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), an anthropomorphic feline in the mid-1960s who seduces many female animals in New York City while staying one step ahead of the law. 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. Fritz the Cat was ranked as the 51st greatest animated film of all time by the Online Film Critics Society, and was also featured at number 56 on Channel 4's list of the 100 Greatest Cartoons.
Fritz tries to pick up a trio of young females by convincing them that he is a tormented soul.In a New York City park, hippies have gathered with guitars to sing protest songs. Fritz and his buddies 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 blacks, while Fritz looks on in annoyance. Suddenly, the crow rebukes the girls with a snide remark and walks away. Fritz invites the girls 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 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 objects to their treatment of her, 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 girls from the New York park come to comfort him. 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." In the final moments of the film, we see Fritz have sex with the girls from the park again.
A panel from "Fritz Bugs Out" by Robert Crumb.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 Famous Studios as both writer and director, where he produced four experimental short films before the studio closed in 1967.
Bakshi became bored with children's animation and wanted to make animated films that adults would like. Bakshi was also interested in producing politically-oriented animation that would deal with stories relevant to the society of the era. 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." Producer Steve Krantz saw potential in Ralph Bakshi's vision for animated films made specifically for adults. After purchasing the production and distribution rights for Bakshi's 1973 feature Heavy Traffic, Krantz told Bakshi to make a film adapted from another author's work before he filmed his (Bakshi's) own original work. In 1969, Krantz discovered a large paperback book containing three stories featuring Robert Crumb's anthropomorphic and semi-autobiographical comic book character Fritz the Cat. Bakshi chose to direct the film because Crumb's work was the closest to his own.
Later that year, Krantz and Bakshi contacted Crumb and paid for his journey to New York to talk about getting the film rights to the characters. After several meetings, Krantz received a contract, signed by Crumb, in the mail. In return, Crumb received US$12,500, which was supplemented by a percentage of the film's gross proceeds. However, Crumb claims that Krantz and Bakshi approached his first wife, Dana, about purchasing the film rights to the characters, and she signed away the rights against Crumb's wishes.
 Distribution and funding
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. Warner Bros. wanted film stars' voices for the characters and also wanted Bakshi to tone down the material by removing the explicit sex in the scene between Fritz and Bertha. In reaction, Bakshi and Krantz left, taking their project with them. In the last part of 1970, Cinemation Industries joined the project and Fantasy Records agreed to help fund the film.
At first, Krantz and Bakshi had planned to use the Fritz character in a short film or a series of shorts. During production, Krantz and Bakshi planned to release sections of the film as short subjects in order to help recoup their investment if their funding ceased. The film's voice cast includes Skip Hinnant, Rosetta LeNoire, John McCurry, Phil Seuling, and Judy Engles. Hinnant was previously known as a featured performer on The Electric Company, and 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, using a voice he later re-created for the part of a storm trooper in his 1977 animated science fiction film Wizards. 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.
Ralph Bakshi at Sammy's Bowery Follies during a location scout for the film.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 to black crows to two Englishmen. And I always told him that the black crows were funnier. So it was a slow awakening."
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, Minnie Mouse, 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, the scene in the synagogue uses a recording of Bakshi's father and uncles. For another scene, 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."
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 on his official website 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 a black 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.
Photograph used for one of the film's backgrounds.Many of the backgrounds were created by tracing photographs taken by animator Johnnie Vita. However, not every background was taken from live-action sources. Animator Ira Turek drew the backgrounds with a Rapidograph pen, which is the technical pen preferred by Robert Crumb, in an attempt to capture Crumb's style in the background drawings. After Turek completed a background drawing in ink on an animation cel, the drawing would be xeroxed 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 xerox lines on the painting.
The film was produced almost entirely without pencil 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.
Main article: Fritz the Cat (soundtrack)
The film's score was performed 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. A soundtrack album was released on Fantasy Records in 1972.
Fritz the Cat was the first animated feature to receive an X rating from the MPAA. 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 an animated porno, 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."
Before the film's release, American distributors attempted to cash in on the publicity garnered from the rating by rushing out dubbed versions of two other adult animations from Japan, both of which featured an X rating in their advertising material: Senya ichiya monogatari and Kureopatora, retitled One Thousand and One Arabian Nights and Cleopatra: Queen of Sex, respectively. However, neither film was actually submitted to the MPAA, and it is not likely that either feature would have received an X rating. Other X-rated animated films released in the aftermath of Fritz the Cat's success include Heavy Traffic and Once Upon a Girl. The film Dirty Duck was promoted with an X rating, but had not been submitted to the MPAA. The French/Belgian animated film Tarzoon: Shame of the Jungle was initially released with an X rating in a subtitled version, but a dubbed version released in 1979 received an R rating.
Promo for the Fritz the Cat soundtrack album showing the film as the second-highest grossing film in the week of June 7, 1972, behind The Godfather.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. Film website Rotten Tomatoes, which compiles reviews from a wide range of critics, gives the film a score of 67%.
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."
 Crumb's response
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:
"[The film is] weird: it's 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. 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." Crumb later said of the film:
"I barely remember the movie. It's one of those experiences I sort of block out. The last time I saw it was when I was making an appearance at a German art school in the mid-1980s, and I was forced to watch it with the students. It was an excruciating ordeal, a humiliating embarrassment. I recall Victor Moscoso was the only one who warned me, 'if you don't stop this film from being made, you are going to regret it for the rest of your life'—and he was right."
Of Crumb, Bakshi said:
"R. Crumb is a funny guy. We've spoken over the years and he was always nice to me on the phone and I'm always nice to him. I love R. Crumb, but when he does an interview he can't help taking a dig at me. If you notice, he takes a dig at everybody: his mother, his father, his brother, his sister. In other words, I don't take it seriously. That's what R. Crumb's all about. He's always pointing a finger. He did a movie that I thought that was more embarrassing to him than my Fritz the Cat was to him. I think that taught him a lesson. He took a camera to his house and shot his poor brothers and his dysfunctional family."
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." Bakshi has also stated "I couldn't understand other artists telling any artists what you should or should not do. I remember not wanting to leave my office because I felt the guys animating for me felt the same way. But Irv Spence – great MGM Tom & Jerry animator – walked in my office at the end of the day and told me what I was doing was absolutely on the money, and he was having the best time of his life. Irv was as great as anyone on that Variety ad. From that moment on it became us against them. Irv was about thirty years my senior."
"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 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 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.