Although unconfirmed, it’s widely believed that Pixar director Andrew Stanton’s next film after WALL-E will be John Carter of Mars. The science-fiction film, based on the series of novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, has been alternately rumored to be animated, live-action or a hybrid of both. Yet it is not Hollywood’s first attempt to film Burroughs’ tales of Barsoom – several studios have tried and failed over the decades to get a John Carter project off the ground. The first of these attempts was all the way back in the 1930s, and ironically this iteration of the tale was actually intended as an animated serial.
In 1931 Bob Clampett went to work at the Harman-Ising Studios, where the Disney expatriates were producing shorts for Warner Brothers. Here he worked on the early Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts, staying with Warners when Harman and Ising left and Leon Schlesinger took over the animation unit. Working with Friz Freleng and Tex Avery, Clampett would eventually become one of Warners’ legendary animators. Around 1936, however, he had an idea for striking out on his own.
Clampett approached Edgar Rice Burroughs about serializing his Mars novels in animated form. Burroughs, although unfamiliar with the animation world, was enthusiastic about the project and gave it his consent. Clampett worked for about a year on development with Burroughs’ son, John Coleman Burroughs. While still working for Warners, Clampett moonlighted on the John Carter project with assistance from animator Chuck Jones and eventually created a pencil test and demo reel.
Sadly, studio politics were just as wrongheaded then as they are now and executive interference eventually led to the demise of the project. MGM, who held the rights to Burroughs’ properties, didn’t understand the serious, science-fiction tone Clampett was trying to achieve. They instead wanted more slapstick, comical films and wanted Burroughs to adapt his more popular Tarzan character for animation. Eventually Clampett tired of the process and returned to Warners where he signed a new contract to direct.
The project never revived; animated shorts remained the domain of the funny animals and slapstick that had dominated them for years. The closest that Hollywood would come to the aesthetic of Clampett’s John Carter would be the Fleischers’ Superman shorts several years later. Clampett’s project, if realized, might have changed the face of science-fiction and animation forever.
This little history lesson is basically so I can show you this footage – the quite awesome demo that Clampett produced in 1936 to demonstrate his concept:
More information is available in this interesting article by Jim Korkis.