to the protagonist of the novel and film.[28]

Various filmmakers have expressed interest in new adaptations of The Fountainhead. In the 1970s, writer-director Michael Cimino wanted to film his own script for UA. In 1992, producer James Hill optioned the rights and selected Phil Joanou to direct.

In the 2000s, Oliver Stone was interested in directing a new adaptation; Brad Pitt was under consideration to play Roark.

In a March 2016 interview, director Zack Snyder also expressed interest in a new adaptation.

In February 2020, the film was shown at the 70th Berlin Film Festival as part of retrospective dedicated to King Vidor.

The film earned $2,179,000 domestically and $807,000 in foreign markets, against a cost of $2,375,000.