So-Bad-It’s-Good Film Recommendation: The Fountainhead

Keith appears not to have reviewed this pearl, so here goes:

I came upon this on TCM recently. A movie about a heroic architect, with Coop and Patricia Neal, what could go wrong? If you met Ayn Rand at the appropriate age and never went back to it, you have a really fun campy wallow in store. Like everyone else, I read The Fountainhead as a college sophomore or freshman, while I was still connecting up neurons into some sort of functional system. I didn’t think much of the philosophy, or whatever it is, even then, but it was the trigger that got me interested in architecture as I realized I had no idea what the buildings Rand gauzily described as masterpieces would actually look like, and took some courses to find out more.

Like the novels, the film is drenched in unintended self-parody and clearly marked out with signposts for us. The heavy is named Toohey. (Rhymes with phooey, get it? Like his doppelgänger in Rand’s other big lift, Wesley Slouch, I mean Mouch. The failed woulda/coulda/shoulda who compromises his principles has the non-gender-specific moniker Gail. You are never lost or in doubt in Randworld.) Rand wrote the screenplay, and a preachier, speechier bunch of unplayable lines I have never heard. The whole thing was some kind of bonfire of postwar Hollywood craziness: Cooper and Neal had an affair during the filming, Rand was on the set meddling (and didn’t like the result), and (I just learned from the linked article) Bogart and Bacall, beloved lefties, were initially cast for the leads-did they read the script?

The architecture we are supposed to admire is “modern” architecture as imagined by the people who gave us the sets of Astaire/Rogers films, or maybe the Wizard of Oz. The great building that caps the film is, of course, thus because it’s the tallest; Burj Khalifa theory of architecture and all the cluelessness it implies. If you got the subtle functioning of the names, and I bet many of our deepest, sharpest readers did, you will catch the 642 separate instances of phallic this-and-that, especially including Coop tickling a mountain with a little pneumatic drill held about waist-high.

All in all, though, the idea that a communist could orchestrate the decline of everything by getting the rabble stirred up about architecture, or that an architect could save us from collectivism, is so delicious and loony that it redeems the film. It’s a hoot from start to finish, check it out.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Michael O’Hare

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.