[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]

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

The Excess That Transcends

 

Vidor’s craft here is based on excess, an excess that is to be found in the nature of the actions as well as in the characters, which are extremely complex or extremely linear. All this is redoubled by the excesses of an ultra-fast pacing and of techniques used to the fullest extent on every front. Vidor doesn’t deal in half-measures. It’s a series of contradictory phrases that crash into each other, of pointed tips, jagged edges and uninterrupted electric shocks. Here is a clever, knowledgeable, hyper-professional film, but also one that is abrupt, brutal, coarse, chopped, condensed, convulsive, crazy, delirious, discreet, electrifying, fascinating, frenetic, hysterical, icy, rough, scathing, shredded, surreal, torrid, hectic. A barbaric object, a meteorite. The emotion it generates gives you goosebumps. A runaway horse. Pomposity looms large in the end, but is transcended by its very excess.

Vidor employs EVERY classical device—the perfect film for film schools. It’s Duvivier, Delannoy, plus genius. And finally, it’s this shameless accumulation of old effects (there are even superimpositions, blur effects and an abundance of transparencies) that makes it extremely modern. Vidor doesn’t linger on effects like so many others. They are quick, very obvious, and they blow us away. A comparison may be possible with the Fuller of Verboten!, Forty Guns, and Shock Corridor, with a lot more money, or even with Aldrich.

What is strange is that the film combines the Baroque and the flamboyant Gothic, while it’s meant to praise the architect Roark, whose art is quite the opposite, with its search for simplicity and purity, associated with the modernity of America. Roark—and Frank Lloyd Wright even more so—rejects fuss, European influences, Greek art, the Victorian or Tudor style, whereas here we find German expressionism, with the complicity of an Austrian musician and a Russian screenwriter.

We can sense Vidor’s frustration with his previous clients who had deceived him, taken advantage of him. And here he is pulling out all the stops, as they say.

But at the same time, The Fountainhead cuts across a whole tradition of classic American cinema.

It’s highly reminiscent of Frank Capra’s films, with the struggle of an asocial, marginal or lone man against the whole system and its prejudices, as seen in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life, Meet John Doe and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. These last two films, moreover, starred Gary Cooper.

The commercial failure of The Fountainhead in the USA can be explained to some extent by the fact that this formula, which had worked well until 1940, seemed outdated after the war. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) resulted in a small loss. And Gary Cooper as the Good Samaritan in Good Sam (McCarey, 1948) wasn’t a success at all.

As with Capra, it seems like a lost cause for the lone man, but the almost miraculous ending allows him to amend the situation. A critique of the society doesn’t keep the great American principles from standing up for the cause of the good in the end. The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946) denounces the unscrupulous opportunism of bankers too, but rest assured, everything turns out well.

We find here one of the figures of style dear to Capra, the montage sequence where, after a string of quick shots of newspaper cuttings, we witness the violent reactions of the crowd in the street.

Another direct link with American films of the great tradition is the choice of the biopic, the life story of an important man, real or imagined, which we find in Citizen Kane (1940), Sergeant York (Hawks, 1941), Wood’s The Pride of the Yankees (1942) and The Stratton Story (1949), the two Al Jolson biopics etc. Gary Cooper was, besides, the specialist of the genre.

There is also the principle of rise and fall, greatness and decadence, which mark the itinerary of Gail Wynand, Henry Cameron, and also Howard Roark, who comes close to being jailed, although he finally triumphs. All of them having started from nothing, of course. The pervasive myth of the self-made man, very common in American cinema.

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

The Individual, the Collective

Vidor’s standpoint, if it seemed clear during the course of the film—in favour of individual creation, and against all collectivist diktats—was in fact rather ambiguous throughout his life: here he collaborated with a novelist who was very much on the right (she testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee with great pleasure, even going beyond the McCarthyist doctrine). This seems to tally quite well with the way this filmmaker, who voted for Eisenhower, makes fun of Reds in Comrade X, revels in the massacre of the Indians of the Northwest Passage. On the other hand, there was also the Vidor who filmed the everyday life—sometimes so difficult—of the average American in The Crowd (1928)—a first in Hollywood cinema—and Street Scene (1931), or the beautiful collective struggle of peasants to irrigate their land in Our Daily Bread (1934), a very Rooseveltian film which won an award at… the Moscow Film Festival. Not to mention Vidor’s great film-to-be, Ruby Gentry[1], shot in 1952 and written by Sylvia Richards, a well-known feminist and left-wing activist, which took a swipe at the narrow-minded and upstart bourgeoisie of the South.

We’re thus dealing with a highly complex character, which is also true of John Ford, the director of The Grapes of Wrath (1940) based on Steinbeck, but also of colonialist movies like The Black Watch (1929) or militarists films such as The Long Gray Line (1954) or Korea (1959), and of William Wellman, who could be considered one of the harbingers of socialism in light of Wild Boys of the Road (1933) and The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), but who also made anti-Red products such as The Iron Curtain (1949) or Blood Alley (1955).

To be sure, we can see this as an effort to adapt to the dominant ideology, from the New Deal to the witch hunts, but also as the ambition of a Hollywood director to work in all fields, to show that what counts is his way of doing things, more than the underlying ideology. If it comes to that, the ideal for a filmmaker would be to make a masterpiece out of both the Jud Süß and Salt of the Earth.

And when I try to make an assessment of the situation, everything is rather fuzzy. Because, on one hand, collectivism is as much the motto of soulless capitalism, based on stock exchanges and standards, as of the Soviets. And on the other hand, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Pol Pot and even Lenin perhaps represent the triumph of an individual, under the guise of collectivism, more than that of communism.

To complicate things, we notice that the left-wing press in France, in the years when The Fountainhead was filmed, began by celebrating the great individuality of auteurs fighting administrations and capitalism (Stroheim, Griffith, Welles etc.). And then, after May ‘68, there was a very clear reaction on the left against the all-powerful auteur. Godard, Duras and Resnais wanted to make collective films (or sometimes pretended to make them, by rigging the credits). The auteur was therefore classified as a right-wing figure. To this case file, let us add the brilliant creator Roark, who dynamites a social housing project…

I must add that Ayn Rand, by making Roark an architect who lives solely for his work and the satisfaction it brings him, puts him in a much more limited position than Wright, whose houses were made with the obvious desire to allow his clients to find pleasure in living in them and who was flexible enough to satisfy his client. Thus, in 1895, he built the Moore House in a rather old-fashioned Tudor style. Vidor always had the desire to please the viewer by all means possible. His film is proof of this, and we will come back to it later. Moreover, I believe that, of all the filmmakers, he is probably the one who has given the audience the greatest number of emotions.

Having turned his nose up at The Fountainhead, Vidor asserted solipsism, the doctrine that everything exists through the ego.

It could be concluded that, throughout his life, Vidor never ceased to oscillate between the two extremes, individualism and a sense of the collective, pure auteur cinema (Truth and Illusion, Our Daily Bread) and studio production: he made fifty films within the System. His tactic was to alternate: an easy film, and then a more committed film. Let’s say that, rather than taking a radical stance, he was passionate about the individual/collective relationship, which is what differentiates him from other filmmakers like Lubitsch, Leone or Hitchcock, who didn’t give a damn about it.

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[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. 

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[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

Adapted from Ayn Rand’s madly popular 1943 novel, The Fountainhead (1949) is the story of Howard Roark (Gary Cooper), a genius modernist architect whose refusal to accept established styles and conform to public standards make him a pariah among his peers. Roark declares that his primary quest is his work itself, not its possible beneficiaries. He does not accept the judgment of collectives and knows that no “group, board, council or commission” would give him projects. Recognizing his greatness, but lacking the courage to be by his side, are Dominique (Patricia Neal), an architecture critic in love with Roark’s work (and thus Roark), and Wynand (Raymond Massey), a self-made media baron trying to regain the strength of character he lost on his way to the top. Running the crusade against Roark is Toohey (Robert Douglas), a social-minded critic at Wynand’s publication who is convinced of Roark’s genius and wants to break him down for that very reason.

            Much of the drama of the script, adapted from the novel by Rand herself, passes through a romantic triangle. Dominique is in love with Roark, but is afraid that the world will grind him down. To protect herself from the heartbreak, she marries Wynand, who also loves Dominique. Wynand is a very nuanced figure, an antagonist trying to redeem himself, who sees in Roark the man he could have been, but was too scared to become. Roark, for his part, is a cipher, an emotional monolith who refuses to compromise his work, whatever be the personal and professional cost of that attitude. The characters’ attraction to each other are modulated less by erotic fervour than their appreciation of each other’s moral outlook.

There’s a starkly new style of acting afoot in Vidor’s film, no doubt informed by the nature of the material at hand. Unusually for a Hollywood hero, Roark is not someone the viewer identifies with. Vidor’s direction divorces our perspective from that of Roark, whom we get to know only through information supplied by other characters. In the opening volley of exchanges, Roark stands as a silhouette at the edge of the frame, as his varying interlocutors describe his personality by way of cautionary advice: stubborn, uncompromising, visionary, individualistic, too idealist for this business. Throughout the film, we hear about the brilliance of Roark’s Frank Lloyd Wright-like designs, but we’re never told why they are so.

Cooper, in turn, dials down his already minimalist style and turns the character into a near-mythical figure. Many shots present him from the back, his obscured profile lending him a larger-than-life presence. Rand’s story constantly compares buildings to people and locates the integrity or inauthenticity of architects in the designs they produce. Roark, like his creations, is solemn, impassive, upright, impenetrable and flawless. Cooper is really playing a slab of marble here. He stands tall, hardly moves and performs very few actions. Except for a pair of gestures involving his fingers, his hands always remain close to his body or in his pockets. Whatever reactions he has, he conveys using microscopically calibrated facial expressions. His general unflappability becomes a moral quality, set against the neurotic body language of characters like his frazzled, covering peer Keating (Kent Smith). This idea of laconic speech and reduced physical movement conveying a superiority of character was already present in Cooper’s role in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), and it’s taken to its philosophical extreme in The Fountainhead, thanks in no small part to Rand’s scenario.

Similar principles are at work with Patricia Neal’s character. In the initial stretches of the film, Dominique is dead-eyed, never blinks or moves her pupils when she fixates on something. She is cold and removed, her distance an expression of self-protection and a fear of loss of control. In her first scene, she tosses away a pretty statue because, she says, it’s too beautiful for this wretched world. Her melancholy defiance and whip-wielding dominance, of course, melt away when she lays eyes on Stark’s chiselled body drilling down a marble. As a result, Neal’s eyes become progressively warmer, her hands less in control. Vidor cranks up the sexual tension to untenable levels, curiously sublimating it in architecture talk. The dynamic culminates in the proto-fascist iconography of the final scene where Dominique, now wholly submitted to her love, ascends via a fork lift towards Roark, who stands atop a skyscraper looking down at her, his hands on his hips.  

This melodramatic framework is fundamental, and not incidental, to Rand’s script. In direct opposition to Freud, Rand believed that a person’s emotional life was founded on a bedrock of reason and that one could direct one’s sentimental life by rational analysis. “A man falls in love with and sexually desires a person who reflects his own deepest values”, she wrote. In flagrant contrast to the Hollywood model, Roark and Dominique fall in love with each other through an appreciation of each other’s moral, intellectual virtues. A long scene of romantic confession takes the shape of Dominique’s admiration for Roark’s nonconformism. This notion of an amorous relationship based on “rational self-interest”, if it isn’t given a lie by Rand’s own love life beset by passion and jealousy, at least makes for odd drama.

Another aspect of Rand’s script that goes against the grain of classical Hollywood is its unapologetic verbosity. Rand adores reiterating her declarations against mass culture (incriminating Hollywood indirectly), collectivism, altruism, solidarity and common standards in exceptionally lofty, impossibly articulate dialogue. She puts her most scandalizing lines in the mouth of Roark’s rival Toohey, whose cigar-blowing critic is a caricature of the New York intellectual. This writerly excess reaches its crescendo in an extended courtroom scene where Roark spells out his (and the film’s) philosophy in unequivocal terms. Like Roark, Rand sold the film rights on the condition that not one word of any of this be changed.

All the same, Vidor activates the material with a vertiginous imagery scored to Max Steiner’s thunderous score. Vidor’s style here can justifiably said to be baroque. His strong, rectilinear compositions in deep space make dazzling use of Edward Carrere’s modernist interiors and the highly directional lighting. A scene set at a marble quarry is a veritable series of minimalist canvases harnessing the straight edges of rock formations to great effect. Vidor’s eye for geometry is visible even in minor scenes like an idyllic interlude of three characters relaxing under a tree. The filmmaker’s characteristic camera movements impart a dynamism to scenes threatened by Rand’s wordiness. Even the long-winded courtroom speech is made snappy thanks to Vidor’s fluid sequencing and Cooper’s deadpan line delivery.  

Warner Brothers had bought the rights to Rand’s novel during the war, but it couldn’t be made into a film because of America’s pro-Russia stance at the time. In 1949, however, things were markedly different. The Cold War had begun and anti-communist sentiment was in the air. The House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) pursued its investigation into leftist infiltration of Hollywood. At the famous HUAC hearings of 1947, Cooper and Rand were summoned as friendly witnesses to denounce communism, which they did in their own unmistakable manner. First among those promising cooperation and clean-up was Jack Warner, the head of the studio that saw a major workers’ strike in 1945. It’s something of a bitter irony that Warner Brothers, known for its socially-conscious cinema and films about the little man, would go on to make a work that decried these very values. But the climate had changed, and one thing that the old Hollywood moguls understood well was which direction the winds blew. The Fountainhead was fashionable once more.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]