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"The Fountainhead" — the Movie

In which I review "The Fountainhead"

Turner Classic Movies did a "Gary Cooper day" a couple of Sundays ago, a week before the Republican Convention. (It's a bit of cheap fun to go through a day's listings on TCM and try to pick up the theme. It's Veronica Lake day, or it's a day full of movies all of which have "Seven" in their titles…) The very last Cooper film they showed (11:30PM here, it would have been 2:30AM ET) was 1949's The Fountainhead, based on Ayn Rand's 1943 book, and co-starring Raymond Massey and a very 22-year-old Patricia Neal.

I've never read the book. I'm the right age cohort, but Rand was never really part of my cultural milieu, we were more into Heinlein and Ellison and Herbert. But considering the currency of her philosophy, I thought I'd give the movie a good look, especially when I learned from the TCM introduction that Rand not only wrote the screenplay, but had final script approval. So I figured it ought to be a fairly faithful expression of her ideology.

Just as a movie, it took me a little while to realize what it was that seemed just a bit off. Let me first indulge a bit, though, by saying that Patricia Neal was totally stunning. She was gorgeous. The Patricia Neal that I'm most familiar with is more mature, from Face in the Crowd and after, and I had no experience with her earlier roles. And the way Director King Vidor and D.P. Robert Burks put together the shots made her almost ethereal. Move over, Hedy Lamarr 

But the fashions may have been the only thing in the film that said 1949. The rest of it looked eerily like a pre-war movie, not only visually, in terms of the staging and the neo-Deco art direction, but in the way it was organized dramatically, the dialog pacing, in contrast to the late-40s noir style or snappy patter of Adam's Rib. Indeed, it reminded me most of 1941's Major Barbara (with Robert Morley and Rex Harrison), and a bit like 1936's Things to Come (also with Raymond Massey), two other very philosophically-based films featuring somewhat stilted dialog and contrived situations setting up long speeches about some principle or other. It looked and sounded better than those films, due to the improvement in movie technology by the late 1940s, but that's just about it; and honestly, I'm not really all that sure about the fashions.

But I really paid close attention; I really wanted to understand what she was trying to say, even backing up and re-watching the occasional speech or chunk of dialog. And what I heard was a huge straw man, and a whole bunch of whining.

She postulates this world where all of mainstream culture is dedicated to homogenizing everything at the lowest common denominator level, where the world is divided into elites, who make all the decisions, all the choices for society, and apparently all the money, and "the masses" — the "unwashed" is assumed — who apparently have no expressible sense of taste or esthetic as individuals themselves, and blindly follow the opinions of the newspaper's architecture critic(!), who, like some dime-novel Machiavelli, is intentionally subverting the concept of excellence by promoting a mediocre but compliant architect as the Next Big Thing. (Architecture? Really?)

Roark (Cooper) elicits a certain amount of sympathy, as the Principled Artist fighting for the integrity of his work. The best-known, signature scene is, of course, when Roark, after one of his buildings was changed without his consent, dynamites it, and consequently stands trial. Now, I know a few artists, and I'm quite sure that each one of them has felt at least once like blowing up some installation that didn't come out quite as planned because someone else screwed something up. The difference is that Howard Roark is a gigantic douchebag — especially where Dominique Francon (Neal) is concerned.

I found the sexual politics of this story really disturbing, somewhere between anachronistic and frightening. Francon didn't seem to have a personality of her own, beyond being a spoiled, rich, proto-Kardashian. Rather, she seemed to be the prize, never a truly independent agent, enduring Roark's speeches and his refusal of her love until she became one. But apparently, becoming an independent agent requires her to submit to rape followed by years of humiliating passive-aggressive sublimated hostility until she helps Roark destroy the project — and by the end she's as big a douchebag as he is. 

Her character's arc seems to parallel the larger story of Roark's eventual victory over the forces of mediocrity as embodied by critic Ellsworth Toohey, who had managed, by manipulating the unwashed etc. (i.e., unions), to coerce big-deal publisher Gail Wynand (Massey) into publicly opposing Roark, so that when in a prime example of jury nullification Roark is acquitted despite overwhelming evidence and his confession, allowing Francon — Mrs. Wynand — to leave Wynand for Roark, Wynand is so humiliated (go figure) in this mythical dog-eat-dog culture he finds it necessary to shoot himself. The final scene sees Francon — now Mrs. Roark — riding an elevator to meet the triumphant Roark — at the top.

Government is pretty much nowhere to be found. The Fire Department responds to the explosion, but that's all you see. The courts, both times they're mentioned — once for a possible lawsuit and then Roark's trial — are ineffectual. Nobody acts or refrains from acting because it's "the law" — "law" isn't mentioned, even in the "natural law" sense. But yet Rand's elite, her individuals of greatness, never even consider lying or cheating or using violence, at least not against each other. What a wonderfully enlightened bunch of folks! It makes one wonder why Wynand even had a gun.

As I said at the beginning, I like Science (or "Speculative", as Harlan Ellison would have it) Fiction. But if a story is going to postulate some alternative view of modern society (say, if the CSA had won), it has to be plausible. Rand's world, however — it's explicitly supposed to be New York City — is populated by cartoon characters out of a silent melodrama; all that was missing was a villain with a mustache. The "masses" are as faceless as chess pawns and the (ahem) fountainhead of mediocrity. The elites are idealized and one-dimensional, with unrecognizable motivations. The misogyny is as staggering as Patricia Neal is spectacular.

If you get the chance, see it; there'll no doubt be a "Patricia Neal day" on TCM soon. Form your own opinions, reach your own conclusions. Me, I prefer Heinlein.

Synopses are available here and here.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Patti C September 11, 2012 at 07:42 PM
Thanks to Paul Ryan (ewww), it seems Ayn Rand and her "interesting" philosophies may be getting some new attention. Your review of the film hits many points on the head (including the fabulosity of Patricia Neal - so droll, so cool!) The film has several unintentionally laughable moments. Still, it is entertaining to ponder what societies might be like if folks truly refused to conform to the staid, dictated "rules" - not merely wear t-shirts that claim so. Plus, Gary Cooper is gorgeous...so there's that. Hee hee...
Tom Brody September 16, 2012 at 04:03 PM
I borrowed this movie (The Fountainhead) from Alameda Public Library. I am not sure what all the fuss is about. In my opinion, the "lessons" taught by this story are totally uncontroversial. Even a ten year old can agree that all of the "lessons" taught by The Fountainhead are intuitively. At times, the narrative in the movie is skillful. But usually, what happens in the movie is clumsy and disjointed. It is not a good movie. If you are interested in actress Patricia Neal, there are plenty of better films to choose from, e.g., The Day the Earth Stood Still, as well as more recent films. But The Fountainhead bludgeons the viewer with pontifications that are all intuitively-obvious and self-evident. In other words, The Fountainhead is like a movie where the actors exchange lines such as, "You should look both ways before crossing the street!" "Really, should I look both ways before crossing the street?" "Yes, yes, that is what you should do." "Okay, I will try to look both ways before crossing the street." "Yes, mark my words, be sure to remember to look both ways before crossing the street." "Wait a minute, if I understood you right, you asked me to look both ways before crossing the street, did you?" "That is what I said, alright!"
Tom Brody September 16, 2012 at 04:04 PM
I borrowed this movie (The Fountainhead) from Alameda Public Library. I am not sure what all the fuss is about. In my opinion, the "lessons" taught by this story are totally uncontroversial. Even a ten year old can agree that all of the "lessons" taught by The Fountainhead are intuitively obvious. At times, the narrative in the movie is skillful. But usually, what happens in the movie is clumsy and disjointed. It is not a good movie. If you are interested in actress Patricia Neal, there are plenty of better films to choose from, e.g., The Day the Earth Stood Still, as well as more recent films. But The Fountainhead bludgeons the viewer with pontifications that are all intuitively-obvious and self-evident. In other words, The Fountainhead is like a movie where the actors exchange lines such as, "You should look both ways before crossing the street!" "Really, should I look both ways before crossing the street?" "Yes, yes, that is what you should do." "Okay, I will try to look both ways before crossing the street." "Yes, mark my words, be sure to remember to look both ways before crossing the street." "Wait a minute, if I understood you right, you asked me to look both ways before crossing the street, did you?" "That is what I said, alright!" ...
Tom Brody September 16, 2012 at 04:06 PM
Please see second posting of this review below, since the above review has a tiny typo.

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