The Fountainhead, Directed by King Vidor

The Fountainhead, Directed by King Vidor
By Ron Falzone

There is art and then there is guilty pleasure.  And King Vidor’s version of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead will never be confused for the former.

If you will allow me my prejudices, I’m no fan of the work or philosophy of Ayn Rand.  With this in mind there should be absolutely no reason why I would want to watch the 1949 film version of The Fountainhead.  This should be especially true since she wrote the screenplay and exercised a large amount of control over the final product.  And yet, this is the most irresistible fever dream of a train wreck imaginable. 

But why?

For one thing, in its attempt to be pure Rand, The Fountainhead mercilessly reveals the core idea of her work:  Those who are intellectually and politically superior to the unwashed masses have the inalienable right to live by their own morality.  This would be an odd enough message to hang a movie on, but this one is less about what it says and more about the peculiar way in which it says it.  As near as I can figure from this film, the true measure of a man has something to do with the size of his jackhammer.

Sex is everywhere and in every idea of this movie.  Howard Roarke (Gary Cooper) is the perfect expression of Randian manhood.  I know this because he builds huge phallic skyscrapers.  The first time that he is seen by the seriously neurotic Dominique Francon (Patricia Neal) he is operating a jackhammer at waist-level to smash a rock.  We know that this is the man to tame her because when we first meet her she is angrily throwing a dildo-shaped rock sculpture down an air shaft (“Come in, Dr. Freud!”).  The last time we see her is in an elevator that will come to a giddy stop between the legs of Roarke, her Colossus.

Before this, Dominique will of course submit to rough sex with Roark with enough passion to break off her engagement to an impotent suitor and marry the powerful publisher Gail Wynant (Raymond Massey).  Don’t try to find any logic in that.  There is none.  Throw into this heady mixture the mustache-twirling Ellsworth Toohey (Robert Douglas), a closeted demon who is somehow convinced that his position as an architecture critic is the logical place from which to launch a dictatorship.  Once these elements are all in the pot, the outcome is a strange stew of authoritarianism, malignant narcissism and infantile sexual fantasies.

And I love every last second of it.