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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Ayn Rand called her style of writing "Romantic Realism". As far as her
film adaptation of her famous novel "The Fountainhead" is concerned,
"Bodice-Ripper with Philosophical Pretensions" would be a more accurate
Despite an enormous budget, an accomplished director and some of the best acting talent available in the late 40's, this is one of the most unintentionally hilarious "message" pictures of all time.
Besides the fact that Raymond Massey had major parts in both films (though here it's in a supporting role, as pallid William-Randolph-Hearst-clone Gail Wynand) there are quite a few similarities between this film and another famous flop, 1937's "Things To Come". Both screenplays were written by revered authors with a huge popular following. The films themselves are visually stunning paeans to high technology, with fine casts and lavish production values, all of which are completely subverted by the reams of astonishingly clunky dialog mouthed by their cardboard-cutout characters.
The main difference between the two is that H. G. Wells was near the end of his career as a writer, while Rand was arguably at the peak of her narrative powers.
At least with "The Fountainhead" you know what you're in for from the very beginning, as veteran character actor Henry Hull -- playing Howard Roark's alcoholic, on-the-skids mentor -- doesn't merely chew the scenery but tears into it like a famished piranha, before his character's merciful (for the viewer) demise.
And it's all downhill from there, as Gary Cooper's ersatz Frank Lloyd Wright is dogged by the forces of conformity, personified by despicable architectural critic Elsworth Toohey. Just one of the many sledgehammer-subtle characterizations in this film, this villain does everything but sneer and twirl his moustache (yes, he has a moustache) as he declares that Howard must be crushed, for daring to be an individual and not submitting to the will of the masses (whom Toohey secretly despises).
Roark also designs buildings for which his doughy, loser friend Peter Keating (played by the thoroughly Caucasian Kent Smith) then takes the credit. Fortunately, Roark at least has the forethought to retain his little-known right (SPOILER ALERT) as the real architect to blow up his buildings rather than submit to the crushing tyranny of a conventional facade.
Patricia Neal does lend a certain verve to her role as Dominique, the sexually repressed and capricious romantic interest who must "destroy everything she loves". We know this thanks to an introductory scene where she tilts a large, heavy statue that she admires out the window of her high-rise apartment. ("Look out below: Dominique's in one of her moods again!"). Nor is this the most ham-handed bit of symbolism employed: I defy anyone to sit through the scene where Neal gets a blatant case of the hot sloppies while watching Roark get all sweaty pounding granite with a pneumatic drill without collapsing, helpless in the grip of a fit of uncontrollable laughter.
The rest of the plot is too ludicrous for words, but here are a few highlights from Ayn Rand's Bizarro World brand of "realism":
- An architectural critic can wield near-dictatorial power by virtue of his vast following among fellow journalists, unimaginative businessmen, and the easily-swayed masses. (And Roger Ebert thinks *he* has it made!)
- Rape is the best way to a willful and self-destructive woman's heart.
- A challenge to one's artistic integrity is best countered with lots of high explosives.
- (SPOILER ALERT) If treated to a tedious harangue about the importance of the individual, juries will tend to forget that this particular individual is on trial for dynamiting public buildings in a fit of pique.
Unless you're a rabid Ayn Rand fan -- or a confirmed masochist who gets a sick thrill out of watching great actors humiliate themselves -- stay far, far away from this rancid hunk of cinematic Limburger.
Not too many films can grab your attention with an atypical discussion
of individualism, inspire you with a character's strength of will,
disturb you with that same character's cold attitude towards humanity,
and make you laugh at the script's stiffness and awkwardness at the
same time. I don't really know how to approach my commentary on this
strange film, so I will just list several of my observations.
--- I first learned of this film while watching a documentary on AMC about screenwriters' experiences in Hollywood. This film was chosen by the documentary as an example of what a screenplay shouldn't be! Indeed, the dialogue is melodramatic and positively stilted, since it is delivered by characters that exist primarily as vessels of philosophical thought, not real people that interact with each other. Does Dominique have any favorite hobbies, books, or radio programs? Or does she just sit around all day fretting about the inanity of the mindless masses, only taking a break now and then to throw a valuable statue out her window and onto some poor pedestrian's head because, as she says, she "loves" the statue? Gary Cooper even stuttered a lot of his lines like a robot, especially in that long-winded courtroom "climax". By the way, Cooper's character never seemed to be having fun except when he was getting fondled by Dominique or watching her trip and nearly kill herself while trying to run away from him.
--- At times, the film came close to acting as a successful examination of themes like resisting convention and finding one's internal independence and freedom, a la Chopin's "The Awakening." There are some provocative quotes that make good points on these issues. But the heavy dose of Randian anti-altruism that the script administers adds a pallor of mean-spiritedness and unlikeability to the characters and the screenwriter's points.
--- Rand apparently had a pessimistic view of humanity that was morbid and spiteful in the extreme. Are we to believe that all but a few people comprise an incitable, easy-manipulated, stupid mob of people? The scene where Wynand finds himself opposed by all 15 of his board members, all of whom are apparently spineless 'fraidy cats, typifies the exaggerated "It's everybody against one of me!" mentality that pervades the main characters' lives.
--- The direction was much better than I anticipated. And Robert Burks scored big with his cinematography. The modern black-and-white scenes must have provided him with lots of opportunities.
--- Zaniest quote (not word for word): Dominique is taken aback at how Gail Wynand bribed Peter Keating to break off his engagement with her. Wynand: Oh, people do this sort of thing all the time. They just don't talk about it.
--- Max Steiner's score is like Bernard Herrmann's score for "Marnie" --- it is pretty good and exciting to listen to on an album, but it is too emotional and high-strung for the screen. Oh, did anyone else notice how the piano player at the Enright Building's housewarming party was playing the movie's theme song?
--- Not enough attention was paid to the changes that the Gail Wynand character experienced. He went from strong amoral capitalist to redeemed supporter of the little guy to weak amoral capitalist in mere scene-changes!
--- How could Ellsworth Toohey, who is just a writer for a newspaper, manage to essentially take over the entire newspaper staff? How come Toohey never smiles or drops his scowl? And does he take some pride from the fact that he looks like and dresses like an evil John Quincy Adams with a mustache? Also, how does he have a hand in so many architecture projects? He's just a critic! Are we to believe that a cackling Roger Ebert hangs around the film studios in Hollywood and wields sinister influence over the producers and the films that they make?
Gary Cooper is much too mature for the role of the idealistic architect, but everyone else in the cast is fine. Cooper and Patricia Neal were supposedly involved in a passionate off-camera romance at the time, and some fans of this movie insist they can detect the sparks on-screen, too. I don't, but then I find Cooper such a bore as an actor that it's hard to tell if he's breathing, let alone excited. His performance here almost ruins what could have been a brilliant adaptation of Ayn Rand's ambitious novel. Howard Roark, the architect who refuses to conform to another man's ideals (or lack of them), does not strike me as an "Aw' shucks" kind of guy, but that's pretty much the way Cooper plays him. Roark will build anything--a public housing project, a townhouse, even a gas station--as long as it's built according to his vision. He will not compromise. Cooper just doesn't possess the fire that this character requires. When he becomes impassioned ("A man who works for the sake of others is a slave"), you can almost see the cue cards reflecting in his eyes. Certainly, he doesn't feel Rand's words in his gut. On the plus side, King Vidor's visual style is imaginative, and despite a lot of pompous sermonizing and Cooper's miscasting, this is a worthwhile film simply because there are so few Hollywood productions that emphasize ideas and a man's philosophy. In a curious way, it brings to mind "Network," and other Paddy Chayefsky films.
Movie based on Ayn Rand's book. Idealistic architect Howard Roark (Gary
Cooper) won't compromise his designs for society. He also falls for
beautiful Dominique Francon (Patricia Neal).
Now the original novel is brilliant...but over 1,000 pages and quite dense. The studio (wisely) got Rand to write the screenplay for this--I suspect a studio writer would have ruined it. She manages to cut down the book and get her message across perfectly. The movie is also well-directed--full of incredible sets and designs. It has a pounding lush score and some truly hysterical sexual imagery involving Cooper and Neal.
The acting though is another story. Neal is fantastic--the perfect choice for Dominique--sexy, smart and strong. Raymond Massey is also good as Gail Wynand. Unfortunately Gary Cooper is terrible as Roark. He was hand-picked by Rand to play the role--but I think she picked him because she was attracted to him. He's wooden all through the movie and his unsure line readings are pretty painful. (Purportedly he didn't understand the script--it shows). Still, the movie survives despite him. I can truthfully only give it a 9--with a better actor I might give this a 10.
Be warned--this is not an easy movie. It's all talk, runs almost 2 hours and deals with idealism and values. Some people will be bored silly by this but I find it fascinating. Recommended.
One of the biggest mistakes in film history was allowing Ayn Rand to
write the screenplay adaptation for her own novel. Boy does she like to
hear herself talk or what? There is not one line of dialogue in this
film that isn't overly dramatic and patently didactic. Rand does for
dialogue what Norma Desmond does for mannerisms, except in the case of
Norma Desmond there's an excuse -- she's nuts. Rand as a screenwriter
just comes off as an egomaniac and she proves it with every
over-stretched word. Even Hamlet would have told her to shut up.
Rand somehow manages to make Gary Cooper and Patricia Neil totally unlikeable in their respective roles. The whole thing is a handbook for art-deco dialogue as a dying language. Okay, Howard won't compromise his art and Dominique is a tortured chick -- we get it already, lady. Massey's newspaper mogul character, on the other hand, is great and he plays with the fecund dialogue like a little boy plays with a puppy. Too bad he's in the wrong movie.
I now have a new nightmare. I'm dead and I run into Ayn Rand at a celestial cocktail party. She corners me in a conversation and, oh my god, she sounds just like this movie.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It is hard to imagine that a movie starring Gary Cooper, Pat Neal, and
Raymond Massey could be this bad. But, somehow King Vidor and Ayn Rand
achieve this dubious distinction with The Fountainhead. From its
dreadful dialog to its overblown set decoration to its overwrought
score, this picture is a turkey.
The story of Howard Roark, architect, is presented showing a man with an ego the size of his largest building. He is not a pleasant or likable character. He is in a weird romance with the very strange Domenique, played by Neal as an irritating fruitcake of a female with a irresolvable inner conflict that the audience surely could not relate to, then or now. The chemistry between Cooper's character and Neal's is not just nonexistent, it is repellent. Massey does a little better as a powerful man who eventually is shown the limits of that power.
We are told of Roark's great talent, but are shown samples of his work that are wretched unbalanced monoliths, ludicrous while at the same time asking us to agree that they are masterpieces. We are told that the stuffy and self-important architectural critic of a newspaper has an ardent following among the common people, a very long stretch indeed.
Gary Cooper was sorely miscast in a role of a much younger man, a man of iron will and granite ego. The role might have been suited to a young Charlton Heston or Gregory Peck. Cooper walks through the role, that he clearly does not understand or sympathize with, like a zombie. His speech at the courtroom scene is delivered with all the aplomb and effervescence of a flat beer.
In every scene, the dialog is stilted and unrealistic; no one speaks like that, nor did they ever. In every interior scene the set is a huge spartan room with unreal spatial expanses.
And, unfortunately, the tale itself is boring and overwrought. It fails to redeem itself at any point. I can't recommend this overcooked turkey for viewing under any circumstances.
Veteran director King Vidor was assigned the impossible project by
Warner Brothers - Make a film out of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead.
Broadly supported by actors and other subversive elements in the film
industry, The Fountainhead is sort of a grandfather to the
well-budgeted, big-studio supported "Independant" film so often made
today. Gary Cooper, who was close to the pinnacle of his career at the
time, all but volunteered to play Howard Roark after reading Rand's
novel. Rand herself wrote the screenplay, and offered the same deal
Roark so often repeated in the film - "It's my way or the highway".
Remarkably, Vidor managed to hybridize Rand's intensely philosophical and political dialogical essay (in the guise of a novel) with his own superb visual skill, and came up with a movie which, though it has its problems, remains interesting, entertaining and relevant.
Like Rand's novel, the film is about the noble struggle of the individual against society - and amounts to a socratic dialog between several intensely powerful intellects: Visionary modern architect Howard Roark (Cooper); erstwhile defeatist social critic Domenique (Neal); Contemptuous nihilist Wynand (Massey) and brilliant sociopath Toohey (Douglas). Although the film, like the book, contains a lot of overblown soliloquies and philosophical prose which places components of the story fairly far from reality, Vidor's visual style and uncompromising directing made the film work.
Howard Roark is a modernist amidst an increasingly collectivist neo-classicist society. Roark will compromise nothing of his own integrity, and will not lie, compromise or entertain any notions about doing anything for the common good. He is an embodiment of Rand's individualist-capitalist political philosophy, and eventually inspires even those who defy him to question themselves. But what will Roark have to sacrifice to fulfill his calling? And will he be able to do so despite his uncompromising approach to life?
Although many have derided Cooper's performance and have stated that he was miscast,I do not really agree. Cooper himself was disappointed in the lengthy soliloquy he delivered near the end of the film, and it is clear that he was not given enough time to make this scene as good as it could have been. By the standards of the time, a one-day shoot for a scene like this must have seemed like an eternity. However, today, I would not be surprised if a contemporary director would give an actor of Cooper's ability and stature several days and multiple cuts. Roark is a man of deeds, not words, and Cooper's unassuming, almost humble, matter-of-fact approach to the character is a surprising and consistent take on Rand's great protagonist. Nevertheless, Cooper is, in terms of acting, the weakest member of the principal cast. Neal is excellent, and Massey and Douglas are both unforgettable in their support roles.
Recommendation: Great fun for Rand fans, and those who enjoy politically and philosophically charged dialog. Not recommended for art-film fans as anything but an historic curiosity. Not recommended for fans of action films.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Unless one really digs Ayn Rand's philosophical theories, THE
FOUNTAINHEAD will leave you pretty cold. Yet the film has it's
fascinations. Cooper, Massey, and Neal manage to make their ridiculous
dialog sound meaningful (particularly Cooper's courtroom defense). King
Vidor was able to have some fun with the sexual symbolism of
skyscrapers and Neal's yearning for Cooper (a real yearning as it
turned out - as they began a long love affair while on the movie).
But to me the most interesting fascination is that of the character of the chief villain in the story, Ellsworth Tooey (Robert Douglas). Douglas normally played (in the words of the novelist George MacDonald Fraser) one of those villains with the "sibilant" esses in their speech (like Henry Daniel, George Macready, Basil Rathbone), who usually played costume parts. Douglas was Sir Christopher Hatton in THE VIRGIN QUEEN, and the Duke of Lorca in Errol Flynn's DON JUAN. His characters are always plotting or carrying out some political double cross. Here, he is out of his normal background. It's modern times, and he is the critic (on Raymond Massey's newspaper) on architecture. But he is on costume even here - usually wearing tales and a top hat. How such a ridiculously dressed character would imagine he'd be taken seriously by the world is beyond me.
Most people really don't care about architecture, unless they are going to be affected by a building they will live in or work in. They rarely read books about it, or newspaper columns about it. Yet Tooey (we are told) has great influence, and uses it to hurt the public. He boasts to his friends that he favors anything that will give the common man ugly looking housing and business structures. Just how come he gets his jollies from this is never explained - sheer cussedness I guess.
But given his appearance (like former Governor Dewey of New York, he looks like the groom on top of a wedding cake) how can he be seriously taken by that public? If he dressed like a common worker he might have a chance, but in the garb he wears everyone would suspect him.
In the film he succeeds in manipulating his acolytes and allies into most of the important departments of the newspaper owned by Massey, so that he basically takes it away from Massey, who kills himself when he realizes his dreams of guiding public opinion are sand castles in the wind. That is not quite how the novel ends - in fact the novel deals with Tooey in a far more effective manner than the movie did. When the movie last sees Tooey he is in court listening in anger to Roark's courageous (or long-winded, depending on your view) defense of the artist's right to control his vision. In the novel, there is a follow up to Tooey's apparently successful coup at the newspaper.
In the novel, a day or so after Tooey has demonstrated his control of the newspaper's staff and policies to Gail Wynand (Massey), he comes back "in triumph" to resume his control of the paper. He is told to report to his desk, which is on the top floor (where Wynand's office is). As he enters the building, Tooey notices how few people seem to be around, but goes upstairs. A secretary ushers him into the office, and he finds his desk there - opposite Wynand's. This pleases him to some extent (it is symbolically showing he is equal to the publisher). Wynand is busy with some paperwork at his desk, and looks up and nods at Tooey, and then resumes his paperwork. Tooey walks to his desk and sits down. He starts readying his desk for work, but is amazed to find nothing on the desk to look at or deal with. He waits. He taps the desk. He looks around the room and out the window at the nice view.
It begins to bother him - this absolute silence from Wynand. Why no comments? He considers the situation, and realizes that the publisher has just been humiliated and trounced by him, so that may explain it. Tooey starts speaking to Wynand, and explains that although what happened was...perhaps somewhat high-handed and humiliating to Wynand, actually Tooey is a human being and they can probably get along very well. Wynand looks up, doesn't say a word, and resumes his paperwork.
It slowly begins driving Tooey mad. Why is he here if there is nothing to do but watch Wynand? Didn't the paper tiger publisher learn his lesson the other day? And where is everyone else?
Suddenly the clock strikes noon. Wynand looks up, and puts his papers into his attaché case. He gets up from behind his desk. He then tells Tooey:
1) as of this moment the newspaper ceases to exist. It is being closed down. The staff has been paid off, and the various company properties are being sold.
2). Tooey will find a check for the balance of his contractual salary for the time left on the contract. As for his future, Wynand does not care what he does, but he won't get any reference from him.
Tooey pops up one last time just before the novel ends. He has found another job, but he has to start at the bottom again (he won't be headlining any column like he did on Wynand's newspaper). While he is politely listened to by others at his new job, his reputation is not great because his allies at his last job all lost their jobs.
Somehow that was a more satisfactory conclusion to the novel than what is in the film. I wish they had used it - it might have made the movie more amusing.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It's not surprising that Warner Bros was tempted by a big best-seller,
but it's amazing that a bunch of film professionals like WB, King Vidor
et al ever let this screenplay get filmed as it was written. Ayn Rand
had obviously never been to a movie, or had complete contempt for
movies and their audiences, because she had no concept of what dialogue
does in a drama, or what it needs to sound like to be effective. She
thinks that descriptive prose can be shoved into actors' mouths and
that makes it dialogue. This is probably one of the most literate
screenplays of the 40's, but it is incredibly awful nonetheless.
It is a testament to Gary Cooper's great abilities as an actor that he actually manages to make this stuff sound like a human being might speak it. None of the other actors achieves this feat, although Patricia Neal sporadically approaches it. If you focus on Cooper, you might be seduced into thinking this is a movie. If you listen to the other characters, you realize that it's a diatribe being read - rather stiltedly in most cases - by some fairly talented but hopelessly overwhelmed actors.
Ayn Rand's celebration of the ego reaches a zenith in writing the screenplay from her own book. The screenplay also demonstrates the big hole in her argument: just because you've got an ego doesn't mean you've got talent. Like the architect Roark, she wanted to keep possession of her ideas. So she designed the script from her novel. Unlike Roark, she was able to see that the ideas were expressed her way. In doing so, she destroyed whatever value this movie might have had in more competent hands.
I fear that giving Ayn Rand full control over what was said on screen
turned what might have been an interesting film into nothing more than
an extension of her book. Now that might sound a good thing, but film
and book are two different media that rarely sit comfortably with one
another. Strangely it is this refusal to compromise, an important point
in the book, that is this films biggest flaw.
While the acting is fine, aside from Coopers and Neal's in my opinion, the dialogue is stilted and stands out of place on screen, almost to the point of preaching rather than aiding the development of the story.
This might be simply a sign of the times, after all this was made in 1948, but this film stands out in my mind as perhaps the pinnacle of 'straight from the book to film' type of writing.
The film isn't subtle by any means, its point is pushed down your throat time and time again, the price of having your writer push an agenda.
It seems like every other line is a speech rather than a genuine conversation, with constant swings back and forth from over the top melodrama to meaningless contrite phrases.
As a book, without the aid of background music and the delivery of a host of different actors I'm sure this works fine, but as a film it just becomes noise with all meaning lost.
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