One of the John Carter “near misses” in the 100 year march from Edgar Rice Burroughs mind in 1912 to cinema screens in 2012 was the 1936 proposed animated version of John Carter by Merry Melodies animator Bob Clampett. In John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood there is a summary of this project — and today I came across a new essay by Michael Barrie posted on 1 Oct 2012 in MichaelBarrier.com that adds new detail to the story, and raises some interesting questions.
I’m going to just put all the pieces here so that anyone interested in digging a little more deeply into this can easily do so. The pieces:
- YouTube video of our documentary excerpt 100 Years of John Carter which covers the Clampett project in context with all the other efforts over the years.
- Youtube Video of Bob Clampett showing the John Carter test footage and talking about it.
- Excerpt from John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood.
- Excerpt from Michael Barrier’s piece — and link to the full article.
- Links to Bill Hillman’s excellent coverage of this topic at Erbzine.com
Clampett, ERB, and The Animated John Carter
(Excerpt from John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood)
Bob Clampett was born in 1913 and had grown up next door in Hollywood to Charlie Chaplin, and in 1931 had gone to work as a cartoonist at Harman-Ising Studio, a company who had an output arrangement with Warner Brothers, churning out cartoons that included the very first Merry Melody, which Clampett worked on as a young cartoonist.
Clampett knew his place, up to a point, and that included quietly learning the craft of animating, and only gradually getting involved in generating the story ideas for cartoons, and even then, the idea of contributing ideas for new characters or new series of cartoons was still out of bounds. He was years away from being viewed as senior enough to create new characters or do what he really wanted to do, which was to direct animated shorts and features.
Clampett believed that animation offered far richer possibilities than just the kind of slapstick farm and animal humor that Harman-Ising was outputting to Warner Brothers. Growing up in the twenties, he had eagerly devoured all of Burroughs books, especially the Barsoom series, and saw in it an opportunity for an ambitious realistically drawn fantasy series that would skew more toward adults, but still be accessible to children, and would capture the spirit of adventure and wonder that he had felt when reading the Barsoom novels.
He knew where to find Burroughs — Tarzana Ranch was by then a landmark in Southern California — and so he journeyed to the estate and met with Burroughs and told him of his idea to create a series of animated cartoons based on the John Carter character and series.
For his part, Burroughs was immediately interested. One of his great frustrations was that Hollywood, while obsessed, it seemed, with Tarzan, was hesitant to tackle Mars, or any of other Burroughs fantastical other worldly works. Burroughs well understood the reasoning, that the special effects of the day just couldn’t match the imagination of what Burroughs had created. Lions, and elephants, and tigers — yes; banths, and thoats, and ulsios — not so much.
Perhaps animation was a solution….
Burroughs had another reason for reacting positively. Burroughs’ son John Coleman had just graduated from college and had artistic inclinations. He saw in the young Clampett someone who could teach John Coleman a thing or two — and so he encouraged the project and introduced John Coleman into the mix as a collaborator with Clampett.
Clampett and John Coleman Burroughs worked diligently for months — nights and weekends for Clampett, since he continued his full-time work for Warner Brothers through Harman-Ising. John Burroughs created detailed colored sketches and sculptured models. Clampett’s idea was that the stories would break down into a series of 9 minute installments that could either stand alone as serial installments, or could be combined into a feature length movie.
That Burroughs was enthusiastic was evidenced by the fact that he went out of his way to talk to MGM about it–MGM being the studio of the Johnny Weismuller Tarzan films which were then hugely popular, beginning with Tarzan the Ape Man in 1932 and continuing with Tarzan and His Mate in 1934, and Tarzan Escapes in 1936. The movies, which were the equivalent of the James Bond series of the day, had quickly become a major source of revenue and profits for MGM, so it was logical that Burroughs would look to them — and logical that they would be open to his approach.
To sell the idea to MGM, Clampett and the younger Burroughs settled on creating six minutes of test footage, to be accompanied by a pitch portfolio that included artwork, selling points, and illustrations from the Barsoom novels.33
A cover letter, carefully double-spaced on the letterhead of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc, read:
For twenty-five years we have been awaiting a medium that could properly depict on the screen the highly imaginative Martian creations of Edgar Rice Burroughs.
In the recently greatly improved cartoon animation technique in color we see that medium, which, in connection with the increasing demand for motion picture shorts, suggests that this is the opportune time to offer the animated cartoon rights in our series of nine Edgar Rice Burroughs Martian novels recording the adventures on the Red Planet of
JOHN CARTER, WARLORD OF MARS
The following pages give a brief summary of a few of the reasons why such a series of animated cartoon shorts in color should produce outstanding results at the box office.
In addition to the nine Martian novels and the magazine publication of these stories, there is now appearing in a cartoon magazine, with a circulation of 500,000 copies a month, a series of four pages of John Carter of Mars cartoons in colors, which give this character still wider circulation and publicity. You will find several of these cartoons mounted elsewhere in this brochure.
EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS INC
The text of the presentation pitch, which was hand-drawn on a large spiral portfolio with graphics and illustrations much in the manner of a Powerpoint Presentation today, read:
And because MILLIONS OF PEOPLE have seen the 18 motion pictures based on his stories.
So! EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS means BOX OFFICE SUCCESS anywhere!
25 Years ago, EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS created GREAT characters: JOHN CARTER OF MARS … whose amazing adventures are told in nine popular novels which have sold millions of copies.
WHY has the public THRILLED to the Mars books for 25 years?
Why?/Because ACTION and ROMANCE are the keynotes of the BURROUGHS name.
Because the MARS stories are CHOCK-FULL of ACTION and ROMANCE
Why have the MARS STORIES been translated into MANY DIFFERENT LANGUAGES AND DIALECTS?
Because every GENERATION in EVERY RACE thrills to a HERO who fights 4 armed GREEN men 10 feet High astride 8 legged mounts!
Because PEOPLE GASP AT THE MAN who crosses swords with humans whose heads scamper away from dead bodies.
A HERO who matches wits with PHANTOM BOWMEN, the mental warriors of MASTERMIND OF MARS.
The MARS STORIES have held MILLIONS spellbound because their hero FIGHTS for and LOVES an incomparably EXOTIC MARTIAN PRINCESS.
Do YOU know the FINAL REASON why the MARS STORIES have years of sound publicity behind them?
Here is why: Because the HERO of the MARS books is the HANDSOME, THRILLING, JOHN CARTER OF MARS.
In terms of technique, the test footage created by Clampett and John Coleman Burroughs was different than anything previously seen at the time, and even today looks unusually realistic in his use of color and movement.34 Clampett used oil painting to achieve the side shadowing so as to create a different look from the harsh outlining that defined the look of the typical animated film to date. The test footage included scenes of John Carter running, engaging in a sword-fight, and riding an eight legged thoat.
“We would oil paint the side shadowing frame-by-frame in an attempt to get away from the typical outlining that took place in normal animated films. In the running sequence, for example, there is a subtle blending of figure and line which eliminated the harsh outline. It is more like a human being in tone. We were working in untested territory at that time. There was no animated film to look at to see how it was done,” Clampett said.35
By all accounts, the presentation to MGM went well. Burroughs’ support to the project, and MGM’s success with the Tarzan property, both created a strong predisposition on the part of MGM executives to green-light the project — and in the presentation meeting, a green light is what Clampett and the younger Burroughs thought they got.
Clampett, convinced he had a deal with MGM for an animated John Carter, Warlord of Mars that would become the first animated feature, years ahead of Snow White which was then being developed at Disney, quit his job animating for Warners and readied himself for his new adventure on an animated Barsoom.
Then it all fell apart.
“I had already given notice to Warners and was preparing to start on the John Carter series when MGM’s change in decision came down,” Clampett said. “The studio said, ‘No, we do not want the John Carter thing; we want Tarzan.’ Aesthetically, Jack Burroughs and I were very inspired by the Mars project. And the idea, as much as I like Tarzan, to do the alternate series was simply not the same.”
The exact reasons for MGM backing out of the deal are not fully known, although the reason given to Clampett and Burroughs is that throughout the midwest and south, MGM booking agents responsible for booking theaters for the studio expressed concern that the audiences were not yet ready for adventures on Mars by John Carter or anyone else.
Clampett would end up staying with Warner Brothers, where he would go on to become a legendary animator and animation director, helming dozens of classic Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, and other Merry Melodies cartoons.
John Coleman Burroughs evolved into an excellent illustrator, taking on the job of illustrating some of the later Edgar Rice Burroughs Martian novels — illustrations which benefited from the extensive work done in support of the Clampett animation project.
After the Clampett episode, efforts to get John Carter of Mars on the screen in Hollywood went quiet for a time.
Here is an introduction and link to Michael Barrier’s piece, which contains a great wealth of information that expands on what is known of not just the John Carter cartoon — but also about Tarzantoons, the company Burroughs founded to create both Tarzan and John Carter cartoons, as well as more well-sourced info on the state of business affairs between Burroughs and MGM regarding the cartoons. The most significant takeaway that I had upon reading this is that there seems to be some conflict between Clampett’s interviews in which he indicated the MGM John Carter project was a “go”, and that’s why he quit his job creating Warner Brothers cartoons, and some documentary evidence that Barrier writes about which suggests it might have never gotten quite as close to a true greenlight as Clampett thought.
There is also some great “color” in the form of Clampett’s description of his first meeting with Burroughs and a pretty funny quip emanating from Burroughs at the outset of the meeting.
Bob Clampett and “Tarzantoons”
Bob Clampett and “Tarzantoons”
By Michael Barrier
It’s one of those animation might-have-beens…or maybe just-as-wells.
Elsewhere on this site, in an interview published in 1970 in Funnyworld, Bob Clampett says:
At the end of 1936. Leon [Schlesinger, proprietor of the studio that made the Warner Bros. cartoons] gave me a color cartoon sequence in a Joe E. Brown feature picture called When’s Your Birthday? It featured all the signs of the zodiac as cartoon characters. That was the first time I officially directed at Warner Bros., but I had made several commercials all by myself while I was still at Harman-Ising, and earlier in ’36 I was directing a film of my own, based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan and Mars stories, in full animation. I wanted to do something quite imaginative, with tongue-in-cheek humor throughout. I directed a sales film, which Chuck helped me animate and Bobo—Robert Cannon—in-betweened. In fact, I filmed Bobo in live action as the hero—he was very heroically built, all shoulders and no hips. I filmed him in Griffith Park, and we rotoscoped part of it. I was planning to leave Warners to make that series on my own, but Leon said, “I’ll give you direction and more money if you will stay.”
You can see a couple of minutes of the surviving footage from that “sales film”—full-color animation of the Martian warrior Tars Tarkas, a Thark, atop the Martian steed called a thoat, along with pencil animation and title cards—on the first of the two Beany and Cecil DVDs, now a rare and expensive collector’s item. The film is accompanied by Clampett’s own comments, which were recorded while he watched the film with an audience.
But, as you might imagine, there was a lot more to the story than that. Robert R. Barrett, a Burroughs expert of many years’ standing and author of a book on the Tarzan newspaper strip (as well as a long list of articles on Burroughs subjects), has shared with me some of what he learned when the late Danton Burroughs, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s grandson, gave him almost unlimited access to the Burroughs company’s archives. Bob Barrett’s messages prompted me to go back to my 1975 and 1976 interviews with Bob Clampett, in which he talked at greater length about the Burroughs episode.
Clampett spoke of meeting John Coleman Burroughs, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s son, when they were both enrolled at the Otis Art Institute in special Saturday classes for children taught by Donna Schuster, a painter of some renown early in the last century; this would have been in the late 1920s. “When we were given an assignment, such as doing an autumn scene,” Clampett said in our interview on October 31, 1976, “Jack would do a serious, beautifully rendered panorama, while I’d do a comedy thing, with leaves blowing at hurricane velocity, old men’s hats blowing off, young girls’ skirts blowing up, humorous animals, that kind of thing.” Bob did not realize whose son his friend was until the day “Jack” was picked up by a chauffeured limousine. The younger Burroughs took Bob to Tarzana, where he met Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Erbzine, as always, has comprehensive coverage of this: