There's a kerfuffle going on right now between Harvey Weinstein and Warner Bros. over The Weinstein Company's upcoming release "The Butler," which shares its title with a 1916 Warner-owned short film.
To Hollywood insiders, the battle over whether a new movie can have the same title as an old, obscure one is an epic saga of egos, grudges, and wang-measuring. To Hollywood outsiders, it's stupid. Who cares if two movies released 97 years apart have the same title?
Besides, plenty of other totally unrelated movies have had identical titles without anyone going to court or calling each other names. Let's examine some of those matched pairs now and, as a hypothetical exercise, decide which film should be allowed to keep its title if it becomes necessary to choose. Please note that my rulings are legally binding.
"Iron Man" (1931 and 2008)
Long before Tony Stark used his money and genius to fight global terrorism as Iron Man, there was "Iron Man," a 1931 sports drama directed by Tod Browning ("Dracula," "Freaks") starring Lew Ayres as an up-and-coming boxer and Jean Harlow as his treacherous wife. The novel it was based on was remade in 1937 as "Some Blondes Are Dangerous" (ain't that the truth!), and in 1951 as "Iron Man" again.
Which film makes better use of the title? The phrase "Iron Man" has been associated with sports and fitness for at least a century, with bodybuilding magazines and modern-day triathlons using it. Meanwhile, the superhero Iron Man's suit isn't even made out of iron. (He's not even the first comic book character to go by that name.) The Robert Downey Jr. "Iron Man" is more famous, but the original "Iron Man" deserves the title more.
Alternate titles for the one that doesn't get to keep it: "Billionaire Daredevil"; "The Adventures of Tony Stark"; "Titanium-and-Steel Man"
"Alone in the Dark" (1982 and 2005)
The first one was a slasher flick, one of New Line Cinema's first releases, about psychos who break out of a mental institution during a power outage. It starred Jack Palance, Donald Pleasance, and Martin Landau, and was the directorial debut of Jack Sholder, who went on to make the second "Nightmare on Elm Street" movie. The other "Alone in the Dark" was based on a series of video games and starred Christian Slater as an investigator of paranormal events and Tara Reid as an archeologist. That may sound ridiculous, but keep in mind, it was directed by Uwe Boll.
Which film makes better use of the title? While I grant you that the Uwe Boll "Alone in the Dark" probably needed to keep that title because of the games it was based on, it's not a useful name for the movie, which doesn't prominently feature aloneness or darkness. The first "Alone in the Dark," on the other hand, is about lunatics who perpetrate a scary plan during a blackout. Sorry, Uwe.
Alternate titles for the one that doesn't get to keep it: "Christian Slater: Monster Hunter"; "Tara Reid: Archeologist"
"The Illusionist" (2006 and 2010)
One had Edward Norton as a Viennese magician, circa 1900, wooing Jessica Biel away from the crown prince. The other was an animated French feature made by the "Triplets of Belleville" guy, Sylvain Chomet, based on an unproduced screenplay by the late, great Jacques Tati. It was about a French magician who becomes a father figure to a little Scottish girl. (There was also a Dutch film called "The Illusionist" in 1984, but we're not going to pretend we've heard of it.)
Which film makes better use of the title? OK, you've got me here: both of these movies are about illusionists. The animated magician, ironically, is the more realistic one in terms of doing things that actual human beings can do, but there's no denying the Edward Norton magician is also an illusionist. Since neither film can be disqualified for failing to make proper use of the title, we must go to our secondary criterion, which is: does either of these films duplicate the efforts of a superior magician-oriented movie released the same year? Alas, the Edward Norton film was canceled out by "The Prestige," so we're awarding the title of "The Illusionist" to the animated Tati tribute.
Alternate titles for the one that doesn't get to keep it: "The Magician"; "Viennese Tricks"; "Nothing Up My Sleeve"; "Not The Prestige"
"The Postman" (1994 and 1997)
The films: First you had the beloved sentimental Italian story of a mailman who became friends with poet Pablo Neruda, titled "Il Postino" overseas but "The Postman" in the U.S. (and sometimes "Il Postino: The Postman," which is just awful). It was nominated for several Oscars, including Best Picture. A few years later, there was Kevin Costner's "The Postman," in which he delivered the mail to people after the apocalypse. It was very, very long and came too soon after that other post-apocalyptic Costner debacle, "Waterworld."
Which film makes better use of the title? Once again, we can't make any simple judgements based on usage. Both films are about what their titles say they are about. The problem is easily solved, though. Retitle the Costner film "The Mailman," since that's what we usually call them in America anyway.
Alternate titles for the one that doesn't get to keep it: Or if you don't like "The Mailman," I offer "Special Delivery"; "Mail Sack"; "The Post-Apocalyptic-Man"
"Monster" (1980 and 2003)
The films: You're probably not familiar with the "Monster" from 1980, a "Jaws"-inspired horror flick about a Colombian lake monster. It had James Mitchum (son of Robert) and John Carradine, neither of whom had a reputation for being particularly choosy about film roles. The more famous "Monster" was Patty Jenkins' biography of a Florida prostitute-turned-serial-killer, played by an Oscar-winning Charlize Theron and a lot of de-beautifying makeup.
Which film makes better use of the title? They're both about monsters, but Aileen Wuornos was the figurative kind. To me, "monster" is one of those words that you shouldn't use in a movie title unless the thing literally appears in the movie, or else viewers are liable to be disappointed. (Also: "pirate," "shark," "dragon," "ninja," "killer," "monkey," "alien.")
Alternate titles for the one that doesn't get to keep it: "A Monster Named Aileen"; "Lady Killer"; "The John Dies at the End"; "Hooker with a Heart of Murder"
"Sleeping Beauty" (1959 and 2011)
It's easy to get them mixed up. One was an animated Disney classic based on a children's story about a princess under a magic spell, while the other was a ponderous art-house drama about a young woman who gets paid to sleep in the nude and let skeevy men cuddle with her.
Which film makes better use of the title? This one is tricky. I gather Julia Leigh chose "Sleeping Beauty" as her film's title precisely because it makes us think of the fairy tale. The reference is intentional. It would be unfair, then, to make her get rid of it. On the other hand, ew. The fairy tale had it first.
Alternate titles for the one that doesn't get to keep it: "Creeping Beauty"; "Sleeping Booty"; "In the Nude for Love"; "The Boring Kind of Prostitution"
"Child's Play" (1972 and 1988)
Sidney Lumet directed the 1972 "Child's Play," a mystery-thriller set in a Catholic boys' school where rivalries among teachers -- played by James Mason, Robert Preston, and Beau Bridges -- are overshadowed by some students' unsettling behavior. The other "Child's Play," of course, was about a doll that could walk, talk, and kill. It inspired -- wait, "inspired" may not be the right word. It led to four sequels, with a fifth due later this year. The old "Child's Play" didn't inspire any sequels, so suck it, James Mason.
Which film makes better use of the title? I would argue that the earlier film is more about the teachers than the children. But the evil doll film isn't about children, either -- it's about an evil doll. A child's plaything. I rule in favor of the 1972 version.
Alternate titles for the one that doesn't get to keep it: "Child's Plaything"; "Evil Doll"; "Chucky"; "Pull the String on My Back and I'll Kill You"; "The Doll That Murdered People, Kind of Seriously at First, But Then Increasingly Jokingly"; "Straight to DV-Die!"