The X-rated cartoon that shocked the US

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

Capturing the zeitgeist

Like the US itself, the animation establishment was undergoing a period of change, and Fritz burst out from decades of censorship as well as this shift in the studio system. Antitrust legislation and the emergence of television combined to help dissolve the dominant studio system of Hollywood’s “Golden Era”. Audiences were increasingly disconnected from the “block booking” packages that the movie theatres were forced to show, where A-movies, B-movies, newsreels, and animated shorts were combined into one package. Suddenly, shorts were not viewed as 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 rough and ready, made-for-TV cartoons in contrast to their bigger budget Tom and Jerry shorts they were making at MGM – eventually creating successes like the Flintstones.

Independent, experimental films were gaining steam in the post-war period, pushing back against the censorious backdrop of moral policing and policy. The National Legion of Decency, a Catholic pressure group dedicated to identifying morally egregious films, tried to blacklist everything from Rififi (1955) to Buñuel and Rossellini, while the decades-long Hays code, created in the 1930s, clamped down on films that were sympathetic on the side of “crime, wrong-doing, evil or sin“. Eventually, in 1968, the official classification system would emerge from these kinds of groups as moral guidance; and a few years later, Fritz burst onto the scene as the first of its kind in the “X” category – bundled together with pornography, slasher flicks, 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 Golden Age Hollywood cartoons of the 1930s and 1940s,” Dr Christopher Holliday, Lecturer in Liberal Arts and Visual Cultures Education at King’s College London, tells BBC Culture, “the playful eroticism of characters like Betty Boop was dialled up by the outlandish ‘rude and crude’ style of Bakshi’s animation, and particularly in his adaptation of Robert Crumb’s X-rated adult comic.”

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