Fritz the cat celebrates 50 years – This is how the sex-obsessed cat conquered the silver screen

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Fritz, the hedonistic tomboy, first hit the big screen in 1972. Screenshot: Youtube

11/13/2022, 7:33 p.m14/11/2022, 08:16

Daniel Huber
Daniel Huber

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I cannot remember when or where I first saw “Fritz the Cat”; it was a long time ago. But I still remember how impressed I was by this cartoon – it was so different from any cartoon I had ever seen. A raw ode to the 60s, of course peppered with sex & drugs & rock’n’roll, but also violence and blood. In 1972, 50 years ago, the impertinent cat first appeared on the big screen. Reason enough to review – with some spoilers!

Figure

Fritz the cat is much older than the movie of the same name. Illustrator Robert Crumb created the character in 1959, when he was just 16 years old, in a self-produced comic called “Cat Life”. Crumb loved cats and began drawing cat stories to amuse his younger sister Sandy. The model was Fred, the family cat. At first Fritz appeared like a real cat, walking on all fours and doing cat things. However, in the 1960 comic “Robin Hood,” Crumb stood the cat on its hind legs, dressed it up, and made it talk. In the early 1960s, Fritz appeared in Animal Town private comics, which Crumb drew by himself or with his older brother Charles.

Fritz in the early days as a cat...Cat Life“/>

Fritz in the early days as a cat…Bild: Cat life
... and here already as a biped.Fantagraphics“/>

It wasn’t until 1965 that a wider audience came into contact with hangovers for the first time: Fritz appeared in the magazine “Help!” by Harvey Kurtzman. After Crumb became better known and moved to San Francisco, more strips appeared between 1968 and 1972 – making the cat quite versatile, appearing in various roles such as pop star or spy. Fritz became Crumb’s most famous character, probably even before Mr. A natural, and an icon of American underground comics.

And yet Crumb brought his famous hangover to an early and violent end – having Fritz, who had become a film producer, killed by a frustrated starlet in 1972. The reason for the early end of Fritz’s series was that Crumb was not at all satisfied with the film adaptation that came out in the same a year.

Ostrich kills Fritz with a bar ice pick.

Ostrich kills Fritz with a bar ice pick. Bild: The People’s Comics

Especially in the early comics, Fritz is a hedonistic, quick-witted, self-confident busybody who is confident and successful with women. This contrasts sharply with Crumb’s personality – especially when he was young, the draftsman was shy; he had few friends and “no sex life,” according to Marty Pahls, a childhood friend of Crumb’s and later the husband of Crumb’s sister Sandy. Pahls believed that Fritz served Crumb’s wish fulfillment to a great extent; the character allowed Crumb to “have wild adventures and have various sexual experiences that he himself believed he could not have”.

As Crumb’s life changed—he moved to Cleveland in 1964, made new friends, and married Dana Morgan, his first wife—so did his character. The “compensating factor” receded into the background and Fritz lost his “impulse”. Crumb himself categorically rejects any possible reference between Fritz and himself, saying simply: “I just liked drawing him… He was fun to draw.”

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Self-portrait of Crumbs from 1969.Pinterest“/>

Self-portrait of Crumbs from 1969.Image: Pinterest

It is no exaggeration to say that Robert Crumb is not an artist for every taste. Some find his art repulsive, obscene, sexist and racist. The “bad boy” of the American underground comics scene liked to draw chubby women with stubby legs and, as he revealed to the Guardian a good three years ago, he used to be obsessed with sexual desire and sexual fantasies. If he hadn’t been able to express that inner turmoil in his comics, Crumb said, he might have ended up in prison or a mental institution. Meanwhile, he is no longer a slave to his libido. And women don’t draw anymore.

Born on August 30, 1943 in Philadelphia, Crumb came from a difficult family background – the dysfunctionality of his parents’ house can be guessed from the documentary «Crumb» (1994). His older brother Charles, who drew comics with him as a teenager, became mentally ill as an adult and killed himself in 1993. It is possible that only his artistic work and the success that came with it saved Crumb from a similar fate.

In any case, Crumb rose to become the most important representative of the American comics counterculture, next perhaps to Gilbert Shelton. In San Francisco, his work changed; now, under the influence of LSD, he designed new characters like Mr. Natural, who were no longer anthropomorphic animals like Fritz the Cat. The famous cat was now more and more in the background.

“I always liked to draw funny animals until ’66 when I started taking LSD. . . Acid changed my perspective on everything. It changed my whole attitude towards drawing; I didn’t take it so seriously anymore. After a while I got a lot less attached to the story and started drawing for his own.”

In San Francisco, Crumb also designed the album cover for Janis Joplin’s “Cheap Thrills” album, giving him further notoriety. Awkward, goofy Crumb, who himself preferred to listen to swing-era music—like Earl Hines & His Orchestra—didn’t fit well with the flowery hippies of Haight-Ashbury. It is probably no coincidence that in the mid-1990s, Crumb moved with his second wife, comic book artist Aline Kominsky, to a remote village in southern France, where he still lives today.

Crumb in 2014.Wikimedia/Niccolò Caranti“/>

Film

The 1972 film Fritz the Cat catapulted Crumb’s sassy feline from the basement of the underground comic community into the mainstream. Although it was the first animated film to be X-rated in the United States – for adults only, “Fritz the Cat” became a huge commercial success. The highest-grossing independent animated film of all time, it grossed more than $100 million at the box office.

The 75-minute strip is heavily based on Crumb’s “Fritz Bugs Out” comic, in which Fritz has dropped out of college and wants to “explore the world”. The setting is mostly New York in the mid-sixties; topics include student life, free love, drug use, police violence, race riots and political extremism.

Panel of Wikifur“/>

Panel from “Fritz Bugs Out”.Image: Wikifur

Fritz, an arrogant white college student, uses the student counterculture primarily to get women—the legendary bathtub sex orgies—but after narrowly escaping two cops (in the form of bubbling pigs), he heads to Harlem to join the blacks. (they are depicted as crows) to discuss the racial issue. Which does not end well.

These bathtub orgies are still fairly civilized.Youtube“/>

These bathtub orgies are still fairly civilized. Screenshot: Youtube

The film project was a gamble. Director Ralph Bakshi had no previous experience producing animated films, and the $850,000 budget was anything but lavish. Bakshi and producer Steve Krantz arranged the production so that the part of the film set in New York’s Harlem neighborhood could be released as a fifteen-minute short if the money ran out.

Despite its success, Crumb was anything but happy about the film and, as mentioned, had his character Fritz die shortly after the film opened. Discord already existed at the beginning of the film project. Bakshi recalls Crumb protesting in the New York studio at the time that Fritz was part of his past: “It’s my oldest thing, I’m doing things differently now,” he said.

Bakshi, he says, always gave the same answer: “But that’s your medium. It’s as new to our medium as the day you first did it, Robert!” Crumb still maintains that he never gave his approval—his then-wife agreed to the film project in his absence.

Ralph Bakshi was born in Haifa in what was then the British Mandate of Palestine in 1938 and moved to New York with his family shortly thereafter.

Ralph Bakshi was born in Haifa in what was then the British Mandate of Palestine in 1938 and moved to New York with his family shortly thereafter. Bild: Paramount Pictures

In an interview later, Crumb barely left a good hair on film. He feels the film is “really a reflection of Ralph Bakshi’s confusion, you know. There is something very repressed about it. It’s even more twisted than my stuff in a way. It’s really twisted, in a weird, unfunny kind of way… I really didn’t like the sexiness of it. It’s like a real suppressed horniness; he lets them out sort of compulsively.”

Crumb also criticized the film for condemning the radical left. He even called Fritz’s monologue near the end of the film, which includes an almost verbatim quote from the Beatles song “The End” (“The love you take / is equal to the love you make”), “fascist”, explaining: “They were putting words in his mouth, which I would never let him utter.’

Fritz wants to discuss the Youtube“/>

Fritz wants to discuss the “race problem” in Harlem.Screenshot: Youtube

Today, 50 years after the film began, these battles should be a thing of the past for most viewers. The film was so successful that it made Crumb even more famous and further boosted Bakshi’s career. The director stayed true to the adult animation genre and received critical acclaim for his second film, Heavy Traffic (1973). His film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings (1978) was a financial success, in which some scenes were first filmed with real actors and then traced using a rotoscoping process.

Bakshi’s first film “Fritz the Cat” – he called it “a documentary of the sixties” – is now considered a cult film, which among other animated series for adults such as “The Simpsons”, “South Park”, “Beavis” and Butt-Head ” or “Family Guy” paved the way. Of course, it also paved the way for a sequel – “The Nine Lives of Fritze the Cat” (1974) – which was made without Bakshi or Crumb and in no way can hold a candle to its predecessor.

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