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King Vidor’s Most Personal film: The Fountainhead.

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Movie Poster
Warner Bros. Pictures

When we think of the short list of greatest American directors the names of John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, George Cukor, Orson Welles and Frank Capra immediately come to mind. But this year marks the 120th birthday of King Vidor, who was one of Hollywood’s top directors for four decades.

Noted film scholar David Thomson said of Vidor “He could handle so many genres while retaining such a vibrant sense of the oddity of people.”

TCM states that “King Vidor's films range across all genres, but they are unified by a concern with the struggle for selfhood in a pluralistic, mass society. Influenced both by D.W. Griffith's realism and Sergei Eisenstein's montage aesthetic, Vidor has come closer to reconciling these strains than any other American director.”

Vidor was a master of the war picture: The Big Parade (1925), the urban melodrama: The Crowd (1928), the musical: Hallelujah! (1929), the love story: Stella Dallas (1937), the epic Western: Duel in the Sun (1946) and the literary classic: War and Peace (1956)

He had a longstanding relationship with two of the greatest producers in Hollywood history, Irving Thalberg and David O. Selznick. And Vidor deftly handled many of the most prominent actors such as Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Jennifer Jones, Audrey Hepburn, Henry Fonda and Gregory Peck.

Thompson notes that “All of Vidor's films were full of his dynamic cinematic confidence and the sense of being in charge of the greatest storytelling machine of his time.”

The politics of Vidor's films are paradoxical; they run the gamut from left leaning in Our Daily Bread (1934) to conservative in The Fountainhead. Our Daily Bread is cited as a "rare example of socialism in American film in which people overcome drought, foreclosures, and isolation."

But of all his films, perhaps his most personal effort is The Fountainhead (1949) The film is based on Ayn Rand’s novel about an idealistic modernist architect who clashes with society. (Rand is also responsible for the screenplay) The protagonist is based loosely on Rand's "hero" Frank Lloyd Wright; but many aspects of the novel are not historical. Emanuel Levy described the film as one of the few examples of an adaptation that is better than the book it was based on. Dave Kehr said "King Vidor turned Ayn Rand's preposterous 'philosophical' novel into one of his finest and most personal films, mainly by pushing the phallic imagery so hard that it surpasses Rand's rightist diatribes."

In his autobiography, A Tree is A Tree, 1953, Vidor mentions that he had been rereading Carl Jung's Psychology of the Self at the time and had gone through Jungian analysis just a few years earlier. "I was then very conscious of this recognition of self... What has all this to do with filmmaking? Everything. It is your world. You do not see it through the lens of a camera, you make it with the lens of a camera. You don't see with the eye, but through the eye.”

Thomson points out that in The Fountainhead “There’s a kind of spiritual violence that is still engrossing” And “We are close here to the contradictory temperament of King Vidor, a populist on one hand but the director of The Fountainhead (1949) on the other, and, in 1944, a founding member of the anti-Communist group the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. Raymond Durgnat and Scott Simmon, explore this paradox in their book King Vidor, American, point out that Our Daily Bread was also criticized by the left in its day as the very opposite of socialism, for its support of decisive, strong leadership.

There is no question that in The Fountainhead Vidor endorsed (and exulted in) Ayn Rand's portrait of architect Howard Roark, who, when his independence is challenged, is ready to defy public opinion even to the point of destroying his own building. Vidor worked to organize and promote directing, but believed directors would always have to struggle to defend their vision. In many ways, that's why Roark embodied the essential Vidor hero.”

The film begins with Howard Roark (Gary Cooper) being kicked out of architecture school for refusing to adhere to the school's conventionalism. He goes to New York to work for Henry Cameron (Henry Hull) a disgraced architect whom Roark admires. Roark’s popular, but lesser talented classmate Peter Keating (Kent Smith) has graduated with high honors. He follows Roark to New York and is hired by a prominent architectural firm where he ingratiates himself with senior partner Guy Francon (Jonathan Hale).

Roark works briefly at another firm and then opens his own office; but his designs are too advanced for potential clients. He takes a job at a granite quarry owned by Francon. In the meantime, Keating falls in love with Francon's ravishing but mercurial daughter Dominique (Patricia Neal), who writes a column for the The New York Banner. While working in the quarry, Roark meets Dominique, who lives on the hill above the quarry and the sparks fly, they engage in a battle of wills that culminates in a rough sexual encounter that Dominique later describes as a rape. Shortly after their encounter, Roark is notified by tycoon Roger Enright (Ray Collins) that he wants him to design a new building, so he rushes to back to New York before Dominique can learn his name.

Ellsworth M. Toohey (Robert Douglas) who writes a column on architecture in the Banner, is an outspoken socialist who manipulates public opinion through his writings. Toohey tries to ruin Roark with a smear campaign.

Gail Wynand, (Raymond Massey) a William Randolph Hearst-like mogul who is the publisher of many newspapers including the Banner marries Dominique. Wynand asks Roark to build a home for himself and Dominique that looks suspiciously like Wright’s famous house he designed in the Pennsylvania woods, Fallingwater. The home is built, and Roark and Wynand become close friends, although Wynand is unaware of Roark's past relationship with Dominique.

Now washed up and out of the public eye, Keating realizes he is a failure. He pleads with Toohey for his help to get the commission for the highly prized Cortlandt housing project. Realizing his own deficiencies, Keating turns to Roark for help in designing Cortlandt. Roark, whose only joy is in the work, agrees to design it in exchange for complete anonymity and Keating's promise that the project will be built exactly according to his plan. After returning from a long voyage on Wynand's, yacht Roark finds that the Cortlandt design has been changed despite his agreement with Keating. Roark then blows up the building to prevent the subversion of his vision.

Roark is universally condemned, but Wynand who has now become extremely close to Roark, orders his newspapers to defend him. The Banner's workers go on strike and the paper loses readership, but Wynand and Dominique's keep the presses rolling. Facing bankruptcy and a hostile board, Wynand finally gives in; and publishes a denunciation of Roark. At his trial, Roark appears to be beaten, but he rouses the courtroom with a definitive speech about the value of the individual over the collective and the need to remain true to oneself. The jury finds him not guilty and Roark wins Dominique. Wynand, shuts the Banner down; but asks Roark to design one last building for him, the tallest skyscraper in the world that will "testify to the supremacy of man"; after Rorak signs the contract; Wynand shoots himself. The final scene occurs over a year later; the Wynand Building is under construction and Dominique, now Roark's wife, enters the site and travels up the elevator to meet him on the windblown roof of the skyscraper.

Thomson calls The Fountainhead “one of the most beautiful and mysterious of films.” He observes that “These days, the film's mysterious or unexplained lack of inhibition feels modern. The glorification of the intransigent artist hero is more understandable, and the disdainful portrait of a world of compromise has fallen into place. It's clear now that The Fountainhead is a dream or parable, utterly averse to the common man, pledged to genius for its own sake. It may be King Vidor's finest movie, a characteristic fusion of vivid action and high ideas.

Although the film grossed over two million, the high production costs kept it from turning a profit. But the movie was instrumental in advancing the cause of modern architecture.It inspired a whole generation of young men and women to pursue the profession. Architect David Rockwell, who saw The Fountainhead when he visited New York City in 1964, has said that the film influenced his interest in architecture and design. Rockwell also stated that, at his university, many architecture students named their dogs Roark.

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