Jeff Smith 4 p.m., Dec. 20
Review: John Carter of Mars
Relax everybody: no review embargoes have been broken, no colleagues beaten to the punch.
Civil War veteran-turned martian-hunter, John Carter, was born in 1912 when Edgar Rice Burroughs' stories first began appearing in the pages of the pulp magazine The All-Story. By way of recognizing the centenary of Burroughs' enduring creation, Walt Disney Pictures gambled $250 million on a 132 minute big screen commemorative piece.
Test footage from Bob Clampett's never completed John Carter of Mars (1936).
This was not the first time John Carter of Mars was a red speck on Hollywood's radar. The thought occurred to me prior to last night's screening of the Disney update, but the answer would have to wait until I could return home and consult the DVD shelf.
Sure enough, the proof was there mixed in amongst the bevy of special features on Beany and Cecil: The Special Edition, Vol. 1. The desire to bring John Carter of Mars to the screen has been kicking around Hollywood since 1936 when legendary cartoonist (and San Diego native) Bob Clampett tried to get the project off the ground in cartoon form.
Clampett was the craziest, most free-spirited sadist to command an animation stand at Termite Terrace during the squash-and-stretch, free-for-all golden period of Warner Bros. animation. While the tunes were indeed looney, his melodies were anything but merrie.
An extreme take (even by Clampett's standards) from The Old Grey Hare (1944).
His mean-spirited, decidedly non-PC bursts of Technicolor madness set him apart from his contemporaries. Under Fred 'Tex' Avery's watch, Bugs was a wild hare who always came out on top in life's game of survival of the fittest. Of course you know this means war every time Chuck Jones' cerebral, "passive until pushed" hare is forced to retaliate.
When it came Clampett's turn, the wabbit's motivation all but evaporated. Bugs Clampett's justification for picking on Elmer boiled down to two motivating factors: he was fat and stupid. If Avery was the first to unveil the character we know and love, and Robert McKimson gave the bunny his permanent look, credit "Uncle" Bob for empowering Bugs with a nasty disposition.
The final, and I do mean final shootout in Hare Ribbin' (1944), this scene was cut from release prints.
Clampett came up with the idea for a series of John Carter shorts when he was 25-years-old. He met with Burroughs at the author's Tarzana home and was surprised to find him open to the artistic potential an anthropomorphic makeover could yield.
It was never meant to be. The series was conceived and scrapped several years before Bugs was even a globule inside the inkwell. All that remains are a pencil test, a credit scene, and a minute or so of animated two-color footage.
What's most striking about John Carter of Mars is how much it prefigures Max and Dave Fleischer's Superman series. In his excellent interview with the animator, Jim Korkis recognized Clampett awareness "that animation didn't need to be just the limited domain of wild slapstick and funny animals."
Bob Clampett in 1975.
He wondered whether a series of John Carter cartoons "could have changed the world of animation and science fiction ushering in an era of adult animation." It's doubtful, considering that by 1936 Disney and Paul Terry had created enough cuddly woodland creatures to colonize ten-thousand drawing boards.
As for Disney's costly venture, for once one of these sfi-fi spectacles takes itself seriously and doesn't camp it up. This is the second live-action film of the year to be signed by an animator. (M:I4 was directed by Brad Bird of The Iron Giant and The Incredibles fame.) John Rubio drew review duty, so without revealing all the cards in my hand, suffice it to say the trend appeals to me.
The most enduring of all Hollywood "J.C.'s," John Charles Carter, better known as Chuck 'Moses' Heston.