Asleep No More: James B. Harris' Some Call it Loving
The best kind of fairy tales are the ones where the magic is tinged with melancholy, where bits of fantasy are frayed with the unvarnished reality of our existence. After all, magic is truly everywhere but is always darkened with our own damaged human nature. James B. Harris must have known this when he directed his 1973 film, Some Call it Loving. A willfully strange tale based on a John Collier (who wrote for the New Yorker from the 1930' to the 50's) short story entitled, “Sleeping Beauty,” Harris' take on the tale focuses on the world of Robert Troy, played by Zalman King.
Opening in the pastoral hills of West Coast, USA, an impeccably dressed “widow” meets with a dark haired, oddly handsome man who quizzes her about love, even in times of grief. It does not take long to recognize that the only death that has truly occurred is the death of a charade and that these two, Scarlett (Carol White) and Robert, have some strange ways of playing with love.
Their world, cozy and monied on a secluded gorgeous estate with a blonde and highly submissive lovely named Angelica (Veronica Anderson) is about to take a very interesting turn. Robert, alone, visits a traveling carnival and enters one of the sideshow tents. Instead of the Lobster Man, JoJo the Dog Boy or a Fiji mermaid, he sees the “Sleeping Beauty,” a living, breathing girl who has been solidly sleeping for eight years. Rosy cheeked and looking Sir John Everett Millais beautific, the “Beauty” lays supine as the tent's “Doctor” (Logan Ramsey), informs the audience of her “condition.” He then challenges any “virile” men in the audience, for the price of an extra dollar naturally, to kiss the Beauty and see if any of them are man enough to wake her from the trance. Robert stares, his face both riveted and mildly disgusted by the lurid display as he watches several takers who are about as Prince Charming as a Red Sovine impersonator, but asleep she stays.
Robert hangs around after the show, while the Doctor washes his greasepaint off and his nurse leaves to grab some dinner. At first the Doctor accepts some extra money for Robert to have “alone” time with the Beauty, a transaction that is clearly not the first of its kind with this poor girl. But Robert never touches her and in the end, offers the man $20,000 for the whole “act” and drives off with the girl in the back of a painted van, boldly proclaiming “Sleeping Beauty” in faded, late 60's psychedelic swirl.
It turns out the girl's origins are less magical and more sad, with her having no family to speak of, on top of being kept perpetually drugged into a restful looking coma. Robert has her laid out on a gorgeous four poster bed in the middle of a whimsically ornate room. He lets Scarlet and Angelica know that he “...bought a Sleeping Beauty. I thought you oughta know.” Tucking away the bottle of medicine the Carny Doctor gave him, he waits patiently for her to wake up. Which she inevitably does, with Robert finding out that her name is actually Jennifer. She makes herself at home quite easily and soon grows fond of both Robert and the “Sisters,” who are actually Angelica and Scarlet dressed in nuns' habits. The latter leads to one of the more surreal scenes with the two of them performing a very jolly tap dance number for Jennifer and Robert. Being a bit of an innocent and still mentally stuck in her teens, complete with referring to Robert as “jellybean,” Jennifer soaks up the strangeness of the estate and her new “family” with amazing ease.
Once she becomes more physically mobile, Scarlett dresses Jennifer up in virginal white, matching Robert's suit as they prep for their first date. He escorts her to the jazz club he works at and plays a special number only for her and his consistently drunk and amazing best friend, Jeff (Richard Pryor, in an early but unforgettable role). Later on, they slow dance to Nat King Cole's “The Very Thought of You.” (Which, total aside, was covered with a lot more comedic horror show in Robert Downey Sr's Up the Academy.) A return to sweet-pink-cheeked teenage bliss is interrupted by Scarlet, who flips out in total English school marm fashion and sends Jennifer to her room. Robert confronts her, with Scarlet strangely acting like it was all part of their initial plan. However, things shift when he tells her that Jennifer has brought out something truly real within him that he has been out of touch with for a very long time.
However, like a moneyed-human version of a Funhouse, nothing is what it seems. Will Robert run away with Jennifer and complete the fairy tale ritual or will the weird controlling spell of the Manor only grow stronger?
Some Call it Loving is a film that is truly its own beast. Combining fantasy tropes with very real human dysfunction, it is a work born and bred to never settle in a box most viewers are going to be familiar or even comfortable with. Which is what makes it such an essential and noteworthy title. Its main characters are such a strange batch. All three are driven by Earthly wants, centering around the twin forces of love and lust, yet are often held back due to an assortment of past damage. Jennifer is stunted emotionally due to her being “sold” and drugged by an assortment of carnies for the past several years. Scarlet has basically all but volunteered away any real identity out of her “love” for Robert and their relationship that is web-riddled with games and fantasy. Then there's Robert himself, who is the biggest riddle of them all. It is not often that you see a character whose duality of both alpha ring-leader and being weak-willed towards true change, so it was good fortune that they cast Zalman King in the role.
Though he is now better known as the man responsible for directing and producing a wealth of late night softcore staples via paid cable, like Wild Orchid, The Red Shoe Diaries and Two Moon Junction, King had initially gotten his foot in the cinematic world as an actor. Making guest appearances on TV shows like “Bonanza,” “Adam 12” and “The Munsters,” King also acted in a number of notable cult films. Some of these titles included the acid-horror film Blue Sunshine, the gritty grindhouse Angel Tompkins film Trip With the Teacher and the counter-culture oddity, You've Got to Walk it Like You Talk it or You'll Lose That Beat, which also featured Richard Pryor. King's Robert is a handsome, patchwork-hearted man whose sense of self has, intentionally or not, placed him as a spectator of his own existence. His only tie to the real world is his strange friendship with Jeff, whom despite being perpetually booze soaked, is a good soul whose existence must be a 180 from Robert's well tailored world in a gilded cage. Pryor was still a few years away from mega-fame, but his charisma was already in full force here, since the film takes an automatically richer tone during the handful of scenes he is in.
Tisa Farrow's Jennifer is appropriately sylph-like here, in sweet contrast to the slightly older and more worldly-seeming form of Carol White's Scarlet. Some Call it Loving is a beautifully shot film, thanks to cinematographer Mario Tosi, who would go on to lens DePalma's Carrie and the Jan Michael Vincent film, Buster & Billie. Whether or not it was an intended effect, there's a strong Radley Metzger feel throughout the film, between the use of visually rich locations, an extraordinary looking cast who can actually act and the use of sensuality to reveal, onion-like, deeper-than-the-id layers of the human condition. In fact, Some Call it Loving would make for an exquisite double feature with Metzger's The Lickerish Quartet or Camille 2000.
Despite the film's many strengths and having some critical success in Europe, Some Call it Loving was not well received stateside, including New York Times writer A. H. Weiler describing the film as, “...awfully difficult for even a willing viewer to appreciate the sadly diffuse fantasies of an erstwhile sideshow sleeping beauty, a rich, weird temptress and the bemused young man they both seem to adore.” Which, no offense to Weiler, is an unfair and bland-on-bland summation of such a unique title. It's akin to saying that The Godfather is “a long effort about the mob and an overfed, wheezy patriarch.”
Thanks to Vinegar Syndrome's (always a huge favorite in this household) new sister-label, Etiquette Pictures, this long obscure title languishes no more and has been beautifully restored and released as a DVD/Blu Ray combo. If you were already an admirer of Harris' work, then this will feel like the best cinematic valentine of a release. If you are not initially familiar, then you will still be feeling some awe over the obvious hard work, care, passion and research that went into it. Hopefully, this will kick off more exposure and critical appreciation of this nearly buried American cinematic treasure.