It was the movie that launched Joel and Ethan Coen into the wider consciousness of filmgoers, it gave Nicolas Cage his first real adult leading role, it gave early career breaks to John Goodman and William Forsythe, and it helped make Holly Hunter an overnight sensation. Plus, it gave us the immortal, iconic image of Cage, as feckless baby-napper and convenience store stick-up man H.I. McDunnough, running down a suburban street at night, carrying an armload of Huggies, with that famous pair of pantyhose on his head.
What went on behind the camera was nearly as boisterous. Here, then, are the untold tales of mirth and mayhem behind "Raising Arizona."
1. Getting the Coens to explain the deeper motivations behind their work is generally a fruitless task. Often, they'll say they did something just because it seemed like a cool idea, or they just wanted to see if it would work. In the case of "Raising Arizona," they just wanted to try to make a commercial comedy after their first film, 1984's "Blood Simple," had established their ability to make a thriller with gory horror touches. Thus, a comedy about an adorable baby. "It's like a real cheap and shameless bid at making a commercial movie," Ethan Coen told American Film magazine. "We decided to sell out, and that was the first decision."
2. Holly Hunter and Frances McDormand had been roommates in New York when they were both struggling actresses. In 1984, McDormand landed the lead role in "Blood Simple," while Hunter was heard in the film as a voice on an answering machine. For "Arizona," the Coens wrote the cameo role of brood mother Dot for McDormand (who, by now, was Joel Coen's live-in girlfriend, soon to be his wife). But they wrote the lead role of cop-turned-babynapper Edwina "Ed" McDunnough for Hunter. It was her first lead role in a movie.
3. Cast as H.I. "Hi" McDunnough, Nicolas Cage came to the set with numerous ideas for his character, as he typically does, but almost all of them were rejected by the Coens, who demanded he stick to the script. As Cage explained later, "Joel and Ethan have a very strong vision and I've learned how difficult it is to accept another artist's vision. They have an autocratic nature." Cage does takes credit, however, for Hi's unruly sideways hairdo, however. "That was just me," he told James Lipton on an episode of "Inside the Actors Studio."
4. The "Arizona" screenplay is full of unlikely literary references. Gale and Evelle Snoats, the jailbreakers played by John Goodman and William Forsythe, evoke the lowlife Snopes family from William Faulkner's stories. In John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men," Lennie Small is an unwittingly destructive giant with a fondness for rabbits; in "Arizona," Leonard Smalls is giant mercenary who blows up rabbits with hand grenades.
5. Everyone calls H.I. McDunnough "Hi," the acronym made by his initials, but sharp-eyed viewers will note that his first name is actually Herbert, which is how he signs his letter to Ed late in the movie.
6. Some 15 babies were required to play the five Arizona quintuplets. Talking to American Film, Joel Coen explained, "We kept firing babies when they wouldn't behave. And they didn't even know they were being fired, that's what was so pathetic about it."
7. What sort of misbehavior got a baby fired? Learning to walk, for one thing, since the babies were supposed to be crawling toddlers. According to Joel Coen, one mother even put her baby's shoes on backwards to keep him from walking.
8. All the primary adult characters break into tears at some point during the film. The only character who never cries is baby Nathan Jr.
9. The film contains a handful of references to cult horror classic "The Evil Dead," on which Joel Coen had one of his first film industry jobs, as assistant editor. The zoom on Florence Arizona's face when she discovers the kidnapping echoes a similar shot in the demonic-possession film. The McDunnoughs drive an early-'70s vintage Oldsmobile Delta 88, just like "Evil Dead" hero Ash.
10. And then there's the low-to-the-ground, hurtling, tracking shot, an innovation from "The Evil Dead" that became a signature shot for Coen cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld. He made extensive use of it in "Blood Simple" and in "Raising Arizona," where it's often used to represent the point of view of a scampering baby.
11. Cast as Leonard Smalls was the formidable Randall "Tex" Cobb, in the role he is probably best remembered for. A kickboxer-turned-boxer-turned-character actor, Cobb specialized in villains. Like Smalls, he seemed a force of nature to the Coens, who found him hard to control.
12. One issue with Cobb, for example: Even though he was cast as the marauding Lone Biker of the Apocalypse from H.I.'s dream, Cobb didn't actually know how to ride a motorcycle before he landed the role. At one point, driving up to examine the hole marking the tunnel opening where the Snoatses had escaped from prison, he couldn't stop his bike and fell in.
13. Composer Carter Burwell scored the movie, as he has all the Coens' pictures. The distinctive cowboy yodeling in the score was performed by John R. Crowder.
14. More stuff the Coens did just because they thought it would be cool: "In 'Raising Arizona,' we blow up a car," Ethan recalled. "And to be incredibly crude about it, it's just so cool to sit there and watch a car blow up. That was a peak. It gave us a deep, warm feeling of inner satisfaction."
15. According to the end credits, the movie was "filmed on location in Valley of the Sun, Arizona -- a great place to raise your kids."
16. The Coens spent about $5 million making "Raising Arizona," or four times the budget of "Blood Simple." The movie was a minor hit, grossing $22.8 million in North America and another $6.3 million overseas.
17. Many critics praised the film's verve and originality. Others found it an empty exercise of style over substance. The Chicago Tribune's Dave Kehr described it as "an episode of 'Hee Haw' directed by an amphetamine-crazed Orson Welles." Probably not a compliment.
18. "Raising Arizona" marked Hunter's breakthrough. Her stardom was proved no fluke later that same year with the release of "Broadcast News." In 1989, she starred in Steven Spielberg's "Always," which reunited her with John Goodman, and "Miss Firecracker," which reteamed her with Trey Wilson (Nathan Arizona Sr.). A decade later, Hunter re-upped with the Coens in "O Brother, Where Art Thou," also featuring Goodman.
19. 1987 was a breakthrough year for Cage, too. It started with "Raising Arizona" and ended with him confirming his adult leading man status in "Moonstruck."
20. "Raising Arzona" marked a career breakthrough for Trey Wilson, who followed Nathan Arizona with similar hard-nosed authority figures in "Bull Durham," "Married to the Mob," and "Great Balls of Fire." He was supposed to play crime boss Leo in the Coens' third movie, gangster saga "Miller's Crossing," but in 1989, two days before shooting was to start, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage. The Coens scrambled and were able to hire Albert Finney on short notice. Wilson was only 40.
21. Before "Arizona," Goodman's most prominent film roles had been as the football coach in "Revenge of the Nerds" and cuddly bachelor Louis Fyne in "True Stories." Soon after "Arizona," Goodman landed the defining role of his career, as blue-collar husband Dan Conner on TV's "Roseanne." "Arizona" was the first of five movies he's made to date with the Coens (including "Barton Fink" and "The Big Lebowski"), generally playing blustery, volatile men of action.
22. "Raising Arizona" was the first memorable role for William Forsythe, who thereafter tended to be cast as villains and tough guys, sometimes fearsome ("Dick Tracy"), sometimes comical ("Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo"). In 2011, he played butcher/gangster Manny Horvitz on HBO's "Boardwalk Empire."
23. Sonnenfeld shot one more movie for the Coens ("Miller's Crossing") before striking out on his own as a director with the hit "Addams Family" and "Men in Black" franchises. Still likes to use that scurrying, tot's-eye-view tracking shot.
24. The influence of "Raising Arizona" is vast and far-flung. Echoes can be seen in such divergent films as "Napoleon Dynamite" (Kip seems to be quoting H.I.'s marital vows when he says "You know I do" at his own nuptials), "Shrek the Third" (in a dream, Shrek chases a gaggle of babies, just like in the "Arizona" kidnap scene), "Kill Bill Vol. 2" (the knock-down, drag-out fight inside the cramped trailer), and Cage's own "Ghost Rider" (as he bikes through the desert, past a lizard on a rock, the lizard bursts into flames).
25. Cobb, who had dropped out of college at 19 to become a kickboxer, finally earned a bachelor's degree from Temple University in 2008, at age 57, majoring in sport and recreation management. He noted that he was accustomed to wearing a robe in a packed arena and hearing cheers, but not for something other than boxing, and without having to worry about bleeding.