Saturday, 19 October 2013

What's in a Name: The Changing Titles of Films

Last night I watched Night of the Eagle, known in the United States as Burn, Witch, Burn. To be honest, I never have quite understood why the title was changed for American audiences, unless the American distributor (American International Pictures) did not think Night of the Eagle was provocative enough or perhaps they feared people would not realise it was a horror film. Of course, I have never understood why neither distributor used the title of the novel upon which it was based, the classic Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber, which I think is better than either Night of the Eagle or Burn, Witch Burn.

Of course, it is not unusual for British films to have their titles changed in the trip across the Atlantic, and Night of the Eagle is hardly the only movie to see a change in name upon coming to the United States. This morning I watched The Witches, the Hammer Horror starring Joan Fontaine. In the United States it was retitled The Devil's Own, which was also the title of the novel by Norah Lofts (using the pen name Peter Curtis). While I think The Devil's Own has a nice ring to it, I am still a bit puzzled as to why its title was changed for American audiences. The book The Devil's Own was not any better known in the United States than it was in the United Kingdom, and there had been no other films recently released under the title The Witches. I can only assume Seven Arts (its distributor in the United States) preferred the tile The Devil's Own.

While the changes in the titles of Night of the Eagle and The Witches seem rather arbitrary, there is often a very good reason for a change in a British film's title upon arriving in the States. The Hammer classic The Devil Rides Out had its title changed to The Devil's Bride in the United States because of concerns that Americans might think it was a Western if the original title was used. Hammer's classic Dracula had its title changed in the United States to Horror of Dracula because Universal's 1931 film of the same name was still occasionally shown in theatres. To avoid confusion, then, Hammer's Dracula became Horror of Dracula in the United States.

So far I've just discussed horror films, but British films from other genres might also have their titles changed in the United States.  The Dave Clark Five movie Catch Us If You Can was inexplicably retitled Having a Wild Weekend in the Untied Sates. It is true "Having a Wild Weekend" is one of the songs from the film, but unlike the song "Catch Us If You Can" it was never released as a single. What is more, the song "Catch Us If You Can" was a top five hit on both sides of the Pond. While I can't speak for anyone else, I personally think Catch Us If You Can is a more interesting title than the somewhat generic Having a Wild Weekend.

Here I must point out that American films are also retitled in the United Kingdom. Since the restaurant chain White Castle does not exist in the UK, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle was retitled Harold & Kumar Get the Munchies there.  Live Free or Die Hard was retitled Die Hard 4.0 in the UK, as the phrase "Live free or die" (the state motto of New Hampshire) is not well known there.

Of course, British films are not the only ones to be retitled in the United States. One would think that foreign film titles would be translated literally into English for both the U.S. and UK, but this is often not the case. The classic French film Les Diaboliques (literally "The Devils") became simply Diabolique in the United States. Seven Samurai (the literal translation of Shichinin no samurai) was originally distributed in the U.S. under the title The Magnificent Seven. I can only presume the American distributor thought Americans would not know what a samurai was. Just as with British films, the titles of European films are sometimes changed to avoid confusion with other movies. The title of  Lars von Trier's Europa was changed in the United States to Zentropa to avoid confusion with the 1990 film Europa, Europa.

So far I have discussed films that have changed titles in making their way to the United States, but there have also been American films whose titles have been changed over the years for whatever reason. There can perhaps no better example of this than Tod Browning's classic horror film Freaks. Upon its release by MGM in 1932 Freaks was the source of a good deal of controversy, even to the point of being banned in some parts of the United States (as it was the UK for many years). Worse yet, Freaks was hardly profitable. It lost $164,000 at the box office. In an effort to make the film more profitable MGM's head of production Irving Thalberg reissued Freaks under the new title Nature's Mistakes (this time without the MGM logo). The new title did not particularly improve ticket sales for the film. Eventually MGM licensed Freaks to exploitation impresario Dwain Esper, who gave it one more new title, Forbidden Love, in hopes of marketing it as an exploitation film. To make matters more confusing, at times the film was at times still shown under the title Nature's Mistakes as well as another title given to it by Dwain Esper, The Monster Show! Of course, eventually film buffs would rediscover Freaks and it has been known by its original title ever since.

Not surprisingly, in the long run changes in titles can often be a source of confusion for film buffs.  The typical American film buff might not be aware that the original title of The Devil's Bride was The Devil Rides Out and, as a result, may be puzzled when a hardcore Hammer Films fan mentions the film by its original title. A more serious problem is researching films that have multiples titles or changed titles often. In such instances it can often be difficult to determine how many re-releases such films have had and when those re-releases took place. I rather suspect that anyone researching the release history of the 1936 film Tell Your Children, now better known as Reefer Madness, would find themselves fighting an uphill battle. It was released under such titles as The Burning Question, Dope Addict, Doped Youth, and the rather odd title of Love Madness!

Even given the confusion changing the titles of films can cause, it is doubtful that the practice will change any time soon. Indeed, it still takes place today. The Marvel Comics film The Avengers was reclassified as Avengers Assemble in the United Kingdom to avoid confusion with the Sixties spy show The Avengers (personally, as a fan of the show, I wished they had done that worldwide). The 2009 British film The Boat That Rocked was re-edited and released in the U.S. as Pirate Radio. For better or worse, films will probably see their titles changed once they make the trip across the Atlantic.

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