The film and novel's storyline are concerned with the life of Howard Roark, an individualistic young architect who chooses to struggle in obscurity rather than compromise his artistic and personal vision, following his battle to practice what the public sees as modern architecture, which he believes to be superior, despite resistance from a traditionally minded architectural establishment. The complex relationships between Roark and the various kinds of individuals who assist or hinder his progress, or both, allow the film to be at once a romantic drama and a philosophical work. Roark is Rand's embodiment of the human spirit, and his struggle represents the struggle between individualism and collectivism.
Howard Roark (Gary Cooper) is an individualistic architect who follows a new artistic path in the face of conformity and vulgar mediocrity.
Ellsworth Toohey (Robert Douglas), an architecture critic for The Banner newspaper, opposes Roark's individualism and volunteers to crusade in print against him. The wealthy and influential publisher, Gail Wynand (Raymond Massey), pays little attention, but approves the idea and gives Toohey a free hand.
Dominique Francon (Patricia Neal), a glamorous socialite who writes a Banner column, admires Roark's work, and opposes the newspaper's campaign against him. She is engaged to be married to an architect herself, the unimaginative Peter Keating (Kent Smith). She has never met or seen Roark, but she believes that he is doomed in a world that abhors individualism. Wynand falls in love with Francon and exposes Keating as someone who values a big opportunity more than her.
In the meantime, Roark is unable to find a client willing to build according to his vision. He walks away from opportunities that involve any compromise of his standards. Broke, he takes a job as a laborer in a quarry. The quarry belongs to Francon's father and is near their summer home. The vacationing Francon visits the quarry on a whim. As Roark drills into the stone, Francon spots him and watches him work. When he sees her they openly and repeatedly stare at each other.
Francon contrives to have Roark repair the white marble fireplace in her bedroom. Roark mocks the pretense, and after the first visit, sends someone else to complete the repair. Expecting Roark, Francon is enraged and returns to the quarry on horseback. She finds Roark nearby, walking from the site. He again mocks her and she strikes him across the face with her horsewhip. In the evening he appears in her open bedroom, forcefully embracing and kissing her passionately, the sexually charged scene fading to black.
Back in his room, Roark finds a letter offering him a new building project. He immediately packs up and leaves. Francon goes to the quarry two days later and learns that he quit. The boss offers to find out where he went, but she declines. She has no idea that he is actually Howard Roark, the brilliant architect she once championed in The Banner.
Wynand offers to marry Francon, even though he is aware that she is not in love with him. Francon defers the offer until she feels a great need to punish herself. She learns Roark's true identity when they are introduced at the party opening the Enright House, the new building that Roark has designed which The Banner has campaigned against. Francon goes to Roark's apartment and offers to marry him if he gives up architecture to save himself from a hopeless struggle. Roark rejects her fears and says that they face many years apart until she adjusts her thinking.
Francon finds Wynand and accepts his previous marriage proposal. Wynand agrees, regardless of her true feelings or motives. Wynand selects Roark to build a lavish but secluded country home for Francon and himself. As a result, Wynand and Roark become friends, which drives Francon to jealousy over Roark.
Keating has been employed to create an enormous housing project. It is beyond his skill, so he requests Roark's help. Roark says that if Keating promises to build it exactly as designed, Roark will do it while permitting Keating to take all the credit. With prodding from the envious Toohey, the firm backing the housing project decides to alter the design presented by Keating. Roark decides, with Francon's secret help, to rig explosives to the buildings and destroy them. Roark is arrested at the site after the demolition. In order to demonstrate Roark's guilt, Toohey pressures Keating into privately confessing that Roark designed the project.
Roark goes on trial. He is painted as a public enemy by every newspaper apart from The Banner, where, breaking with previous policy, Wynand campaigns publicly on Roark's behalf. However, Toohey has permeated The Banner with men loyal to him. Toohey has them quit and uses his clout to keep others out. He leads a campaign against The Banner's new policy that all but kills the paper. Faced with losing the enterprise, Wynand saves The Banner by bringing back Toohey's gang to join the rest of the public in condemning Roark.
Calling no witnesses, Roark addresses the court on his own behalf. He makes a long and eloquent speech defending his right to offer his own work on his own terms. He is found innocent of the charges against him. A guilt-stricken Wynand summons the architect to his office. He coldly presents him with a contract to design the Wynand Building, to be the greatest structure of all time, with complete freedom to build it however Roark sees fit. As soon as Roark leaves, Wynand pulls out a pistol from his desk drawer and kills himself.
Months later, Francon enters the construction site of the Wynand Building and identifies herself as Mrs. Roark. She rises in the open construction elevator, all the while looking upward towards the figure of her husband. Roark stands triumphant, his arms akimbo, near the edge of the tall skyscraper, as the crosswinds buffet him atop his magnificent, one-of-a-kind creation.
Barbara Stanwyck asked Jack L. Warner to buy the rights to the book for her. Warner Bros. purchased the film rights to Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead in late 1943, asking Rand to write the screenplay. Rand agreed, on the condition that not a single word of her dialogue be changed. The Fountainhead went into production, with Mervyn LeRoy hired to direct, but the production was delayed. LeRoy said that the delay was the result of the influence of the War Production Board, spurred by Rand's anti-Russian politics. Stanwyck was not told of the decision to cast Neal in the role she coveted until she read about it in the Hollywood trade papers. This led to her leaving Warner Bros.
Three years later, production commenced under the direction of King Vidor, although there were disputes between Rand, Vidor, and Warner Bros. throughout the production. Vidor wanted Humphrey Bogart to play Howard Roark, while Rand wanted Gary Cooper to play the part. Cooper was cast alongside Lauren Bacall as Dominique Francon, but Bacall was replaced by Patricia Neal. Cooper criticized Neal's audition as being badly acted, but she was cast against his judgment; during the production, Cooper and Neal began an affair.
Rand completed her screenplay in June 1944. The setting of The Fountainhead is a collective society in which individuals and new ideas of architecture are not accepted, and all buildings must be constructed "like Greek temples, Gothic cathedrals, and mongrels of every ancient style they could borrow", as Roark's patron Henry Cameron puts it in his deathbed speech. Rand's screenplay, among other things, criticized the Hollywood film industry and its self-imposed mandate to "give the public what it wants". Roark, in his architecture, refuses to give in to this demand "by the public". He refuses to work in any way that compromises his integrity and in which he would succumb to "popular taste". In a similar vein Rand wrote a new scene for the film, in which Roark is rejected as architect for the Civic Opera Company of New York, an allusion to Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Civic Light Opera Company of Pittsburgh.
While communism is not explicitly named, the film is also interpreted as a criticism of this ideology, as well as the lack of individual identity in a collective life under a communist society. However, the novel's criticisms were aimed at Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, and this is reflected in Rand's endorsement of modernism in architecture in both the book and the film. In adapting her novel, Rand utilized the melodrama genre to dramatize the novel's sexuality and aesthetic of modernistic architecture.
Patricia Neal remembered that Rand often visited the set to "protect her screenplay". During filming, Vidor decided that Roark's speech at the end of the film was too long, and decided to omit segments that he did not feel relevant to the plot. After learning of Vidor's decision, Rand appealed to Jack L. Warner to honor her contract, and Warner persuaded Vidor to shoot the scene as she had written it.
Rand later wrote a note thanking Warner and the studio for allowing the preservation of the novel's "theme and spirit, without being asked to make bad taste concessions, such as a lesser studio would have demanded."
Rand did however alter the film's plot slightly, in order to be approved by the Production Code Administration. In the novel Wynand divorces Dominique, but because the Motion Picture Production Code prohibited such divorces, Rand selected to have Wynand commit suicide instead.
Rand's screenplay instructed "It is the style of Frank Lloyd Wright -- and only of Frank Lloyd Wright -- that must be taken as a model for Roark's buildings. This is extremely important to us, since we must make the audience admire Roark's buildings". According to Warner Bros., once it was known that the film had gone into production, the studio received letters from architects throughout the country suggesting designs; Wright himself turned down an offer to work on the film.
In fact, the architectural style that Roark is shown fighting for, that was realized in the production designs of Edward Carrere, is closer to the corporate "International Style" of the East Coast in the late 1940s than Wright's architecture of the mid-West in the 1920s, when Rand's book was written; thus, it has its roots in German rather than American style modernism. During filming, Rand told Gerald Loeb that she disliked this style, ascribing this later to the fact that Carrere had trained as an architect, but not practiced architecture. She described his designs as copied from pictures of "horrible modernistic buildings", and judged them as "embarrassingly bad". The film's closing image, depicting Roark standing atop "the tallest structure in the world", which he designed, arguably evokes Futurism.
The film's score was composed by Max Steiner. Chris Matthew Sciabarra described Steiner as a "veritable film score architect [...] perhaps, the "fountainhead" of film music" in analyzing Steiner's appropriateness in composing the film's music, and says that Steiner's cues "immediately call to mind the story of Howard Roark".
In Sciabarra's article about the film's music he quotes philosophy professor Glenn Alexander Magee, who says that Steiner's score suggested "a strong affinity for The Fountainhead [...] [it] perfectly conveys the feel of a Rand novel". Magee suggests that Steiner's music accents themes of redemption and renewal present in the story, providing insight into Roark's opposition, Francon's sense of life and Wynand's flaw.
Excerpts from Steiner's score were included in RCA Victor's tribute to the composer, an album featuring the National Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Charles Gerhardt and released on LP in 1973 and reissued on CD.
Patricia Neal appeared on the NBC television series Hollywood Calling with Milton Berle to discuss their upcoming films, which included The Fountainhead and Berle's Always Leave Them Laughing. The film premiered at the Warners Hollywood theater. Warner Bros. erected two banks of bleachers on Hollywood Boulevard to accommodate fans that were expected to mob the premiere. Neal attended the premiere with Kirk Douglas as her date, and the two signed autographs for fans. The Los Angeles Times wrote that the audience "strongly responded to the unusual elements in the production." After the film ended, Neal noticed that many people were avoiding her and turning their faces away, except for Virginia Mayo, who approached Neal and exclaimed, "My, weren't you bad!" Once Cooper saw the completed film, he felt that he had not delivered the final speech as he should have. Compelled by the message of Rand's novel, Cooper and Neal let it be known publicly that they were having an affair, and the public knowledge of their relationship somewhat negatively impacted the film's box office.
The Fountainhead went on to gross $2.1 million, $400,000 less than its production budget. Sales of Rand's novel, however, increased as a direct result of the public's interest spurred by the film. In letters written at the time, the author's reaction was positive, saying "The picture is more faithful to the novel than any other adaptation of a novel that Hollywood has ever produced" and "It was a real triumph." She conceded to friend DeWitt Emery that "I can see your point in feeling that Gary Cooper's performance should have been stronger," but concluded, "I would rather see the part underplayed than overdone by some phony-looking ham." However, she displayed a more negative attitude towards it later, saying that she "disliked the movie from beginning to end", and complaining about its editing, acting, and other elements. As a result of this film, Rand said that she would never sell any of her novels to a film company that did not allow her the right to pick the director and screenwriter as well as edit the film, as she did not want to encounter the same production problems that occurred on this film.
The Fountainhead was panned by critics in its initial release. The Hollywood Reporter wrote of the film, "Its characters are downright weird and there is no feeling of self-identification." The Los Angeles Times said that the film would not "catch the interest of what is known as the average movie audience -- whoever they may be nowadays." The Communist-published Daily Worker deemed The Fountainhead to be "an openly fascist movie". The trade magazine Variety called the film "cold, unemotional, loquacious [and] completely devoted to hammering home the theme that man's personal integrity stands above all law." The New Yorker deemed the film to be "asinine and inept". Cue described it as "shoddy, bombastic nonsense". Bosley Crowther, in his review for The New York Times, called the film "wordy, involved and pretentious" and characterized Vidor's work as a "vast succession of turgid scenes."
In recent years, The Fountainhead has been reappraised, and has a score of 83% at the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, which compiles reviews from a wide range of critics (although there are no reviews available by what Rotten Tomatoes designates as "top critics"). 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." Architect David Rockwell, who saw the film 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 as a tribute to the protagonist of the novel and film.