In 1972, there was a schism in the world of “underground comix”. Its poster boy, Robert Crumb, had licensed his controversial Fritz the Cat to a pair of Saturday morning cartoon men, for a feature film production. Depending on whom you ask, the final result is either the fault of Crumb’s intransigence, the director’s dabbling, or the distributor’s trepidation about the content. The reality is that Fritz was never meant for franchising.
Fritz first found fame in magazines like Help! and Cavalier in the mid-1960s. A collection of the cat’s cartoons caught the fancy of Ralph Bakshi, former head of Paramount Pictures’ animation division. Bakshi brought the book to his partner, producer Steve Krantz, and spit-balled the idea of a movie adaptation. Together they sought out Crumb’s approval, and here is where the accounts really start to vary.
Anyone familiar with Crumb can tell you that he operates on a completely different level. He has been wrestling his demons and building his artistic toolbox since the crib. Whatever your opinions are of the man and his politics, it doesn’t change the tremendous historical weight of his work. His latter-day Genesis illumination aside, there’s Mode O’Day, Whiteman Meets Bigfoot, and the Mr. Natural tales that continue in the sublime Mystic Funnies. Some of the best American Splendor comics were drawn by Crumb. His self-propelled titles like Zap and Hup have an anarchic zest that has never been equaled. And his commitment to a bygone age of American life is so profound, he bailed for rural France long ago.
Ralph Bakshi cut his teeth at the Terrytoons studio in New York, animating Mighty Mouse and Heckle and Jeckle. He had yearnings for the underground, and felt that Crumb’s art resembled his own. According to Bakshi, Cheech Wizard creator Vaughn Bodé warned him about colluding with Crumb. As predicted, Crumb held up production for weeks, until Krantz resorted to getting a signature from wife Dana, who had power of attorney. Nowadays, a slick producer would try to lure Crumb with a slavishly recreated film version of his comix (plus ragtime music), but in 1970, there was no precedent for this kind of thing. An X-rated cartoon with sex and violence? Does that even make sense in 2015?
Let’s find out.
The first voice we hear is Bakshi’s: “Hey, yeah, man, the 1960s? Happy times, heavy times.” Truthfully, it’s always made me cringe. It just sounds phony, which does not augur well. Or perhaps it’s a warning.
Pan up on construction workers seated high on a girder, eating their lunch. Because Bakshi directed, the food is as sloppy and disgusting as can be, things no one would ever eat. Here lies the crucial difference in perception of what is “underground” between Crumb and Bakshi; one saw it as the ultimate in creative liberty, and the other as an excuse to make everything as gross as possible.
One of the workers whips it out and takes a whiz. The opening credits roll over the yellow stream’s descent, the urine becoming alternately photorealistic and technicolor, before it finally downs a hippie with unusual force.
Maybe this can be interpreted as something other than Ralph Bakshi pissing on the audience, and the work of R.Crumb. I have no idea what.
Hey you fuckin’ intellectuals, you think you’re so where it’s at,
Before you fill your mind with all that junk, here’s Fritz the Cat.
The lyrics continue, but I can’t make out most of it past the opening lines. This introduces Fritz and his two buddies, who have come to Washington Square Park to play their guitars and woo young college girls. This is all adapted from the story “Fritz The Cat”, which appeared in Fug and Crumb’s Head Comix.
The plot of the scene is very faithful to the source, despite the amateur voices, which do give the film a certain rough feel when they work. The fellas knock themselves out for three girls, who stride past them to fawn over a black crow. Thus begins a brief stereotypical tableau of three white girls falling all over themselves to impress a black man; “I’ve read everything James Baldwin has written”, “I worked with Head Start”, etc. Here in Atlanta, we call that “Tuesday”.
In the Fritzverse, crows are black people, or at least a very narrow, specific idea of them. Truthfully, it’s as reductive as anything else in this film, it just gets the most attention. Anyway, these girls go on and on, all guilt-ridden diatribes not from the comics. Finally the crow has enough, and exits, saying “I ain’t no jive-ass nigga, honey. Who y’all think I am, Geraldine?”
This is an interesting update on the source material. Originally, Crumb had Fritz trick the crow, who speeds away, leaving in his wake Trojan condoms and a brochure from the Bowery Mission.
In Crumb’s world, no one is innocent. Bakshi tweaks it so that the crow is superior and the girls are made to look far more foolish. No doubt this was one of Crumb’s quibbles, but morally, he’s harder to defend.
Fritz pulls the same jive on the chicks that he does in the comics, screaming that his “soul is tormented”. I can’t honestly say Skip Tennant sounds “right” as Fritz; his performance is good in spots, but his voice is too tremulous and nasal. Then again, maybe that’s a good voice for a humanized cat. (Crumb didn’t think so.)
Fritz brings the three girls to a crash pad loaded with other animals getting loaded. There are so many people in the place that Fritz resorts to taking the girls into the tub. Soon boobs are revealed, and truthfully, this is one of the parts of the movie that delivers. You could put this on at a party and trip people out. I mean, after all, it’s a weird cartoon with a bunch of animals getting high and fucking. That’s major party points right there.
But then the cops show up.
It’s bad enough that it’s the cops. What makes it even worse if that it’s these cops. One is just gruff and incompetent, but the other speaks like it’s third grade and he’s calling you stupid. Start with “DUH”, you’ll know what I mean. It’s not funny, it’s awful. And oh, tee hee, they’re actual pigs here. What a world it was when no one was related to any law enforcement personnel whatsoever. However that worked.
The pigs break up the orgy and Fritz swipes the cop’s gun and shoots the toilet, as seen in the comix. This sequence is also not bad, aside from the ridiculous sound effects used for marihuana inhalation (it sounds like people blowing up balloons). While high, Fritz says “What a wonderful wiggly world”, which I always surmised was the inspiration behind the DEVO song (plus it was “wiggy” as originally written). Everything is exaggerated, with the cops beating the hippies into a lifeless pile of corpses. Then, inexplicably, things get really, really Jewish.
Out of the blue, the narrative jumps to a synagogue, with Bakshi’s animal version of orthodox Jews and rabbis chanting and praying. It is awful. None of the voices are recorded cleanly, which in addition to the heavy accents, makes the dialogue impossible to understand. Fritz is hiding here (in a Jewish man’s beard, ach), and the idiot pig cops burst in looking for him. The stupid-sounding cop is Jewish, while the other cop apparently has never been indoors in his life, and screams until chaos ensues. In an odious bit of burlesque, an old Jewish lady tumbles out of the bathroom with a cop, one of her breasts flopping out through a tear in her blouse. A radio playing horrendous moog music announces that Israel is receiving more aid (weapons). All the chosen people leap to their feet and dance at the news. God almighty, it is bad. Not a bit of it came from Crumb, either, so one can only guess what he thought.
At NYU, we get a somewhat more faithful version of the story where Fritz sets his dorm on fire, until he does so; in the film his “words” light the blaze, whereas of course in the comics it was a deliberate act, done with matches. It doesn’t even seem to have any ill consequences. Previously, Fritz’s actions caused him to leave the dorm and drop out, as his former friends gazed at the smoking wreckage of their lives. Here it just leads to a long transition over Bo Diddley music.
We find ourselves at a crow bar, amazingly not called a crowbar. A number of black stereotypes guzzle liquor and roll their eyes as unintelligible voices murmur away. These are apparently actual recordings Bakshi made in bars, but that doesn’t mean they’re good, funny, or understandable. The crows in this movie are either sinister, slap-happy, languorous or violent. It doesn’t paint the nicest picture of Bakshi’s racial politics.
Fritz enters this bar like a babe of the woods, all wide-eyed at the revelings of the boozing magpies. He gets into a conversation with a crow shooting pool named Duke, telling him how he wishes he was a crow and not a cat. Duke tells him he has to be a crow to understand the race problem, and Fritz starts in with his routine again. Accidentally, Fritz helps Duke sink every billiard ball on the table, and let me tell you straight up, that is some racist bullshit. Duke couldn’t shoot pool without a white man’s help? Racist bullshit.
Fritz is offered a drink in gratitude, and the dumb fuck actually calls to the bartender, “HEY BOY! BOY!”
The bartender hocks a loogie in a shot glass for Fritz, but Duke sticks up for him and smashes it. Just as Duke and the bartender are about to donnybrook, another crow pulls Duke away, screaming “they blowin’ pot like MAD up at Mildred’s pad!” This is another interesting edit, as this line came later in the comics, and the entire episode with the bartender never happened as depicted. Here in the film, there’s another added racial humiliation angle, where Fritz says the words “bug out”, causing all the crows to laugh at him. What was once Fritz’s breakout motivation is now risible.
Next, Duke and Fritz steal a car and joyride around the dark city. In one page, Crumb delineated this sequence. Here, it takes several minutes, plus Fritz is suddenly a maniac, and Duke has been made to shout at him, just so we know this is NOT OK. Meanwhile, hideous vignettes unfold throughout the city, like a crow woman drying laundry until she falls out of her dress, nude, and takes refuge in a filthy garbage can. Seconds later she jumps back out in terror, and a junkie rises up like Oscar the Grouch.
He shoots up, then boogies back down into the can. All of this is Bakshi’s invention, and it’s not fun to watch. Muppets from the planet Koozebane are more human than the black people in Ralph Bakshi cartoons. I imagine Robert Crumb seeing this, and thinking “Jesus Christ, I’m racist, but I’m not this racist.”
The pig cops re-enter the picture, and Fritz plows into one of them with the stolen car. No one in this movie is destructible until they are, so the cop hangs onto the car, trying to shoot Duke in the face. This part is well-paced, despite the reuse of animation, so of course something has to fuck it up before long. The cop hurtles through the window of a crow church, which shreds his clothes off because of course it would. Time for more uncomfortable antics with animated stereotypes. And wiggling pig dicks.
Because the jokes in this film are prehistoric, the entire congregation shrieks and cackles at the cop’s dangling penis, until it retreats into his stomach out of embarrassment. Bakshi told Crumb he admired his work, and then added his own pee-pee and dick jokes. Again; see the difference in perspectives of the “underground”? Has Crumb been making gross-out comics for the past fifty years?
Fritz drives the car off a bridge, after a strange interlude where a truck marked MILK is revealed to be filled with pills and syringes. As in the comic book, Duke just barely saves Fritz from himself. But here, an anarchic jaunt becomes a terrifying trip. That’s not necessarily a criticism, but there is a lack of consistency in characterization that results from the changes.
Over a montage of garbage and dilapidated buildings, set to Billie Holiday, we arrive in Harlem. A man and woman crow are getting ready for a party that spontaneously happens once Duke and Fritz arrive. Earlier, the crow woman had lamented the good old days, when white cats would come to Harlem and throw money around. When she hears Fritz lie about being high on pot, she senses an easy mark and moves in on him.
First, she reaches into her vagina and pulls out several joints. The way she digs them out, they must have been up somewhere near her lungs. She shoves spliff after spliff into Fritz’s mouth, and as he puffs away, things descend into psychedelic madness. The bongo music is appropriate here, as it mirrors Crumb’s depiction of the scene:
The lady crow jumps around the junkyard topless, black boobs bouncing like balloons (with pink nipples?) teasing Fritz and laughing like Patrice O’Neal. It’s a real test of patience for anyone with eyes or ears. Finally Fritz gets ready to bang her, and here we go again; Bakshi adds another tiny-dick joke. Fritz exposes his penis, which is apparently so small we can’t even see it, and the lady crow laughs and informs him “you ain’t black enough”. Embarrassed, Fritz slinks away, before the crow coos for him to come back. That’s a pretty big change from Fritz successfully fucking her, before becoming inspired to revolt, as he did in the comics. I never saw Fritz as an alter ego for Crumb, but if he was, this all would be rather castrating.
The sun rises as Fritz and the lady crow continue to fuck. Fritz’s desire to revolt does come, but Tennant’s voice again rings false, as he abandons her to incite a riot in the city. He manages to turn a murder of crows against the pig cops, and in what will come as a surprise to no American in 2015, the pigs shoot Duke, who had been trying to quell the riot and save Fritz.
This leads to one of the better Bakshi sequences; Duke’s final heartbeats are synchronized with billiard balls sinking, in ascending order. It gets a bit heavy-handed, as shouts of “move over, nigger” and such are piped into the soundtrack, but it’s still very effective. Cracking glass is revealed to be the bloodshot surface of his eye, and Duke croaks.
A full-scale war erupts between black crow militants and the pig national guard. Beret-wearing sniper crows fire rifles from rooftops. Fritz yells “we shall overcome” and ducks into the safety of an alleyway. In one of Bakshi’s more notorious “fuck yous” to Disney, he animated silhouettes of Mickey Mouse, Daisy and Donald Duck cheering as bombers flew overhead to annihilate the inner city.
Here, Bakshi demonstrated true dedication to the underground. That took balls, and frankly, I’m amazed Disney let him get away with even that. (When Mickey turns as the planes pass, his silhouette is unmistakable.)
The town is blitzed and the snipers are shot to pieces, before all the carnage is forgotten about, and another abrupt tonal shift to a soothing dawn in the harbor. Fritz, hiding in a garbage can, is discovered by a girlfriend, Winston Schwartz. She is an awful caricature of the Barbra Streisand of the era, and the dialogue, sort of Woody Allen-lite, comes direct from the comics. She is shrill and unappealing and for some reason she gets her own theme song.
Who is the girl in the fiberglass shorts?
Well it’s got to be Winston Schwartz. (poot poot)
Winston tells Fritz she has a car (a VW beetle in the film, natch) and some money, so why not “bug out” to the coast? She could get a job as a private secretary, and he could work on his poetry and all, then they’d get married, and dig the scene out in Frisco. On the road, Fritz expresses his desire to go to a truck stop and converse with real truck drivers; Winston stops at a Howard Johnson’s packed with families of tourists.
At this point, the film diverges sharply from the source material, before bringing it back at the climax. A group of junkie bikers are introduced, first with a wordless scene where the bunny gang leader rides off without his smack needle, and his horse-lady moll runs out into the desert to give it to him. This part is humorous and well done, with the horse-lady signaling her boyfriend from afar with the sunlight glinting off the syringe, and the fuzz-tone music is appropriate. I think bikers were a contractual obligation in movies circa 1970.
Meanwhile, continuing the comic’s storyline, Winston’s car breaks down in the desert, and a hillbilly driving a chicken truck stops to help. First he has to beat all his chickens to bloody death with a nail-board.
I find it somewhat ironic that Bakshi later claimed Crumb’s comics lacked depth, when he’s the one who provided all the juvenile moments, while speed-balling through the dialogue. In Crumb’s original, the truck driver is just a regular guy, who tells Winston and Fritz their car’s just overheated (hence the bucket). He doesn’t insult them as dumb hippies, or kill any chickens- he doesn’t even have any chickens. Here he’s a contemptuous caricature of all things hayseed, encrusted in his own filth, who thinks nothing of killing the livestock he was presumably paid to transport.
You know, as a movie, Fritz The Cat is just barely passable. As an adaptation of Crumb’s comics, it’s an abomination.
The filthy truck driver tells our heroes that they ran out of gas, which makes him launch into a profane Bakshi tirade and drive off. (This sort of validates the bucket; it’s for gas instead of water, I guess.) Winston begins to read Fritz the riot act, which unfortunately necessitates close-ups of her mouth and the green slime-tendrils within. Finally Fritz storms off with Chekov’s goddamn bucket, before defiantly dropping it in the road, as though it meant anything at this point.
Footage of Fritz truckin’ is superimposed over a flushing toilet. Thankfully, Bakshi spares us the sight of any ordure. In high school, I thought this was pretty clever.
At the Golden Acres Trailer Park, Fritz meets the junkie biker and pantsless horse-lady from the earlier interlude with the syringe. This begins the adaptation of “Fritz the No-Good”, from Cavalier in 1968, but there are drastic changes made by Bakshi and crew.
In the comics, the junkie biker was Fuzzy the Bun, Fritz’s rabbit friend from NYU. In the time that Fritz has been bumming around post-arson, Fuzzy has become a radical, and joined a cell of militants, one of whom strongly resembles legendary underground cartoonist Spain Rodriguez. It’s one of Crumb’s sharpest Fritz tales.
Bakshi has made Fuzzy a cracked-out junkie that could be anyone. Whoever voiced him barrels through lines from the comic, sometimes repeating them as though he has no idea where they fit (“Practically nil, I’m afraid”, for example). I’m guessing this is another dumb park dweller Bakshi got for nothing.
So in the third act these unlikable characters are thrown in, plotting a terrorist act. The militants are weird monsters here, including an unintelligible thing in a Mumm-Ra robe, and a psychotic lizard-lady who laughs “we’re gonna paralyze the whole fuckin’ city.” She puts her cigarette out in her hand, but lest you think she’s tough, her tit flops out of her jumpsuit as she does. I don’t know whose sexual politics are worse; Crumb’s or Bakshi’s. At least Crumb is up front about it.
Fuzzy’s horse girlfriend gets bored, and complains so much that they all decide to gang-rape her. The lizard-lady is a psycho-sexual sadist, and really gets into the idea, muttering “I’m gonna ride that goddamn horse.” Fuzzy beats the woman with fists and chains, while she screams and dribbles blood. “You know what you guys are? You’re a bunch of Nazi fags,” she hollers as Fuzzy whips her again.
Fritz has been watching in horror, and meekly pipes up from behind a headboard, “Come on guys, don’t do that. That’s not cool.” Fuzzy doesn’t notice or care, and continues whipping. Horse-girl’s boobs are hanging out now, and her blood is everywhere. People had to animate this goddamn thing. No wonder some of them walked off the project.
Fritz protests a little louder, and gets a faceful of scalding candle wax from the lizard-lady. Horse-girl is swaddled in chains, bosoms jutting like fire hydrants. As she falls backwards onto the bed, the militants surround her, and she cries “this isn’t working out, our relationship stinks!” See? It’s all fun and games! Or not, as we cut away, implying that she had been forcibly raped for the better part of the day.
The next time we see Harriet (the horse-girl, I think this is the first time her name is spoken), she is sobbing and inconsolable, outside being comforted by Fritz, who mumbles “I tried to stop them…” He tries to get her to go back inside, but she won’t, even though she’s naked. Lizard-lady calls for Fritz to get in the car with her, and he reluctantly leaves Harriet, still weeping.
Oh, well, that’s all very nice, but here’s the thing; in the original comics, Fritz was the rapist.
The stories continue to diverge from here. The plan to bomb the bridge is exhilarating to Fritz in the comics, but in the film, the ride is an excuse for Fritz to condemn and harangue lizard-lady for the gang-rape he was powerless to do anything but watch.
I don’t personally believe that viewers need to be shown something bad, and then be told how bad it is. It also makes zero sense to have Fritz suddenly develop a conscience here, on his way to set up a bomb in a city. Bakshi seems to be fine with characters being disgusting beyond human tolerance, yet he soft-shoes anything ethical or racial. It truly makes this adaptation obsequious. Bakshi coveted underground cachet, but was never willing to take the necessary risks to achieve it. He’s really better off in the “gross-out” domain of John Kricfalusi.
Crumb always committed to the negative qualities of his creations, and the resultant consequences. He never backpedals after offending, and his cartoon characters act as cruel and evil as humans, if not more so. Here, his Fritz has been reduced to a cypher; he merely supplants whatever emotions the director desires at that point. He can’t fuck proudly without his dick being shamed. He can’t cry for revolution without causing poignant death. His psychoses, however antisocial, have been alleviated in favor of a phony conscience. He’s a feline Holden Caulfield that’s been spayed.
A power plant is the target in the film, upgraded from the bridge. Fritz crawls around, setting up the dynamite while ruminating on what a caring person this Harriet is, whom he met literally hours ago. Dumb fuck decides too late against setting up us the bomb, as the lizard-lady lights the fuse and speeds off in the car. Cue rotoscoped explosion, and surely we have seen the last of Fritz the cat.
Apparently not, as his theme song rises up on the soundtrack once again. Fritz is in a body cast in a hospital, guarded by a man in a cowboy hat. All the girls from the movie (including Harriet) sneak in and fuck him after he turns out to be alive. You know what? I’ve seen this movie a hundred more times than I should have, and now I’ve written three thousand more words than I should have about it. Enough is enough. And the “sequel” to this, Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat, is a total piece of shit, and let no one tell you different. I’d sooner sit on a knife than watch it again, for any reason. (Note: it wasn’t just made without Crumb, but without Bakshi.)
The best things I can say about Ralph Bakshi are that his reboot of Mighty Mouse in the 1980s was terrific, and I enjoyed his cameo in Ren and Stimpy’s Adult Party Cartoon. His name is synonymous with disappointment and mishegoss. Despite this, he seems a genial fellow.
The best thing I can say about Fritz The Cat is that it exists, as an example of what not to do when adapting a comic book. However “slick” Bakshi found Crumb to be, the guy deserved a better movie, or it shouldn’t have been made at all. It clearly wasn’t made for the right reasons.
The first thing Crumb did after the release of Fritz The Cat was kill Fritz for good, in print. After the treatment he got in Tinseltown, it was a mercy killing.