What's in a name?
Plenty, judging from the strange odyssey of an amiable movie called Chilly Scenes of Winter.
Based on a bittersweet novel by Ann Beattie, it was made a couple of years ago by Joan Micklin Silver, who is best known as the director of ''Hester Street.'' The stars were John Heard and Mary Beth Hurt, both bright new faces at the time. The story was a gently funny, slightly sad romance about an infatuated fellow who decides to ''rescue'' a young woman from her unhappy marriage.
It was a movie with all the makings of success. Yet years later, most people have never heard of it. What went wrong?
Well, shortly before the film's release, the folks at United Artists decided to do some ''market research.'' And their statistics hinted that ''chilly'' and ''winter'' weren't good ''selling words'' for a movie. The title, said the pollsters, had to be changed.
So the studio gave the film a new name: ''Head Over Heels.'' Not very original, you say? Not very imaginative? Not very descriptive, or enticing, or anything?m
Too true. And sure enough, audiences weren't tempted by it. This small but involving movie withered on the vine, and soon vanished altogether.
Now the good guys enter the story. Let's have a cheer for United Artists Classics, a special ''arm'' of the UA studio. It's their business to rescue movies that have gotten lost in the shuffle - minor or misunderstood pictures that the moguls and marketers have somehow overlooked. Convinced that ''Head Over Heels'' could find a sizeable audience, they took it off the shelf, dusted it, and gave it a new and more pungent ending. To top it off, they also returned its original title. ''Chilly Scenes of Winter'' it is again, and forever will be.
As of now, there's a happy ending. ''Chilly Scenes'' is doing warm business in New York, where it's playing at two Manhattan theaters. If its reputation continues to build, as it has every reason to, the film should spread swiftly to other cities as well. Mind you, this movie is no masterpiece, just a sincere and amusing adaptation of a sincere and amusing book. But it's good to see an error rectified, and to see a movie underdog get a reasonable shot at the big time.
A footnote: Will the name-changers at UA now realize their other, equally ridiculous error of a few years back, when ''Dog Soldiers'' (based on Robert Stone's savage novel) was released under the title ''Who'll Stop the Rain''? That sounds like the moniker of a rock song - which is exactly what it is, being borrowed from a Creedence Clearwater Revival ditty that appears on the soundtrack. There has been talk of reissuing this mean but memorable film under its original rubric, and I say full steam ahead.
Meanwhile, isn't there something more constructive those pollsters could be doing? Like telling the studio bosses what we moviegoers would like to see underm the title, so seasons like this one wouldn't seem so dreary? Music for 'Napoleon'
''The supreme art is not to succeed but to know when to stop.''
From Napoleon: a Pictorial Biography, by Andre Maurois.
Like the historic leader who fascinated him, French filmmaker Abel Gance was better at succeeding - up to a point - than at stopping. His epic biography of Napoleon, made in 1927, ran to more than four hours of cinematic prose and poetry. Not everyone agrees that so much spectacle is a good idea; one critic has nicknamed the director ''extrava-Gance.'' But most moviegoers seem thrilled with this gigantic picture, which leaps from one visual thrill to another with hardly a letup.
In any case, its popularity is greater today than when it was made. After more than 50 years on the shelf, ''Napoleon'' was revived last year by the enterprising Zoetrope studio, which brought it on a grand tour of about 20 cities. Full-sized symphony orchestras played the accompaniment, specially composed by Carmine Coppola. Audiences payed up to $25 a ticket for the privilege of seeing it.
Now another studio, Universal Pictures, is asking a provocative question: Can this colossal relic of the silent cinema find fame and fortune at our neighborhood movie houses?
Convinced that it can, Universal is determined to make ''Napoleon'' a major contender on the everyday commercial circuit. The studio has recorded Coppola's imposing score directly onto the film, like a regular soundtrack, and made a number of expensive 70-mm prints, complete with Dolby stereo. The first of these bowed in Los Angeles during last July. Others will make their appearance next month in five cities: Seattle and Dallas on Oct. 3, St. Louis and Philadelphia on Oct. 8, and finally New York on Oct. 14. Next, if the box office warrants, a series of 35-mm prints will wend their way to a long list of college towns early next year.
It's all part of the current Hollywood strategy - to make moviegoing into an event rather than a mere diversion. In this case, the chosen method is a splendid one. ''Napoleon'' is a fabulous film, which my 11-year-olds enjoyed as much as their parents did. And it's a real history lesson, not only in the legendary French leader, but in the silent-film heritage that many current moviegoers have rarely or never experienced. It even has a G rating! Hurrah for Universal and this very worthwhile project. From screen to novel
Serious readers normally pay little attention to paperback ''novelizations'' of popular movies. But the book version of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (Berkley Books, New York, $2.95) has attracted a lot of notice, largely because of its author's reputation. And sure enough, William Kotzwinkle has crafted an enjoyable entertainment - a galloping yarn that captures much of the movie's charm while sustaining its own verbal personality.
To begin with the credits, the full title is ''E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial in His Adventure on Earth.'' It's the work of William Kotzwinkle ''based on a screenplay by Melissa Mathison.'' If books had ratings, this one would be PG, for a few vulgarities of the type found in the film. The cover shows sunlight breaking through clouds, setting a mingled mood of romance, mystery, and a touch of awe.
It's clear from the first chapter that Kotzwinkle and the film's director, Steven Spielberg, are on the same wavelength. The author likens the spaceship to ''a gigantic old Christmas tree ornament,'' and describes its crew as ''little old elves caring for . . . misty moonlit gardens.'' The ship's mission, to gather samples of all plant life on earth, is described more clearly than in the movie. E.T. himself, we discover, is an ancient botanist whose wise, loving nature results from centuries of tender communication with vines and flowers on planets throughout the cosmos.
Kotzwinkle shares Spielberg's yen for comedy, too, adding bits not found in the film. E.T. not only becomes the best pal of a preteen named Elliott, but also falls wistfully in love with Elliott's divorced mother - even considering a permanent stay on Earth, just to be near her, although this would mean living in Elliott's closet forever with just a geranium for company. Kotzwinkle plays the ironies of E.T. for all they're worth, relishing the idea of a scientist from the stars hiding among stuffed Muppets in a California kid's bedroom, wishing he could show himself, but knowing Earth would never heed the cosmic wisdom of a being whose a nose looks like ''a bashed-in Brussels sprout.''
The novel also moves beyond the main characters of Elliott and E.T., spending many pages inside the mind of Mom, who is perpetually miffed and mystified by the bizarre behavior of her children. Even the minor character of Harvey the dog becomes a presence to be reckoned with, striking his own canine relationship with the starry visitor, and sparking some of the most diverting passages in the book. To the pooch's mentality, Kotzwinkle tells us, the E.T. resembles a ''shimmering wave that pulsed like an old bone - a choice bone, an ancient bone, but one of the frightening sort, with thunder in the marrow.'' That's as striking as any image in the film, and it belongs entirely to Kotzwinkle.
Not that the book is anything more than a winning fantasy with a childlike touch. Like the film, it's limited and sometimes hokey, though its energy rarely flags. Kotzwinkle falls into some of the laziest habits of the sci-fi format, describing E.T. in cute aphorisms, substituting vague atmosphere for hard description and repeating himself a great deal.
Still, the novel is often funny, and sometimes elegantly written. And some of E.T.'s discoveries make interesting news for us earthlings, too. ''Now he understood the meaning of Earth life,'' we read on Page 47. ''Ten billion years of evolution to produce - the M&M.
''What more could one ask of a planet?''