A marriage, a divorce, a renewed friendship and death
-BY JANICE BLUE-
I saw James Blue on television the other
night. There he was, bigger than life, in
his last film The Invisible City, giving us
the hard facts on Houston's unplanned
growth and housing crisis. Seventy-five
hours of interviews whittled down to
60 minutes and stronger frame-by-frame
than anything on 60 minutes.
"This poor lady here. She lives in a
garage and she don't have no bathroom.
She's a poor lady and she pays $17 a week.
No water, no gas, no nothing."
an ACORN worker in the Second Ward
from The Invisible City (1979)
If the Chamber of Commerce were to
accuse James of "airing America's dirty linen in public," it won't be the first time
for those words. That's exactly what the
late Allen Ellender of Louisiana charged
on the floor of the U. S. Senate after he
saw The March, James' documentary on
the 1963 civil rights march on Washington.
As I sat there watching images of poverty in this land of plenty and listening
to James narrate in his strong, clear, dramatic voice, I found myself waiting for
him to reappear on the screen. It was really
nice when he did. There was a strange kind
of intimacy about it all. Curled up on the
couch, I felt like Lauren Bacall watching
an old Humphrey Bogart film.
James would love the comparison.
"I'm a frustrated actor," he'd admit on
occasion. "Most directors are," he'd throw
in, just to cover himself. It was more than
coincidence that he had his film students
at the Rice Media Center, one spring day
in 1975, rehearse and shoot a scene from
Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep. It was
supposed to be an exercise in lighting and
staging, but James cast himself wholeheartedly in the role of Philip Marlowe, rather
"Was I any good?"
"You were terrific."
"Do you really mean it?"
"I really mean it."
Someone once described his profile
as a "stage actor's delight — strong jaw
and a nose like half a hatchet." Of his enthusiasm before a film audience, another
critic recently wrote, "You had the idea
he enjoyed hearing himself."
"When I think of James, I see him enjoying the hell out of whatever he was
doing. He'd get up and say a little something before a movie at the Rice Media
Center, and it would invariably make me
think I was going to see one of the greatest
films ever made. Never mind that he didn't
always turn out to be right," recalls Jim
Asker of The Houston Post, a Rice student
during the early seventies.
James loved an audience. He missed
the stage from his days as a drama student
at the University of Oregon. James' father
likes to tell the story of driving from Portland to Eugene, Oregon. A stranger recommended that he and his wife see
Death of a Salesman. 'They say this young
kid who plays Willy Loman is better than
that guy on Broadway, what's his name,
Lee J. Cobb," the man said.
"Well, that young kid is our son,"
Harry B. Blue told the man proudly.
But James Blue's last public performance would be his most dramatic. He
appeared before a group of medical students in a London hospital and told them
how it felt to be told he was terminally ill
with cancer. No script. No lights. No camera or tape recorder. Three weeks later,
on June 14, 1980, he died.
But Bogarts and Blues don't die. We
don't let them. They have too much stage
presence in our lives.
"... if some future archeo-anthropologist
should take a carbon dating of his remains
then the radioactive isotopes will spell out
he is here now
give or take two minutes..."
from a poem by Hellar Grabbi (1965)
James was a talented filmmaker, a great
documentarian and a revered teacher. He
was all of these things. But I hope he is
remembered as one of us, someone who
lived, loved, struggled and sometimes
failed. James was not a marble statue.
But I know the temptation. The first
time I saw him, early in 1968, he was
standing in a corridor at the Smithsonian
in front of an Oriental rug exhibit with a
group of male friends. From a distance, I
thought, "He's the most beautiful person
I've ever seen." The hair — those beautiful
wild waves. To me, he looked like Michelangelo's David. Like many who knew him
I, too, put a pedestal under this mythical
sculpture. I was in awe of him. Years later,
when we worked to make ours more a relationship of equals, he would sheepishly
admit to a friend, "I miss the pedestal."
After the shooting of The Big Sleep,
I remember asking James, "Now, what
would that movie be like without Lauren
Bacall?" I was always bringing up examples of couples that worked together.
Hepburn and Tracy. Ullman and Bergman.
Woodward and Newman. "Why not us?"
I was interested in making films before
I met James. In 1966, I traveled abroad
for one year. I wanted to go to the National Film School of Poland at Lodz, but
lost my nerve — whoever heard of women
directors in the early sixties? Film people
that year in Europe kept saying, "You
want to be an actress, not a director." In
Italy, I hitchhiked to the Cinecitta Studios
outside Rome to see if I could get a job
on the set of 77?e Taming of the Shrew
and they said, "Go over to the other
building. They need a stand-in for Elizabeth Taylor."
I admired James' films and wanted to
work with him. My friend, Lisa Suter
Taylor, now the director of the Cooper
Hewitt Museum of Art, understood both
the intensity and timidity with which I
approached filmmaking. The first thing
she told James when she heard we were
getting married was, "I'm so glad Janice
will finally get to make films."
"Oh no," he corrected her on the spot.
"Filmmaking is my career. She's going to
have to find something else. There can't
be two filmmakers in the family.
I was shocked and hurt but did not
make an issue of it. I thought time would
change things. In the early years of our
marriage I heard myself say over and over,
"No one will work harder for you. Please
Then, I read Zelda, the biography of
the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
"Scott had very fixed ideas of what a
woman's place should be in a marriage:
"I would like you to think of my interests.
That is your primary concern, because I
am the one to steer the course, the pilot."
What then, Zelda asked him, did he
want her to do.
"/ want you to stop writing fiction."
He could not tolerate another encroachment on his literary territory...
Scott wanted her to be what he called
a "complementary intelligence." That was
not at all what she wanted to be...
Zelda, p. 274
For a good while afterwards, I signed
my letters Zelda Blue.
But we made some progress. James
bought me a Super 8 camera on our trip
to Japan for EXPO '70 and I started
shooting vacation films and home movies.
One early documentary stands out. To get
James to take a break from his film commitments and help with a house project, I
shot a film of him building a sundeck on
our house in Los Angeles. It was the only
way I could think of to get that deck built.
I took all my Super 8 gear and tapes
and joined James in Kenya in 1972. He
was three months into a documentary on
the Boran, a traditional tribe experiencing
the conflicts of modernization. I was ready
to do a "home movie." I went off with my
own guide and translator on foot and went
out of my way not to get involved in the
16mm project that James and David Mc
Dougall were shooting. But as we compared notes at the campsite, two themes
emerged. They were tellina their story
through three generations of men in the
village and I was filming the women.
James told me the women didn't want to
be filmed. 'They curse us and shout,
'May the wild beast strangle you.' "
It was true. In this traditional society,
the women could not relate to western
men, especially those wearing earphones
and carrying a backpack with a 16mm
Eclair rigged to it. I discovered that being
a woman was the greatest asset in documenting the women in the tribe. They
would freely talk about childbirth — in
fact, they would squat down and demonstrate how midwives assist the mothers,
they would talk about their acceptance
of their husbands taking younger wives
as they got older and were "used up,"
and they showed me how they perfumed
their bodies with a special incense before
When I bought this incense at the market (as a souvenir, of course), the women
giggled. Even though I was almost 30 and
most of the women married in their teens,
they regarded me as a young bride. They
would joke and tease me, "Are you married to the tall, skinny one (David) or the
old, fat one (James)?" James was in his
early forties at the time but they called
him "jarso," meaning gray-haired. They
called me "elephant feet" and "ostrich
legs." They had an uncanny way of zeroing in on your most distinctive features.
My Boran experience led me to do
films about women and to join the feminist movement. For the next two years as
I showed my films around the country, I
tried to help other women overcome
F-stop anxiety. In the summer of 1973,
I was invited to Arden House, a week-long
seminar where filmmakers met with public television executives. It was the first
time I ever got to ask, "Is it okay if I
bring my husband along?"
Choosing to do women's films took
the pressure off our mutual careers but
I always had the feeling James and his
friends looked on it as the ladies auxiliary
of filmmaking. He encouraged and helped
me organize a film festival of women directors at the Rice Media Center. However, when the 12 Sunday nights rolled
around, neither he nor his colleague joined
the packed audience. They never failed to
attend the "real films" that were shown
there the rest of the week.
Around this time, Estelle Changas,
Kay Loveland and I were turned down
for our proposal to do a documentary on
Sissy Farenthold's 1974 race for Texas
governor. Screenwriter Eleanor Perry
wrote our letter of recommendation and
James thought our proposal was one of
the best he had ever read. He loaned us
the equipment after Kay and Estelle decided to put their own money into it.
James had a sense of justice and for
the first time was beginning to understand
the problems women filmmakers faced.
He freely admitted that godfathers like
Colin Young helped his career. In 1975,
after I produced Just Like a Woman, a
magazine pilot for KPRC-TV, James told
me to apply to the National Film School
of England which Young now headed.
"You need the training. In two years
you'll be at the networks," he said. But
Young rejected my student application
and the pilot I worked on for five months
didn't get funded. It was a low period.
We separated and I went from film to
newsprint. I guess I have Colin Young to
thank for Breakthrough.
A year ago, two years after our divorce,
James and I had lunch together. He talked
about his latest project, The Invisible City,
a film he was making with his friend, architect Adele Santos. As we were leaving
our table, I turned to him and said, "I'm
glad you finally learned to trust women,"
pleased that I could not only say it but
Breakthrough ran a story with dozens
of video images when their film came out
(September 1979). I told someone on the
paper that this story showed as much
about the quality of our relationship as it
did about Houston's deteriorating housing
'Their shared pasts did not give them
grounds for the future, both had admitted
that, but it gave them an intimacy that
was immune to further alteration."
Zelda, p. 351
James and I met and married on the
crest of feminism's second wave and we
were tossed into the seventies. My emerging feminism was not the only obstacle
in our path. I had to deal with the ex-
teme possessiveness of many of James'
male friends. Our marriage was a threat
to their relationship. Several of them
went out their way to advise him against
marriage. I confronted one of them who
simply said, "Well, we're just thinking of
Jim's film career. We think getting married
will take away from his projects. Why
don't you wait until after he does his Mid-