Title Tale


What’s in a name?  Would Gone With the Wind have smelled as sweet if author Margaret Mitchell had dubbed her tome Tote the Weary Load instead?  There’s an alchemy to coming up with a great (or even good) title.  Movieline writer David Thomson looked at modern movie title trends as well as some classic examples of movies that could have been called something else.

If we accept the latest research–that most of us have working vocabularies of only about 20,000 words–and if we recognize the history–that for over 80 years now the English-speaking world has been producing at least 300 movies a year–all you need to do is the very basic math of 300 × 80 = 24,000. Conclusion? We’re running out of new, catchy titles. Demonstration? Let me give you these titles of recent pictures from last spring and see how many you can recollect or readily identify: Down to Earth, Faithless, Say It Isn’t So, Someone Like You, Heartbreakers. Or–just to confuse you–throw in a few more from the fall: My First Mister, The Operator, Don’t Say a Word, Two Can Play That Game, The Glass House.

Well, of course, you know Heartbreakers. You probably saw it. And maybe because it is–quite simply–a very arresting film with a very good title. As for the other titles, I’m not here to say that they were bad films, but they are surely evidence that modern moviegoing tosses us into a sea of titles that are vague, abstract, interchangeable, forgettable, sometimes disastrous and frequently not much use as titles or identifiers.

To be analytical, for a moment, what does Heartbreakers signify or promise? It gives no hint of place, period, individuality, subject or atmosphere. The only thing I know from that title is to suspect comedy. Why? Because to be heartbroken nowadays is a faintly comic concept–only foolish or immature people have their hearts broken. Beyond that, the title has no impact because the word “heart” occurs so regularly in film titles that a 2001 Heartbreakers is fighting to keep its head above the staleness of overfamiliarity. In fact–did you remember this?–there have been two Heartbreakers already, and not so long ago: Heartbreaker, in 1983, with Fernando Allende and Dawn Dunlap; and Heartbreakers, from 1984, with Peter Coyote, Nick Mancuso and Carole Laure.  After all, there are so many “Heart” pictures, and the idea of feeling things in the heart doesn’t quite fit with the way we think now–we’re so much more cynical. So we are ready to sneer at Hearts of the World, The Heart of the Matter, Heartland, Heart Condition, Heartburn, The Heartbreak Kid, Heartbeeps, Heart Beat, Heartbeat, Heart and Souls and Heartaches. There was even a picture called Heart–in 1987–about a boxer.

So get rid of hearts, whenever you can? OK, but Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is one of the great titles of all time–because there’s something so wrong it’s intriguing to have the heart (the pump of life) being overshadowed. And what about The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter? Carson McCullers borrowed that from an earlier, lesser writer, Fiona MacLeod, who wrote, “My heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill.” The title doesn’t guarantee the power of the novel, of course; but it surely readies you for it. There’s a rhythm to “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” as well as a pregnancy and a guiding light of mood or tone that leads you on.

In January 1950, the head of Twentieth Century Fox, Darryl F. Zanuck, was looking at a treatment prepared for him by his crack writer-director, Joseph L. Mankiewicz. It was called Best Performance, and it was derived from a short story by Mary Orr called “The Wisdom of Eve.” The treatment was 82 pages–much longer than the story, in fact–and it included this in the narrative voice of Addison DeWitt: “Eve … but more of Eve later. All about Eve, in fact.” Zanuck underlined “All about Eve” in pencil. Some people said he was a monster: the boss in Hollywood often gets known that way; it’s part of the attitude behind The Bad and the Beautiful, another title from two years later. But give Zanuck credit: he could hear and feel, and he could feel for the public. He knew that Best Performance was flat, while All About Eve sang. A year later it won Best Picture and nearly everything else.

You may argue that the movie we call All About Eve turned out so well that it would have ridden to glory whether known as Best Performance, Margo’s Bumpy Night or Fox #11765. There are great and famous paintings that have titles as exact and unhelpful as the last. And just because it’s clear that often enormous trouble is taken over titles, then our inability to measure the impact should never stop us from believing in it. At Warner Bros, in the early 1940s, Hal Wallis gave the go-ahead to purchase the screen rights to an unproduced play called Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. A few days later Wallis sent out a memo saying that the property would henceforward be known as Casablanca. Who could challenge that, even in hindsight? It’s accurate; the name is memorable, romantic and nearly melodic. But you could argue that Rick’s Place, Letters of Transit and The Usual Suspects aren’t bad, either.

I don’t know if there are things that deserve to be called laws or principles in these matters. But you might conclude that, at the moment, single strong words are in favor: Traffic, Pollock, Hannibal, Chocolat, Memento, Quills, Snatch. I happened to write something recently about the independent producer Ed Pressman, and I was struck by the way he has favored forceful one-word titles: Sisters, Badlands, Plenty, Walker, Hoffa. Take Badlands, for instance: it doesn’t really apply to the film, except that it partly takes place in the Montana badlands. But the word conjures up place, the whole Western genre, outlawry and desolate horizons.

There are clearly unwritten conventions about how long a title can be to fit a marquee or a memory. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb has come down to Dr. Strangelove–because that is so evocative and disturbing a name, as well as one that makes the ironic reassurance of the subtitle irrelevant. Still, there was a period when longer titles were naturally in fashion. It was a more romantic age, more credulous about the romance of stories and the glamour of the movies. I’m thinking of All That Heaven Allows, To Have and Have Not, For Whom the Bell Tolls, History Is Made at Night, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, Since You Went Away, A Place in the Sun. Many of those titles come from novels (and evidently the movie business hopes to keep the interest and loyalty of people who enjoyed a book). But what did the titles mean on the book jacket?

To Have and Have Not is one of Ernest Hemingway’s lesser known novels. Indeed, it’s rather more the gathering of several long stories about Harry Morgan, a down-and-out freelance fisherman who works Cuba and the Florida Keys. When it was published in 1937, Hemingway had two other titles in mind: The Various Arms or Return to the Wars. In the end, he preferred the sound of To Have and Have Not, a concept that, arguably could encompass the ideas and events of every novel ever written. It did less well than most Hemingway books (far less well than A Farewell to Arms). But Warners bought it for the movies and let Howard Hawks make it.

There is a character called Harry Morgan in the film; he has a boat and works the same waters. That is about where the similarities end. The novel is bleak and politically despondent. The film is bright with the prospect of victory in the war and ecstatic about the romance between Bogart and Bacall–or Harry and Slim. It could have been called Having a Cigarette and a Match or even It’s a Wonderful Life, it is so loaded with fun, laughs and happiness.

The virtues of the musical, four-word title that means anything and everything reach their peak just where you might expect–with what is really the most successful film of all time: Gone With the Wind. The woman who wrote the 1936 novel (and never wrote another book), Margaret Mitchell, hardly knew that she was writing one of the great sellers. She was filled with doubts. All through the writing of her book, and until about six months before publication, she wanted to call Scarlett O’Hara “Pansy.” As far as the title was concerned, one alternate she preferred was “Tote the Weary Load.” Well, who knows, it might have worked under that sadder phrase. On the other hand, the word “weary” is a downer, and “tote” was not even common in the ’30s. Gone With the Wind is braver, somehow it seems more fatalistic and yet it is the sentiment of survival and endurance. It may sound fanciful to stress the soft play on two W’s, to underline the rhythmic sweep of the title. But the book was a phenomenon, and every little thing helps. I think Tote the Weary Load is as depressing as Gone With the Wind is romantic. In the same way, I don’t think producer David O. Selznick could ever have made the world go mad over the search for the right Pansy O’Hara.

Such things are beyond proof. But that need not deter the impulse of, or our faith in, those bold figures–authors, producers or directors–who hold out for one title rather than another. For months as he wrote his play, Tennessee Williams was stuck on the title The Poker Night. There was even one scene that he introduced with that label. But as he worked on the several drafts of the play, while living in New Orleans, he noted: “I live near the main street of the quarter. Down this street, running on the same tracks, are two streetcars, one named ‘Desire’ and the other named ‘Cemeteries.’ Their indiscourageable progress up and down Royal Street struck me as having some symbolic bearing of a broad nature on the life of the Vieux Carré–and everywhere else, for that matter.”

He did not add these streetcars to his play. There is no mention of them. But somehow he was convinced about a title, and so the play became A Streetcar Named Desire when it might have been By Royal Street to Cemeteries. The play was a wild hit. The title is so strange and unexpected, and for most people so inexplicable. Yet, honestly, give the play to a hundred people and ask for a title. Don’t you think The Kindness of Strangers would prevail?

Then there are titles that guide you into the heart of the mystery. In 1957, Alfred Hitchcock was developing a picture with the working title From Among the Dead. Which, I think, sounds like a horror film. The project was adapted from a French novel, D’Entre Les Morts [Between Deaths], by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. When published in English, the novel had been called The Living and the Dead. None of those satisfied Paramount, the studio making the film. There was a search for titles, with many candidates, including Tonight Is Ours and The Mad Carlotta (which only shows that if you ask enough people you’ll wonder why you bothered to ask anyone). Then Hitchcock had a brainwave: Vertigo. It was a story about a man who suffered from vertigo, but it was also a film that explored the full poetic meaning in the idea of “falling in love.” The studio sighed. Vertigo was off-putting. It would remind people of dizziness and feeling ill. Instead, they urged Face in the Shadow and Possessed by a Stranger. In the end, Hitchcock prevailed, and in the next few years his films were emblazoned with two of the greatest of movie titles–North by Northwest and Psycho.

Well, of course, I could go on forever (rather a nice title for an autobiography). Titles lead in so many odd directions. There’s a film named for a character who never appears (Rebecca). There’s another named for a country never visited (Brazil); yet another with the name of a district where only the last scene takes place (Chinatown). There’s a movie with a title that seems to be in defiance of how you’re meant to behave at the movies (Don’t Look Now). And there are titles so full of information and yet so inaccurate they seem to have been chosen by a deranged computer (The Postman Always Rings Twice).

With such infinite possibilities, one might as well stop (the second, concluding volume of the autobiography). But I wouldn’t be true to the contemporary rabid taste for “best” lists if I didn’t offer 10 American titles that are deserving of praise even if they’re not necessarily the 10 best. I should add that I have deliberately omitted titles already mentioned in this brief survey:

1. The Big Sleep (it comes from the Raymond Chandler novel, of course, and no one ever falls asleep in the movie; but wise guys know that it’s a grand metaphor referring to the ultimate rest);

2. Pulp Fiction (nothing whatever to do with Quentin Tarantino’s story, but a fond tribute to the whole genre he is emulating);

3. They Live by Night (the perfect group name for those in and watching film noir);

4. The Third Man (and David Selznick wanted to call it Night in Vienna);

5. Fatal Attraction (brilliant contradiction in terms);

6. The Searchers (with its inbuilt sense of failure, and its inner alert to inwardness);

7. Notorious (some words are just made for lights);

8. Radio Days (the pure sense of period and the pun on daze);

9. The Shop Around the Corner (just makes me smile to think of that old Hungarian section of Culver City);

10. Some Like It Hot (nobody’s perfect–so step on the gas).


David Thomson wrote “10 Oscars That Make the Academy Look Good” for the March issue of Movieline.


Posted on February 25, 2017, in Movieline Articles, Movies. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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