Ever since he was a student, architect Howard Roark (Gary Cooper) was told his ideas were unworkable, that he should bend to the demands of the masses and design buildings their way instead of his - people just were not prepared for a vision as startling as his. But he felt a keen sense of his own worth, and ploughed ahead, determined that his notions of what made a great building would be realised in his way or not at all - he was prepared to starve rather than buckle to what any, lesser minds might have wanted him to do. So when he meets a veteran architect (Henry Hull) who recognises his talent, it could be the start of something big...
The Fountainhead is a book which has foiled all but the more determined readers, but the essential philosophy of its author Ayn Rand was embraced by a small number of nevertheless influential thinkers, an outlook which was derided as utter selfishness by its critics, but Rand would say, what's wrong with that? If I know I'm right, who are you to judge me? If you don't recognise my genius, I'm going to carry on anyway! You would have thought such a blinkered view would be ripe for parody, but there is a minority who saw themselves as holding up Rand's pathologically individualist torch for the ages for whom this was their gospel.
But nobody parodied Rand better than Rand herself, as seen in her self-scripted version of this, her first novel. While the book had been a bestseller, the movie as brought to the screen by the longsuffering King Vidor was regarded as a laughing stock as her ideas failed to translate from the page to the screen, this in spite of - or more likely because of - the writer being so involved with its creation. It was she who insisted on the casting of the plainly overage Cooper (who infamously claimed he didn't understand what Rand was on about), and she who insisted not one word of her screenplay be changed, which led to acres of deadening talk and characters more mouthpieces than living, breathing human beings. The result was a laugh riot for those in the mood.
Yet the fact that such self centered preaching was the basis for so much neo-conservative politics of the coming era meant that The Fountainhead, as a film, was held dear by those who thought Rand was the bees' knees, and you will still get those willing to overlook the chasm of ludicrous missteps found in it simply because it championed their favourite girl. Which makes it rather more problematic when you take a look at what you're meant to swallow as both entertainment and lecture, not least because this grand hero Roark turns out to be a rapist and a terrorist, and all down to his massive ego. Obviously, with such a humble performer as Coop guiding us through this, the temptation would be to think, well, maybe he's not such a bad guy, but like everyone else in the story, Roark is patently insane.
Such is the characters' rabid adherence to their ideals that none of them come across as anything but raving lunatics, and getting the worst of it was poor Patricia Neal in what was hoped to be her breakthrough role. So committed to the self is her Dominique Francon, a wealthy heiress and newspaper columnist, that she puts herself through absolute hell with masochistic relish: she belongs in an institution, but we're meant to see her suicide attempt, for example, as an admirable lack of compromise. The supposed baddies are led by Robert Douglas's media commentator who considers mediocrity as the best method to ensure he can control the masses, a ridiculously cardboard incarnation of Rand's horror at the thought of teamwork and just plain getting along as a fruitful way of getting through life. Nobody in this convinces as remotely authentic, never mind worth basing your politics on, and yes, it's unintentionally funny, but you worry for the minds who found it an inspiration. Architecture as a sexual fetish? Really?! Bombastic music by Max Steiner.