The Fountainhead movie was a financial success in movie theaters in 1949

by David P. Hayes

It has become an article of faith among critics of Ayn Rand that the movie made from her screenplay adaptation of her novel The Fountainhead was a box-office failure.  Such critics have either never examined the evidence or have willfully disregarded it.1

Evidence has been available in research libraries for decades which dispel the myth.  Respected industry trade papers in operation at the time of the release of the film provide comparative information on how The Fountainhead the majority of other American feature-film releases in 1949.

The American Film Institute catalog shows that there were 387 American feature films in 1949.2  This number includes a large number of routine low-budget Westerns (intended for showings only at Saturday matinees attended by children and at evening showings in small prairie towns where admission prices were low), episodes in low-budget series, routine mysteries likely to be shown as the bottom half of a double feature, and myriad other types of films which no one would rightly seek to compare to a major studio release when looking at monetary figures associated with these films.

The film industry’s best-known trade paper, Variety, cut short the list of 1949 films at the 92 releases which met its threshold of achieving the minimum rental income it set to deem a film worthy of inclusion on its list.  Even with this threshold, several releases from major studios which feature significant stars from the time, failed to make the list (see below).  Despite not being major companies, Republic Pictures got in two releases, and Eagle-Lion and Film Classics had one each on the list.  (Twelve films from 1949 were excluded from the list because they were released too late in the year to estimate how they would do.  More on these later.)

The Fountainhead scored in the top half of the list compiled by Variety limited to releases earning the kind of money which only a major studio release would earn (a threshold that even some major studio releases didn’t meet).  When one adds back in all releases for the year, The Fountainhead did better in ticket sales than nine out of ten films of the year.

For comparisons among competing releases, a better source of information is Box Office magazine.  Releases in theaters at the time of publication of each weekly issue are compared to normal business for theaters in tracked cities, and in that way different films are compared.  The Fountainhead did business consistently above average.

The magazine states in each issue, alongside its “Barometer” feature, “This chart shows the records made by pictures in five or more of the 21 key cities checked.  As new runs are reported, ratings are added and averages revised.”

The Fountainhead had its premiere engagements beginning June 26, 1949, and went into general release on July 2, 1949.  The July 16, 1949, issue of Box Office was the first to contain statistical information about the financial performance of The Fountainhead.  The issue of the prior week is dated July 9, 1949, and on the “Barometer” page the film highlighted as the “Top Hit of the Week” (always listed at the top of the page) is “Sorrowful Jones,” a comedy (with dramatic scenes) starring Bob Hope and Lucille Ball, which in Kansas City did 180% of normal business.  Elsewhere on the page, the information table shows results reported in previous weeks on particular films still in release: “Knock on Any Door” (starring Humphrey Bogart) scored 210% in Denver and 200% in San Francisco; the horse-racing drama “The Stratton Story” had done 225% in Cleveland and 175% in Los Angeles; “Champion” (with Kirk Douglas playing a boxer) did 200% in Los Angeles; the anti-racism drama “Home of the Brave” (an early film from producer Stanley Kramer) did 213% in San Francisco and 210% in Los Angeles, but was doing an average of 139% among the cities tracked in which it had opened.  San Franciscans had also gone to “Enchantment” (a tragic romance starring David Niven and Teresa Wright) enough to make it score 175% in the Bay City.  “We Were Strangers” was about Cuban underground agents seeking to overthrow their country’s government, and San Franciscans had earlier attended at 185% above normal, although nationally the film did so poorly that it did not meet the Variety threshold (despite top stars).  These films and figures appeared on the page because these films had opened in new cities, making the films eligible to be listed again, although the better figures were ones achieved before the latest openings.

With the July 16, 1949 issue of Box Office, industry watchers had their first figures on The Fountainhead to appear in this magazine:
110% in Boston
130% in Los Angeles
110% in New Haven
180% in San Francisco
150% in Seattle
136% average

The “Top Hit of the Week” was “Neptune’s Daughter,” a Technicolor musical spectacular starring Esther Williams, which did 190% in Seattle and 180% in Kansas City.  What The Fountainhead did in San Francisco matched what “Neptune’s Daughter” did in Kansas City, so it was only that extra 10% in Seattle that made the difference of Ayn Rand’s film not getting the spotlight.
Other new figures showed that “Sorrowful Jones” drew as well or better in Denver (185%), Chicago (180%) and San Francisco (198%) as it had in Kansas City the prior week.
New instances of films that opened in new cities, resulted in the following older figures to be repeated: “Ma and Pa Kettle” did 170% in Kansas City and 200% in Denver; obviously, because characters who live in the Ozarks so infrequently are the main characters of a film that when they are, people in the middle of the United States flock to see them.  Also understandably, Denver had attended enough for 200% of normal business to be earned by “Colorado Territory”; this Warner Bros. production was set in their state.  A railroad drama titled “Canadian Pacific” did 190% in Denver and 180% in San Francisco.  The Robert Mitchum crime drama “Big Steal” did 180% in Los Angeles.

The July 23, 1949 issue of Box Office had new figures for The Fountainhead:
110% in Atlanta
110% in Cincinatti
75% in Cleveland
110% in Indianapolis
104% in New Orleans
100% in New York
110% in Omaha
115% in Pittsburgh
Average 116%

The “Top Hit of the Week” was Abbott & Costello’s new comedy “Africa Screams” with 200% in San Francisco.  In the tables, readers found that the average for this film through to this week was 118%.
Among the older figures revisited as older films played new cities, “The Window” (a film noir about the kidnaping of a child) had scored 175% in that same San Francisco, but similar to “Africa Screams” its average was unimpressive: in the following week’s Box Office, it was at only 98% overall.
San Franciscans went for “Ilegal Entry” (about undercover agents’ investigations into smuggling) had done 180% in San Francisco.

The July 30, 1949 issue of Box Office had three new cities for The Fountainhead, bringing the total to 16 of the 21 tracked:
121% in Buffalo
135% in Denver
110% in Detroit
Average 118%

The “Top Hit of the Week” was “Champion” with 175% in Chicago.  Elsewhere, “My Dear Secretary” (Kirk Douglas in an independently-made comedy) did 165% in San Francisco, and “The Stratton Story” did 175% in San Francisco and 150% in Seattle.

The August 6, 1949 issue of Box Office had yet three more cities for The Fountainhead, bringing the total to nineteen:
95% in Chicago
80% in Dallas
140% in Minneapolis
Average 116%

The “Top Hit of the Week” was “Any Number Can Play” (Clark Gable) with 160% in Los Angeles and 150% in Kansas City.  Away from this spotlight at the top of the page, in the table, it is shown that this film’s average for its eight cities was 128%. Hey, The Fountainhead in its first week did better than that (in both its top two cities and its average) but had had stronger competition that week!

The August 13, 1949 issue of Box Office proved the first week since The Fountainhead first was tracked that this film was not listed.  Warner Bros. scored well with “Top Hit of the Week” of the week being another film from the company: “The Girl From Jones Beach” (Ronald Reagan, Virginia Mayo, Eddie Bracken) with 170% in San Francisco—moviegoers in Northern California’s most prominent city kept going to movies!

I continued to check the “Barometer” feature for each issue of Box Office through the months of August, September and October, but The Fountainhead is not listed again in any of the issues (beyond the August 6 one) of these three months.  If The Fountainhead ever played in Kansas City and Philadelphia during these months (which seems likely) and if business done in those two cities was ever compiled by Box Office, the magazine never followed through in incorporating it into their tables.  Kansas City and Philadelphia are the only two cities tracked by Box Office for which I did not find figures.


Variety compiled end-of-year comparison stats for the major releases of 1949 in the magazine’s January 4, 1950, issue (on page 59).  As that date was so close to the end of the year, Variety acknowledged that certain films for which the first engagements were too close to the end of the year could not be included: “Pictures with too few dates for estimating total returns as yet include Paramount’s ‘Samson and Delilah’ and ‘The Heiress,’ Metro’s ‘Battleground’ and ‘On the Town,’ Columbia’s ‘All the King’s Men,’ Selznick’s ‘Fallen Idol,’ Warner Bros.’ ‘Always Leave ‘Em Laughing’ and ‘The Inspector General,’ 20th-Fox’s ‘Beautiful Doll,’ ‘Prince of Foxes’ and ‘12 O’Clock High,’ and RKO’s ‘Holiday Affair.’”  (Note: “The Fallen Idol” is a British film and thus not counted in AFI’s 387-film figure.)

Here is the top of the list as reported by Variety:
1. Jolson Sings Again
2. Pinky
3. [I Was a] Male War Bride
4. Snake Pit
5 Joan of Arc
6 Stratton Story
7. [Mr.] Belvedere Goes to College
8. Little Women
9. Words and Music
10. Neptune's Daughter
11. [In the] Good Old Summertime
12. Sorrowful Jones
13. Take Me Out to [the] Ballgame
14. Great Lover
15. Barkleys of Broadway
16. Adam's Rib
17. Come to [the] Stable
18. Command Decision
19. Connecticut Yankee [in King Arthur's Court]
20. Whispering Smith
21. Every Girl Should Be Married
22. My Friend Irma
23. Yellow Sky
24. Letter to Three Wives
25. [She Wore a] Yellow Ribbon
26. Top O' the Morning
27. Home of the Brave
28. Look for [the] Silver Lining
29. Mother Is a Freshman
30. You're My Everything
31. Any Number Can Play
32. Ma and Pa Kettle
33. Rope of Sand
34. Family Honeymoon
35. Streets of Laredo
36. Champion
37. Chicago Deadline
38. Fountainhead
39. Knock on Any Door
40. So Dear to My Heart
41. That Forsyte Woman
42. That Midnight Kiss
43. Wake of [the] Red Witch
44. Flamingo Road
45. Great Gatsby
46. Great Sinner
47. House of Strangers
48. Lost Boundaries
49. Madame Bovary
50. Man From Colorado

Here are a few other titles in release at the same time as The Fountainhead which in some engagements were strong top draws in specific cities:
74. Big Steal
75. Enchantment
77. Girl From Jones Beach
83. Africa Screams

Position 92 is the bottom of the list.  Although Variety chose to snip the list at that point, there were some major studio releases with significant stars that did not do the kind of business that the track record of the lead actors would suggest.  Variety named in an article accompanying the above list the noteworthy films which did not make the threshold:
Accused” starring Loretta Young (here Variety notes that “her other two pix were profitmaking”)
“We Were Strangers” starring John Garfield and Jennifer Jones
“The Fan” starring Jeanne Crain and Madeleine Carroll
“Unfaithfully Yours” starring Rex Harrison and Linda Darnell (directed by Preston Sturges)
“Cry of the City” starring Victor Mature and Richard Conte
“Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend” starring Betty Grable
“Kiss in the Dark” starring Jane Wyman (fresh from an Academy Award)
“It's a Great Feeling” starring Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson (with newcomer Doris Day)
“Portrait of Jennie” starring Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten and Ethel Barrymore
“Scene of the Crime” starring Van Johnson
“Edward, My Son” starring Spencer Tracy and Deborah Kerr
“Gallant Blade” starring Larry Parks
“Tell It to the Judge” starring Rosalind Russell and Hobart Cummings.  (Material in parentheses, excepting direct quotation, was added by me; most cast information appears in the Variety piece.)

Caution: the eight films positioned as numbers 36-43 on the above list are returned theater rentals of the same rounded dollar figure.  The Fountainhead appears at number 38 rather than elsewhere in the 36-43 range because the films with the same dollar amount are listed in alphabetical order.  Of the twelve films included in the Variety “Pictures with too few dates for estimating total returns” list, I have determined from later sources that “Samson and Delilah” came to top the list of 1949 releases, and that two others of the films also had rentals higher than that of The Fountainhead.  This drops The Fountainhead from number 38 to number 41, or to among positions 39-46 when treating the eight films of the same rentals as one group.

For Warner Bros., The Fountainhead was one of the top films of the year.  On the list reproduced above of positions 1-50 on the Variety list of 92 releases, Look for the Silver Lining, at no. 28, is the only Warner Bros. release higher up on the list than The Fountainhead.  (Note: Stories in early 1950 issues of Variety indicate that The Inspector General, released December 31 by the studio, was doing very well, a likely contender for a high spot on the list had it not been compiled by January 4, 1950.)  Although this may make it seem that Warner Bros. was not well-represented on the 92-item list, this is not the case.  According to a company-by-company comparison table which accompanies the list, of the 92 films which met the Variety threshold, Warners had 13 films on the list.  20th Century-Fox had the most at 18, although the 17 from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer just barely edged out Fox’s 18 to take top rank for the higher total rental revenue for films on the list from a single studio.  Warner Bros. scored fourth in the category of highest total rentals, behind Paramount (which had 12 films on the list).

Warner Bros. had a total of 31 feature releases in 1949, according to the Film Daily Year Book for 1950.  Six of the releases were reissues.  This leaves 25 new releases, which apparently were the only kind that Variety considered for the list of 92 top-rental films.  None of the 31 were “B” Westerns nor were there any “B” series of any kind being made by the studio at the time.

According to the Film Daily Year Book of 1950, here are the 31 feature-length releases from Warner Bros. for 1949 (listed in order of release):
One Sunday Afternoon • Whiplash • Adventures of Don Juan • Flaxy Martin • John Loves Mary • South of St. Louis • A Kiss in the Dark • Homicide • Sergeant York (reissue) • Castle on the Hudson (reissue) • My Dream is Yours • Flamingo Road • Night Unto Night • Younger Brothers • Colorado Territory • Casablanca (reissue) • G-Men • The Fountainhead • The Girl from Jones Beach • Look for the Silver Lining • White Heat • The House Across the River • Task Force • Under Capricorn • Beyond the Forest • The Story of Seabiscuit • Always Leave Them Laughing • A Farewell to Arms (reissue) • The Hatchet Man (reissue) • The Lady Takes a Sailor • The Inspector General

Also noteworthy:

Variety reported in its September 28, 1950, issue that in Great Britain there were some people surprised when The Fountainhead did as well in industrial towns as elsewhere in Britain.

 

 


Footnotes:

1. One such critic is Donald Leslie Johnson in a book which makes The Fountainhead movie one of its primary subjects: The Fountainheads: Wright, Rand, the FBI and Hollywood, McFarland & Co. (Jefferson, N.C.), 2005.  Despite having spent time examining archival documents from Warner Bros. not discussed in any previous work, this author makes boneheaded errors on elementary facts in movie history.  Insofar as the adaptation drew moviegoers into theaters is concerned, the author merely says, “The viewing public made known their opinion by poor attendance.” (pg. 106)  No citation is provided, nor does any document mentioned elsewhere in the book seem relevant to the subject of the financial return earned by the film.

2. This figure was obtained April 2011 by using the subscription-based electronic database in operation at the American Film Institute (AFI) web site: AFI Catalog of Feature Films.  I also examined the index in the print version of AFI catalog for 1941-1950.  This index lists all 1949 films as one index entry, and although I did not count the entries, a cursory glance suggests that 387 is an accurate number.  There follows an additional index entry labeled “1949?” with seven additional titles.  These seven are all fringe productions; I recognized three of the seven as black-cast films which probably were not shown in engagements intended for white audiences.

 

This page © 2011 David P. Hayes