Edgar Rice Burrough’s John Carter of Mars series of novels have thrilled readers for a century. And although it has taken until now for those books to make the transition to big screen it hasn’t been for a lack of trying. And while the complexity of bringing to the screen such fantastic creatures as the four-armed Martian tharks and eight-legged thoats has only been achievable in the last couple of years thanks to advances in CG technology, the very first attempt to mount a cinematic version of John Carter actually dates back to the 1930s.
The person spearheading this early attempt was animator Bob Clampett. Hired onto the Harman-Ising Studio at Warner Brothers in 1931 following his high school graduation, Clampett was slowly learning the art of animation and trying to work his way up the cartoon studio ladder. Feeling that the chances for upwards mobility were limited at Warners, Clampett decided that he should develop his own projects independently. Realizing that there could be more to animation than just the cute animals that made up his work on the Merrie Melodie shorts he was doing at Warners, Clampett approached Burroughs in 1936 with the idea of bringing John Carter and his adventures on Barsoom, as the red planet is called by its inhabitants, to the big screen via animation.
To his credit, Burroughs immediately gleamed on to the idea, recognizing that no special effects budget could limit what an animator could draw. He gave Clampett permission to begin developing a series of cartoons that would not be strict adaptations of the books but would take the cast of characters and place them in new adventures. Joining Clampett on the project was Burroughs’ son John Coleman Burroughs. Recently graduated from college, John helped to develop the look of his father’s world by sculpting models of many of Barsoom’s inhabitants.
Clampett’s idea was for a series of nine-minute long shorts, each one telling a complete story. Clampett worked nights and weekends on the test footage, even enlisting fellow Warner Brothers animators Chuck Jones and Robert Cannon to lend an occasional hand. The finished test reel was shown to various studios and MGM expressed initially interest but backed down when their sales representatives in the south and mid-westreported that theater owners were more interested in more Tarzan than they were in a possible John Carter of Mars animated series so the idea died. It wouldn’t be until 1941 when the Fleischer Studio’s first Superman cartoon would arrive in theaters showing that animation could indeed stretch beyond the boundaries it was currently confined within.
The footage below appears to be all that is left of however much material Clampett may have generated for the project. There’s also a voice over from Clampett from what I am presuming is a public appearance later in life where he talks about the approaches he used in creating these tests. At just about two minutes in length, the footage gives us a tantalizing glimpse at a series of cartoons that could have changed how animation was used to tell stories.
Of course, Clampett would go on to make a number of other impactful and lasting contributions to the art of animation. But a potential movie version of John Carter would bounce around Hollywood for several decades. Special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen was approached in the mid-1950s to work on a version but he declined, feeling that the script wasn’t strong enough. In 1986, Disney would launch an attempt that saw a number of screenwriters, including a pre-Pirates Of The Caribbean Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, and Back To The Future‘s Bob Gale and director John McTiernan working on it before letting the rights lapse in 2002. Paramount promptly snatched them up and had Robert Rodriguez, Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow‘s Kerry Conran and Jon Favreau all working on it before the studio decided not to renew their option on the rights in 2006. Disney snatched the rights back up and the reslut is now in theaters.