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Lost Cartoons: The Animated "John Carter of Mars"

Lost Cartoons: The Animated "John Carter of Mars"

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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 BLOCKED EXPRESSION 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 fur 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.

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  • GREAT. Loved reading it.

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