Fritz the Cat (1972) Cinemation Industries/Comedy RT: 78 minutes Rated X (language, graphic violence, nudity, strong sexual content, drugs, adult content) Director: Ralph Bakshi Screenplay: Ralph Bakshi Music: Ed Bogas and Ray Shanklin Cinematography: Ted Bemiller and Gene Borghi Release date: April 12, 1972 (US) Cast: Skip Hinnant, Rosetta LeNoire, John McCurry, Judy Engles, Phil Seuling, Ralph Bakshi, Mary Dean, Charles Spidar. Box Office: $25 million (US)
Based on Robert Crumb’s underground comic, Fritz the Cat is definitely a unique animal. It’s the first X-rated carton ever which brings to mind a funny story an old friend once told me about her mother trying to take her and her siblings to see it when they were kids. She couldn’t understand for the life of her why the theater wouldn’t let kids in to see a cute carton about a cat. Just imagine if they had gotten in; Mom sure would have had some explaining to do. Basically, it’s a satirical look at the counterculture of the mid-60s with anthropomorphic animals standing in for humans. For example, the cops depicted in the movie are pigs and black people are represented by crows. Okay, I realize how offensive that sounds, but Crumb didn’t give a damn about things like that. His work was never meant to have mass appeal, hence the term “underground comic”. Fritz the Cat is very much a product of its time. In other words, this thing is dated! But I think it holds up surprisingly well, especially for those with some idea of how things were in the era depicted. I’m too young to have lived through most of it (I was born in 1967), but I’ve done quite a bit of reading on the subject. I love the music of the time and have always thought of myself as a born-too-late hippie.
I always watch Fritz the Cat with a smile on my lips. Not only is its pointed satire brilliant, it’s also quite funny. Let’s start with the fact that the eponymous character is voiced by Skip Hinnant who I remember as J.J. from The Electric Company (1971-77), my favorite show as a child. Hearing his distinctive voice coming out of that horny cat’s mouth is hysterical and wrong at the same time.
The plot of Fritz the Cat is one of those stream-of-consciousness deals; it centers on one character and his various misadventures as he explores the social and political ideals of the time. It’s more episodic than anything else. The movie opens with Fritz and his pals trying to pick up girls/dogs in the park by posing as musicians. Fritz pretends to be a tortured soul and succeeds in picking up three girls. He takes them back to a friend’s apartment to “seek the truth”. Apparently, this means having a small orgy in the bathtub while a wild party takes place. Eventually, two policemen/pigs (one really mean, the other really stupid) raid the joint and end up giving chase to Fritz after he shoots the toilet and causes a flood. They wind up in a synagogue where the congregation starts to celebrate after hearing that the US has decided to send more weapons to Israel. After accidentally setting fire to his college dorm, Fritz ends up at a bar in Harlem where he meets Duke the Crow (McCurry). Long story short, Fritz incites a riot after rallying the people, encouraging them to start a revolution. After narrowly escaping with his life, Fritz takes a road trip to San Francisco with his girlfriend Winston (Engles) and ends up getting involved with Nazi-like revolutionaries represented by a heroin-addicted rabbit biker and a lizard. Those are pretty much the important “plot” points. All the while, Fritz makes observations and pontificates on a variety of issues relevant to the time.
I first saw Fritz the Cat on a double bill with Pink Flamingos at the now-closed Roxy Screening Rooms in Philadelphia. They were running a “Banned Films” retrospective at the time (fall ’90) and I jumped at the chance to see these flicks on the big screen. I was fascinated by the imagery in Fritz the Cat made even more shocking by Ralph Bakshi’s distinctive animation style. The backgrounds have a stylized realism to them due to Bakshi tracing outlines of photographs of various New York locations. The animation is, at once, crude, colorful, vivid, surreal, shocking and beautiful. It suits the material well, especially in the scenes containing violence, all graphically depicted. Bakshi doesn’t hold back when it comes to the nudity and sex either. It’s explicit without being pornographic. Most of all, Fritz the Cat is funny both in its satirical view of the decade and individual scenes. I find it hilarious that one of the cops/pigs is Jewish. A Jewish pig, an oxymoron if ever I heard one. The episodic can be attributed to the fact that the movie is adapted from three different Fritz stories: the first part from a story in a 1968 issue of R. Crumb’s Head Comix, the other two from Cavalier magazine (“Fritz Bugs Out” and “Fritz the No-Good”) serialized in late ’68. Bakshi’s stream-of-consciousness approach to the material gives it a more authentic feel. The visual and storytelling styles make Fritz the Cat feel like a cinematic acid trip, especially when the director uses bent and fisheye camera perspectives to show how the hippies and hoodlums view the city around them. Some have described Fritz the Cat as offensive, but I argue that it’s exactly what Crumb set out to do. If you’ve ever seen the wonderful 1995 documentary Crumb, directed by Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World), then you know that he’s type of guy that just doesn’t give a s**t (so I’ve heard him described). Granted, it’s not for all tastes and definitely not for children, but it should appeal to those with intelligence, a twisted sense of humor and a taste for the unusual. I think it’s brilliant!
TRIVIA TIDBIT: Crumb reportedly hates the movie because it marks a major departure from his work, especially in the second half. Bakshi felt that Crumb’s strips lacked depth, so he added material to make the movie grimmer than the original strips. I’ve never read any of the comic strips, but I like what Bakshi does in this movie.