[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]

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

Our Daily Bread

In 1928, King Vidor made the silent masterpiece The Crowd for MGM. The film was about an ordinary couple, John and Mary Sims, trying to make ends meet in New York. John’s big dreams are crushed by the city and, at the end of the film, the couple reconciles itself to social insignificance and dissolves in the anonymity of mass entertainment. Vidor reprised these characters in Our Daily Bread (1934), transplanting them to the West Coast, but a lot had passed in the six intervening years. For one, America had plunged into the Great Depression, and men like John found themselves without jobs. In the first scene of Our Daily Bread, Mary (Karen Morley) wards off debtors as John (Tom Keene) returns after a fruitless day looking for jobs, his days of dreaming big far behind him. Mary’s uncle is coming home for dinner, so John trades their ukulele at the meat shop for a bony chicken. Uncle tells John that he has a vast piece of devalued land far from the city and that he’ll let him have it if he could make good use of it. A reaction shot of grateful, enthusiastic Mary and John relays to us that this is welcome news.

John and Mary move to the deserted ranch. The house there is run down, but they make do with what they have. John has no idea about farming, so he opens up the ranch to other depression-stricken, migrant workers passing along the way. A community soon forms at the site, with a host of skilled workers bartering their trade while working on the corn fields. Many of the trades are urban skills with little use on the ranch—trouser-presser, undertaker, music teacher, salesman—but the group manages to integrate everyone according to his capability. They pool in their resources, divide responsibilities and forge a veritable settlement. The settlers include Jews, immigrants and persons with criminal records, poverty being their only commonality. Vidor is evidently attracted by the notion of starting anew, of leaving the past behind, at a time when people have little left to lose. He dedicates several shots to characters sitting around a fire, signalling ideas of community and domesticity in the wilderness. He treats the moment when first corn bud sprouts with a violin-accompanied preciousness. In his first speech to these modern-day homesteaders, John invokes the early pioneers who didn’t need “jobs”, but found a way to work the land and live off it.

There’s a tepid romantic triangle woven over this narrative of communal triumph, with John getting involved with a moll called Sally (Barbara Peppers). But the affair is resolved just before the film’s climactic set piece in which the community has to dig a canal two miles long to irrigate the crops. It’s an exhilarating passage that’s a masterwork of rhythm, composition and choreography. We see men standing in rows, hunched over, digging the ditch and moving sideways in unison like clockwork (Vidor had timed their movement with a metronome). We hear their voices mixed with the sound of their footsteps and their implements. They work day and night, building canals with wood and tin sheets. Shots are composed in deep space with obstacles in the foreground making way for the advancing ditch. As the canal approaches the fields, women cheer in the background and the camera moves along with the workers. The editing quickens and framing become tighter. A violin surges on the soundtrack as the water is released, its crescendo imitating fluid movement. Men follow the flowing water, and use their bodies to stem the holes in the ditch. The violin gives way to a lofty choral passage just as the water enters the parched fields.

Vidor was a filmmaker with a strong visual sensibility—he was also a painter—and it shows even in this modest production. The film opens with a markedly diagonal shot of a staircase in an apartment complex—a diagonality that will reappear in the wipe transitions linking different scenes. This vertical urban space is contrasted later with the horizontal sprawl of the open fields, and the upward movement of the characters in the first scene with the downward movement of the water towards the viewer in the final shot. A champion of camera movement, Vidor constructs his scenes with gentle pans and tracking shots, as when the camera follows the couple into the house after they have expressed surprise at its condition. He often composes outdoor shots with the horizon near the top of the frame, and his low angles produce a sense of wonderment at nature’s bounty. A Christian Scientist, he binds men and nature in a religious aesthetic, with the farmers in the foreground facing the vast fields in the background, whose fruits they have to earn through the sweat of their brow.

Vidor was also a filmmaker with social-realist aspirations that didn’t go down well with the established studios. The Crowd dealt with the struggles of the average Joe and Jane within the alienating machinery of the city during a time of general economic prosperity. Hallelujah (1929) was a production with a mostly African-American cast intending to show Black life in the South. In an introduction to Our Daily Bread, filmed years later, Vidor explains that he proposed the idea for the film to MGM, who were encouraging but didn’t want take the risk. As a result, Vidor had to secure funding independently, mortgaging his house in the process. Produced by Vidor himself under the banner “Viking Productions” and distributed by United Artists with the help of Charlie Chaplin, Our Daily Bread was also one of the earliest films to comply to the production code of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), the effect of which shows in the film’s coy dialogue and sexual dynamics.

Our Daily Bread was inspired by an article in the Reader’s Digest about people returning to the land following the financial crisis. It’s also a work that resonates with the political climate of the time. President Roosevelt had initiated the economic relief measures of the New Deal the year before. In California, where Our Daily Bread was made, hundreds of cooperative communes just like in the film had formed to tackle the crisis. The story’s theme of collectivisation, its distrust of cigar-chewing banker types and, especially, its assertion of a working-class identity over racial and national identities lends it an obviously communist flavour. And Vidor reportedly modelled the ditch-digging scene on a similar sequence in Yuli Raizman’s Soviet production The Earth is Thirsty (1930). But Vidor was not a communist; he was a conservative who later joined the anti-communist group called Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. It may simply be that Vidor found the idea of a self-sufficient people building a community to be a very American notion.

Conservative studio heads such as MGM’s Louis B. Mayer and United Artists’ Joseph Schenck, however, feared that the film could provide a fillip to the campaign of Democratic candidate Upton Sinclair in the upcoming gubernatorial elections in November. Sinclair was a socialist proposing a programme to End Poverty in California (EPIC)—a radical set of collectivist measures that alarmed the studio elites. Schenck stalled the release of Our Daily Bread in California by several months. Mayer deducted a day’s pay from his employees to fund the Republican candidate. In order to denigrate Sinclair’s campaign, Mayer’s second-in-command, Irving Thalberg, commissioned fake newsreels about bums pouring into California to sponge off the state. Sinclair lost the elections.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

The Crowd

The Crowd

The Crowd

The Crowd

The Crowd

The Crowd