Capturing Arsenic and Old Lace, in One Macabre Image
Earlier this year, I got an email from Criterion art director Eric Skillman asking me to create artwork for an upcoming release of Frank Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace (1944). He referenced a couple of Criterion covers that I had designed previously: Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and Bringing Up Baby (1938). Those courted an Old Hollywood–movie-poster vibe. This one, Eric said, should do the same—only with a hint of the macabre. That made sense. Arsenic and Old Lace is equal parts screwball comedy (in the vein of Bringing Up Baby) and pitch-black gothic comedy (shades of Kind Hearts and Coronets). He added, “If you could find the halfway point between Jacques Kapralik and Edward Gorey, that would be the sweet spot.”
For anyone unfamiliar, Jacques Kapralik was an illustrator and caricaturist who designed posters and other promotional artwork, mostly for MGM, during the 1940s and ’50s. If you don’t know his work, seek it out. Kapralik didn’t just draw his compositions, he constructed them three-dimensionally, using real-world objects, and lit them as tiny theatrical pieces that are so exuberant, they virtually come to life. Edward Gorey, on the other hand, was a twentieth-century American artist well-known for crosshatched pen-and-ink cartoons depicting vaguely unsettling Victorian scenes, on display throughout his dozens of illustrated books. Reconciling these two singular approaches was an inviting challenge.
I felt from the get-go that the cover ought to describe the movie as an ensemble piece. Sure, it’s a Cary Grant movie, but Arsenic and Old Lace also showcases a who’s who of character actors: Peter Lorre as an alcoholic plastic surgeon, the great James Gleason as an exasperated police lieutenant, Raymond Massey as Jonathan, the supremely creepy brother of Grant’s Mortimer—the list goes on. I needed a hook, though. A black bottle, a skull and crossbones, and a decanter and glass of elderberry wine were the first elements from the film that I homed in on. From there, I sketched a few vignettes, my favorite showing the characters perched on a death’s-head. I tightened those doodles, gussied them up into something Kapralik-esque, and sent them off to Eric as a way of asking, “This sort of thing?”