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Tarzan Cartoon Characters

From Bob Barrett: "Here are John Coleman Burroughs' character drawings for the Tarzan cartoons that he and Bob Clampett were in charge of. The characters of Tarzan, Jane, and Muviro, Tarzan's friend, were to be handled straight. The animals were all going to be drawn as cartoon characters." (The straight lines connecting the characters are not original but were added to simplify scanning the individual drawings as a group.)

Bob Clampett and "Tarzantoons"

By Michael Barrier

It's one of those animation might-have-beens...or maybe just-as-wells.

Elsewhere on this site, in an interview published in 1970 in Funnyworld, Bob Clampett says:

At the end of 1936. Leon [Schlesinger, proprietor of the studio that made the Warner Bros. cartoons] gave me a color cartoon sequence in a Joe E. Brown feature picture called When's Your Birthday? It featured all the signs of the zodiac as cartoon characters. That was the first time I officially directed at Warner Bros., but I had made several commercials all by myself while I was still at Harman-Ising, and earlier in '36 I was directing a film of my own, based on Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan and Mars stories, in full animation. I wanted to do something quite imaginative, with tongue-in-cheek humor throughout. I directed a sales film, which Chuck helped me animate and Bobo—Robert Cannon—in-betweened. In fact, I filmed Bobo in live action as the hero—he was very heroically built, all shoulders and no hips. I filmed him in Griffith Park, and we rotoscoped part of it. I was planning to leave Warners to make that series on my own, but Leon said, "I'll give you direction and more money if you will stay."

You can see a couple of minutes of the surviving footage from that "sales film"—full-color animation of the Martian warrior Tars Tarkas, a Thark, atop the Martian steed called a thoat, along with pencil animation and title cards—on the first of the two Beany and Cecil DVDs, now a rare and expensive collector's item. The film is accompanied by Clampett's own comments, which were recorded while he watched the film with an audience.

But, as you might imagine, there was a lot more to the story than that. Robert R. Barrett, a Burroughs expert of many years' standing and author of a book on the Tarzan newspaper strip (as well as a long list of articles on Burroughs subjects), has shared with me some of what he learned when the late Danton Burroughs, Edgar Rice Burroughs's grandson, gave him almost unlimited access to the Burroughs company's archives. Bob Barrett's messages prompted me to go back to my 1975 and 1976 interviews with Bob Clampett, in which he talked at greater length about the Burroughs episode.

Clampett spoke of meeting John Coleman Burroughs, Edgar Rice Burroughs's son, when they were both enrolled at the Otis Art Institute in special Saturday classes for children taught by Donna Schuster, a painter of some renown early in the last century; this would have been in the late 1920s. "When we were given an assignment, such as doing an autumn scene," Clampett said in our interview on October 31, 1976, "Jack would do a serious, beautifully rendered panorama, while I'd do a comedy thing, with leaves blowing at hurricane velocity, old men's hats blowing off, young girls' skirts blowing up, humorous animals, that kind of thing." Bob did not realize whose son his friend was until the day "Jack" was picked up by a chauffeured limousine. The younger Burroughs took Bob to Tarzana, where he met Edgar Rice Burroughs.

By 1936, Clampett was an animator at the Schlesinger studio. In an interview with Carl Macek for an article titled "Bob Clampett on Mars" (Mediascene No. 21, Sept.-Oct. 1976), Clampett spoke of how he came to approach Edgar Rice Burroughs about making a cartoon based on the Mars novels:

I had been fascinated with the Burroughs books since I was a youngster, especially the Mars books. Then when I got into animation, I became interested in these books from a professional standpoint. Animation is a technique, a medium that could go in many directions far beyond, say, the little "Porky Pig" cartoons that we were making at the time. Realizing the potential of a fantasy series of cartoons based around Burroughs' characters, I went out to Tarzana to see Burroughs and tell him that I would like to film and sell a series of cartoons adapted from his Mars stories.

Clampett told me and Milt Gray in our 1976 interview that the meeting was arranged by Tom Scully, an executive of Carnation Milk and a friend of both Burroughs and Clampett's father. As Clampett remembered that meeting, "The first thing that Burroughs said to me was, 'Why leave a proven success like Porky Pig?' He had just seen one the Sunday night before I came out there [to Tarzana], and he thought it was wonderful."

Clampett did not mention John Coleman Burroughs in that connection, but Bob Barrett thinks the younger Burroughs must have been involved from the start: "Clampett gives the impression that he approached ERB with the cartoon idea, but ERB would never have given any thought to the enterprise unless his son was heavily involved. From the letters I have it was John Coleman who kept his father apprised of the progress in putting together the studio and hiring the artists, directors, etc. And it was John Coleman who put together the promotional booklet for the Mars cartoons, which was quite lavish."

Bob Barrett picks up the story from there:

Everybody from Clampett to John Coleman Burroughs to ERB was excited about producing "Disney-quality" Mars cartoons. But when Burroughs took the idea to the distributors and his backers, they were concerned that 1930s audiences wouldn't be interested in Mars cartoons since they knew little about the John Carter character. They asked Burroughs if he could produce, instead, Tarzan cartoons. Still inspired by the idea of his characters appearing in animated cartoons, Burroughs said that he could—but still keeping the idea that, if the Tarzan cartoons proved to be successful, they could also produce Mars cartoons.

In June 1936 Burroughs wrote to E. J. Mannix, vice-president and general manager of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, asking if they would be interested in Tarzan cartoons of the "quality of the Disney or Harm[a]n-Ising color cartoons," to which Mannix replied that they would be interested in a general way. Mannix also advised Burroughs to consult with Fred Quimby about his proposal. Mannix then reminded Burroughs that his remarks were only personal and did not bind the MGM Corporation.

The new ERB, Inc., cartoon studio was to be called TARZANTOONS, INC. The agreement drawn up lists two individuals as investors in the new corporation: Fred Mandel, Jr. and Donald M. Stralem. I believe that Mandel owned some department stores in Chicago and was a friend of ERB. The agreement calls for both Tarzan cartoons and Mars cartoons.

Sad to say there is no date on the contract for TARZANTOONS. The only thing that I can tell you is that it was filed between two pieces of correspondence—one dated July 7, 1936 and the other July 21, 1936. So I feel that the contract was created sometime between those two dates.

According to Clampett, his three-year contract with Schlesinger ended on Saturday, August 1, 1936, which was when he could openly go to work for "Tarzantoons." The following letter from John Coleman Burroughs to his father dated July 31, 1936, lays out how the new studio would be organized. Some of the names of the studio's personnel are familiar—Chuck Jones being the most obvious example—but others, like Don Seal, were new to me, even though they worked at Schlesinger's. There is no sign of Robert Cannon on this list, even though Clampett said he inbetweened the animation for the Mars sales film. ("Hulbert" was Edgar Rice Burrough's other son.) The staff's resumés appear to have been inflated a bit; I assume Jones's year of "commercial portraiture" is a reference to his time as a sidewalk artist on Olvera Street in Los Angeles.

Tarzan Letter Page One

Tarzan Letter Page Two

Tarzan Letter Page Three

Edgar Rice Burroughs was very supportive, Clampett said. "Burroughs didn't really interfere with our ideas. He sort of gave us freedom, like Schlesinger. He'd give us a lot of his philosophy, but he didn't look over our shoulder."

The new studio turned out to be very short-lived, however. Here is Bob Barrett again:

By August of 1936 Burroughs realized how much it was going to cost to open up a new cartoon studio, with overhead and costs, including the salaries of all of the people they proposed to hire. He asked John Coleman to ask Bob Clampett and the other staff members if they would be willing to take a 25% cut on their salaries for the first Tarzan cartoon. Then, if they achieved a major release they would pay them back the 25% that was deducted plus a 10% bonus. Much of this hinged on the promised $200,000 from Mandel.

I have no further correspondence after this with the exception of a letter that Burroughs received from a young artist named Harry G. Miller, Jr., living in Denver, CO asking if it was possible for him to find a position with Tarzantoons, Inc. He sent Burroughs a page of drawings, remarking that he had been painting murals, portraits, other easel paintings, as well as doing pen and ink drawing for a WPA book. This is of interest because of Burroughs' reply to Mr. Miller notifying him on October 15, 1936: "I have been very thoroughly into the matter of Tarzan cartoons during the past year and have decided not to make them for the present."

I have no correspondence giving any idea why Burroughs had decided to pull the plug. My intuition tells me that Clampett ended up not being that enthusiastic about the Tarzan cartoons and opted to return to Warner Bros. I have no idea what the other animators and artists thought, but they might have been on board the project because of Clampett and when he pulled out, they left also. To me this is the most logical reason for Burroughs pulling the plug. But that is only my theory.

A very plausible theory, it appears, because Clampett said in 1976 that MGM, after its sales people threw cold water on the Mars series, had come back with the idea of a "sort of Tarzan and his funny animals, where you'll see Tarzan's feet—maybe like in Tom and Jerry [where the maid is usually visible only as feet]—and then the animals do some funny stuff, and then they get in trouble, and then Tarzan does the yell and saves them. I was losing enthusiasm pretty fast at that time. The Mars thing I had kind of an advanced feeling for. About that time Schlesinger called me up to come back and have a meeting with him, and that's when he said, 'What does it take to bring you back?' And I said, 'Direction,' and he brought me back, and that was the end of it."

John Coleman's letter above refers only to Tarzan cartoons, and the character drawings he made for the Tarzan series are consistent with Clampett's recollection. It's not clear whether there was ever a realistic possibility that MGM would distribute a Mars series. Clampett spoke of Edgar Burroughs himself taking the Mars film to MGM, and of MGM's committing itself to a series; and yet the correspondence Bob Barrett cites indicates that the idea of a Mars series was dormant by the late spring of 1936, if not earlier, in any case long before Clampett left the Schlesinger studio.

Clampett said, however, that it was when MGM committed itself to a Mars series that he gave notice to Warners and "we went ahead on starting to build the final storyboard"; the scenes animated for the sales film to that point "actually fit in the story that I had outlined at that time." Each of the stories he envisioned for one-reel Mars cartoons "would have been somewhat of an incident," he said.

"One story I had [was about] a volcano, and these strange creatures came out in rocket ships; they'd come out and attack and disappear before anybody knew where they came from, where to track them down. I used visual things, like John Carter trying to get into this walled city, and there are two guards there, each one holding a big lance, and they put the lances out to stop him, and he runs toward them and grabs them and pole-vaults over the wall; a little Doug Fairbanks thing. It was stuff that wasn't in the books, but Burroughs was smart; he knew that to make it visual, you couldn't just literally do his books." The titles of six such "incidents"—"The Black Pirates of Mars," "The Atmosphere Factories of Mars," and so on—fill one title card for the sales film.

Clampett remembered "a problem of color, and Edgar Burroughs himself located the Dunning color process over in La Brea, and took me there, because we couldn't get Technicolor then. Then he asked me did I have the completion bond for MGM, and I didn't even know what he was talking about. ... So he took me up above what are now Capitol Records' offices and we met a little fellow there who kept his hat on all through the meeting and he loaned money for completion bonds." When some of the cels for the Mars film were ready to be shot, Clampett said, there were no cartoon camera cranes for rent in Hollywood, so "I went to F. K. Rockett's industrial filmmaker studio up here on Hollywood Boulevard, [which] had a camera for photographing titles. I went in there on Sundays and used their camera. I shot all the frame-by-frame animation myself on their title camera."

Once the focus had shifted to the Tarzan cartoons, Burroughs's involvement took a new form, as Bob Barrett explains:

Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote two Tarzan scripts for the cartoons: "Nkima, Mighty Hunter, Mighty Fighter" and "Tarzan and Tantor." The first script dealt with the misadventures of Tarzan's monkey friend, while the second was a brief retelling of one of the stories, "The Capture of Tarzan," from the book, Jungle Tales of Tarzan. The first script was humorous while the second was pretty much straight with little humor in it. Burroughs was familiar with script writing due to his production of the Tarzan radio shows of the early 1930s plus the fact that he had written film scripts—none of which were ever produced!

Although John Coleman Burroughs's drawings of Tarzan's jungle friends are not attractive, Clampett credited him with "the finest artwork" in the Mars sales film: "He sketched out the detail on every extreme. ... When it was still in a rough form, he made better, more detailed artwork for each drawing. He even did some oil painting on the figures afterward, and things like that. I also got a lot of help from guys at the studio. They would do work for me under their desks or at night." According to Carl Macek, "John Coleman sculpted a series of articulated models along with a number of key sketches and color suggestions for Tars Tarkas and his thoat."

Bob Barrett adds some detail about John Coleman's career:

Besides illustrating some of ERB's books, JCB also illustrated and wrote "John Carter of Mars" for The Funnies, taking over the feature after only a handful of episodes illustrated by Jim Gary. JCB also wrote and illustrated the John Carter of Mars Sunday newspaper strip. Western actually hired John Coleman Burroughs to draw the first Dell Tarzan one-shot, Tarzan and the Devil Ogre [1947], by Rob Thompson. JCB illustrated the whole comic but it was deemed unacceptable by Western and, although he was paid for his work, Western brought in Jesse Marsh, who had been illustrating their Gene Autry comic, to draw a new version of the Tarzan comic.

The unanswerable question, of course, is what might have happened if "Tarzantoons" had gotten off the ground, the "funny-animal" Tarzan cartoons had succeeded, and Clampett had wound up making a Mars series of the kind he originally envisioned. I can't be sorry that never happened. However exceptional the Tarzan and Mars cartoons might have been, it's hard to imagine anything as extraordinary as Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs and The Great Piggy Bank Robbery emerging from a career that took that path.

[Posted October 11, 2012]