In August of 1935, Jacques Kapralik arrived in America as a Jewish refugee of Hitler’s Germany. Born in Bucharest in 1906, he left behind a successful career as a cartoonist that had already brought him to Vienna, Berlin, and Paris. Two decades later he would tell the Los Angeles Examiner that he “still chuckles when he thinks of how immigration and naturalization officials would react had he told them that he intended to earn a living cutting out paper dolls in Hollywood.”
But there was a bit more to it than that.
Kapralik was a small—preciously small—part of the Hollywood publicity machine that culminates each year in the Oscars. Working mostly for MGM studios from the end of the 1930s to the late ’50s, he crafted charming caricatures of the stars and placed them in little tableaus as enthralling and elegantly composed as any shot in the pictures his work promoted. He deserves his own honorary Oscar—if only an inch tall and plastic.
Every detail in his work is a treat: the sequins on Escape (1940) star Norma Shearer’s coat, the wood mantelpiece behind her, the candles atop it which really appear to be lit, Designing Woman (1957) star Lauren Bacall’s little scissors, that flowing strip of fabric in front of her, the tiny knit sock on Gregory Peck’s foot. There’s so much love in these frames.
Although he professed surprise that this is what his career had become, Kapralik was on the path early, working as a caricaturist for several newspapers in Bucharest as a high school student at 16. Upon graduation, he moved to Vienna to do the same, and then two years later to Berlin, where he would meet his eventual wife, Hedwig Rautenberg, and draw for various outlets until 1932.
Before Hitler’s rise, he went to Paris and later New York, where he quickly found work in advertising, helping him stumble into his three-dimensional technique. “With the knowledge of English I had at that time,” he told the Louisville Times in 1941, “I didn’t fully understand just what they wanted. I figured the best thing I could do was keep saying ‘yes,’ which I did—and then turned out what I thought they wanted.”
The results appealed not only to his bosses but 20th Century Fox as well. In 1937, Kapralik married Hedwig, who had recently immigrated, and then the couple crossed the country to Hollywood. There they would spend the rest of their lives, the two of them laboring together on these miniature masterpieces in in an apartment on the Sunset Strip. Each composition required about 50 hours of work. Then it would be sent off to New York for photographing.
Although Kapralik had a regular gig doing caricatures for William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers and did the opening credits for a few films, his greatest work was rarely seen by American theatergoers. A few tableaus made it onto posters, but they were usually only used for trade journals aimed at theater owners, urging them to dedicate screens to this or that film.
Yet if the public didn’t see them, the actors and actresses themselves did, and the Los Angeles Examiner reported they “bid large sums for his originals.” And nearly every star in Hollywood was immortalized on paper by Kapralik.
There’s so much to adore in these images, maybe most of all the hair: whether it’s constructed of paper, fabric, thread, yarn, or genuine hair, it’s always perfect.
Photos of the Kapraliks show them working together in their home studio, Hedwig wearing a thimble, Jacques holding scissors, above them a rack hanging dozens of framed masterpieces. On a big shelving unit sat at least a hundred little labeled boxes, storing the components of a world in miniature—tiny pistols, lamps, treasure chests, bottles, skis, microphones, and anything else Kapralik discovered on weekly trips to novelty shops. But ready-mades weren’t enough. He also needed chains, bracelets, and fabric, lots and lots of fabric. And this is where he really had fun. In 1941, he told the Louisville Times of a recent shopping excursion, in which he requested a pair of ostentatious socks at a department store:
‘The clerk gave me a funny look,’ Kapralik laughed, ‘and said, “why, you wouldn’t want to wear these.” The socks were of a bright hue, but I said I wanted to see them anyway. He laid them on the counter, I gave him a dollar bill and pulled a pair of scissors from my pocket. While he looked at me as though I had just escape from an insane asylum I snipped the part of the socks I wanted and handed them back to him. Unless he reads this he probably still thinks he had a “nut” on his hands that day.
‘But he isn’t the only one who might feel that way. I haven’t the time to explain my work and, besides, I get a kick out of seeing clerks react when I deliberately cut the piece I want out of whatever article it happens to be in at the time.
‘Take leather, it’s getting hard to get. I used to buy scraps from a leather maker but it wasn’t a very satisfactory setup. I never use more than an inch or two at a time and was never able to get the shade and texture I wanted. So I buy gloves or pocketbooks, snip out the portion I want and leave the rest at the store, including another clerk who thinks I’m crazy.
‘It seems wasteful, I realize, but to date I haven’t been able to get my materials except miniatures any other way.’
His dedication to the bit is admirable enough, but it’s just as impressive that he was so meticulous he never needed a backup swatch. He said he bought the socks for The Chocolate Soldier (1941). See if you can spot where the fabric went:
It was for Risë Stevens’s dress, not that you could tell. And this is another great aspect of his work: the combination of instantly recognizable objects and other elements that you can’t source at all.
For instance, take this picture of the surviving diorama for Notorious (1946), held at the University of Wyoming’s Kapralik archive. You can’t necessarily be sure what Claude Rains’s hair is cut from, or what Cary Grant’s cufflink was made of, but Ingrid Bergman’s earring is clearly just an intact piece of jewelry, maybe an actual cufflink:
And in Kapralik’s piece for For Me and My Gal (1942), those stage ropes are tassels, but there’s no telling what he made Judy Garland’s hat from:
In the middle of it all are those great hand-drawn faces. Kapralik took caricature very seriously, and in a syndicated story in 1940 he detailed at length his theories about the art. A well executed caricature, he insisted, could reveal more about a person than a photograph: “I can show a mouth laughing, where the eyes are serious; eyes laughing where the mouth is solemn, and the combination gives a clue to character.”
Stardom, he insisted, is rooted in features, not looks: “The perfect beauty seldom lasts. We are attracted to points, triangles, down and up lines rather than none.”
“What the caricaturist sees in a face,” he added, “is the personality behind it, the expression of which is vital to success in pictures, the things that make a face remembered.”
He offered Myrna Loy as an example, here seen in his piece for Third Finger, Left Hand (1940):
“Myrna Loy is a great lady,” Kapralik said. “She looks and acts it all the time off screen as well as on, and all the lines of her face agree until you come to her nose which begins to be straight and then suddenly turns up. There you have the secret of her appeal: it is the unexpected. How we love to be surprised! It adds zest to her that would be lost if she hadn’t the uptilted nose.”
Robert Young’s face was also telling: “You might think of Robert Young as a comic because of the laughter lines around his eyes, but when you draw him you find he has a strong jaw and his face shows dramatic force. His chin sticks out and he has hard lines around his mouth. He should be even better in drama than in comedy.”
Kapralik had particularly strong feelings about Garbo. “Greta Garbo has done a comedy and it is good,” he said. “They say: ‘Garbo laughs’ and seem proud of it, but I say even though she is good in comedy, she shouldn’t play it. Her face is made for tragedy and drama. All her lines go down.”
“Even when she laughs,” Kapralik added, “her lips go down while she is doing it. Her eyes droop. So does her mouth; it is a face of great power and beauty and should not be wasted on an attempt to be funny.”
He’s starting to sound a bit absurd, like a believer in physiognomy, but really these are just expressions of his deep love of his art.
Kapralik kept his office filled with bandsaws, dentist drills, emery wheels, knives, and lots of miniature pairs of scissors. Imagine how much expertise must have gone into knowing when one tiny pair of scissors was just the right tiny pair of scissors:
By the beginning of World War II, Kapralik’s relatives had fled to Australia, Palestine, and America, and he wrote the war office offering to join the fight, even though the draft board classified him 4-F. “Speaking Rumanian, German and French from childhood,” he wrote, “I have no distinguishable foreign accent and was generally considered to be a native of the country in which I resided.” He said that continued contacts in Europe had kept him “quite up to date” on life there and he was “eager and prepared to go over-seas, and to undergo any risks or dangers to which a soldier of the United States might be subjected.”
It sounds like he was eager to work as a spy. Maybe he wished to help Jewish victims of Nazi persecution escape, like in the 1940 movie A Mortal Storm:
It appears instead the Office of Strategic Services called on his talents as a cartoonist to make anti-Nazi art, which an archivist at the University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Center kindly shared with me. Perhaps these drawings were distributed in Germany:
But you probably came here to put off thinking about fascists for a while.
Jacques Kapralik died in 1960, Hedwig in 1971. Kapralik’s cousin, a fellow refugee from Bucharest, donated his materials to Wyoming’s American Heritage Center. Jacques and Hedwig’s beautiful little worlds have returned to boxes there, all that love they crafted preserved for later generations who adore not only Hollywood’s big faces but also the small details that give them life.
Andrew Heisel is a writer living in New Haven, CT. Follow him @andyheisel.