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Considering the time it was made, it's hard to imagine a more unlikely candidate for a screen adaptation than Ayn Rand's best-selling novel, The Fountainhead, which espoused her philosophy of Objectivism, a belief in the integrity of the individual and a general contempt for the mediocre standards accepted by the masses. The hero of the novel is Howard Roark, an architect who designs buildings for his own aesthetic reasons. When his most ambitious project - a housing project design - is altered from his original plans, he refuses to accept this perversion of his work and proceeds to dynamite the building. The film version, based on Ayn Rand's screenplay of her novel, preserves her didactic dialogue while placing the main characters, essentially symbolic stand-ins for opposing ideologies, amid large, artificial sets designed by Edward Carrere who was heavily influenced by German Expressionism. Needless to say, audiences were puzzled, angered, or unintentionally amused by this one-of-a-kind oddity.
No one who saw the film, however, could deny the sexual chemistry between Gary Cooper as Roark and Patricia Neal, in her second film role, as Dominique Francon, the strong-willed daughter of a renown architect. Off screen, Cooper and Neal embarked on a long, passionate affair during the making of this film, despite the fact that Cooper was 47 and married and Neal was only 22 years old. In the biography, Coop by Stuart M. Kaminsky (St. Martin's Press), director King Vidor said, "I remember the day we drove up to Fresno to do our location shooting for The Fountainhead. We met Patricia Neal there that night. It was the first time they had met. They went for each other right away. After dinner we never saw the two of them again except when we were shooting."
While there are various accounts of who originally initiated the film version of The Fountainhead, it's clear that neither Cooper nor Neal were the original choices for the lead roles. When the book first appeared in print, Barbara Stanwyck connected strongly with the central characters and strongly urged Warner Bros. mogul Jack Warner to purchase the rights. She even approached the author about appearing in the film version but Rand told Stanwyck that she had written the Dominique character for Greta Garbo. Nevertheless, Warner purchased the book, Mervyn LeRoy agreed to direct, and Humphrey Bogart was cast as Roark and Stanwyck as Dominique. Unfortunately for Stanwyck, the project, which was being prepared during the final days of World War II, was delayed due to a wartime restriction. The climactic scene where Roark dynamites his creation was forbidden on the grounds that demolishing scarce housing stock amounted to despoiling strategic materials. After the war was over and the restrictions lifted, Warner rethought the casting and direction, replacing his original choices with Cooper and Neal and King Vidor (as director). Learning she had lost the role to a younger actress, Stanwyck fired off an angry telegram to Warner expressing her bitter disappointment and terminated her contract with the studio.
Stanwyck wasn't the only one unhappy with the casting. Vidor recalled, "I didn't think that Cooper was well cast but he was cast before I was. I thought it should have been someone like Bogart, a more arrogant type of man. But after I forgot all that and saw it several years later I accepted Cooper doing it." Even Coop himself was uneasy about his performance in the film and would often say in interviews about The Fountainhead, "Boy, did I louse that one up."
Casting aside, there were other compromises made on the way to production. Vidor contacted Frank Lloyd Wright about executing Roark's designs for the film and the famous architect agreed for his standard 10 percent commission based on the entire budget of the film. Jack Warner balked when he heard this news and forbid Vidor from further negotiations with Wright, fearing a potential lawsuit if they used Wright's designs. Another potential problem involved the Breen Office, which objected to the frantic coupling of Cooper and Neal on-screen and had the writers change the erotic one-night-stand between Roark and Dominique to a rape scene.
The Fountainhead, despite its shortcomings as a film adaptation of the book, remains a fascinating curiosity in the history of American film. Its righteous view of capitalism and morality place it firmly in the pantheon of right-wing conservative cinema while the on and off-screen relationship between Cooper and Neal reminds one that life imitates art so often in the film industry.
Director: King Vidor
Producer: Henry Blanke
Screenplay: Ayn Rand
Cinematography: Robert Burks
Editor: David Weisbart
Art Direction: Edward Carrere
Music: Max Steiner
Cast: Gary Cooper (Howard Roark), Patricia Neal (Dominique), Raymond Massey (Gail Wynand), Kent Smith (Peter Keating), Robert Douglas (Ellsworth Toohey).
BW-113m. Closed Captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Jeff Stafford