The Fountainhead (1949)

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University

One of the oddest anti-communist films to come out of Hollywood in the period between the first and second HUAC investigations was the The Fountainhead (1949).  Based on Ayn Rand’s bestselling book, and directed by MPAPAI founding executive committee member King Vidor, the film was a defence of the creative individual against the deadening collective.  The film should be seen as Rand’s own personal vision rather than Vidor’s.  Rand had such power in Hollywood at the time that when Vidor wanted some scenes cut from the film, Rand made Warner restore them.[1]

One of the oddest anti-communist films to come out of Hollywood in the period between the first and second HUAC investigations was the The Fountainhead (1949). Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Gary Cooper played visionary architect Howard Roark who the public hated because of his individualism.  He was expelled from school because his ideas were too original.  His architecture was criticised by Ellsworth Touhy through his column in the populist The New York Banner, arguing that ‘artistic value is achieved collectively, by each man subordinating himself to the standards of the majority.[2]  Touhy doesn’t like genius as he believed it to be ‘dangerous’.  He explained his reasons to be compromised architect John Keating.

            KEATING: What are you after?

TOUHY: Power!  What do think is power?  Whips, guns, money.  You can’t turn men into slaves unless you break their spirit.  Kill their capacity to think and act on their own.  Tie them together.  Teach them to conform.  Untie to agree to oblige.  That makes one neck for the leash.[3]

Roark agreed to design a housing development for the poor using Keating as a front, provided his designs were exactly followed.  When they were not, Roark destroyed the building with dynamite.  Before the trial, Touhy began a storm of protest against Roark.  The owner of the New York Banner, Gail Wynand, played by Raymond Massey, wanted to support Roark and sacked Touhy.  Touhy virtually closed down the paper as the entire office walked off in support.  Touhy explained his strategy to Wynand and his assistant.

ASSISTANT:    I can’t understand how Ellsworth got so much power.  I never noticed it.  But he got his gang in little by little.  And now he owns them.

WYNAND:  And I own the Banner.

TOUHY:  (entering the room)  Do you Mr Wynand?  So you were after power, Mr Wynand and you thought you were a practical man, you left to impractical intellectuals the whole field of ideas to corrupt as we please as you were making money.  You thought money was power.  Is it Mr Wynand?  You poor amateur.[4]

Touhy represented the communist – with a liberal façade – who was destroying the system from within.  Just as Rand believed that the communists were inserting corrupt ideas into films to undermine capitalism, the character of Touhy reflected her concern.[5]  It was he, not the capitalists, who had the real power.  Eventually Touhy reasserted his control over the paper after a popular boycott.  He was quite open about his aims in a public attack on Roark.

We don’t have to wait for the trial to convict him.  Howard Roark is guilty by his very nature.  It is his work that designed Courtland.  What if he did?  Society needed a housing project.  It was his duty to sacrifice his own desires and contribute any ideas we demanded of him on any terms we chose.  Who is society? We are.  Man can only be permitted to exist in order to serve others.  He must be a tool for the satisfaction of others.  Self sacrifice is the law of our age.  The man who refuses to submit and to serve is a man who must be destroyed.[6]

At his trial, Roark argued for the role of the individual against the collective.  He made no pretense at innocence and defended his actions by conjuring up a vision of an ancient struggle between the evil collective and the vision of the individual.

Man cannot survive except through his mind.  He comes on earth unarmed.  His brain is his only weapon.  But the mind is an attribute of the individual.  There is no such thing as a collective brain.  The man who thinks must think and act on his own.  The reasoning mind cannot be subordinated to the needs, wishes or opinions of others … Look at history.  Everything we have.  Every great achievement has come from the independent work from some independent mind.  Every horror and destruction from attempts to force men into a level of brainless, soulless, robots without personality, without rights without will or hope or dignity.  It is an ancient conflict.  The individual against the collective.[7]

Despite his obvious guilt, Roark was acquitted by the jury to pursue his own career.  The decision was nonsense.  In dynamiting the building, he was guilty of a range of crimes and should have been sent to prison.  But it was a political trial and Roark was set free.  The individual had triumphed over the collective.

The Fountainhead hinted at the existence of an blacklist of anti-communists in Hollywood.  Roark could not find work while he fought with Touhy and his associates.  This suggestion was a calculated insult to those who had been blacklisted by the studios.  Rand argued that talented individuals like Roark could lose their jobs because of their beliefs.  She later told her biographer that there was a blacklist of anti-communists in force in the HUAC years.  She said almost everybody who testified for the committee who were considered dispensable, such as freelancers or writers or actors without a contract to a major studio lost their jobs.  ‘Morrie Ryskind had more work than he could handle; he never worked again in Hollywood’ while ‘Adolphe Menjou got fewer and fewer jobs’ and soon could ‘find no work at all’.[8] 

No evidence exists of a blacklist of anti-communists and Rand’s statements are not supported by an available evidence. Screenwriter Morrie Ryskind had many screen credits in the 1930s.  In the 1940s he received one for Penny Serenade in 1941, Where Do We Go From Here? In 1945 and Heartbeat in 1946.  After this his film career began to slow down.  But three credits in six years is not more work than you can handle.  It seems clear that his career was already in decline when he testified to HUAC.  When conservative critic William F. Buckley Jr. made similar claims in 1963 about Morrie Ryskind, screenwriter Phillip Dunne, one of the co-founders of the Committee for the First Amendment, told Buckley that Ryskind could have a job by turning up at 20th Century Fox Studios.  According to Dunne, Ryskind failed to show. After Hollywood, Ryskind worked as a columnist for the Hearst Press.  He also secured a position from the government in writing anti-communist films for the United States Information Agency. Menjou made three films in 1947, one in 1948, two in 1949, one in 1950, two in 1951, one in 1952 and continued to make films up to 1960.  This was about the rate before the HUAC hearings.  He also had two television series in 1951 and 1953.  See Halliwell, Leslie.  Filmgoer’s Companion seventh edition, Paladin, London, 1980, p. 546.  Kazan also claimed that Menjou was on a left wing blacklist in his autobiography and he broke the blacklist by employing Menjou for Man on a Tightrope (1952).  The facts are that Menjou enjoyed regular employment in Hollywood.    [9]

Publicity for the film was firmly based on Ayn Rand’s novel.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

DeMille was clearly an influence on the production of The Fountainhead.  The closing scene of the film showed a woman rising in an open elevator and looking up at the make figure of Roark on top of the building and which then cut to look across at the city skyline.  The scene was almost identical to one in DeMille’s 1932 version of The Ten Commandments.  Vidor was either strongly influenced by the scene and incorporated it into the film or DeMille was playing a advisory role.  In either event, DeMille certainly agreed with the politics of the film.  After the launch of the film, Rand wrote to DeMille saying The Fountainhead was doing extremely well at the box office, particularly at the neighborhood houses, where ‘audiences everywhere break into applause at the end of Roark’s speech’.  Rand wrote that this made her happy, because it showed that ‘the political sympathy of the country is with us’.[10]

The reality was quite different and the film was not well received.  Bosley Crowther in the New York Times wrote:

If Miss Rand intended this drama to be a warning against the present threat of Communism muscling in on our fair democracy, then she might have shown more confidence in the good old body politic and less growing admiration for the genius who is a law unto himself… For it is out of such deadly cynicism and reckless reverence as are shown in this film that emerges a form of fanaticism which is a peril to democracy.[11]

Rand wrote back on July 24 and accused Crowther of being an Ellsworth Toohey and ignoring the real issues of the film.  She also claimed that because of her stance, approved screenplays would reach the screen unaltered at Warner Brothers.  The studio later claimed on July 31 that she had been mistaken and that actors were no longer permitted to improvise with scripts. As a novel, The Fountainhead was a bestseller, but this did not translate to the box office:  The film was ranked 38th by Variety, making $2.1 million.[12]

The initial stage of the anti-communist crusade was an attempt to exonerate the moguls for their actions in dealing with HUAC.  The political never-never land of I Married A Communist and The Fountainhead contained calculate insults aimed at Hollywood’s liberal and radical community.  The Fountainhead was perhaps the more insulting as it inverted the political order to make it appear that the communists were in control and were attempting to crush the work of talented individuals.


[1] Raymond Durgnat and Scott Simmon, King Vidor, American, Universtiy of California Press, Berkeley, 1988, p. 263.

[2]The Fountainhead, (d) King Vidor, (w) Ayn Rand

[3]Ibid.

[4] The Fountainhead op cit.

[5] Barbara Branden, The Passion of Ayn Rand, Doubleday, New York, 1986, p. 201.

[6] The Fountainhead op cit.

[7] ibid.

[8] Branden, Ayn Rand, p. 203.

[9] See Phillip Dunne, Take Two: A Life in Movies and Politics, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1980, p. 217.  as reported in Hollywood Reporter, 18 March 1954. 

See Elia Kazan, A Life, Doubleday, New York, 1988, p. 478 – 480.

No doubts exist about the effectiveness of the blacklist which ended many careers.  See John Cogley Report on Blacklisting, 2 vols, The Fund for the Republic, New York, 1956.  Rand’s claim of a blacklist for friendly witnesses are also dubious because of her own career in Hollywood began after testifying.

[10] Ayn Rand to Cecil B. DeMille, 29 April 1949, Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Box 418, Folder 3, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

[11] New York Times, 17 July 1949. 

[12] Variety, 4 January 1950.

Based on original blog at https://kevinbrianton.com/the-fountainhead-1949/

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