[From Luc Moullet’s monograph King Vidor’s The Fountainhead (2009, Yellow Now). See Table of Contents]

Standing: Robert Douglas, Kent Smith, Patricia Neal, Gary Cooper, Raymond Massey. Seated: Henry Blanke, Ayn Rand, King Vidor.

The Plot

 First part. The lean years (25 minutes).

New York, in the thirties. In his early days, Howard Roark (Gary Cooper), an iconoclastic architect, finds it difficult to break into a milieu very much under the grip of conformism, especially because he systematically refuses all the compromises and traditional embellishments that his clients demand. He is in dire straits. He resolves to become a worker.

Second part. The quarry (12 minutes).

Roark works as a labourer in a quarry run by Guy Francon, whose daughter Dominique (Patricia Neal), attracted to Roark, provokes him. A short and violent erotic relationship between the two ensues.

Third part. The Enright House (19 minutes).

Roark is finally offered a major project, the Enright building. But the originality of this building earns him the hostility of the press, particularly the tabloid newspaper The Banner, headed by Gail Wynand (Raymond Massey), who doesn’t know what to sink his teeth into and is heavily influenced by his old-fashioned architecture critic Ellsworth Toohey (Robert Douglas). Roark survives by building individual homes and petrol stations.

Part Four. The Wynand Residence (12 minutes).

Wynand eventually asks Roark to build a house in the country for him and his wife, who is none other than Dominique, perhaps to please her, because he knows that she admires the work of Roark, whom he now supports.

Part Five. Cortlandt Homes (46 minutes).

Peter Keating (Kent Smith), a friend of Roark’s and a drudge of an architect, asks Roark to be his ‘ghost-writer’ and to design a large-scale housing project, Cortlandt Homes. Keating does not have enough imagination to design it, and Roark is blacklisted by clients. Roark accepts the deal, without any pay, on the condition that the project, signed by Keating, be executed without any modifications. But the clients impose major changes on Keating that shock Roark. With the help of Dominique, Roark dynamites Cortlandt, which has just been completed. He is arrested. Wynand’s newspaper supports Roark’s cause, but is disavowed by the rest of the press, by Toohey, the critic that Wynand kicks out, and by the vast majority: nobody buys The Banner anymore. So Wynand backtracks, and begins a crusade against Roark, just before Roark wins his lawsuit in the name of an architect’s moral right. A rival builder buys the site and the ruins of Cortlandt, and allows Roark to rebuild Cortlandt in his own way. Wynand, who has lost face for good, kills himself just after he orders Roark to build the gigantic Wynand Building, on top of which Dominique will join her new husband, Howard Roark. 

The Novel and Its Author

The Fountainhead is an adaptation of the seven-hundred-page novel of the same name, whose French title is La Source vive, written by Ayn Rand (1905-1982) and printed in three million copies.

Ayn Rand’s personality is not well known in France. Born in Russia, she fled communism in 1926 to settle down in the United States. She worked for a while in Hollywood. She then wrote the autobiographical novel We the Living (1936), adapted by Fascist Italy and the filmmaker Goffredo Alessandrini in 1942 under the titles Noi vivi and Addio Kira. In it, she denounced the oppression of Stalinist collectivism and recounted the odyssey of her own flight to the New World.

The Fountainhead was written between 1936 and 1943, and published by Bobbs-Merril after being turned down by a dozen publishers. When I saw the film, in which the title is never uttered, I thought that fountainhead was the hidden source of the Cortlandt project, Howard Roark’s anonymous model. But Ayn Rand is, in fact, referring to the Ego, the unique source of human progress. So it’s not a good title: it’s too ambiguous, too obscure. Ayn Rand magnified Howard Roark’s individualism in his fight against a cowardly and unimaginative community that sought, among other things, to build standardized buildings for the masses. She thus denounced all kinds of collectivist attempts, those of capitalist tycoons paradoxically aligned with those of Marxism-Leninism. She continued her literary work, always animated by the will to deliver a message and proceeding in the same direction.

Why Vidor?

The prodigious success of The Fountainhead led the film industry to buy the rights to the book, which could not be put on the screen until five years later because—according to Ayn Rand—restrictions were imposed during the war. I’m tempted to believe that this was a polite excuse by the producers to stall the author.

Why did Warner Bros. then contact King Vidor (1896-1982), who was making his forty-fifth feature film and had never shot for the company?

It’s that Vidor had just gone through several painful episodes…

Metro Goldwyn Mayer, in 1939, did not let him complete the second part of his Northwest Passage.

He then spent three years working on An American Romance (1944), a very ambitious tale about the development of America, the importance of industry and especially of steel. But the producer, MGM again, reckoning that the public found the film too long, cut it down it by thirty minutes without informing the filmmaker. Vidor says that he could perhaps have accepted the principle behind this reduction, but that the cuts were made contrary to common sense, based on technical imperatives—avoiding gaps in the musical score—instead of paying for a new sound mix. Vidor, under contract for twenty-two years with MGM, which he had helped launch with the resounding success of The Big Parade (1925)—over $6,000,000 in revenue for a cost of $382,000—was disgusted with the process and left the firm immediately.

He then directed the Western Duel in the Sun (1945), which he abandoned on the penultimate day of shooting, its producer Selznick constantly disrupting his work, imposing modifications and reshoots at his whim.

In 1947, he took part in the anthology film A Miracle Can Happen, for which he shot the opening, an unenjoyable piece of work, as well as a segment that was particularly close to his heart, with Charles Laughton as a pastor, but which was eliminated from the final cut. Preview screenings had shown that the Laughton episode was of less interest to the public, who preferred segments of pure comedy.

This fourfold negative experience was weighing on Vidor’s heart, and he was able to exact great revenge with this story of an architect who is bullied by cowardly, stupid clients, but who manages to beat them hands down.


It is probable that Ayn Rand saw the arrival of Vidor on The Fountainhead favourably. Vidor had portrayed the Russia of the Soviets in a critical and ironic manner in Comrade X (1940) and depicted the Empire of the Tsars in shimmering colours in His Hour (1924), according to the critics of the time. He had presented America as a resourceful and ever-expanding Promised Land for a Hungarian émigré in An American Romance, all things that could only please this woman who had fled Stalin.

By the time Vidor signed his contract, Gary Cooper had already been chosen by Warner. Vidor was very fond of Cooper, whom he had already filmed in 1934 in The Wedding Night, a remarkable film set among Polish emigrants. Vidor later expressed reservations about the choice of Cooper: “It wasn’t a role for Cooper. I wanted Bogart. The author, Mrs. Rand, is a very dynamic woman. And her hero was very aggressive, combative, sarcastic, brusque, arrogant. Based on my reading, that was a very good fit for Bogart or Cagney, not Cooper.” The choice of Cagney made sense, because in the book, Roark is redheaded, like his model, Rand’s husband Frank O’Connor, an Irishman, just like Cagney. However, Vidor adds, about Cooper: “But this calm determination is probably better than the model’s aggressiveness[1].”

Vidor read an initial treatment, written by two scriptwriters, which he didn’t like. So he thought it best—”I will work with her. I will guide her[2]“—to resort to Ayn Rand, who agreed—she says—to work on a voluntary basis on the condition that nothing in the final dialogue would be cut off. She thought of herself as a kind of new Howard Roark. She had already written a first draft of the screenplay in 1944, following Warner’s acquisition of the rights to the novel in October 1943 for fifty thousand dollars (another, more dubious source gives four hundred and fifty thousand dollars as the total cost of the screenplay, including the adaptation that Vidor was unhappy about).

Rand wanted Greta Garbo to play Dominique. The latter hadn’t done anything for seven years. It would be a sensational coup for Warner Bros. to have the great star of the rival company, MGM, unexpectedly return to the screen under the guidance of the former star-director of MGM. Vidor dissuaded Garbo from accepting. Perhaps Garbo’s age, 43, was unsuitable for the role of Dominique. And then, Garbo’s coldness coupled with Cooper’s impassivity might have been a bit too much for two leading roles in the same film. The choice of two forty-year-olds would probably have slowed down The Fountainhead’s dynamic.

Barbara Stanwyck, who got on well with Rand and had already made two films with Cooper (Capra’s Meet John Doe and Hawks’ Ball of Fire), was very keen on the role. In 1946, she had pestered Warner Bros. to make the film, and was very disappointed when she was replaced by another actress, to the point of breaking her contract with the company. She would have made for a more biting character than Garbo, but the pair would have been a little too reminiscent of Meet John Doe, especially because the film would have, as we shall see, a very Capra-like quality.

Finally, Vidor chose an actress twenty years younger, Patricia Neal. She came from the theatre. She had achieved great personal success for her role in Another Part of the Forest by Lillian Hellman, a leftist far removed from a reactionary like Rand, and had only made one film, Butler’s John Loves Mary. Vidor asked her to learn to ride a horse and reduce her weight to fifty kilos. As a beginner, she only earned twenty-five thousand dollars, eleven times less than Gary Cooper. Compare this to the sixty-five thousand dollars received by the third actor in the credits, Raymond Massey, and the one hundred and fifty thousand dollars reserved for Vidor.

Ayn Rand therefore worked closely with Vidor.

How do you compress this massive tome, which takes about eighteen hours to read, into a film of less than two hours?

The first step was to remove a number of secondary characters: Peter Keating’s family, his mother, his fiancée, the niece of the critic Toohey, Dominique’s father who is barely seen in the film, and Frank Mallory, an architect in the vein of Roark.

The second step was the reduction in importance of two characters, Peter Keating and Ellsworth Toohey. The novel consists of four parts, two of which are named after them. It became a male-female duo, as was very common in Hollywood.

Another major change was to cut everything not related to the Cortlandt building as much as possible. This part represents less than twenty percent of the book. In the Vidor, it is forty percent of the film. The Stoddard case, in particular, was eliminated: one trial was enough!

Several scenes are reduced to two lines of very suggestive, often contradictory, abruptly opposed dialogue. Thus, at the beginning, the meeting with the dean of the school of architecture, a verbal joust of seven pages, is limited to twenty-five seconds of film.

It is understandable that the strength of Vidor’s film, which lies first and foremost in the abruptness of the situations and dialogue, their shocking simplification and speed, was partly necessitated by the need to considerably reduce a book that was too dense, too talkative. Moreover, the verbosity of the novel, which is more reminiscent of a sophisticated play, and in which Rand harnesses all the facets of her paradoxical situations, rendering the whole thing very heavy, bloated, repetitive, redundant, complacent, makes it look too much like a realistic psychological drama, whereas the content of the actions and verbal exchanges, carried to excess, makes the whole affair very unrealistic to begin with.

Ayn Rand is basically showing off, enjoying herself. Moreover, she was often frowned upon by critics: there is not even half a line about her in the seven hundred pages of Le Pétillon[3], now a must-read. It is astonishing to see that an ambitious novel, but of mediocre quality, and adapted by its author, can turn into a brilliant film.

Note that in the book, Peter Keating marries Dominique, who accepts the union because she wouldn’t be able to find a worse husband (we shall come back to this later). After a tortuous journey, he then gives in to the tycoon Wynand when the latter offers him a deal: he will get the commission for the big building if he accepts that Dominique goes to Reno to divorce him before marrying Wynand immediately.

This kind of barter would have displeased the Hays Code censorship—an attack on the sanctity of marriage—and the following solution was preferred: at a dinner to which Peter and his fiancée Dominique are invited, Wynand offers Keating the commission for the coveted project on condition that he breaks off his engagement. Keating agrees immediately. It doesn’t go as far as a divorce, and allows for a concise, abrupt, shocking and unusual scene.

Towards the end of the book, Dominique sleeps with Roark to join him in dishonour—you charged as an arsonist, I as an adulteress—and calls the police on a lame pretext. She complains of a supposed theft of a ring supposedly offered by Roark. As a result, all of New York becomes aware of their affair. Wynand gets a divorce. Adultery, then. One more scene the censors would not have liked. In the film, it’s much less complicated: Wynand kills himself, making room for the new couple. Another excellent shortcut.

An addition to the book, with a bit of comedy: the mistress of the house firing her cook because she is reading the newspaper that defends Roark. An idea of Vidor’s?

Frank Lloyd Wright, Edgar J. Kaufmann House, Fallingwater, Mill Run, Pennsylvania, 1934-1937.

Echoes in the film (1)

Echoes in the film (2)

Wright or not Wright?

One always hears about Rand’s book and Vidor’s film being a biography of the most famous American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959). Let’s look at the facts.

Howard Roark begins his career by vegetating for several years. He is refused a potential contract because he does not accept modifications that would bring the building more in line with the canons of Greek, Tudor or Victorian architecture. What they needed was fairly square buildings, with doors, windows and other fancy items clearly visible from the outside, and a very simple single roof. We see him starving, becoming a labourer.

Frank L. Wright was certainly confronted such problems of artistic design. But he was very active in his early years: between the ages of twenty-two and forty-two, he built a large number of individual homes, earning a good living. It wasn’t until he was in his forties that he experienced real difficulties, not attributable to his architectural choices: it was then that he left his home in Chicago, his wife and children, and settled in the countryside 400 kilometres away, with the wife of one of his clients (an episode that we find a little bit of in The Fountainhead), after sojourns in Japan and Italy. His new personal situation led to some puritanical reactions which reduced the number of his clients. His distance made people forget him a little. And he had somehow lost his bearings. If he had a few financially difficult years, it was also because he had to maintain two homes, one of which had six kids.

This is a far cry from Howard Roark, his early years of hardship, and his ascetic existence.

In the early years, Wright only built individual homes: low houses, one or two storeys high, with surprising overhangs and a superimposition of roofs that narrowed the higher one went up. The buildings could almost be built without scaffolding. Thieves could have reached the top of the house without much effort. But there weren’t many thieves in these rural areas in the 1910s. There were no classic high roofs. The tall buildings came later, little by little.

But Roark is presented here primarily as a builder of high-rises, although given the chance, between two aborted projects, he doesn’t turn down an order for a petrol station or an individual house. There is thus a clear contrast in the career descriptions.

It is easy to understand these disparities: firstly, Ayn Rand did not want Wright to sue her. Secondly, the evocation of a hero who starts from nothing, who starved in his youth and became famous after twenty years, was more appealing to the average American who was to make the book a bestseller.

There are indeed similarities in the statements of Wright and Roark: “I fully intend to be not just the greatest architect who has yet lived, but the greatest architect who will ever live”, said Wright in 1930, with a nice mixture of self-satisfaction and self-irony.

Roark doesn’t go that far, but he is almost at the same level when he says at the trial, in his defence: “The creator lives for his work. He doesn’t need other men [which is not very nice, nor very well-founded: what about the manpower an architect needs?]. His first goal is within himself. The man who tries to live for others is in a state of dependency. He is a parasite.”

In the film, we mostly see Roark as a builder of high-rises. Visually speaking, this is infinitely more spectacular than Wright’s horizontal low houses.

In his remarkable study of architecture in The Fountainhead, Donald Albrecht notes, however, that the house by the sea designed by Roark resembles the Auster Heller house designed by Wright, and that the small Californian house Gary Cooper sketches is reminiscent of Wright’s Palsen House (1940). But it’s fifteen seconds of film…

Finally, Roark’s character contains elements reminiscent of Wright, but also borrowings from the life of a star-crossed architect who was one of Wright’s early masters, Louis Sullivan (1856-1924). Of course, Sullivan is portrayed in the film as old Henry Cameron, the forgotten architect who lives in misery and will soon die. Sullivan’s difficult years are thus reconstructed not only through Cameron’s journey, but also through Roark’s early years in which he lives miserably, like a Spartan.

Frank Lloyd Wright, S.C. Johnson and Son Company, Research Tower, Racine, Wisconsin, 1944-1950, under construction.

Echoes in the film (1)

Echoes in the film (2)


[1] Cahiers du cinéma, No. 136, October 1962, pp. 13-16.

[2] Hector Arce, Gary Cooper, William Morrow & Company, New York, 1979, p. 224.

[3] Pierre-Yves Pétillon, Histoire de la littérature américaine. Notre demi-siècle. 1939-1989, Fayard, 1992.