In the early 1930s, a young animator named Bob Clampett — later of Beany And Cecil and Looney Tunes fame — approached Burroughs with the idea for a series of cartoons based on the John Carter stories. Burroughs felt that the success of Tarzan overshadowed many of his other characters, and he was wildly enthusiastic about a John Carter film series. He also believed that animation was the only way to capture the fantastic Martian world.
Clampett was an innovative artist, and he worked closely with Burrough’s son John Coleman to develop the storyline and characters for the first project. Clampett and the younger Burroughs often worked late into the night and on weekends to put the film together. They used rotoscoping techniques and applied a unique color scheme to achieve a look that was completely different from other animation.
“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… 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.
After nearly five years of labor, the finished product was ready in 1936. Clampett and Burroughs showed their film to MGM executives, who were excited about it until the studio’s sales department convinced them that the cartoon would be a tough sell. MGM went on to make a Tarzan cartoon series, and the idea of a John Carter film would languish for decades.
Fifty years later, Disney purchased the rights to Burroughs’ series and tapped Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna of Carolco Pictures to produce a film. Carolco was a hot commodity at the time, fresh off the successes of the Rambo films and Terminator 2. Screenwriter Charles Pogue took a swing at a draft, and a year later Terry Black polished the script, claiming that Disney wanted the film “to be the next Star Wars.”