Fritz the Cat (film)
- For the comic book character created by Robert Crumb, see Fritz the Cat.
Fritz the Cat is a 1972 animated film written and directed by Ralph Bakshi as his feature film debut. Based on the comic books by Robert Crumb, the film was the first animated feature film to receive an X rating in the United States. It focuses on Fritz (voiced by Skip Hinnant), a feline in mid-1960s New York City who explores the ideals of hedonism and sociopolitical consciousness. The film is a satire focusing on American college life of the era, race relations, the free love movement, and left- and right-wing politics. Fritz the Cat was the first independent animated film to gross more than $100 million at the box office.
Fritz the Cat had a troubled production history and controversial release. Creator Robert Crumb is known to have had disagreements with the filmmakers, claiming in interviews that his first wife signed over the film rights to the characters, and that he did not approve the production. Crumb was also critical of the film's approach to his material. Fritz the Cat was controversial for its rating and content, which viewers at the time found to be offensive. Its success led to a slew of other X-rated animated films, and a sequel, The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat, was made without Crumb's or Bakshi's involvement.
In a New York City park, hippies have gathered with guitars to sing protest songs. Fritz and his friends show up in an attempt to meet girls. When a trio of attractive females walk by, Fritz and his friends exhaust themselves trying to get their attention, but find that the girls are more interested in the crow standing a few feet away. The girls attempt to flirt with the crow, making unintentionally condescending remarks about black people, while Fritz looks on in annoyance. Suddenly, the crow rebukes the girls with a snide remark and walks away. Fritz tries to pick up the girls by convincing them that he is a tormented soul, and invites them to "seek the truth", bringing them up to his friend's apartment, where a wild party is taking place. Since the other rooms are crowded, Fritz drags the girls into the bathroom and the four of them have group sex in the bathtub. Meanwhile, the police (portrayed as pigs) arrive to raid the party. As the two officers walk up the stairs, one of the partygoers finds Fritz and the girls in the bath tub. Several others jump in, pushing Fritz to the side where he takes solace in marijuana. The two officers break into the apartment, but find that it is empty because everyone has moved into the bathroom. Fritz takes refuge in the toilet when one of the pigs enters the bathroom and begins to beat up the partygoers. As the pig becomes exhausted, a very intoxicated Fritz jumps out, grabs the pig's gun, and shoots the toilet, causing the water main to break and flooding everybody out of the apartment. The pigs chase Fritz down the street into a synagogue. Fritz manages to escape when the congregation gets up to celebrate the United States' decision to send more weapons into Israel.
Fritz makes it back to his dormitory, where his roommates ignore him. He sets all of his notes and books on fire. The fire spreads throughout the dorm, finally setting the entire building ablaze. In a bar in Harlem, Fritz meets Duke the crow at a billiard table. After narrowly avoiding getting into a fight with the bartender, Duke invites Fritz to "bug out". When Duke steals a car, Fritz is eager to join the illegal activity. Following a wild ride, Fritz drives the car off a bridge. Before the car crashes into the water and rocks below, Duke saves Fritz's life. The two arrive at an apartment owned by Bertha, a crow and former prostitute turned drug dealer. When Fritz arrives, she shoves several joints into his mouth. The marijuana increases his libido, so he rushes off into an alley to have sex with Bertha. While having sex, he comes to a supreme realization that he "must tell the people about the revolution!" He runs off into the city street and incites a riot, during which the two pig officers were off-screen killed with rambunctious mobs, Duke is shot and killed, and Fritz is chased by several cops.
Fritz hides in an alley where his fox girlfriend, Winston Schwartz, finds him. She drags him on a road trip to San Francisco. On the road, she stops at a Howard Johnson's restaurant, and disenchants Fritz by her refusal to go to unusual places. When the car runs out of gas in the middle of the desert, Fritz decides to abandon her. Fritz meets up with Blue, a heroin-addicted rabbit biker. Along with Blue's horse girlfriend, Harriet, they take a ride to an underground hide-out where several other revolutionaries tell Fritz of their plan to blow up a power station. When Harriet tries to get Blue to leave, he hits her several times and ties her down with a chain. When Fritz tries to stop Blue he is hit in the face with a candle by the group's leader, a lizard. The group throws Harriet onto a bed and rapes her. In the next scene, Harriet is sitting in a graveyard, naked and traumatized. Fritz puts a coat over her and gets into a car with the leader to drive out to the power plant. After setting the dynamite, Fritz suddenly has a change of heart. The lizard lights the fuse and drives off as Fritz tries to get the dynamite out of its tight spot and fails. The dynamite explodes, blowing up both the power plant and Fritz. At a Los Angeles hospital, Harriet and the weeping and devastated girls from the New York park come to comfort him. From instead, Fritz opened one eye, coming back to life. It is in this scene that, as John Grant writes in his book Masters of Animation, Fritz realizes that he should "stick to his original hedonist philosophy and let the rest of the world take care of itself."
Ralph Bakshi majored in cartooning at the High School of Art and Design. He learned his trade at the Terrytoons studio in New York City, where he spent ten years animating characters such as Mighty Mouse, Heckle and Jeckle, and Deputy Dawg. At the age of 29, Bakshi was hired to head the animation devision of Paramount Pictures as both writer and director, where he produced four experimental short films before the studio closed in 1967. With producer Steve Krantz, Bakshi founded his own studio, Bakshi Productions. In 1969, Ralph's Spot was founded as a division of Bakshi Productions to produce commercials for Coca-Cola and Max, the 2000-Year-Old Mouse, a series of educational shorts paid for by Encyclopædia Britannica. However, Bakshi was disinterested in the kind of animation he was producing, and wanted to produce something personal. Bakshi was quoted in a 1971 article for the Los Angeles Times as saying that the idea of "grown men sitting in cubicles drawing butterflies floating over a field of flowers, while American planes are dropping bombs in Vietnam and kids are marching in the streets, is ludicrous." Bakshi soon developed Heavy Traffic, a tale of inner-city street life. However, Krantz told Bakshi that studio executives would be unwilling to fund the film because of its content and Bakshi's lack of film experience.
While browsing the East Side Book Store on St. Mark's Place, Bakshi came across a copy of R. Crumb's Fritz the Cat. Impressed by Crumb's sharp satire, Bakshi purchased the book and suggested to Krantz that it would work as a film. Of the comics, Bakshi stated "Crumb's Fritz the Cat, which is brilliant—though I dislike Crumb—because it was fun, it was satirical, it was delightfully drawn." Krantz arranged a meeting with Crumb, during which Bakshi showed Crumb drawings that had been created as the result of Bakshi attempting to learn Crumb's distinctive style in order to prove that he could translate the look of Crumb's artwork to animation. Impressed by Bakshi's tenacity, Crumb lent him one of his sketchbooks as a reference.
As Krantz began to prepare the paperwork, preparation began on a pitch presentation for potential studios, including a poster-sized painted cel setup featuring the strip's cast against a traced photo background, as Bakshi intended the film to appear. However, in spite of Crumb's enthusiasm, he was unsure about the film's production, and refused to sign the contract. Artist Vaughn Bodé warned Bakshi against working with Crumb, describing him as "slick". Bakshi later agreed with Bodé's assessment, calling Crumb "one of the slickest hustlers you'll ever see in your life". Krantz sent Bakshi to San Fransisco, where Bakshi stayed with Crumb and his wife, Dana, in an attempt to persuade Crumb to sign the contract. After a week, Crumb left, leaving the film's production status uncertain. Two weeks after Bakshi returned to New York, Krantz entered his office and told Bakshi that he had acquired the film rights because Dana had power of attorney and signed the contract. Crumb received US$50,000, which was delivered throughout different phases of the production, in addition to ten percent of Krantz's take. According to Baskhi, "When he realized that I was going to become as famous as him, he got mad at me. He thought I was going to make him famous. He thought I was going to spend a year of work on Fritz the Cat and make him the greatest cartoonist in the world!"
Funding, distribution, casting and scoring
With the rights to the character, Krantz and Bakshi set out to find a distributor. "When I say that every major distributor turned it down, this is not an exaggeration", remembers Krantz. "There has never been a project that was received with less enthusiasm. Animation is essentially a dirty word for distributors, who think that only Disney can paint a tree, and in addition to that, Fritz was so far out that there was a failure to understand that we were onto something very important."
In the spring of 1970, Warner Bros. agreed to fund and distribute the film. Late in November, Bakshi and Krantz made a presentation reel containing a few minutes of finished animation, pencil tests, and shots of Bakshi's storyboards to show to the studio. In an interview, Bakshi stated that "You should have seen their faces in the screening room when I first screened a bit of Fritz. I'll remember their faces until I die. One of them left the room. Holy hell, you should have seen his face. 'Shut up, Frank! This is not the movie you’re allowed to make!' And I said, Bullshit, I just made it."
Warner Bros. executives wanted the sexual content to be toned down, and for Bakshi and Krantz to cast celebrities as the voices. Bakshi refused, and Warner Bros. pulled their funding from the film, leading Krantz to seek funds elsewhere, eventually leading to a deal with Jerry Gross, the owner of Cinemation Industries, a distributor specializing in exploitation films. Although Bakshi did not have enough time to pitch the film, Gross agreed to fund its production and distribute it, believing that it would fit in with his grindhouse slate. Further financing came from Saul Zaentz, who agreed to distribute the soundtrack album on his Fantasy Records label.
The film's voice cast includes Skip Hinnant, Rosetta LeNoire, John McCurry, Phil Seuling, and Judy Engles. Hinnant, who would become known as a featured performer on The Electric Company, was cast because he "had such a naturally phony voice", according to Bakshi. Bakshi himself appeared in a cameo as one of the film's comically inept pig officers. Almost all of the film's dialogue, except for that of a few of the main characters, was recorded entirely on the streets of New York City. Much of the animation was also produced in New York, although some of it was completed in Los Angeles to save production costs. The film's score was composed by Ed Bogas and Ray Shanklin. The film also featured songs by Cal Tjader, Bo Diddley, and Billie Holiday. Bakshi bought the rights to use Holiday's performance of the song "Yesterdays" for $35.
Bakshi was initially reluctant to direct Fritz the Cat because he had spent years working on animated productions featuring animal characters and wanted to make films focusing on human characters. However, he became interested in working on the film because he loved Crumb's work and considered him a "total genius". During the development of the film, Bakshi says that he "started to get giddy" when he "suddenly was able to get a pig that was a cop, and this particular other pig was Jewish, and I thought, 'Oh my God — a Jewish pig?' These were major steps forward, because in the initial Heckle and Jeckle for Terrytoons, they were two black guys running around. Which was hysterically funny and, I think, great – like Uncle Remus stuff. But they didn't play down south, and they had to change two black crows to two Englishmen. And I always told him that the black crows were funnier. So it was a slow awakening."
In his notes to animator Cosmo Anzilotti, Bakshi is precise, and even specifies that the crows smoked marijuana rather than tobacco. Bakshi states that "The weed had to read on screen. It's an important character detail." The film's opening sequence sets the satirical tone of the film. The setting of the story's period is not only established by a title, but also by the voice of Bakshi himself, playing a character giving his account of the 1960s: "happy times, heavy times." The film's opening dialogue, by three construction workers on their lunch break, establishes many of the themes discussed in the film, including drug use, promiscuity, and the social and political climate of the era. When one of the workers urinates off of the scaffold, the film's credits play over a shot of the liquid falling against a black screen. When the credits end, it is shown that the construction worker has urinated on a long-haired hippie with a guitar. Karl F. Cohen writes that the film "is a product of the radical politics of the period. Bakshi's depiction of Fritz's life is colorful, funny, sexist, raw, violent and outrageous."
Of his direction of the film, Bakshi stated "My approach to animation as a director is live action. I don't approach it in the traditional animation ways. None of our characters get up and sing, because that's not the type of picture I'm trying to do. I want people to believe my characters are real, and it's hard to believe they're real if they start walking down the street singing." Bakshi wanted the film to be the antithesis of any animated film produced by the Walt Disney Company. Accordingly, Fritz the Cat includes two satirical references to Disney. In one scene, silhouettes of Mickey Mouse, Daisy Duck, and Donald Duck are shown cheering on the United States Air Force as it drops napalm on a black neighborhood during a riot. Another scene features a reference to the "Pink Elephants on Parade" sequence from Dumbo.
The original screenplay consisted mostly of dialog and featured only a few changes from Crumb's stories. However, it—and complete storyboards—went largely unused in favor of more experimental storytelling techniques. Bakshi said, "I don't like to jump ahead on my films. The way you feel about a film on Day One, you may not feel the same way forty weeks down the road. Characters grow, so I wanted to have the option to change things, and strengthen my characters… It was sort of a stream of consciousness, and a learning process for myself." Some scenes used audio recordings which were made by Bakshi and edited to fit the scene. For instance, Bakshi went to a Harlem bar with a tape recorder and spent hours talking to black patrons, getting drunk with them as he asked them questions.
The first part of the film's plot was adapted from a self-titled story published in a 1968 issue of R. Crumb's Head Comix, while the second part is derived from "Fritz Bugs Out", which was serialized in the February to October 1968 issues of Cavalier, and the final part of the story contains elements of "Fritz the No-Good", first published in the September/October 1968 issue of Cavalier. The last half of the film makes a major departure from Crumb's work. Animation historian Michael Barrier describes this section of the film as being "much grimmer than Crumb's stories past that point, and far more violent." According to Bakshi, "There wasn’t that material in Fritz—in other words, Fritz didn’t have that depth. It was cute, it was sweet, but there was nowhere to put it. That’s why Crumb hates the picture, because I slipped a couple of things in there that he despises, like the rabbis—the pure Jewish stuff. Fritz can’t hold that kind of commentary. Winston is 'just a typical Jewish broad from Brooklyn.' There was nothing—it was cute and well-done, but there was nothing that had that much depth."
In the film, there are two characters named "Winston" – one appears at the beginning and end of the film, the other is Fritz's girlfriend Winston Schwartz. Michael Barrier notes that Winston Schwartz (who appears prominently in "Fritz Bugs Out" and "Fritz the No-Good") never has a proper introduction in Bakshi's film, and interprets the naming of a separate character as Bakshi's attempt to reconcile this; however, the two characters look and sound nothing alike. Bakshi has explained that when he started storyboarding the film, "I got a little bit confused and started storyboarding that Winston as a hippy chick in the village. Then I started storyboarding that Winston for the later part of the film. When I screened the rushes later, I caught it, but figured there are lots of Winstons in one's life."
Many of the animators who worked on the film were professionals that Bakshi had previously worked with at Terrytoons, including Jim Tyer, John Gentilella, Nick Tafuri, Martin Taras, Larry Riley, and Cliff Augustine. According to Bakshi, it took quite a long time to assemble the right staff. Those who entered with a smirk, "wanting to be very dirty and draw filthy pictures", did not stay very long, and neither did those with a low tolerance for vulgarity. One cartoonist refused to draw an African-American crow shooting a pig policeman. Two female animators quit; one because she could not bring herself to tell her children what she did for a living, the other because she refused to draw exposed breasts.
In order to save money by eliminating the need for model sheets, Bakshi let animator John Sparey draw some of the first sequences of Fritz. Bakshi states that he knew that "Sparey would execute them beautifully." Poses from his sequences were photocopied and handed out to the rest of the crew. The film was produced almost entirely without Fpencil tests. According to Bakshi, "We pencil tested I'd say a thousand feet [of footage], tops. [...] We do a major feature without pencil tests—that's tough. The timing falls off. I can always tell an animator to draw it better, and I know if the attitude of the characters is right, but the timing you really can't see." Bakshi had to judge the timing of the animation simply by flipping an animator's drawings in his hand, until he could see the completed animation on the screen. Veteran Warner Bros. animator Ted Bonnicksen was incredibly dedicated to his work on the film, to the point where he completed his animation for the synagogue sequence while suffering from leukemia, and would take the scenes home at night to work on them.
In May 1971, Bakshi moved his studio to Los Angeles to hire additional animators there. Some animators, including Rod Scribner, Dick Lundy, Virgil Walter Ross, Norman McCabe and John Sparey, welcomed Bakshi's presence, and felt that Fritz the Cat would bring diversity to the animation industry. Other animators disliked Bakshi's presence, and placed an advertisement in The Hollywood Reporter, stating that Bakshi's "filth" was unwelcome in California. According to Bakshi, "I didn't know who these guys were because I was from New York, so I threw the ad away." However, Bakshi found the negative reaction to the film from his peers to be disheartening.
Because it was cheaper for Ira Turek to trace photographs to create the backgrounds, Ralph Bakshi and Johnnie Vita walked around the streets of the Lower East Side, Washington Square Park, Chinatown and Harlem to take moody snapshots. Turek inked the outlines of these photographs onto cels with a Rapidograph, the technical pen preferred by Crumb, giving the film's backgrounds stylized realism that had never been portrayed in animation before. After Turek completed a background drawing in ink on an animation cel, the drawing would be photocopied onto watercolor paper for Vita and onto animation paper for use in matching the characters to the backgrounds. When Vita finished his painting, Turek's original drawing, on the cel, would be placed over the watercolor, obscuring the photocopy lines on the painting. However, not every background was taken from live-action sources. The tones of the watercolor backgrounds were influenced by the "Ash Can style" of painters, which includes George Luks and John French Sloan. The film also used bent and fisheye camera perspectives in order to replicate the way the film's hippies and hoodlums viewed the city.
Fritz the Cat was the first animated feature to receive an X rating from the Motion Picture Association of America. The film's distributor capitalized on the rating in the film's advertising material, which touted the film as being "X rated and animated!" According to Ralph Bakshi, "We almost didn't deliver the picture, because of the exploitation of it." Steve Krantz stated that the film lost playdates due to the rating, and 30 American newspapers rejected display ads for the film or refused to give it editorial publicity. Because of the film's rating, many believed that Fritz the Cat was a pornographic film. When the film was introduced at a showing at the University of Southern California as animated pornography, Bakshi stated firmly, "Fritz the Cat is not pornographic." In May 1972, Variety reported that Krantz had appealed the X rating, saying "Animals having sex isn't pornography." The MPAA refused to hear the appeal. Bakshi later stated "Now they do as much on The Simpsons as I got an X rating for Fritz the Cat."
Fritz the Cat was a box office success, and became the first independent animated film to gross more than US$100 million at the box office. Critical reaction to the film was positive. Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote that the film is "constantly funny [...] [There's] something to offend just about everyone." Paul Sargent Clark in The Hollywood Reporter called the film "powerful and audacious", while Newsweek called it "a harmless, mindless, pro-youth saga calculated to shake up only the box office." The Wall Street Journal and Cue both gave the film mixed reviews. In Michael Barrier's 1972 article on the film's production, Bakshi gives his accounts of two separate screenings of the film. Of the reactions to the film by audiences at a preview screening in Los Angeles, Bakshi stated "They forget it's animation. They treat it like a film. [...] This is the real thing, to get people to take animation seriously." Bakshi was also present at a showing of the film at the Museum of Modern Art and remembers "Some guy asked me why I was against the revolution. The point is, animation was making people get up off their asses and get mad."
Robert Crumb first saw the film in February 1972, during a visit to Los Angeles in the company of fellow underground cartoonists Spain Rodriguez, S. Clay Wilson, Robert Williams, and Rick Griffin. Crumb disliked the film, saying that he felt that the film was "really a reflection of Ralph Bakshi's confusion, you know. There's something real repressed about it. In a way, it's more twisted than my stuff. It's really twisted in some kind of weird, unfunny way. [...] I didn't like that sex attitude in it very much. It's like real repressed horniness; he's kind of letting it out compulsively." Crumb also took issue with the film's condemnation of the radical left-wing.
Reportedly, Crumb filed suit to have his name removed from the film's credits. San Francisco copyright attorney Albert L. Morse claims that no suit was filed, but an agreement was reached to remove Crumb's name from the credits. However, as Crumb's name has remained in the final film since its original theatrical release, both of these claims are highly unlikely. Crumb later drew a comic in which the Fritz character was killed off, and claimed that he "wrote them a letter telling them not to use any more of my characters in their films."
In a 2008 interview, Bakshi referred to Crumb as a "hustler" and stated that "He goes in so many directions that he’s hard to pin down. I spoke to him on the phone. We both had the same deal, five percent. They finally sent Crumb the money and not me. Crumb always gets what he wants, including that château of his in France. [...] I have no respect for Crumb. Is he a good artist? Yes, if you want to do the same thing over and over. He should have been my best friend for what I did with Fritz the Cat. I drew a good picture, and we both made out fine."
According to Bakshi, Fritz the Cat sparked negative reactions from viewers who were turned off by the film's content. Bakshi remembers that when he came to Los Angeles to hire additional animators, "I was greeted by a full page ad in Variety from about fifty well known Hollywood animators who told me I was destroying the Disney image and should go home. I didn't know who these guys were because I was from New York, so I threw the ad away."
"A lot of people got freaked out", says Bakshi. "The people in charge of the power structure, the people in charge of magazines and the people going to work in the morning who loved Disney and Norman Rockwell, thought I was a pornographer, and they made things very difficult for me. The younger people, the people who could take new ideas, were the people I was addressing. I wasn't addressing the whole world. To those people who loved it, it was a huge hit, and everyone else wanted to kill me."
While the film is widely noted in its innovation for featuring content that had not been portrayed in animation before, such as explicit sexuality and violence, the film was also, as John Grant writes in his book Masters of Animation, "the breakthrough movie that opened brand new vistas to the commercial animator in the United States", presenting an "almost disturbingly accurate" portrayal "of a particular stratum of Western society during a particular era, [...] as such it has dated very well." The film's subject matter and its satirical approach offered an alternative to the kinds of films that had previously been presented by major animation studios. Fritz the Cat was selected by Time Out magazine as the 42nd greatest animated film, ranked at number 51 on the Online Film Critics Society's list of the top 100 greatest animated films of all time, and was placed at number 56 on Channel 4's list of the 100 Greatest Cartoons. Footage from the film was edited into the music video for rapper Guru's 2007 song "State of Clarity".
In addition to other animated films aimed at adult audiences, the film's success led to the production of a sequel, The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat. Although producer Steve Krantz and voice actor Skip Hinnant returned to work on the follow-up, Ralph Bakshi did not. Instead, Nine Lives was directed by animator Robert Taylor, who cowrote the film with Fred Halliday and Eric Monte. The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat was distributed by American International Pictures, and was considered to be inferior to its predecessor. Unlike the original, it received an R rating. Both films are currently available on DVD in the United States and Canada from MGM Home Entertainment, and from Arrow Films in the UK.
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