Over a few posts, I’m choosing different creators or creative teams–novelist, composer, scriptwriter, comic book artist, etc–who have influenced or inspired me, and in most cases brought me a lot of enjoyment.
For each year from 1919-2018, I’ll pick someone who produced something significant or recognizable from that year–based on what year it was published or released (with comic books being considered to have been released on the cover date, although I know that’s not usually true). And of course, lifetime accomplishments beyond that year will play a big role in who is chosen and who is not. Because certain years were tricky, I’ve also allowed myself to pick people who were born or even died in certain years.
1944 – Preston Sturges
Preston Sturges was one of the great directors of the Hollywood screwball comedy. He made a bunch of films in the first half of he 1940’s that are rightly considered to be classics, often pushing the boundaries of what was allowed to be depicted at the time in quite cleverly subversive ways. 1944 was the year that the hilarious film, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, was released, which is my personal favorite. But in addition to that he also did such winners as The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story, and more. In many ways, Sturges was really a writer, and it shows with the incredible way with words that he demonstrated in his dialogue. In college, my film professor told us that Sturges directed his films “out of self defense”…in other words, to try to keep his scripts from being mangled by someone else. I’ve never been able to confirm whether that’s really something he said or not, but certainly the idea makes sense.
1945 – Roberto Rossellini
Speaking of my college film classes, the first one I took was a historical overview of Italian cinema, and right there in Week #1 was Roberto Rossellini, the father of Italian Neo-Realism. At least, that’s how he was presented to us. Neo-Realism was a cinematic movement born out of post-war Italy, which was characterized by a focus on the poor and the suffering, the use non-professional actors, shots of limited length (because film was scarce), and use of natural locations over artificial sets (maybe because the studios had been too damaged in the war to use), all to tell stories showing the realities of world at the time. Rossellini’s Rome, Open City might not be the first such movie, but it’s the one that put the movement on the map, and it came out in 1945. Rossellini also made Paisan and Germany, Year Zero as part of this aesthetic, and later went on to do a bunch of other things. His work has had tremendous influence on many other notable filmmakers, including Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut (who actually called him the “Father of French New Wave”), and Martin Scorcese.
1946 – Howard Hawks
Howard Hawks is another Hollywood filmmaker who influenced things greatly and left a great body of work behind him. He started in the silent era and continued successfully into sound projects, which included To Have and Have Not, The Thing from Another World, Bringing Up Baby, and Scarface. In 1946, he directed The Big Sleep–one of the great examples of the film noir mystery, featuring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. However, even with that, my favorite movie of his is His Girl Friday, from 1941, starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. In these pieces, we can easily see some of the things Hawks became known for: strong female characters, and abundant quick-paced snappy dialogue.
1947 – Bob & Ray
Comedians Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding had a career that spanned something like 50 years, appearing in all sort of media throughout the 1940’s – 1990’s. I know them best as radio personalities, discovering them as I did on a set of audio cassettes someone had given me which I listened to on an interstate drive to visit a college I was considering going to (but didn’t). Out of everyone on this entire list, it’s possible that Bob & Ray had the most clear and measurably obvious influence upon me, as can be seen in the actual work I do. The spirit of their dry wit and quirky satire directly informed the style and writing of my own audio dramas, especially Captain Strong. A lot of their routines are favorites of mine, including the soap opera Garish Summit, the bizarre spoof of radio production techniques that’s found in The Adventures of Matt Neffer–Boy Spotwelder, the radio call-in show Speaking Out, the endless rose pruning of One Fella’s Family, their many fake commercials, and more. In 1947, Bob & Ray began their first formal radio collaboration, which soon became Matinee with Bob & Ray, which aired in WHDH in Boston. Ray Goulding died in 1990, with Bob Elliott living all the way until 2016, with their legacy continuing in my life until this day.
1948 – John Huston
John Huston was born in 1906 and died in 1947, and was a writer, director and actor of high repute. He was the writer and director of such noted films as The African Queen, and The Maltese Falcon, as well as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which I haven’t seen but I really want to. In 1948 he directed both Sierra Madre and Key Largo, which is not as celebrated as some of the other Bogart-Bacall collaborations (see Howard Hawks, 1946, above), but is still an atmospheric low-key thriller that I really enjoy. He was also strangely responsible for Annie, 20% or more of the James Bond spoof Casino Royale, and as an actor maybe the creepiest character ever put on screen in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.
1949 – John Ostrander
In 1949, John Ostrander was born (on April 20). In 1986, he debuted at DC Comics plotting Legends, a cross-over miniseries in the (newly established) tradition of Crisis on Infinite Earths, but smaller scale. Connected to that, he created an updated version of DC’s Suicide Squad, which was much, much better then the recent movie would suggest. In it, characters like Rick Flag, Amanda Waller, Deadshot and Captain Boomerang were compelling and challenging, rather than annoying and implausible. Indeed, Suicide Squad, which Ostrander wrote for it’s entire run of 66 issues plus annuals, specials and the like, was a triumph of pacing and characterization, and stands as one of the great runs of modern comics–an amazing example of telling an ongoing story with multiple protagonists. Ostrander also did a great Martian Manhunter for DC, as well as a bunch of stuff I’ve never had the chance to read properly (like Firestorm and The Spectre). He did an interesting miniseries called The Kents which told a Western story focused around Jonathan Kent’s ancestors, he turned Barbara Gordon into the Oracle (one of the great all-time examples of character development in American comics) and he wrote a really interesting miniseries called Batman: Gotham Knights. And that’s not even getting into his Star Wars or creator-owned work. And if all that’s not enough, he actually appeared as a character in some Supergirl comics before he started working for DC. The guy is amazing.
1950 – John Byrne
John Byrne is one of the most celebrated comic book artists and writers in the business. His early “great work” was certainly working on X-Men with Chris Claremont, where he was responsible for some of the all time classic stories, such as the Dark Phoenix Saga and Days of Future Past. He also created Alpha Flight and had a lengthy run writing and drawing Fantastic Four before coming over to DC Comics and relaunching Superman in the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths. There were other, later creative teams that I liked better on Superman, but it’s not too much to say that his approach to the character is what made me a Superman fan. Prior to that, Superman was often a bit of a boring, unapproachable figure to the younger me, but Byrne’s humanizing efforts and focus on Clark Kent as the man and Superman the costume helped turn me into a devoted follower of the Man of Steel for many years. Byrne’s art influenced pretty much everybody working in American comics in the 1980’s, with his dynamic pin-up poses becoming a much repeated style. John Byrne was born on July 6, 1950.
1951 – Alfred Hitchcock
Like him or not, Alfred Hitchcock is easily one of the most influential creators in the history of movie making. Starting in silent films all the way back in 1925, Hitchcock became best known for his work on thrillers, more or less inventing cinematic suspense as we know it today. Strangers on a Train came out in 1951 and is well regarded, but takes a back seat to The Birds, Psycho, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Rear Window at least–and maybe more–as a contender for his best known film. Of the ones I’ve seen, I have enjoyed Rear Window the most, although I’m also a fan of Lifeboat and the earlier, jaunty The Lady Vanishes. Hitchcock also became a celebrated personality in front of the camera, hosting his own TV show–Alfred Hitchcock Presents–and he lent his “character” to The Three Investigators, a series of junior mystery novels that I used to really like. When I was a pretentious film student in college, I might have been tempted to disparage Hitchcock in the same manner that you hear the characters talk about him in this film of mine here, but today I acknowledge him as a master of artfully using the conventions of cinema to create atmosphere, mood and tension.
1952 – Gene Kelly
In 1952, Gene Kelly–along with co-director Stanley Donen, screen writers Betty Comden & Adolph Green, actors Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds & Jean Hagen, and whole lot of other people–put together my favorite film of all time, Singin’ in the Rain. By all accounts, Kelly was a stern taskmaster but the proof of his skill and determination is there on the screen, as the movie makes astounding use of dancing, song, comedy, layered storytelling and simple emotions to create one of the most joyful cinematic experiences ever to come out of Hollywood. Kelly was an amazing dancer and a good storyteller, who managed to artfully incorporate the camera into his choreography. Gene Kelly did a lot of other things as well, include An American in Paris, On the Town, Anchors Aweigh and Summer Stock, but he always had difficulty coming out of Singin’ in the Rain‘s shadow, and its easy to see why.
1953 – Chuck Jones
Let’s face facts: Warner Bros. has the best animated characters of all time. Disney may be a bigger shot in terms of marketing, memorabilia, and theme parks, but the Looney Tunes stars and stories exist on a whole ‘nother level when it comes to personality, inspiration and humor. Chuck Jones didn’t invent all of those guys, but he did contribute significantly to pretty much all of them, and was the primary inventor of Pepe Le Pew, Marvin the Martian and Michigan J. Frog, and also was the co-creator of the Road Runner / Wile E. Coyote series which started out as a spoof of sorts of chase cartoons, and quickly evolved into its own sub-genre. Amongst Jones’ directing credits for Warner Bros. we find such gems as Rabbit Seasoning, What’s Opera, Doc?, The Rabbit of Seville, Robin Hood Daffy, and the sublime meta-nonsense of Duck Amuck, from 1953. Beyond Warner Bros. he also did a bunch of Tom & Jerry cartoons, a Riki-Tiki-Tavi special that I enjoyed, and created a Christmas tradition with the animated adaption of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Jones also wrote a couple of books about his life, including one that I’ve read and loved, Chuck Amuck.
1954 – Dr. Seuss
Theodor Geisel, as he was actually known, wrote and illustrated something like 60 children’s books, including many that are amongst the world’s most popular, and thus was a godsend to parents of young children everywhere. Seriously, I was always relieved when my kids asked me to read aloud something like on Hop on Pop or Green Eggs & Ham–there was such joy and fun in the rhythm and cadence of the writing, and the pictures just overflowed with imagination! And I enjoyed the pure challenge of trying to read through Fox in Socks without tripping over myself. One of my favorite lines (because it caught me so by surprise) comes from his book Oh Say Can You Say?: “If you like to eat potato chips and chew pork chops on clipper ships….” Serious! Pork chops on clipper ships! Dr. Seuss also managed to bring in good values about things like self-acceptance or caring for the oppressed that I was happy to have imparted to my kids. Of course, Dr. Seuss also invented the Grinch, and collaborated with Chuck Jones (1953, above) on the animated special. He also worked with both Jones and director Frank Capra (see 1939) on a series of army training films about a character called Private Snafu. In 1954, Geisel published one of his many famous books, Horton Hears a Who, which is about an elephant who desperately works to save from destruction a tiny kingdom that only he knows about.
1955 – Philip K. Dick
Philip K. Dick is an American science fiction author who wrote a myriad of novels and short stories dealing with philosophical and politic themes, and often focusing on ordinary people struggling with uncertain states of existence. Dick seemed paranoid about technology and its erosive effect on authentic humanity–not so concerned about the idea of the nuclear missile-controlling supercomputer, but rather the idea of something like the toaster that takes away your choice of what to eat for breakfast. His stories are deeply immersive and have been fueling Hollywood with science fiction plots for decades. Movies based on his work include Total Recall, The Adjustment Bureau, Paycheck, A Scanner Darkly, and most famously, Blade Runner. In 1955, Dick published a short story called “Service Call” which is about the way that an accidental home-visit from a serviceman from the future leads to the development of technology, which when combined with modern consumerism, leads to a societal loss of freedom: classic Philip K. Dick sort of stuff.
1956 – C.S. Lewis
Clive Staples “Jack” Lewis was an British writer, philosopher and theologian who is most famous for his children’s literature–specifically the seven novels that made up The Chronicles of Narnia. These stories are classic fantasy tales layered with insightful Christian truth from an English cultural perspective. Pretty much each of them has a moment or two that made me feel like Lewis was talking to my soul. He also wrote a number of theology work that had some the same effect, including The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce, and some science fiction novels I haven’t read. The last of the Narnia novels, The Last Battle, was published in 1956. I didn’t enjoy it as much as many of the others when I read it as a kid, but in re-reading it as an adult I thought the last few chapters, which depicted the Narnia version of the coming of the new heaven and new earth, to be spiritually transporting.