Through the plate glass window of Henry Cameron's old office looms a building. It was once the tallest in New York. With its columns and arches arranged in horizontal tiers, topped by a massive cupola, it's nothing of the sort Cameron would ever be willing to design.
It is the target of all of his anger.
Drunk, embittered, Cameron holds a copy of the New York Banner, cursing it as "the foulest newspaper on Earth." To Roark, his protégé, he rails against the paper's publisher, the master of the building across the way. "Gail Wynand gives people what they ask for, the common, the vulgar, and the trite. ... This may be the most powerful man living. Can you fight that?"
Powerless in the face of Wynand's building, Cameron can attack only its image — and this he does. Brandishing a T-square, he smashes the window of his own office at the place where the building looms. Cameron's heart now physically gives up, as it had spiritually done years earlier. The building and Wynand's Banner have destroyed him.
The movie The Fountainhead, released in 1949, is universally seen as failing to achieve on the silver screen anything remotely like the masterpiece status that the novel achieved on the printed page, even though Ayn Rand wrote the film script. There were multiple reasons for this, not least the casting and acting. (The aging Gary Cooper, who played Roark, later lamented: "Boy, did I louse that one up.")
My focus is on architecture in the course "The Fountainhead in New York City," which I teach this fall at New York University's School of Continuing and Professional Studies. So let me take you on a brief tour of some of the real-life Manhattan buildings which, for better or worse, the art director of the Fountainhead movie brought to the screen.
Some of these buildings don't require extensive comment. The office of Gail Wynand (Raymond Massey), high above downtown's Newspaper Row, is the stage for many a scene in the movie. Commanding is his panoramic view of Lower Manhattan (actually a meticulously executed matte painting set up in the Warner Brothers studio in Hollywood).
The skyline rises just as it did in mid-century, traced by the Singer Building, the Woolworth Building, the Bank of Manhattan Building, and other skyscrapers — in a variety of historicist and more contemporary styles: beaux arts, Gothic, art deco. (For good measure, there's also a sizable chunk of midtown Manhattan miraculously transposed southward to occupy the East River and Brooklyn.)
Far less obvious — it's a nocturnal scene — is that, about midway through the movie, Roark's apartment window in his newly built Enright House overlooks upper midtown near the southeast corner of Central Park (again, a meticulous rendering, but for some reason flipped horizontally to produce a mirror image).
We see Renaissance and neo-Romanesque skyscrapers such as the Sherry-Netherland Hotel and the Savoy Plaza Hotel. But there's also the art-deco Squibb Building, built in 1930 by Ely Jacques Kahn, who — though no Roark — had served as Rand's mentor on the architectural profession when she was writing her novel, and whose style she respected.
But let's get back to the ill-fated Henry Cameron (played by Henry Hull) near the beginning of the movie. The downtown building he tries to smash, but which deals him his fatal blow, was the real-life World Building (rendered as part of a matte painting of Newspaper Row, but again horizontally flipped as a mirror-image, presumably to achieve a better background balance.)
Designed by the prolific highrise architect George B. Post, the World Building opened in 1890 and served as headquarters for both William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer — the great masters of yellow journalism in real life, just as Gail Wynand, so depised by Cameron, was the master of yellow journalism in the novel. Although using the then-innovative construction technique of the hybrid steel "cage" frame, the building's ornate Renaissance style was older by several centuries.
Cameron now lies collapsed on the floor. Roark telephones for help. The scene shifts to the interior of the ambulance racing to a hospital.
"Howard, look at those buildings," exclaims the dying Cameron. "Skyscrapers, the greatest structural invention of man, yet they made them look like Greek temples, Gothic cathedrals and mongrels of every ancient style they could borrow, just because others have done it."
Flashing by through the ambulance window (here the studio used the technique of moving images filmed on location and back-projected onto a screen on the Hollywood set) is a six-block stretch of real-life highrises along lower Fifth Avenue, most of them dating from around the turn of the century. There's a fifteen-story, elaborately columned office building at 18th Street, an ornate Dutch Renaissance gabled roof, the beaux-arts Solmer Piano Building, and in between a procession of colonnades, pilasters, and tiers.
"I told them ... I told them that the form of a building must follow its function," Cameron continues, "that new materials demand new forms, that one building can't borrow pieces of another's shape, just as one man can't borrow another's soul. Howard, every new idea in the world comes from the mind of some one man. And do you know the price he has to pay for it?!"
Then, looking out of the ambulance window, the embittered man manages a smile. "Ha, I built that." There follows a tracking shot of the free-standing apartment complex, 240 Central Park South (in reality several miles to the north).
The structure's overall shape has a certain moulded quality, in keeping with the art-deco style in fashion when it was designed in 1940. There are corner windows and series of fin-like corner balconies, enhancing the streamlined effect.
But after all is said and done, "Cameron's" building looks too much like the functional and soulless municipal housing projects for low and medium income families which were proliferating throughout the five boroughs in the post-war era.
Couldn't the art director have found a better real-life example in New York?
The triumphant and subsequently tragic life of Louis Sullivan (1856-1924), the "father of the skyscraper" and mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright, was the model on whom Henry Cameron was based. However, Sullivan was, like Wright, a midwestern architect. Only one Sullivan building was ever built in New York — but it's a doozy.
Sullivan's façade did not disguise this structural technique; it flaunted it — with slender masonry columns tracing the steel girders from base to crown and bursting into angelic figures. ("The skyscraper," Sullivan famously declared, "must be every inch a proud and soaring thing; rising in sheer exultation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line.")
So why didn't the Warner Brothers art director choose the Bayard Building as Cameron's?
The Fountainhead movie takes place in the then-present day (mid-century). There was no ambition on the studio's part to set it in the novel's era — the 'twenties and 'thirties — let alone in the decades around the turn of the century when the novel gives us flashbacks of Cameron's career. The art director apparently assumed that the viewers had to be shown a "Cameron" building that, by mid-century standards, was vaguely "modernist" but none too daring.
The structure at 240 Central Park South would have to do.
Henry Cameron never makes it to the hospital. He expires as the ambulance passes the massive but rather dull International Toy Center on 24th Street.
It is now up to his protégé Howard Roark to redeem his vision, just as in real-life Frank Lloyd Wright went on to redeem much of the vision of Louis Sullivan.
Does Roark do so in the movie? Well, in a sense, no. Rand had written before the movie went into production: "[I]t is the style of Frank Lloyd Wright — and ONLY Frank Lloyd Wright — that must be taken as the model for Roark's buildings."
However, Rand's crusade to get Wright to do the designing for the film was ultimately to no avail. So the Warner Brothers set designers had to fall back on their own, far more limited, talents for giving form to Roark's architectural conceptions on the silver screen.
But that's another story, for another day.
Dr. Frank Heynick teaches the course (starting September 30) "The Fountainhead in New York City" at NYU's School of Continuing and Professional Studies and is presently writing a book on the subject.