The First and Only Weekly Online Fanzine Devoted to the Life and Works of Edgar Rice Burroughs
Lost Cartoons: The Animated "John
Carter of Mars"
By Jim Korkis
(Reprinted here with the permission of the author)
This article is copyrighted by Jim Korkis and first appeared at the
Jim Hill Media Website
giving special showing of the animated John Carter project
at Tarzana Ranch, Tarzana, California
One of the advantages of growing up in the Los Angeles area was the opportunity to meet so many amazing people who had been involved in creating some of the animated classics that still entertain and enchant me today. One of the people I got a chance to meet and interview several times was Bob Clampett. By the time I met Bob, he was a controversial figure in the animation community. Even today, it is difficult for me to reconcile the image of the enthusiastic, articulate, generous, helpful and caring Bob Clampett that I knew with the unkind remarks about him made by others who I admired and loved in the animation field. However, that is a story for another column.
Knowing that at the time, most people were only interested in talking with Bob about his career at Warner Brothers, I decided to interview Bob about some of his other animated projects, fearing that the information might be lost to future generations. I spent a great deal of time talking with him about the animated version of BEANY AND CECIL but during the course of the interviews, the discussion would veer off in other directions including other animation related projects that for one reason or another never developed.
The story of one of those lost cartoons is our topic for today.
The world of science fiction is filled with strange tales of alternate futures where one minor event reshaped the entire history of the world. In our world, one minor event in 1935 could have changed the world of animation and science fiction ushering in an era of adult animation. But, alas, that did not happen and is the topic of our sad story today.
Bob Clampett is perhaps best remembered as the creator of the popular BEANY AND CECIL and the director of some of the wildest Looney Tunes shorts this side of Tex Avery. Unlike many other animators, Clampett spent most of his life experimenting with different concepts for animation.
Whether it was developing a pilot for the popular comic strip NAPOLEON AND UNCLE ELBY (in which a trained dog wore a special puppet mask designed by Clampett to achieve the semblance of a variety of facial expressions) or a pilot for an Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy show (where the famous ventriloquist dummy would be animated in slow motion so it could walk from one spot to another), Clampett was never content to just produce funny stories with cute little animals.
Clampett was born in San Diego, California in 1913. When he was quite young, his family moved to Hollywood and for a while, they lived next door to Charlie Chaplin and his brother Syd. While Clampett developed his cartooning skills, he watched some classic movies being filmed on the streets of Los Angeles.
At age ten, he watched the varsity football team practice at Glendale's Harvard High School which Clampett would later attend. The football team was coached by James Pierce who later played the role of Tarzan in movies and on radio and ended up marrying Edgar Rice Burroughs' daughter, Joan. Like most children his age, Clampett's imagination had already been captured by the adventure stories of Burroughs.
When he graduated high school in 1931, Clampett got a job at the Harman-Ising Studio which was turning out cartoons for Warner Brothers. Clampett even got to work on the very first MERRY MELODIE. For a few years, he was content to learn the craft of animation and to work himself up to a position where he was not only animating, but contributing story ideas for the various cartoons.
However, Clampett was ambitious and wanted to take the next step up into directing animated shorts. At the time, there seemed to be only a slight possibility of this dream occurring at Warners so Clampett decided to use his spare time to develop a project on his own.
In a bold move, he arranged a meeting with Edgar Rice Burroughs himself who lived in a small community named Tarzana (named after his famous jungle king character) in the nearby San Gabriel Valley. "I had been fascinated with the Burroughs books since I was a youngster, especially the Mars books," Clampett once mentioned in an interview. Years before the Fleischer Studio would consider producing the justly memorable SUPERMAN series of shorts, Clampett realized that animation didn't need to be just the limited domain of wild slapstick and funny animals.
"An animator can take a pencil and put the city of Rome or a strange planet on a small piece of paper and have a character do anything that comes to his imagination. There is no other medium that allows you to exert such control over every frame of film," Clampett told me in 1978, "Realizing the potential of a fantasy series of cartoons based around Burroughs' characters, I went out to Tarzana to see Burroughs himself and tried to convince him that I could film and sell a series of cartoons based on his JOHN CARTER OF MARS stories."
Most fans don't realize that the very first story that Edgar Rice Burroughs sold (for four hundred dollars in 1911) was UNDER THE MOONS OF MARS which was later published as a novel entitled A PRINCESS OF MARS. This was the first John Carter story and it appeared one year before the more famous first Tarzan story. In the tale, American John Carter, while fleeing from Indians hides in a cave where he has an out-of-body experience. He literally finds his spiritual self drawn to the planet Mars (which Burroughs calls "Barsoom") where he encounters an extremely strange civilization.
There are fifteen-foot tall green savages with four arms who are equipped with swords and firearms. They ride ten foot tall eight-legged beasts and they live in magnificent cities. There are also some more human-looking inhabitants and Carter woos and wins a Martian princess named Dejah Thoris. Before his death in March 1950, Burroughs churned out eleven novels about the adventures of John Carter on Mars.
Clampett was surprised to find Burroughs so receptive to the idea of animation. Burroughs wanted to see his characters receive further exposure, perhaps because his other creations were currently being overshadowed by the enormous success of Tarzan. Burroughs also realized that the medium of animation would allow for special effects and an outer space setting that might be cost prohibitive or poorly done if translated to existing live action film techniques.
Although Burroughs had some experience with movies (even organizing his own film company at the time), he was less familiar with the world of animation. As Clampett remembered, "As far as animation was concerned, he was completely in the dark." Still, Burroughs was definitely interested and gave Clampett tremendous artistic license.
"Edgar was smart enough to understand that one couldn't just literally translate his Mars books page by page into animation; it just would not be cinematic. So, he gave me a great deal of freedom to dream up and be inspired by his writing and develop a cartoon story on my own," Clampett recalled.
At the same time, Burroughs' son, John Coleman Burroughs (sometimes known as "Jack") had recently graduated college. He became interested in Clampett's revolutionary animated series. John set about sculpting several articulated models so that Clampett could more easily see how the animals and other important objects might look and move.
Several of those sculptures still exist today including the head of Tars Tarkas (the four-armed thark) who becomes the friend of John Carter and a sculpture almost five feet long of John Carter's sword.
John also did a series of sketches with detailed notes. For example, his notes on the Martian creature known as the "thoat" are as follows: "Thoat. Description. A green Martian horse. Ten feet high at the shoulder with four legs on either side; a broad flat tail, larger at the tip than at the root which it holds straight out behind while running. Devoid of hair, dark slate in color, and exceedingly smooth and glossy. White Belly; legs are shade from slate at shoulder to a vivid yellow at the feet. Feet are heavily padded and hairless."
These detailed notes along with colored sketches and sculptured models were invaluable in trying to achieve a sense of reality in an unreal setting. John later illustrated several of his father's books, including some of the JOHN CARTER OF MARS stories. At one time, he also attempted to do a comic strip using the characters for newspapers. Obviously, the amount of research and work he put into the animation research paid off on these later projects. A publicity photo from 1941 shows him with an articulated model of a thoat that he used for visual reference.
Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon which first appeared in newspapers in 1934 was destined to become a movie serial in 1936 but with all this research in place and the active support of Burroughs himself, it looked like John Carter would be the first outer space fantasy hero to grace movie screens. Clampett immediately got to work to put together a test reel of footage and soon animation history would be made.
Lost Cartoons: The Animated "John Carter of Mars" ... continued
In the last installment, we discovered how animator Bob Clampett decided that despite his success at Warner Brothers, he wanted to branch out on his own and develop the first realistic fantasy animated series based on the adventures of Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars. Burroughs himself actively supported the project and Clampett eagerly began work.
Although Clamptett had spent the last few years making funny cartoons with cute animals, he had no difficulty shifting gears into a more serious approach. He had always enjoyed adventure-oriented films like the silent version of THE LOST WORLD.
"When I saw THE LOST WORLD, it was one of the most exciting things I ever saw in my life. It was such an imaginative film (and) it made such a lasting impression on me that it affected my approach to certain projects,"claimed Clampett.
For the test reel of footage, Clampett realized he had to have a major conflict that got resolved, introduced the main characters, and established the world of Mars. The basic plotline that Clampett settled on concerned an exotic race of Martians who lived in the mouth of a volcano. Periodically, they would venture out from their hidden lair in rocket ships to attack and plunder the cities of Mars.
Of course, it was up to hero John Carter to stop them. Interestingly, Clampett would later adapt this plot of one of his BEANY AND CECIL puppet shows with the sea sick sea serpent taking the place of Burroughs' hero.
While it was Clampett's plan that the series would be composed of nine-minute long cartoons each of which featured a complete story, he decided that six minutes of test footage would be ample to convince any distributor of the viability of the series.
Edgar Rice Burroughs himself had already contacted MGM about buying the animated series. MGM was anxious to keep Burroughs happy since they were enjoying success with their Johnny Weissmuller film version of TARZAN and they were generally dissatisfied with their animated short subjects at the time. So, Clampett was under pressure not only to make test footage that would satisfy Burroughs but also the more pragmatic accountants at MGM.
"I wanted to do something quite imaginative, with tongue-in-cheek humor throughout. Chuck (Jones) helped me animate and Bobe (Robert Cannon) inbetweened. In fact, I filmed Bobe 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,"Clampett said with a smile.
Robert Cannon, nicknamed "Bobe", was a "terrific draftsman" according to Tex Avery. When Avery came to Warners to head up his own animation unit, Tom Palmer assigned him Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett and Bobe Cannon. Palmer explained to Avery that "I've got some boys here…they're not renegades, but they don't get along with the other two crews. They're not satisfied with the people they're working with."
It was the success of this unit that caused Leon Schlessinger to establish the famous Termite Terrace where many classic Warner cartoons were made. In later years, Cannon became a director and animator at U.P.A.
Because Clampett and the others were still working full-time at Warners, the JOHN CARTER work had to be squeezed in at night, on weekends and whenever a spare moment managed to pop up. Even John Coleman Burroughs and his fiancée Jane would sometimes help out by painting some of the cels for the cartoon themselves. Clampett wanted a different look for the animated series and was once again forced to experiment.
"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 explained.
In 1936, the test footage was completed. It featured John Carter running and leaping around the Martian surface, a Thark riding a thoat in full color, Carter involved in a swordfight and other vivid sequences which were quite unlike anything else being done in animation at the time. There was an opening title sequence of the planet Mars hurtling toward the screen with lettering proclaiming John Carter in the "Warlord of Mars" and title cards announcing future episodes.
It was planned that these scenes would be in the first film if the series sold. Burroughs loved the final work and more importantly, so did MGM. Clampett gave notice to Warners that he was leaving and he started production work on the first episode.
Then disaster struck.
The local sales representatives who were primarily from the Mid-West and the South expressed their concerns to MGM that the project would be a "tough sale". They felt audiences would not be able to understand nor accept the concept of an Earth man having adventures on Mars. It all just seemed too strange. They pushed for a Burroughs cartoon series featuring Tarzan who was already well-known and well-loved by the public.
"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. 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. Somehow, I just lost my enthusiasm for the new project," Clampett told a variety of interviewers over the years.
One of the reasons Clampett's enthusiasm was crushed was because of the concept of the TARZAN series. The studio wanted funny jungle animals doing silly things and at the end of the cartoon, Tarzan would appear and save these foolish animals from being caught in quicksand or facing a vicious predator.
Even though he had given notice at Warners, Clampett met with Leon Schlessinger who offered him a chance to direct cartoons for more money. Clampett didn't hesitate, and signed a new seven-year contract. Clampett's first Warner cartoon as a director appeared in 1937 and was entitled PORKY'S BADTIME STORY. Clampett went on to direct many hilarious Porky Pig, Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny cartoons.
Clampett stored away the storyboard, notes, sketches, actual cels and completed footage of the JOHN CARTER project and for the most part, forgot about the aborted series as he worked on developing other projects.
In the Seventies, however, Clampett found himself with a new vocation as a lecturer at universities. He would give a brief history of animation and include anecdotes about his own experiences working in animation. It was during this time that he resurrected the forgotten John Carter footage and showed it as part of his lecture.
Forty years after it was first completed, the footage awed audiences of animation fans. Clampett had no bitterness about the missed opportunity. In fact, he told audiences, while working on ideas for the JOHN CARTER project, he developed the idea of a city protected by a gigantic glass bubble. There was huge helicopter blade on top of this glass dome so that in times of trouble when the city was threatened by invaders, the city could just lift up into the air, fly to a place of safety and descend.
"The drawings I made look exactly like a beanie cap, so I guess you could say that perhaps I have Edgar Rice Burroughs to thank for providing the inspiration for the beany-cap-copter in BEANY AND CECIL," laughed Clampett when he showed the footage.
Animation history would have been significantly different if the JOHN CARTER project had sold. Other studios might also have shifted some of their focus from funny animals to a more realistic approach or explored the realms of realistic fantasy. On the other hand, Clampett would never have helped develop the personalities of some of the best loved Warner cartoons either and probably Beany and Cecil might not have come into existence.
The BEANY AND CECIL: SPECIAL EDITION DVD produced by Clampett's son Robert, Jr. with Greg Carson features most of the existing material of the collaboration with Edgar Rice Burroughs on the JOHN CARTER project. Some of this footage is actually narrated by Clampett himself in commentary that was obviously borrowed from one of his university screenings of the material. Viewing the material today, it does bring to mind the style and animation of the later Superman series of cartoons by the Fleischer Studios.
The property of John Carter has fascinated other movie studios over the years. For the last year, Paramount has been trying to develop John Carter as a live action film project. For more than a decade before that, Disney spent millions developing the "Mars" books as both a possible live-action and animation franchise. Disney showered millions on the projects, developed for Tom Cruise to star and John McTiernan to direct. Artist William Stout even did some preliminary design work for the live action version. Disney failed to greenlight production of either version. Disney did, however, proceed with an animated version of another Burroughs' character, Tarzan.Jim Korkus ~ June 2003
More more on this story see the
John Coleman Burroughs Bio
part of the
John Coleman Burroughs Tribute