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The Fountainhead

Gary Cooper: The Signature Collection

The publication of the best-selling novel The Fountainhead in 1943 turned author Ayn Rand into one of the most influential philosophers in American history. Despite its challenging intellectual content and difficult hero — embodying Rand's unflinching defense of rational "selfishness" — the novel became a mainstream success, one Hollywood hoped to repeat with its screen adaptation six years later. Gary Cooper stars as Howard Roark, a maverick architect so steadfast in his refusal to compromise his holistic, modernist vision that he would rather work as a driller in a granite quarry during New York's construction boom than accept tainted building projects. But Roark's commitment to his principles attracts like-minded self-made businessmen, including cynical newspaper publisher Gail Wynand (an excellent Raymond Massey), who sees in Roark the purity he himself forsook for wealth and power. Roark, passionately disinterested in criticism, accepts Wynand's employ even though his influential New York Banner nearly ruined Roark's career years earlier through a campaign orchestrated by scheming columnist Ellsworth Toohey (Robert Douglas), who recognized Roark's solitary striking genius as a threat to his socialist policy goals. As a novel, The Fountainhead (as well as Rand's second novel, Atlas Shrugged) was crucial in illustrating for mass consumption the ideological framework that would inform the emerging Cold War's struggle between Communist collectivism and American individualism, inspiring readers notwithstanding some serious flaws; as Rand herself penned the screenplay for the film version, all of those flaws are carried over to the screen, and sometimes exaggerated by the contemporary melodramatic style. Roark, after all, may be admirable as an icon of Objectivist spirit, but he is also nearly robotic in his asceticism, and like any philosophical extremist, he's something of a killjoy. It doesn't help that Cooper looks deeply uncomfortable during the first half of the picture, never really selling the strength of Roark's convictions until the plot is in full flow, and even then he's never personally likable, suggesting to viewers that perhaps dogma alone is not enough. Even more alienating to audiences aching to empathize is Roark's soulmate, Dominique Francon (Patricia Neal), a socialite so jaded by the overall triumph of mediocrity over greatness that she prefers to coddle disappointment, marrying the whorish Wynand to spite her admiring passion for Roark. The success of Rand's polemic often demands that her characters behave in baffling ways, which, coupled with director King Vidor's melodramatic flourishes, results in more than a few unintentionally ridiculous confrontations accented to the worse by Max Steiner's overbearing score. Yet, the power of Rand's ideas — particularly her disregard for the elitist snobbery of Toohey's disingenuous appeals to "the common man" he wishes to control — resonate, and her story is always interesting even though its necessary derivations from realistic human behavior betray the impracticality of her vision. Warner's DVD release of The Fountainhead, part of "The Gary Cooper Signature Collection," presents the film in a rich full-frame transfer (1.33:1 OAR) from a good black-and-white source-print and monaural audio on a Dolby Digital 1.0 track. Supplements include the cheaply produced featurette "The Making of The Fountainhead," which recounts how Rand's participation in making the film mirrored her hero's story (20 min.). Theatrical trailer, keep-case (slimcase in the box-set).
—Gregory P. Dorr

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