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

In the United States


The reception of the film by the American press was negative.

Variety (24/6/1949) found the film “cold, unemotional, talkative,” and lamented the overacting: “Underplaying would have served the story better.” The choice of Cooper was deemed “a casting error. Neal is a whimsical heroine. She hasn’t adapted herself to the demands of the screen.” The implication is that she’s just a stage actress.

For Harrison’s Reports (2/7/1949), “the characters are unreal. The subject is a series of digressions,” there is “a whole philosophical salad that average people don’t understand; […] motivations get lost in a maze of blur.”

In the New York Times (9/7/1949), the famous Bosley Crowther, the Ellsworth Toohey of cinema, who called the shots at the time, found the right catchphrase: “A picture you don’t even have to see to disbelieve.” About the explosion, he concluded: “If all were excused such transgressions, then society would indeed be in peril! … high-priced twaddle we haven’t seen for a long, long time.” Roark’s buildings, “from what we see of it, is trash.” The story is “a complex of bickering and badgering among these cheerless folk.”

Easy prejudices, all the more so as Patricia Neal plays mainly with her eyes, which doesn’t belong as much in the theatre, given the distance of the audience. And Cooper was typecast by the critics as a cowboy, although he had already played, in Peter Ibbetson, an architect quite similar to Roark.

Archer Winsten of the New York Post even declared that “intellectually, Vidor is a simpleton.”

The American critics of the time were confined to their own small domain. They knew nothing about architecture and not much about literature. They hadn’t read the novel: eighteen hours of reading…

They were known for their mediocrity and had castigated many great films, Under Capricorn, On Dangerous Ground, Good Sam, Moonfleet etc…

The paradox is that The Fountainhead is a very American film in its search for effects. The opposite of a Mizoguchi, a champion of whittling, who seeks to conceal all effects, Vidor offers them to be seen full screen. If only one film from the whole of Hollywood production had to be preserved, it would be this one. It is so Hollywoodish that it seems to become a caricature of it, which is what the critics must have felt.

It was a rather expensive film (four times the budget of Ruby Gentry), and it made a loss (about $2,100,000 in revenue against a cost of $2,511,000, not including the cost of prints). This is hardly less than the $3,100,000 of epics such as Samson and Delilah or Land of the Pharaohs.

According to Warner and Ayn Rand, the film worked better with the middle classes, and in the suburbs, than with the intellectuals, whom it was principally intended for.

This commercial failure explains Vidor’s reservations about The Fountainhead. In Hollywood, it was in a filmmaker’s interests to not defend one of his children that did not please the public. The producers accepted quite readily that a director could have a failure—one, but not two or three in a row. You can’t always get it right. But you couldn’t transgress the old adage: “The public is never wrong.” And a mea culpa was always welcome in these puritanical lands…

Vidor does not say a word about The Fountainhead in his autobiography. As mentioned earlier, he may have preferred casting Bogart over Cooper. But when I met him, I began to enthusiastically defend the choice of Cooper, and he told me then that I was probably right. It’s hard to prove your interviewer wrong when he says a lot of good things about your work. And in life, King Vidor was a quiet, awkward, welcoming man, a kind of good, diligent student. Just the opposite of his films. In contrast, his French counterpart Abel Gance was really at one with his work, Vidor was inclined to sort things out rather than get into conflict all the time. He was successful in life and work, and had no need to court controversy.

The only point on which he objected to the film for a very long time was the final explosion.

It’s true that it can be a good tactic for a director to speak ill of one of his films, at least in interviews given long after its theatrical release. The interlocutor will be embarrassed, and will tend to reassure such a modest filmmaker. This is a welcome change from all those directors who think of their new-borns as the greatest of masterpieces. I have sometimes practised this method myself, with success.

The end of The Fountainhead is perhaps stupid and ridiculous, as Vidor said in 1962, especially since no architect in the world, to my knowledge, has practised this kind of dynamiting. But it fits perfectly into a work that is not based on plausibility. There is a bigger-than-life aspect to this film.

Let’s not pay too much heed to the author’s word, even and especially if he is great. Pialat, Ulmer, Losey, DeMille, Lara have said a lot of stupid things about their films too. Vidor defended Grease and Monicelli’s Proibito. And let’s not forget—in times when there are many interviews—that it’s boring to always say (or even to think) the same thing. I have experienced this.

More recently, Vidor has begun an about-face: “I don’t want to advocate destruction as a means of enforcing an artist’s integrity. But it’s part of his work. It has been said that sometimes destruction is just a new construction, two sides of the same thing.”[1]

At the end of his life, a little disillusioned by his forced retirement, he even declared: “At the time the film was made, I felt that the hero’s gesture was excessive, I’m not so sure about that today.”[2]

In Europe

Was the reception of the film as icy as in the United States?

The film released at the Caméo, on the Grands Boulevards in Paris, on Friday the 31st of March 1950, with ten minutes cut out [3], and played for a fortnight on an exclusive basis. It made 2,695,580 francs in revenue (about 13,000 admissions, or 6,500 per week, the weekly record at the Caméo being 13,000 admissions). Average. It wasn’t actually so smart of Warner to release a film in its original version on the Grands Boulevards, where the dubbed version was the rule. I should add that, at the time, Americans had to release not only recent productions, but also all the films from 1940-1944 that had been banned during the Occupation. Gone with the Wind (1939) wasn’t released until 1950. Studios weren’t too concerned about returns; they unloaded their products without busting their heads too much. Films were often booked for a fortnight, whether they performed or not. The Fountainhead had eleven times fewer admissions than another film with Cooper, DeMille’s Unconquered. The film’s French title, The Rebel, was a bit misleading for the audience, who thought it was a new Western with Gary Cooper.

It fared better outside Paris, with the dubbed version cut down by twenty minutes [4]: 4,608,815 francs in key cities compared to only twice as much for the DeMille, which made even less than the Vidor in Strasbourg: 318,000 francs compared to 618,550 francs for our film. This is purely a local phenomenon, I suppose, linked to different weather conditions or holiday seasons. All this confirms, as in the USA, a better popular response.

In Radio Cinéma (11/4/1950), Roger Fessoz is severe: “This ponderous construction—a sub-Metropolis—unfolds as a maelstrom of solemn, highly pretentious lines, as heavy as boredom. […] Vidor manages to bring some spark, to forge some astonishing images from the sets. Alas! He soon succumbs to the burden as well.”

In l‘Humanité (30/3/1950), Georges Sadoul sees “the portrait of a fascist leader” here.

In l’Écran français (3/4/1950), François Boyer criticises the cliché of the self-made man: “Overblown and often illusory problems. The head of the newspaper and the famed architect both rise out of the same slums of the city, and as usual, they refrain from telling us how.” He evokes the originality of Dominique’s character in these terms: “This complexity has become strangely simplistic. For in this case, there is no longer an uninformed public. This desire for originality only creates one more cliché.” The direction, which seemed to him to be efficient at the beginning of the film, “quickly regressed to become as heavy as the story.”

This is a strange dialectic that makes it practically impossible to escape clichés. A small note of explanation: in 1950, the challenge at l’Écran français, a communist weekly, was to speak ill of American films by any means necessary.

In Italy, it was worse: according to Fernando De Gianmatteo (Bianco e Nero, February 1950, p. 90), it was “a two-bit film.” He criticised “the ridiculous puerility of the theme, a narrative style that is among the sloppiest that a filmmaker has ever adopted.” And he saw “not even the shadow of a director worthy of the name.”

These hysterical rejections testify to a visceral refusal that is impossible to explain, save by very different motivations.

There are no other traces of the film in the European press before 1954 except some favourable mentions in Cahiers du cinéma. I was unaware such a film even existed, and I could see it only in 1958. I have always regretted not seeing it before. It was Straub’s fault for not informing me of a private screening he had attended.

Over the years, The Fountainhead became a cult film. People realized that immoderation, excess and pretension were neither defects nor good qualities in themselves. They have their geniuses (Hugo, Gance, Dovzhenko, Vidor) as well as their dunces (Rooks, Albicocco, Montresor, Zeffirelli).

The excess of gratuitous violence in modern American cinema, relying on ballistics and its sound design, makes The Fountainhead, where there are no murder attempts or brawls, seem less aggressive today. Vidor was simply ahead of his time with his entirely inner violence.

The film was shown several times on French television and was re-released in cinemas in 2005. On the other hand, products that enjoyed huge critical success in the USA in 1949, Rossen’s All the King’s Men, Wellman’s Battleground or Wyler’s The Heiress, did not receive such honours. They owed their success to their relative sobriety, which appears quite meek today in the face of The Fountainhead’s ginormous quality.

I don’t think there is anyone in the world, in 2008, who questions the quality of the film. As early as 1978, it appeared thirteen times in the individual lists of the best American films published by the Belgian Cinematheque, more than West Side Story, The Great Dictator or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Jean-François Rauger described it in these terms during the Vidor retrospective at the Cinémathèque française in 2007: “What is undoubtedly his most famous film.” For Carlos Señor, “it is one of the greatest films in the entire history of cinema.”


[1] Quoted in F. Maho, Gary Copper, McKey, 1972, p. 231-232.

[2] Quoted in Josette Ortega, Gary Cooper, PAC, 1984, p. 56-57.

[3] See the following note.

[4] This peculiar length of the edits suggests that one or two whole reels were blindly cut out to guarantee five daily shows.