The Filming of Fritz the Cat, Part Two
From Funnyworld No. 15, Fall 1973
V. A Strange Breed of Cat
The animated feature that emerged from all this travail is one
of the most important cartoons ever made. In it, Bakshi established
himself as almost the only cartoon director whose current work is
worthy of serious attention.
This is so even though Fritz the Cat is, in many respects,
a pretty bad movie.
almost every way, Fritz is a patchwork film. Bakshi assembled
his screenplay (that word is not usually appropriate for animated
cartoons, but it is for this one, for reasons I'll explain later)
from parts of three Crumb stories. The opening scenes are takenwith
relatively few changesfrom the Fritz story in the Head
Comix book; the middle of the picture is based on "Fritz
Bugs Out," with the scenes in Harlem greatly expanded from
those in the book; the closing scenes draw on "Fritz the No-Good,"
although here Bakshi's hand is more in evidence than anywhere else
in the movie. Bakshi interspersed material of his own throughout
the picturethe pig policemen, for example, and the scene in
the synagoguebut it was in the last half of Fritz,
from the Harlem riot onward, that Bakshi really departed from Crumb.
The movie is much grimmer than Crumb's stories past that point,
and far more violent.
Even when he stuck pretty close to Crumb, Bakshi reshaped the Crumb
stories in his own image. Bakshi is a New Yorker, and so Fritz is
a New Yorker, too, even though Crumb's Fritz does not live there
(he lives in only one identifiable citySan Francisco, in "Fritz
the No-Good"). In the specifically Jewish elementsthe
synagogue, the Jewish policemanBakshi moved even further from
Crumb, and closer to autobiography.
The problem with this is not that Bakshi departed from the letter
of Crumb's storiesthose stories are not Holy Writbut
that he so rarely improved on Crumb. For example, the sequence in
the synagogue fails not because it is pure Bakshi, but because it
is messy and confusing.
What is most aggravating about the screenplay for Fritz,
however, is that Bakshi made such clumsy attempts to tie his loose
ends together. In the film, Winston, Fritz's fox girlfriend, appears
after the riot, and drives Fritz to the West Coast, just as in "Fritz
Bugs Out"; but in that story, Winston had been introduced earlier,
first in conversation and then in person. In the movie, those parts
of the story were not used, and so Bakshi had to make a choice:
should he simply introduce Winston without preparation, and trust
the audience to figure out that she is Fritz's girlfriend, or should
he find some way to bring her into the story earlier? Bakshi's solution
is embarrassing in its crudity, At the start of the picture, when
Fritz has lured three girls into a bathtub orgy, Fritz refers repeatedly
to one of the girls as "Winston," even though there is
little similarity in voice, personality or even appearance to tie
the two "Winstons" together. To make matters worse, the
bathtub "Winston" reappears at the end of Fritz,
when the orgy is replayed in a hospital bed.
Many other characters are handled just as clumsily. For example,
the pig policemen are comic bunglers on the order of the Three Stooges
most of the time (Bakshi even called them "lovable cops"
in one interview), and it is hard to accept the deaths of these
two slapstick comedians at the hands of a mob of murderous crows.
In any event, Fritz is not offered to us as a "well-made"
film, but as a portrait of the 1960s. According to one source, the
film's opening reference to that decade was an afterthought; Bakshi
supposedly realized that the subject matter might seem dated if
he didn't tie it together with a theme of some kind. But, deliberately
or not, Fritz really is about the Sixties, and it must be
judged, according to whether it gives us a sense of what life was
like then. It fails because it has no fullness, no feeling of life
beyond the screen.
Bakshi's failure can be measured by comparing the young revolutionaries
in his film with those in Crumb's "Fritz the No-Good."
Crumb ridicules his revolutionaries, but gentlythey are dangerous,
but not nearly as dangerous as they'd like to be. They are naive,
self-important, and casually destructive; their "ideals"
are mere slogans. The attitudes of these revolutionaries were common
in the late 1960s, and there are psychological bonds uniting them
with other young people of that time, even those who did not want
to blow up the Golden Gate bridge.
Bakshi's revolutionaries, by contrast, are cold and sinister, with
strong homosexual overtones; more important, they are isolated maniacs.
As such, they're reasonably interesting—but they have no
place in a movie that proclaims from the beginning that it's about
Most cartoonmakers have not even attempted anything like what Bakshi
attempted in Fritz. Traditionally, animation has been devoted to
bringing to life characters who seemed to embody a wide variety
of human experiences; they did not so much live in the world as
carry it within them. In this respect, the animated cartoons of
the thirties and forties were very much the heirs of the silent
comedies of earlier decades.
Sometimes, though, animated cartoons have tried to give some sense
of a society in which their characters live. In Pinocchio,
for example, there is a very elaborate shot in which Gepetto's village
bustles with life in the morning. This shot, for all the money and
effort that went into it, is artificial and unconvincing, and for
most of the picture, the village is nothing but a prop for the activities
of the principal characters. It may be that the calculation and
planning that must go into such animated scenes are simply too great,
so that the scenes can no more seem natural and open than can a
carefully choreographed ballet.
Fritz is the most ambitious attempt yet to bring to a cartoon
some of the feeling of life observed, rather than life transformed
by art. To some extent, Bakshi's poorly constructed screenplay gets
in the way of this, because of the great grindings and crashings
as the plot's gears fail to mesh. Bakshi was limited as well by
his inability to handle scenes with a large number of characters
in them. In such scenes, the effect is usually confusion, rather
than abundance; there is a simple lack of coordination when more
than two or three characters are in a scene. For example, at the
start of the bathtub orgy, when Fritz and the three girls are alone
in the tub, Manny Perez's animation is almost an improvement on
Crumb, since it makes plausible the four bodies writhing in the
tub; but as the room fills with other animals, and other animators
take over, the screen becomes crowded and the characters' movements
slip into mechanical patterns.
Sometimes, even when the individual scenes are adequate, the editingand
here Bakshi is clearly to blameis deadly. This happens during
the Harlem riot, which is crudely conceived and even more crudely
executed. Bakshi asks his audience to accept the bombing of Harlemwhich
is asking a lotbut the riot does not grow in a way that would
make the bombing seem inevitable, rather than ludicrous. The editing
reduces the violence to fragments, and so the political point that
Bakshi wanted to make (which is underlined by a shot of the silhouetted
figures of Mickey and Minnie Mouse and Donald Duck cheering the
jets on) is presented to us naked.
There is much more to giving a sense of real life on the screen
than simply filling it with people; even if Bakshi had successfully
managed his large-scale scenes, he would still have been left with
dialogue that served his purposes poorly, in different ways.
Bakshi tried to give his dialogue a rougher texture by improvising
part of it, as in the scenes with the two pig policemen (Bakshi
himself supplied the voice for the Jewish policeman, and his friend
Phil Seuling did the voice for the other pig). More important, he
recruited as voices people who were the real-life analogues of some
of the characters in the film; his own father provided the voice
of a rabbi in the synagogue. Bakshi says he went to Harlem with
a tape recorder and spent several hours talking to blacks in a bar,
and getting drunk with them as he asked them questions; most of
his questions were based on a script, so that he could get answers
that could be used as lines of dialogue in the film.
"First I hired this famous black writer and told him to go
up there and get the answers for me, because I thought, what the
hell am I going to do up in Harlem? He came back and said, 'Hey,
man, no one's saying a goddamn word.' They were all uptight. But
I didn't like the guy because he was pompous, and I thought, how
can he relate to people? So I took my tape recorder, and went up
myself, and it worked. None of it was paid for.
"Some guys would come by (in the bar) and ask who I was, you
know, what I wanted. There was a feeling that I was a white in Harlem,
a white and not belonging. It was not exactly enjoyable for me all
the way; it got enjoyable only after I got drunk, and forgot where
the hell I was."
Later, Bakshi edited the tapes, rearranging the blacks' replies
in the order he wanted for the film. It is a little of this taped
conversation that we hear in a corner bar at the start of the Harlem
section of Fritz.
Some of this unrehearsed dialogue is arresting (although sometimes
incomprehensible), but even in the bar, the animationwhat
we seeworks against what we hear, as the crows toss bottles
in the air, plunge knives into tables, and grope inside dresses.
It's as if Bakshi were chafing against the restrictions we the dialogue
imposed on him. Other directorsmost notably John Hubleyhave
worked with dialogue that was improvised (Hubley's The Hat)
or even recorded without the speakers' knowledge (Hubley's Moonbird),
but this procedure is questionable, because it reduces the director's
control over his cartoon, and especially its timing. Dialogue can
be a straitjacket for a cartoon director, even when the director
has written it; when he surrenders that responsibility to someone
else, he is tightening the straps. Bakshi seems to have realized
this, perhaps instinctively, and so he fights the dialogue that
he had recorded himself.
Not all the voices were amateur, and not all the dialogue was improvised.
Bakshi picked up many bits and pieces from Crumb's stories, sometimes
inserting them in his script awkwardly, or distorting their meaning.
At places in the picture, Bakshi used great chunks of Crumb's dialogue,
taken from all three stories, and it is here we come to the heart
of Bakshi's failure to recreate the ambiance of the Sixties.
The three Crumb stories that Bakshi usedcompressing them
into one story covering a week or sowere written and drawn
several years apart, and Crumb, with his usual sensitivity to what
is going on around him, depicted some distinctly different attitudes
in those stories. The country changed traumatically between 1965
and 1968, and Crumb's stories reflect this. The Fritz of 1965, in
"Fritz Bugs Out," is still within the tradition of youthful
self-assertionthe posturing and emotionalism that have always
been part of growing up, even though their forms differ from generation
to generation. Fritz talks of poetry, and spouts romantic nonsense,
and rebels at the thought of studying, but we can see that he's
really only striking these poses as covers for his laziness and
his sexual appetites (he is quickly diverted by sex when he and
Winston interrupt their cross-country trip so that he can write
some poetry). However, he thinks he's sinceremost of the time,
anywayand his play-acting is modeled on what other people
were really feeling and doing at the time.
In "Fritz Bugs Out," there are hints of the future in
Fritz's dabbling in radical politics (i.e., exhorting the poor to
revolt) and his encounter with marijuana, and these elements are
greatly magnified in "Fritz the No-Good." The sense of
separation is much deeper in "No- Good," even though Fritz
himself is still apolitical; he is as much a dabbler in radical
politics in "No-Good" as he was in "Fritz Bugs Out.'"
If Fritz were still a college student in "No-Good,'" he
probably would be emulating other students, just as he was in "Fritz
Bugs Out," but he would be different because the pace-setting
students were so much different in 1968 from those of a few years
earlier. Many of the most important students of the late 1960s were
distinguished by their willful ignorancetheir conviction that
a rotting society had nothing to teach them that could be worth
learning. Since knowledge was readily available to them, they had
to consciously reject it. This gave the young radicals of the late
Sixties their distinctive tone: an oddly corrupt naiveté.
If Bakshi had caught that tone in Fritz's voiceand in the
film as a wholehe would really have had something. But Fritz
is instead a confused film, freely mixing elements from periods
that were very different even though separated by only a few years..
and Fritz's voicefar from echoing the decadeis thin
Because Fritz fails to give any sense of what life was like
in the sixties, it is pointless to talk about it as a "political
film" (Bakshi's phrase), or a satirical film, or whatever.
What Bakshi has to say about the sixties is of interest only to
the extent that he shows some understanding of the sixties, and
he did not do this in Fritz.
Good animation can sometimes bring to life characters wholike
Bakshi's Fritzseem doomed by a poor story. It is not always
the animator himself who can do this; his choices are limited by
the instructions he gets from the director, the staging required
by the layout man, and the number of feet of film he must fill each
week. But even when the animator must be more concerned with turning
out footage than with bringing out a character's personality, the
director can provide guidanceespecially in drawingsthat
will help the animator to make the most of the opportunities he
Fritz falls short here, too. There is no unity of style
in the animationthe sections of the picture animated in New
York and Los Angeles are too different, even though the New York
animation was patched up by the Hollywood crew. Fritz himself does
not act the same from scene to scene; it is as if different actors
were playing the same role.
The New York animation is what might be expectedcartoony,
bouncy, but without close control, and threatening always to fly
apart into careless, sloppy animation of the sort that was common
in the old Terrytoons. This actually happens during the bits of
animation by James Tyer, a Terrytoons veteran who did a little work
on Fritz in New York. When Fritz and Duke the crow are careening
through the streets of Harlem, one of the pig policemen grabs their
car and is slugged by Duke and sent flying through the window of
a Negro church; he fires after the fleeing car until he realizes
that his pants are gone, and he is naked below the waist. Tyer animated
the pig, and his work is New York animation at its most extremeloose
and scribbly, a jumble of lines that gives no sense of outlining
a solid body.
At the other extreme is the animation of John Sparey, who was responsible
for Fritz himself in California. Sparey's work is far more precise
than any of the New York animation, and has a solid, structural
feeling that Tyer's animation lacks. But much of Sparey's work is
stiff and literal, with little in it of what animators call "stretch
and squash," which is just another way of saying "elasticity."
At the Disney studio, stretch and squashbefore it was suppressed
almost entirelywas elaborated into a formula: the volume of
a character's body must remain the same no matter how much it is
stretched or squashed. Directors at other studiosespecially
Tex Avery and Bob Clampettwent far beyond the Disney boundaries,
and did it successfully, but they understood the important point,
which is that the body may be distorted, but its physical realityits
plausibilitymust not be destroyed. In Fritz, Tyer's
work encourages disbelief; Sparey's work does not test the limits
Other directors have worked with animators as different as Tyer
and Sparey, and have made cartoons with much greater unity than
Fritz. This would have been difficult for Bakshi to do in
any event, because of his move to California; in Hollywood, he was
working with animators who were unknown quantities, and he could
learn only through trial and error (and, because of his low budget,
with little room for mistakes) which animator could best perform
which kind of task. But Bakshi's methods of directing may have made
some visual inconsistencies inevitable under any circumstances.
Most theatrical cartoon directors think from the beginning about
how their pictures will look on the screen, and work from there.
Stories are "written" as storyboardsthat is, as
a series of drawings that tell a storyand not as scripts;
this means that the scenes must be drawn from the beginning, and
not just described. The director will provide animators with not
only the layouts from the layout artist, which indicate how the
characters must move through each scene, but also action and gesture
poses of the characters in key moments in each scene. Thus the director's
ideas about how the picture should look will have been dominant
from the first.
Bakshi's methodsas pieced together from what I have been
told by him and by people who worked for himwere significantly
different when he made Fritz. He began with an actual script,
taken with only a few changes from the Crumb stories; according
to one person who saw it, this script consisted mostly of dialogue.
Bakshi began work on his second feature, Heavy Traffic, in
much the same way, by filling notebooks with dialogue.
Even though Bakshi left his script for Fritz far behind
as he worked his ideas out in the layouts and the animation, the
point remains that he emphasized words over picturesor, at
least, before pictures.
The pattern established at the beginning persisted throughout the
production of the movie; there seems always to have been a paucity
of drawings. Fritz never coalesced around any clear indications
from Bakshi as to what the animation of the picture should be like,
other than that it should be full animation in the old style (and,
eventually, that it should be "Hollywood animation" as
opposed to the New York variety.) Neither Bakshi nor his layout
men fed the animators the poses that other directors have used to
define the type of animation they wanted. An animator when given
a scene might receive, at best, only a few rough sketches, in addition
to the layouts. (He would also get exposure sheets, which prescribe
the general timing.)
Even though he did not supply them with lots of drawings, Bakshi
worked with his animators in other ways. He would discuss a scene
with an animator, acting it out and giving the animator an idea
of what he wanted (in New York, Anzilotti often did this for him).
Other directors do that, too, but Bakshi went further; he apparently
tried to make up for the lack of strong visual guidance by adopting
another procedure that is far less common. Norm McCabe has described
as a "practice peculiar to Ralph" "his habit of closely
checking animation as it was being done. He'd come in at least once
a day and flip your work. I found this somewhat disturbing at first.
but became used to it. I found if you didn't have enough new stuff,
you simply told him, and he'd bounce away to see someone else."
Bakshi also relied heavily on "live-action" camera angles,
as if to distract our attention from the animation. Near the opening
of the picture, when Fritz is luring the three girls to the bathtub,
the camera hops and jumps all over the placeit looks straight
down on Fritz, it looks up at him from ground level, it looks down
on him from a doorway, and so forth. Fortunately, the camera is
not quite so jumpy during the rest of the picture, but it is restless
enough to call attention to itself on more than one occasion.
If Fritz is deficient in so many ways, then why is the picture
worthy of our attention? For that matter, why pay any attention
to Bakshi himself?
The second question is easier to answer. The animators who won
Bakshi's confidence and worked for him for any length of time are
virtually unanimous in their praise for him. His knowledge of all
phases of animation is evidently tremendousan outgrowth of
his years in the New York studios, where he did almost everything
by himself, of necessityand what he seems to have been doing
in Fritz was learning how to put that knowledge to work in
a cartoon far more ambitious than any he had made before. Moreover,
he was making Fritz under conditions that made it difficult
or impossible for him to correct his inevitable mistakes. If he
disliked a piece of animationand he eventually decided that
he disliked much of what had been done in New YorkBakshi often
had no choice but to use it or throw it out completely. There was
not much money to do anything over. Bakshi wound up throwing out
great chunks of the New York animation, and that accounts for the
jerky, hard-to-follow editing of some sequences.
However, even with all these handicaps, there are segments of Fritz
that shine like small gems. One of the best is the brief sequence
(animated by John Gentilella) that introduces us to Blue, the rabbit
motorcyclist, and Harriet, his girlfriend; here, at last, is a sequence
carefully put together. The idea of a rabbit as a Hell's Angel is
funny enough in itself, but in Bakshi's editing, we get only glimpses
of Blue, and they reinforce the basic incongruitythis rabbit
wears boots, has long fingernails on hands bedecked in rings, and
has the stupefied, lurching manner of a caricatured dope fiend.
Appropriately, we don't even see Blue whole until he's seated on
his motorcycle. What makes this brief episode so satisfactory is
that it is filled with cross-currents of ridiculeof motorcyclists,
of movies that appeal to motorcyclists, of our fears of motorcyclistsall
blended and refined by the cartoonmaker's art.
Such scenes may be only happy accidents; certainly that could be
the case, in a production as chaotic as Fritz. But they are
more likely indications of Bakshi's capabilities once he has digested
all that he learned during the filming of Fritz. Bakshi's
worst handicap in Fritz was his own screenplay, but there
are moments in the picturelike the sequence with Blue and
Harrietthat offer hope that Bakshi can triumph even over his
deficiencies as a writer, especially if he begins "writing"
more in visual terms. Bakshi seems much happier telling a story
with pictures than trying to enliven a long Crumb monologue.
But whatever happens to Bakshi's own career, Fritz will
remain a significant film, because it has enriched animation's language.
In the first place, Fritz reconciles the conflicting approaches
in two different kinds of animated films. Traditional animated cartoons,
as exemplified by the Disney features, are populated by three-dimensional
figures who live in a world that exists in depth. This approach
has been abandoned in "art" cartoons or "design"
cartoons, as they are often called, which have been influenced instead
by the fine arts and graphic arts of the twentieth century, and
share its characteristics: flatness, strong patterns, abstract forms.
The animationthe actual movementin these two kinds
of cartoons differs enormously. In traditional cartoons, the styles
of animation range from the extreme realism of the Disney cartoons
to the extravagance of Avery and Clampett, but the common denominator
is that we are asked to believe in the characters as real, physical
creatures. In "art" cartoons, by contrast, the cartoonmaker
reminds us constantly that we are looking at drawings on a flat
surface, not only through the design of his characters (usually
abstract or semi-abstract) but through their highly stylized movements.
Usually, traditional animation is full, whereas the animation in
"art" cartoons is limitedbut not the same kind of
limited animation that is used in most television cartoons. The
TV animation is a corruption of traditional animation; television
cartoons frequently look like traditional cartoons with most of
the movement subtracted. In "art" cartoons, by contrast;
movement may be equally skimpy, but it is a new kind of movement,
tailored to the cartoons' visual style. Sometimes, in fact, the
animation in "art" cartoons is full, although it may not
seem so because other elements in the picturecolor, form,
textureovershadow the animation itself.
The UPA studio, in the early fifties, was the first great exponent
of this new approach to animation, and in its wake, other cartoon
studiosDisney, Warner, Lantzaped the UPA style to some
extent, mostly by using background paintings (and occasionally characters)
that were flatter in design and more simplified than before. The
results were usually poor; the new style of graphics and animation
diminished the cartoon characters, sapping them of their vitality
without providing anything in return. Only Ward Kimball's Disney
cartoons (Toot Whistle Plunk and Boom, etc.) and some
of Chuck Jones's Warner cartoons (in which limited animation and
full animation are blended so artfully that the eye hardly notices
the difference) succeeded in bridging the gap, but even these cartoons
look too much like sophisticated exercises in problem-solving.
What is extraordinary about Fritz is not that Ralph Bakshi
has mixed ingredients from these conflicting approachesthat
has been done before, and done wellbut that he seems so much
at ease in doing it. Bakshi entered animation at a time when UPA's
lessons had been digested, and were being applied as a matter of
courseeven though in a cheapened form. It is natural for him
to use "design" elements in his picturesabstract
and semi-abstract forms, for example, and a freer use of colorbut
he has also found his way back to traditional animation, because
the physical reality of its characters is necessary for the kinds
of films he wants to make. Even though Bakshi cannot yet speak traditional
animation's language fluently, he knows why he wants to speak itand
this has given him a self-confidence that many older cartoonmakers
have lost in the face of widespread contempt for their work.
Throughout Fritz, there are scenes conceived in "design"
termsas when trucks jostle Winston's Volkswagen on the night
highway, and Fritz delivers his soliloquy before setting the dormitory
on firebut they never tear loose from their moorings. Even
when they fail dramaticallyas when the animation and the dialogue
rub against one another during the soliloquythey remain anchored
in physical reality; there is no descent into abstraction, into
"design" for its own sake. For the most part, the narcissism
of the typical "art" cartoon is mercifully absent.
Probably the most important elements in this successful mixturebecause
they give the picture a unity that it would otherwise lackare
the backgrounds by Ira Turek and Johnnie Vita. Vita, who has known
Bakshi since they both worked at Terrytoons, has recalled that he
and Bakshi "had a ball for two months shooting stills for background
material...we went in and out of Harlem, East Village, rooftops,
docks, alleys, toilets, bars, synagogues, Chinatown, Times Square,
Brooklyn Bridge, (a) cemetery, churches, (a) police station...Ralph
was looking for reality."
Vita's photographs were turned over to Ira Turek, who drew the
backgrounds with a Rapidograph pena technical pen that produces
an inked line of uniform width. Robert Crumb uses a Rapidograph,
and Turek captured much of Crumb's style in his background drawings.
The publicity for the film emphasized the photographs, to the point
that it is easy to get the impression that every background was
traced from a photograph. That was far from being the case; Ira
Turek says that of approximately seven hundred backgrounds in the
film, not more than fifty or sixty were traced, and even with those,
he did not make literal tracings, but rearranged the settings considerably.
For most of the backgrounds, Turek was not only not given photographs
to trace, he was not even given detailed layout drawings. The layouts
that are given to background artists range from the sketchy to the
highly detailed, but the layouts that were given to Turek sometimes
consisted of only a few pencil lines, to indicate the horizon and
the perspective. For most sequencesthe scenes in the junkyard,
for example, and in Big Bertha's padno photographs were used
at all. Even the fish-eye shots of Fritz's dormitory and Washington
Square Park were completely original; Turek devised his own method
for introducing that perspective into his drawings. If you did not
know better, it would be easy to believe that many of Turek's drawings
were traced from photographs; they are much grittier and more detailed
than previous cartoon backgrounds.
After Turek had completed a background drawing in ink on a transparent
"cel," the drawing would be Xeroxed onto watercolor paper
for Vita, and onto animation paper for the animators to use in matching
the characters to the backgrounds. When Vita had finished his painting,
Turek's original drawing, on the cel, would be placed over the watercolor,
obscuring the Xerox lines on the painting (except that on some of
the paintings, the watercolor paper shrunk, and the Xerox lines
showed up on the screen).
Vita, in his paintings, used color freely and with dramatic flair;
he filled the screen with bilious greens and purples, and occasional
sullen reds. The paintings create and sustain moodsfear, despair,
anger, depression, resentmentbut not at the expense of the
settings themselves. Vita's colors complement Turek's drawings;
they do not fight with them, or ignore them. What we see always
remains a bar, or a Harlem street corner, and above all, a stage
for Fritz and the other characters. There have been distinguished
background paintings for other cartoonsEyvind Earle's delicately
stylized settings for Sleeping Beauty, for examplebut
I doubt that there have been any that have supported the characters
themselves as well as the backgrounds in Fritz.
Bakshi's task was not simply to create moods, but to represent
emotions that have not had any place in animation, at least not
without some clever disguise. Lust in a Tex Avery cartoon culminates
naturally in a self-destructive frenzy; lust in Fritz leads
inevitably to copulation. The step from lust of the one kind to
.lust of the other is enormous, and it was too big for some animators
to make. In Hollywood, Bakshi has said, two animators quit work
on Fritz after a few days, because the picture was simply
too raw for them.
Bakshi's efforts to bring a greater variety of emotions into animation
were not always successful. Sometimes he slipped into comedy that
would almost fit into an Avery cartoon, as when Fritz is lasciviously
pursuing Bertha through the junkyard. But more often, he was simply
crude and clumsy, as when Fritz interrupts his copulation with Bertha
and reveals his genitals. This spoils one of the best running jokes
in the picture, because up until then, this perpetually horny cat
has had nothing but air between his thighs. There is reason to be
thankful for small favors, however: Bakshi originally planned to
show a close-up of Fritz's wilting penis after Bertha derided his
erection. I have been told that the one remaining shot of Fritz's
genitals would have been removed, too, if there had been any money
left to do it, but that's not really the point. What's wrong with
the picture is that Bakshi was explicit at times when he didn't
really need to be, when he could have made a scene funnier or more
affecting by holding back a little. Fritz's genitals should have
been excised from the movie early in its production, before animation
That doesn't mean that Fritz is pornographic; as a pornographic
film, the movie is a dud, because there isn't very much sex in it.
Although Bakshihis protests to the contrary notwithstandingmust
have been aware from the first that an X rating would guarantee
his cartoon lots of publicity, I doubt that he included explicit
sex to insure such a rating. An X would have been almost inevitable
if he had just stuck closely to Crumb's stories. I am inclined to
believe instead that Fritz's crudity was unavoidable, since
the movie is so different from what everyoneincluding people
in animationhad come to expect from an animated cartoon. How
do you deal openly with sex in a cartoon? That is a question that
hardly anyone had thought to ask, much less answer, before Bakshi
made Fritz, and so it's not surprising that many of Bakshi's
answers were unsatisfactory.
when sex was not involved, Bakshi could lead himself astray. For
example, Duke's death should be affecting, since Duke is a sympathetic
character; the sequence in which he is shot and dies has in fact
been singled out by many people as one of the best in the movie.
That's true, but for me, the effects in the sequence come perilously
close to dominating the character. The central image is fine: pool
balls bounce, in order, into blood-red holes as Duke dies. But there
are too many such devicesmultiple images, a "cracking"
yellow eye, a shot straight up at Duke as he diesand Duke
himself is almost obscured by them. It's as if Bakshi didn't trust
the strength of his basic ideathe pool ballsand fussed
over it, like an amateur artist adding "shading" to a
For the most part, Bakshi had trouble handling really strong emotions.
Whether he was depicting themor trying to evoke them in his
audience, as with Duke's deathhis efforts usually fell short.
He would trip over something like the gimmicks in the death sequence,
and we would be left tantalizingly close to animation of real depth
and power. But sometimes, in sequences that were less demanding,
Bakshi broke through, and everything fell into place. It is here
that we get some sense of what the more important sequences would
have been like if Bakshi had been able to make them as good as he
obviously wanted them to be. The "Winston Schwartz" number,
for instances, reproduces beautifully the harshness of an urban
highway at night, and does it with animation; there is nothing about
this sequence, with its bright colors and bullying trucks, that
suggests live action. Later in the film, the meeting of the revolutionaries
in the mausoleum is thick with a fear and apprehension that builds
as the sequence progresses.
Such episodes would be much more impressive in a better movie,
but they at least suggest how much unused power rests in traditional
animation's hands. "Art" cartoons have explored emotions
that have been forbidden to traditional animation, but the artificiality
of these cartoons has robbed them of impact. Traditional animation
does not suffer from that disabilityit can convince us of
the reality of what we seebut it has suffered from a disability
of another kind: the belief of many of its practitioners that their
work is trivial. Fritz, for all its clumsiness, is a long
step away from that mistaken belief.
Still, there is something wrong with Fritz's handling of
strong emotions that goes beyond the clumsiness and miscalculation
that were inevitable, given not only that Fritz was a pioneering
effort but that it was made under inauspicious conditions as well.
For example, when Fritz and Winston are stranded in the desert,
a farmer with a truckload of chickens stops to help thembut
first he beats his clucking chickens to death. The chicken farmer
is in Crumb's story, but the bloody, senseless killing of the chickens
is not. It is explicable only as a violent fantasy, of the sort
that was foreclosed to animation, before Fritz. This extraordinarily
ugly moment is followed by one even uglier a minute or so later,
when Winston is berating Fritz for not realizing that their car
was out of gasoline. As she talks, Fritz turns toward the audience
and moves his hand in imitation of Winston's mouth, while smirking
at us nastily. It is a smile of complicity, as if Bakshi himself,
aware that his movie had just gone off the rails, were turning to
us for support.
Robert Crumb, the most perceptive of modern cartoonists (and something
of an expert on expressing his private fantasies in public), provided
a clue as to what was going on here when I talked to him a few days
after he had seen the movie.
Crumb first saw Fritz in February 1972, during a visit to
Los Angeles in the company of some other underground cartoonists.
He remembered the sequence of events this way:
"I told all of those guys, say, you know, we can see that
Fritz the Cat movie while we're down hereSpain [Rodriguez]
and [S. Clay] Wilson and Robert Williams and [Rick] Griffin, they
were all there, at Williams' house. So I called up Bakshi and said,
hey, I'm down here and I'd like to see the movie, and all the other
guys are here, too. He said, okay, I'll call you and let you know
tomorrow when you can see it. He called me the next morning and
said he just wanted me to see it, he really didn't want those guys
there. He was sure they'd hate it and put 'im down real bad, and
he just wanted me to see it with him so that he could talk to me
about it alone, and he'd feel better if just I came down by myselfhe
was so insistent about it. I said, well, okay, and then I hung up
and I told the guys what he said. They were real pissed off and
disappointed, they wanted to see it ... So we decided that when
Ralph Bakshi came, I'd talk to him first and then they'd all come
out and say okay, let's go. So Ralph Bakshi cameeverybody's
waiting around, building up; this big pressure thingand he
came, and I went out and said, listen, you've gotta let those guys
come, because they're really countin' on seein' it, you know, you
can't tell them they can't see it. It's fine with me, you know.
He said, oh God, and really freaked out: they'll hate it, they'll
hate me, they'll come down real hard on me. First he says to me,
you're going to hate it, I know you're going to hate it. He felt
real guilty and stuff, full of guilt about the whole thing. Apparently
he's going through a lot of changes, he's torn between the big-time
mass-media corporation that he works for and this personal-artist
trip that I'm in, and Wilson, and Spain, and all these guys. Then
all the guys come storming out of the house, saying okay, let's
go, and come up and like surround me and Ralph Bakshi. Bakshi really
starts freaking out, you knowparanoid stuff. Robert Williams
says, we're all blood brothers, all of us underground cartoonists,
and we've been through a lot together, and this thing means something
to all of us. So they all get in their cars, and I get in Ralph
Bakshi's sports car with him, and we take off, and Bakshi tries
to ditch these guys, and he can't do it. So we get down to...where
they showed the screening, and we're all waiting around for them
to put on the reel, and stuff, and guys are like trying to talk
to Ralph Bakshi, and he's like saying stuff that doesn't make sense,
he's so freaked out. Real nervous stuff; half-finished sentences
and stuff. He's really scared of those guys or something. Then after
it's over, and the lights went on, . . . me and Ralph Bakshi were
sitting in the back of the screening room, and all the other guys
filed out, with stone faces. They didn't even look at us. Ralph
Bakshi said, see, they hate me, what a bunch of nasty guys; bad
vibes. He asked me, well, what'd you think of it? I just shrugged
my shoulders. I didn't know what to say. Then I told him I didn't
like what he did with that revolutionary scene at all, that really
pissed me off, how he changed that around and twisted it, into something
I didn't intend it to be at all...I didn't stay around very long.
Ralph Bakshi said afterward, well, that's over with, now you've
seen it, I'm glad that's over with. Poor guy, I felt sorry for him."
Crumb had this to say about the picture itself: "It's 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. ... It's compulsive or something." He noted that characters
urinate at three points in the movie; there is nothing like that
in Crumb's original Fritz stories. "Bakshi puts in this pissing
stuff, and toilet stuff. I didn't like that sex attitude in it very
much. It's like real repressed horniness; he's kind of letting it
Some of Bakshi's own comments about the moviemade more than
two months before Crumb saw itdovetail with Crumb's:
"It was like going to a psychiatrist, working with Crumb on
this stuff. All these things that I'd been blocking for years started
pouring out. Whether the picture works or not, man, it's been the
best thing that ever happened to me in my life, because now I understand
what's locked up inside and what I want to do as a cartoonist."
Ultimately, it's almost beside the point to talk about Fritz's
failure to recreate the sixties, or even to mirror Crumb's work;
Fritz is only incidentally about these things. If we accept
Bakshi's word about the picture's effect on him, then Fritz
is a prime example of art as therapy for the artist. But I think
that would be only part of the truth; I suspect that if Fritz
had been made by any other young cartoon director who cared about
his work, it would have much the same air of "repressed horniness."
That is because it is animation as a whole that has suffered from
A multitude of conventions and taboos have settled in around animation
in recent years, even as they were falling away from other films
and the arts in general. Now, even the self-incineration of Avery's
wolf characters is outside the bounds of what is acceptable in animated
comedy. These barriers had special significance for Bakshi, because,
in effect, they made the whole substance of his life off-limits
to animation. There was not much to connect the Terrytoons of the
sixties with Bakshi's life in Brownsville; there was not much to
connect the Terrytoons of the sixties with life of any kind, but
the gulf between them and Brownsville must have been particularly
wide. For a man of Bakshi's temperamentimpulsive, secretive,
emotional, not "literary" in any senseit must have
been insufferable to work in a field that refused to let him draw
on his own experiences when he was making cartoons. Small wonder
that Bakshi has sometimes talked of leaving animation if he could
not break away from the old formulas, and small wonder too that
he threw so much of himself into Fritz, even though he was
working with another man's creation. There hangs about Fritz
the sweet scent of release, of freedom from old bugbears, for Bakshi
and for everyone else in animation.
Fritz was necessary if animation is to survive. It is a
little like Disney's Fantasia, which is dull as entertainment
but marvelous as a demonstration of all the resources that Disney
had available at that time. Fritz, although it is crude and
unpleasant for much of its length, is successful as a demonstration
of all that can yet be accomplished in animationnot technically,
It may turn out that Bakshi himself is not capable of exploring
the new frontiers whose existence he has proved; other artists have
been doomed to repeating themselves once they reached a certain
level of development, and Bakshi could conceivably spend the rest
or his career turning out films that are simply slicker versions
of Fritz. There is good evidence, though, that he is interested
in doing more than that. For one thing, he is a collector of children's
books illustrated by such masters as Arthur Rackham.
"It's crazy, but it's the other side of the coin," he
said. "It's pure syrup. but it's beautiful... The thing is,
there's a great mystery about them. Realism and humor like Crumb
and Spain and these other guys, that's one side of it, and very
important; but the other side of it is these great dreamers, the
great Victorian illustrators like Ernest Shepard. It's obvious how
much they loved what they were doing. I keep going between these
two worldsdreaming totally, and then bouncing back and doing
tough stuff. Its frustrating sometimes when I sit down to draw,
I'll do one sketch of one kind, and then a sketch of the other,
and I get confused. I try to ask myself, Ralph, don't you know what
you want to do?"
Many people helped me in the writing of this long article, and
most of them have already been quoted by name; a few others have
requested that they remain anonymous. I am also indebted to Graham
Webb and Mark Kausler; and especially to Milton Gray, who doubled
as an animator on Fritz and associate editor of Funnyworld.
[Click here to read R. Crumb's comments
on "The Filming of Fritz the Cat."]
[Original article © 1973 Michael Barrier]