FRITZ THE CAT (1972)
Released in 1972, this was the first X-rated cartoon movie in the USA and it’s a subversive wicked delight. Based on Robert Crumb’s psychedelic comic-strips (themselves the result of extended side-effects from an acid trip) - and being the first feature work of Ralph Bakshi, later to animate LORD OF THE RINGS, it became the most successful animation film in history. Be warned - with its sharp adult dialogue and drug/sex depictions, TOP CAT this is not. However, if you’ve ever been curious as to what TC would look like as a sex-crazed dope fiend, stop by…
FRITZ THE CAT is set in New York and satirises both sides of the era’s hot social topics: the counter-culture poses as well as the state. The world here is populated almost completely by anthropomorphised animals, though you do get brief glimpses of humans – like in the opening where you see a few men strolling across the frame with Crumb’s idiosyncratic huge feet and peculiar backward-sloping ‘Keep on truckin’ walk. (Most recently, this assumed shared world idea would be used in Netflix’s BOJACK HORSEMAN).
The story is a loose episodic tale of the titular cat, a randy moggy who opportunistically picks up girls by faking an artistic soul, becomes radicalised as a protester and then has second thoughts.
Here is a city where attitudinal types are given representative animals that in some cases tie in with social perceptions. Fritz, as a cat, is supposedly cool though prone to sex addiction. We’re introduced to him as the female cats he pursues are shown to be just as self-serving as he is. They crowd around one of the blacks (shown here as crows – more on this later) attempting to impress him with their special understanding of black issues, a spot-on dig at how easy it is to patronise with phony ill-informed credentials. Their observations and questions are innocent and in hilariously bad taste: “Why does James Earl Jones only play black men?” one asks. Another female makes a face-palm remark about her Black Studies program teaching her “I had no idea you people were so civilised.”
The police are literal pigs, portrayed as dumb, violent and with heavy ‘Noo Yowark’ accents. Their dim-bulb crudeness is another of the quotable dialogue pleasures of the movie. Just before gate-crashing a synagogue, (full of identical orthodox ‘lions’?), one of them hears Hebrew being intoned inside and asks his partner: “Dat don’t sound like English. What are dey? Puerto Ricans?” The script also adds to the spoofery by making one of the officers a Jewish pig!
There are also Nazi Hell’s Angel bikers and even a horny aardvark who seduces one of Fritz’s groupies in a communal bath-tub by suggesting his prowess is notable because “We’re very rare”. The bath is where we see what a bad boy Fritz is, mouthing modish platitudes about seeking the truth while he gets the young ‘pussies’ to go full frontally nude and get it on. “Such an existential little body”, he salivates in approval.
Pretty soon the bathtub overflows in an over-crowded orgy. Alongside the generous use of pot smoking (via actual tobacco pipes), this kind of material is still quite surprising to see on screen now. Imagine how ground-breaking it was over forty years ago? It created its own problems after production s we will see.
The most controversial non-human depiction must be the presence of those crows to symbolise the black characters, and they don’t escape degrading stereotypes either. We get drug-dealers, big laughing mommas, Harlem violence and even fun poked at sexual clichés (When Fritz gets dementedly high and feverishly undoes himself to do the business with the large lady drug dealer, she mocks his offering, cooing “Honey, you ain’t black enough”. There is the neat application though of a parallel racial friction to black and white humans between cats and birds. Fritz tries his own gambit of appealing to the ‘black vote’ in Harlem by insisting sententiously “As a cat, I have a guilt complex. My kind has always brought suffering on your kind”.
Pretty soon, the free-wheeling Fritz has his consciousness raised more than his love-spanner. He’s tired of the ‘fuckin’ intellectuals’ around him and goes to San Francisco with an old flame Winston. There, he hooks up with a junkie rabbit biker Blue and his horse girlfriend Harriet and becomes embroiled in a plot to blow up the local power station. The consequences hit him but so does the explosion before he can avert it; yet every cloud has a priapic silver lining for our hero as he is surrounded by the female cat admirers again and he ends the film as he began, in orgiastic glee.
It wasn’t just the adult cartoon visuals that were experimental in FRITZ THE CAT. The voice-acting, led by the irrepressible rough-diamond sparkle of Skip Hinnant as Fritz, often sounds raw and improvised in its freshness, which in many cases it was. Bakshi recorded a lot of the dialogue on New York streets to capture an authentic flavour, which earned complaints by the sound engineers for its inferior audio quality to mix from. At first, when I heard the construction workers’ scene, it reminded me of the later CREATURE COMFORTS conceit of matching animation to real interview recordings. (This was a genuinely real conversation Bakshi paid two workers $50 each to tape)
FRITZ THE CAT is great fun - in its broad strokes of lampooning the times and the priceless little details. Listen out for the circus music that plays in the riot scene when the incompetent cop cars arrive and crash into each other. And why does the Grim Reaper have a Brummie accent?
The film had a difficult birth, due firstly to protracted negotiation with Crumb for the rights, a man known as being a shrewd ‘slick hustler’. The artist had nothing to do with the film version, and in Terry Zwigoff’s fascinating documentary CRUMB you can hear him dismissing the makers during a college lecture as “schlock-meisters”. Warner Brothers originally bankrolled the movie but when they insisted on cuts to the sexual material, Bakshi responded to their retraction of funding by going with Jerry Gross’s company, a more liberal better fit known for distributing exploitation cinema. In order to gain a release, FRITZ THE CAT’s ‘X’ rating in America hurt it somewhat at the box-office as that rating was normally reserved for porn films – but its aforementioned success ballooned to a staggering $90 million.
There’s a profitable lesson in artistic integrity…