Fritz the cat at 50: the X-rated cartoon that shocked the United States


Neither studio heads nor distributors wanted to touch what many considered a doomed pornographic project, although Warner Bros eventually agreed to fund the film. But after a disastrous pre-screening where Bakshi and Krantz horrified executives with a controversial sex scene and arguments over toning down other sexual content, they withdrew their money; however Fritz secured funding from the exploitation distributor Cinemation and the film was released. “At that time, independent production was growing, because there were certain tax incentives and the studio system itself was collapsing in the 1960s,” says animation historian and critic Maureen Furniss. “It wasn’t that unusual to have independent producers, but Ralph Bakshi was a force in himself, he was a totally different guy – and he was very difficult to work with.”

Capturing the spirit of the times

Like the United States itself, the animation establishment was going through a period of change and Fritz broke after decades of censorship as well as this change in the studio system. Antitrust legislation and the emergence of television combined to help dissolve Hollywood’s “Golden Era” dominant studio system. Audiences were increasingly disconnected from the “block booking” packages that theaters were forced to show, where A-movies, B-movies, newsreels and animated shorts were combined into one package. Suddenly, shorts were no longer considered profitable or desirable. So when the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer cartoon studio closed in 1957, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera left to found their own studio, which began producing more raw, television-ready cartoons, unlike to their larger budget. Tom and Jerry shorts they were doing at MGM – eventually creating hits like the Flintstones.

Independent experimental films were gaining momentum in the post-war period, pushing back against the censored context of moral policing and politics. The National Decency Legion, a Catholic lobby group dedicated to identifying morally egregious films, attempted to blacklist everything from Rififi (1955) to Buñuel and Rossellini, while the Hays Code, created in the 1930s, had been going on for decades. sympathetic to the side of “crime, fault, evil or sin”. Eventually, in 1968, the official classification system would emerge from these types of groups as a moral guide; and a few years later, Fritz burst onto the scene as the first of its kind in the “X” category – grouped with pornography, slasher films and dramas like Midnight Cowboy (1969). So while Fritz was the first X-rated animated film, the category hadn’t been around for long. “While adult content had already made its way into a number of Hollywood Golden Age cartoons of the 1930s and 1940s,” said Dr. Christopher Holliday, lecturer in liberal arts and education to visual cultures at King’s College London, “the playful eroticism of characters like Betty Boop were compounded by Bakshi’s extravagantly ‘gross and crude’ style of animation, and particularly in his comic book adaptation for X-Rated Adults by Robert Crumb.”