Thirty years after its release, the Coen brothers-directed crime caper survives as a wildly entertaining – if vaguely infuriating – piece of Valley cultural taxonomy.

Re-Raising Arizona

Written by M.V. Moorhead Category: History Issue: April 2017
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“With the benefit of hindsight, maybe it wasn’t such a hot idea…”

 

 


Joel (left) and Ethan Coen strike a pose on the
Raising Arizona set in 1987.

So says H.I. “Hi” McDunnough, the narrator and hero – if that’s the right word – of Raising Arizona. Speaking in his now-iconic, pseudo-hillbilly drawl during the film’s lengthy prologue, Hi is referring to the plot he and his wife Edwina (“Ed”) have hatched to appropriate a baby – one-fifth of the famous “Arizona Quints” – from the home of wealthy Phoenix businessman Nathan Arizona and his wife, not for purposes of ransom but simply to be parents.

Not “such a hot idea.” In the immediate aftermath of its theatrical release – 30 years ago this month – that assessment might have equally applied to the Coen brothers-directed caper itself. Starring a cast of semi-knowns, the film opened to modest profits and no particular indication that it would come to be regarded as a classic. The reviews weren’t bad, but they weren’t raves, either. Gene Siskel gave it a qualified thumbs-up, while Roger Ebert gave it a thumbs-down. Vincent Canby dismissed it in The New York Times. The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael liked it, but said it was “no big deal.”

Ultimately, the film became a cult hit and the most oddly beloved of Arizona movies. With its trailer park philosophers, trigger-happy grocery clerks and brutal slapstick, the movie offered a comic vision of Arizona so rich that it helped shape the stereotype of our state for much of the country. It was armchair anthropology. Homage and insult all at once.

And we can’t stop watching it. “It certainly has a tremendous following,” says actor Sam McMurray, who played Hi’s would-be swinger buddy Glen in the movie. “Much to my surprise.”

Today, Joel and Ethan Coen are revered American filmmakers with a long list of distinguished credits. But back in the mid-’80s, they were two deadpan, wise-assed kids with a single feature to their credit – a violent yet funny noir film called Blood Simple (1984).
The Coens were from suburban Minneapolis, but they set Blood Simple in Texas because it seemed right for the story they were telling. For their sophomore effort, they wanted to do something in sharp contrast to their debut. So they chose a tone of broad, cartoonish farce. And for their setting they chose… Arizona.

Why Arizona?
“Perhaps partly because we’re not from the Southwest,” Ethan Coen told an interviewer in the French cinema journal Positif in 1987, “which appears nearly as exotic to us [Midwesterners] as it is for you [in France]. It’s like an attraction for us. For the second film [after Blood Simple], that type of desert landscape seemed the right place.”

The same year, in American Film, Joel Coen gave a similar explanation as to the choice of babies and the desire to parent as a theme – essentially, it was a target of opportunity. “A baby’s face is good movie fodder. You just wanna take elements that are good fodder and do something different with them.”

For the Raising Arizona uninitiated, here is the “something different” that the Coens did:
Hi (Nicolas Cage) woos Ed (Holly Hunter) at intervals, every time she books him into the “county lockup in Tempe, Arizona.” He’s a scruffy, not-too-threatening stickup man, and she’s the cop who does the fingerprinting and the mug shots. She speaks in a harsh drill sergeant’s bark (“Turn t’the RIGHT!”) but there’s no mistaking it – his line of sweet talk infiltrates her defenses.

Though he’s a repeat offender, he swears off crime and persuades her to marry him. Their nuptial bliss proves short-lived when Ed learns she can’t conceive. (“Edwina’s insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase,” Hi laments in one of the film’s many quotable moments.) Adoption is closed to them, too, because of Hi’s criminal past, so when they hear of the quintuplets born to Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson), the proprietor of furniture warehouse Unpainted Arizona, who jokingly says they have more than they can handle, Ed decides to take him at his word.


In a clip from the movie, Ed (Holly Hunter) and Hi (Nicolas Cage)
snuggle purloined infant Nathan Jr. (Valley native T.J. Kuhn).

All this unfolds before the opening credits begin, with a burst of unexpected yodeling. Well, maybe not yodeling, exactly. “I would hardly call my performance yodeling,” John R. Crowder says by phone from his home in Oklahoma. “I’ve called it hollering. Yodeling is breaking back and forth between falsetto and normal voice.”

The musician, now retired from a career of touring with the likes of Leonard Cohen, recalls his Raising Arizona recording session in language rather reminiscent of a Coen brothers character: “I went in and met with the Coens, and they gave me a tape of a Pete Seeger song, and said that was what they wanted… I also did some whistling for them. They had hired a whistler, but they had dismissed him, so they said we’d sure like some whistling if you could do it. I declared that I could.”

The bumpkin-ish yet headlong, energetic effect of this music is highly infectious; similar sounds later turned up in commercials for Yahoo.

Whatever the technical term for it, Crowder’s vocals led into a twisty plot in which virtually every character who enters the story is trying to claim the irresistibly chubby-cheeked baby for his or her own. These include Gale (John Goodman) and Evelle (William Forsythe), two escaped-con pals of Hi, and Hi’s boss Glen (McMurray) and his wife Dot (Frances McDormand), a couple of breeders that Ed regards as “decent.”

Also seeking the unflappable infant is a shaggy, motorcycle-borne bounty hunter (Randall “Tex” Cobb), who rides out of the desert spitefully blasting hapless innocents. Wild chases and grapples ensue, played out against the backdrop of our state’s signature craggy peaks and cacti.

These shooting locations were perhaps just as vital to realizing the Coens’ nutty vision as the actors and the ornately cornpone dialogue. While the Coens assembled the high-profile talent in L.A. or New York during casting in early 1986, the local movie office was working to nail down the dusty, sun-scalded stage on which they’d perform.

“It was one of the first movies I worked on,” recalls Debra Knoblauch, now retired after a 30-year career with the Phoenix Film Commission. “They sent us the script, and we sent them back pictures.”

Among the locales chosen were such quintessential desert scenery as Lost Dutchman State Park – where Hi and Ed live in their doublewide – and Scottsdale’s Reata Pass, where the final showdown with the biker takes place. Jokake Inn at The Phoenician played the front of the Arizona family mansion, and the inside of the historic City Hall in Downtown Phoenix was used as well.

“At the time, [City Hall] was under renovation,” Knoblauch says. “They [shot] the adoption agency there. They used the City of Phoenix Water Treatment Plant at 24th Street for the prison [exteriors].”

 
Demonstrating her baby-delighting methods at Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale near Reata Pass

 

 

What’s pointedly absent from Raising Arizona are the skyscrapers and Mid-Century Modern architecture of Downtown. Apart from supermarkets, convenience stores and a glimpse or two of suburbia, there’s little evidence of civilization. The banks and general stores could almost do service in a spaghetti Western, and the desert seems, somehow, not too far from the terrain through which Wile E. Coyote chased the Road Runner.


Julie Kareus, Raising Arizona baby wrangler, entertaining
T.J. Kuhn on set during filming

Comically speaking, that was entirely by design.

The axis around which all this chaos spins is Nathan Jr., the purloined baby, observing his changes of fortune from his car seat with a bemused but not particularly troubled expression. “I’ve seen the movie a trillion times now,” says local filmmaker Rick Dallago, a student of the film. “I realized [the baby is] the straight man – the audience to what’s happening.”

If nothing else makes you feel old about Raising Arizona hitting the three-decade mark, consider this: the infant actors who played Nathan Jr. and the other Arizona quints are now in their 30s.

“They were all born within [the same] three-month period, all in the Phoenix area,” Dallago says. “And they were all blond. It was a control group that I found fascinating.”

So fascinating that Dallago, a veteran Hollywood producer and location manager, decided to try his hand at the documentary form. He’s currently completing Arizona Raised, a full-length “Where are they now?” on the Raising Arizona infants. “I’ve been working on the documentary for almost three years. I tracked down most of the babies,” he says.

Dallago has a theory about the quint actors: that their adult personalities can be discerned by watching them as infants. His primary specimen is T.J. Kuhn, the baby who claimed the “lead role” of Nathan Jr., largely on the basis of his happy and even-keeled disposition. “He’s just the mellowest adult, and he was the mellowest baby,” Dallago says.

Now a Valley real estate agent, Kuhn is understandably hazy on the details of his first and only acting job: “The only thing I can remember is when they had all the babies in the playpen.”

That’s not to say, however, that Raising Arizona isn’t still an important part of his life. “Whenever we would see a video of it, at the grocery store, the gas station, my dad would buy it,” Kuhn says. “I have dozens of them… And I did have a chance to talk to Nic Cage once, on the radio. He was promoting something else, and the morning hosts put me on to surprise him.”

His family also formed a lifelong friendship with Julie Kareus, an obstetric nurse and current Valley resident who served as the production’s on-set “baby wrangler.”

In the ’80s, Kareus’ medical background allowed her to cultivate a curious sideline in show business. “I was the RN on set for TV commercials,” says Kareus, credited in the film as Julie Asch. At one time or another, she worked on ads for Pampers, Huggies and Johnson & Johnson.

On the recommendation of friends, 20th Century Fox recruited her to help evaluate and audition infant actors for Raising Arizona. “We had a generic ad, like ‘Does your baby have star power?’” she recalls. “I think we saw six to eight hundred babies.”

One of them was Kuhn. “We were living in the Moon Valley area,” he says. “My parents saw the ad [for the casting call]. I guess they gave us a temperament test, to see what babies would freak out when they were taken away from their parents, and they narrowed it down from there.”

Kareus says Kuhn was the most easygoing. “We had backup babies, twins, but they’re only in one shot, where they’re asleep with Holly,” she says. “T.J. was just this baby that would do anything.”

During the chase scene, for instance, when Nathan Jr. is pulling his hoodie over his face in alarm, Kareus recalls, “What we were doing is, I was playing peek-a-boo under my sweater, and he’d imitate me.”

He was such an active, alert baby that when Ed’s friend Dot looks down and gasps, “He’s an angel straight from heaven!” the production team resorted to special techniques to get the low-key reaction shot they needed.

“We had given him a little beer to calm him down,” Kareus says.

There were grown-ups in Raising Arizona too, of course.
On the strength of his woebegone liquid eyes and comically sheepish manner in movies like Valley Girl (1983) and Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), Nicolas Cage was already a critical darling when he was cast as Hi. Holly Hunter wasn’t, yet – her breakthrough in Broadcast News wouldn’t come out until December 1987. John Goodman wouldn’t become Dan Conner on Roseanne until 1988. Like much of the principal cast, he was just a reliable, up-and-coming character actor.

Another was Sam McMurray, who played Hi’s skeevy boss Glen. The actor remembers nailing his audition. “It was one of those ‘No-Secret Roles.’ My mother was an actress, and she always talked about No-Secret Roles, where when you read them, you just know how to play them. I was reading, and Joel and Ethan were sitting there like bobblehead dolls.”

The quints’ mom was played by Dr. Lynne Dumin Kitei, a musical comedy veteran who had performed with Gordon MacRae, Betty Grable and Sherman Hemsley before graduating from the Temple University School of Medicine. When she was suggested for the role of Florence Arizona, she decided to show up looking like a middle-aged woman who had given birth to quintuplets thanks to fertility drugs.

“I walked in wearing a very matronly looking high collar and clunky shoes and wire-rimmed glasses,” Kitei says. Part of the audition was Florence’s epic scream when she realizes that Nathan Jr. is missing.

“I’m waiting, and I’m listening to all these girls scream. So I decide to do something different,” she says. Instead of a horror-movie shriek, she let out a rising operatic wail. “I have a three-octave range,” she says with pride. “That’s how I got the part.”


Cage and Hunter warm up to baby Kuhn between scenes




The Raising Arizona crew preps the scene at Reata Pass
in which the villainous biker Leonard Smalls (Randall “Tex” Cobb)
plucks infant Nathan Jr. from the middle of the road

The dazzling “shaky cam” tracking shot in which Florence’s scream is revealed – up the front of the Arizona family mansion, through the window and into Florence’s mouth – was the work of the Coens’ cinematographer, Barry Sonnenfeld. Veterans of the shoot recall Sonnenfeld as a third, nearly equal creative presence behind the cameras.

“Joel and Ethan are kind of this two-headed monster, and then one day this other guy starts talking, and it’s the DP, Barry,” McMurray says. “He said, ‘That didn’t work for me.’ I said, ‘Oh, sorry, you need me to move to the left or something?’ He said no, the scene didn’t work for him. And I looked at the Coen brothers, and they nodded.”

Apparently, McMurray made a good impression on Sonnenfeld, who later became a big-budget director and cast the actor in Addams Family Values. Though McMurray went on to be a regular on The Tracey Ullman Show and to recurring roles on Friends and The King of Queens, he did not become a Coen brothers repertory company member. “I liked Joel and Ethan, although I never worked for them again.”

For decades, Valley show-business lore has included vague stories that Raising Arizona was an unhappy shoot, plagued with diva behavior at the top and callously overworked local crew at the bottom. It’s hard to find anyone to corroborate this, however.

“I have to say, it was the most enjoyable film experience I’ve ever had,” McMurray says. “Nic was terrific, and God bless him, so was [the late] Trey Wilson. The only thing I heard was that Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb tried to hijack them for more money. But that’s just what I heard, and it was at third hand. No, I had a terrific experience on that movie… When I wasn’t working, [my family] spent a lot of time there. We went to The Big Ditch [the Grand Canyon], we went to Arcosanti.”

No diva behavior from the leading lady, either, Kitei says. “Holly was a doll.”
And while Kareus says that the Coens were “so nice, so easy to work with,” she admits that “Nicolas Cage was kind of upset at times, and he had to be catered to... and maybe some local people who worked on it were mad because they thought it would do more for them. I don’t know. We had long days, certainly. We had to deal with that with the babies. We’d have a 6 a.m. call, and we’d be there until midnight sometimes.”

Nor did the Phoenix film office find the production difficult: “They were a delightful production company to work with,” Knoblauch says. “It was a very organized production. They weren’t needy.”

Bill Kirkpatrick, Knoblauch’s counterpart at the Arizona Film Commission, recalls a small hiccup with one location: “They wanted to work in the prison [in Florence], which was a big deal, because wardens never want to do that.”

The agency was able to obtain permission to shoot there, but, Kirkpatrick says, “they managed to piss off the warden. He told them they couldn’t bring in any contraband at all, and the prop truck had some prop weapons in it.”

“So we went a long time without being able to shoot there again.”

Raising Arizona debuted in Arizona in April 1987, three months after Barry Goldwater – whose framed portrait hangs on the wall at Hi’s parole hearing – retired from the U.S. Senate. Evan Mecham was governor, and Arizona was in the midst of a national embarrassment over his opposition to Martin Luther King Jr. Day and its attendant racial gaffes. In light of this, the movie’s depiction of Arizonans as reckless, gun-packing galoots seems, at least by comparison, affectionate.

The pleasure of recognition – of Jokake, of Squaw Peak in its pre-Piestewa-controversy days, of Channel 5 movie critic Bill Rocz as the newscaster announcing the Arizona quints on TV – went a long way in terms of charming Valley audiences, but the film was not universally well-liked. “I heard that when it came out, a couple of elected officials were upset with how they portrayed Arizona,” Kuhn says. “But that’s just the Coen brothers’ thing. Like with Fargo.”

In her mixed review of the film in the Arizona Republic, Marsha McCreadie admired the Coens’ technique but found it “more than a little snobby and snooty in its attitude toward its subjects.”

Bill Kirkpatrick remembers the Valley opening. “We did a premiere in Scottsdale, and the mayor of Scottsdale at the time was not impressed with the movie because of when the biker, Randall Cobb, shot the rabbit. He didn’t like that. I thought it was funny.”

Raising R.I.P.
Cursed? Maybe a strong word. But the Raising Arizona cast did suffer a Poltergeist-like string of fatal misfortune in the years after the film’s release.

Trey Wilson
Died of a heart condition in 1989 at 40 as his career was taking off: The Albert Finney role in Miller’s Crossing was reportedly written for him.

Bill Rocz
The Channel 5 movie critic, known for distributing “roses” and “stinkweeds,” played an anchorman in Raising Arizona. He died in 1996.

Todd bogers
The local actor, who portrayed a teen Nathan Jr. in the film, was murdered in the parking lot of the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale in 1991. He was 24. 

Raising Arizona was hardly a box office smash – in the Valley or otherwise. The movie wasn’t among the top 10 highest-grossing movies of 1987, and couldn’t even finish No. 1 at the box office on its opening weekend in pre-blockbuster-season April. But, like A Christmas Story before it – and another Coen brothers movie, The Big Lebowski, after it – the film became one of those late-blooming hits that finds new life on home video and cable.

The film is an art house revival regular, having screened at Downtown’s Film Bar just this past January, and is still remembered as one of Cage’s “golden period” performances before he achieved greater fame and wealth in big-budget pablum like Gone in 60 Seconds.
“The Coens’ movies age well, where some other movies don’t,” Dallago says. “There’s just so much in there, you can watch it over and over.”

It should be noted that Raising Arizona was not simply – or only – an exercise in comic cultural ridicule. The film was also
sentimental and keenly nostalgic, showing audiences a funhouse-mirror vision of Arizona that, with its massive infusion of newcomers, was slowly vanishing – a place where cowboy hats and twangy Western accents were common, even in the city.

In his review for TIME magazine, Richard Corliss also acknowledged that the Coens showed a “dollop of sympathy for their forlorn kidnappers.” This appears most poignantly in Cage’s final monologue, in which Hi envisions a happy future, surrounded by family, for himself and Ed. Perhaps this is another reason for Raising Arizona’s staying power: For all its silliness, it has an emotional weight at its core. It’s about the longing for, and the struggle to be worthy of, family.

For the Valley residents who shared in its creation, the movie is family. “It’s such an iconic movie, it sort of overrides everything else I’ve done in my life when people find out about it,” Kitei says. “But it’s OK. I feel very blessed.”

–PM