One of the most impressive things about the Coen Brothers is their ability to succeed in both self-aware comedy and super-serious drama, and their first two movies encapsulate both ends of that spectrum. Apart from No Country for Old Men, their debut Blood Simple is still their most stripped-down and somber effort. There’s only one real moment of self-awareness in that film, when the camera slides along the saloon counter and then jumps over a sleeping barfly before hitting the counter again. Coming only three years after that hardboiled crime drama, the cartoonishly bonkers Raising Arizona seems like the work of a different filmmaker altogether.
And maybe it is, in a way, given how much the Coens owe to Preston Sturges. The Golden Age screwball writer/director is often cited as a Coen inspiration, due in part to a few direct correlations between his Sullivan’s Travels and the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? But Raising Arizona lives more fully under the influence of Sturges, from the pratfalls to the simple-minded characters to the way dialogue reigns as simultaneously elevated and immature. Specific elements of three Sturges films from the most celebrated era of his career — Easy Living (1937), The Lady Eve (1941) and The Palm Beach Story (1942) — offer some insight into how Raising Arizona came together with the King of ’40s Screwballs in mind.
In the opening scene of Easy Living — one of the last films Sturges wrote for another director before solidifying his dual Writer/Director status — a New York banker shouts at his butler to tell the cook that the “world’s not made of butter — tell him to fry it in lard next time!” The next few scenes set up the actual story, about the banker’s wife’s fur coat falling into the hands of another young woman. When that woman, now assumed by everyone to be a wealthy socialite, accidentally encounters the banker’s son, it seems the comedy of errors can finally begin in earnest after so much setup. But then we’re back with the banker as he exits his home, fuming about his wife, when suddenly a man in a white chef’s hat steps up to him on the street. “I’ll fry YOU in lard!”
That kind of out-of-nowhere punchline would become a Coen staple, and it first reared its head in Raising Arizona. Along with Hi (Nicolas Cage) and Ed (Holly Hunter), we constantly encounter things that are funny in the first go-round and even funnier when they unexpectedly resurface. It’s everywhere in the Coens’ dialogue, from “okay, then!” to “…or my name ain’t Nathan Arizona!” to repeated concerns about Junior’s dip-tet vaccination. The gag works on a purely visual level, too, as when Hi’s neighbor’s kid destroys the wall of his trailer:
An hour of film time later, the scene follows bounty hunter and part-time hellspawn Leonard Smalls as he ruthlessly tracks the missing baby. He manages to find Hi and Ed’s trailer, and the mood is tense when he breaks in. He sifts through the torn-up home, hunting for a clue, when something else catches his eye:
That last bit fits under the “delayed punchline” category of which Sturges made frequent use, but it also undercuts the relative seriousness of the scene with a searing effectiveness. Earlier, as Hi and Ed speed away from a police cruiser hot on their trail, their conversation turns suddenly serious. At first it’s as deep as Raising Arizona gets, the pair arguing passionately about love, devotion, family…but Hi continuously breaks from his frantic rant to calmly give polite directions as Ed drives. The undercut may not have originated with Sturges, but he was the first to be so brave about interrupting his own characters at their most vulnerable moments. And it doesn’t get much braver than the nosy horse in this crucial moment from The Lady Eve (1941):
It should go without saying that the Coens did more than cherry-pick a few Sturges tropes to beef up their comedy. The Lady Eve is chock full of characters who are opportunists above all, and that’s likely a more significant point of inspiration over self-contained gags and well-deployed punchlines. There are definite shades of Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) and Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) in Ed and Hi, the former a no-nonsense figure of self-sufficiency and the latter a hapless, lovable buffoon. Their opportunism strongly links these characters, too, and that collective mindset drives the plots of both Eve and Arizona.
Still, Sturges does pop up in more superficial ways in Arizona, which is understandable as the Coens sought to carve out a distinct comedic voice in the sophomore film. The famous opening sequence of The Palm Beach Story zips though an entire relationship as the credits roll, culminating with a high-speed wedding ceremony and the chyron and they lived happily ever after…or did they? before the film actually begins. Arizona‘s opening has much the same hyperactive quality, right down to the truncated four-shot wedding sequence: a close-up of Ed saying “I do,” a close-up of Hi saying “You bet I do,” a close-up of the priest saying “Okay then,” and a wide shot of the congregation applauding. Due respect to The Deer Hunter‘s 51-minute wedding sequence, but Raising Arizona‘s five-second version gets the point across just fine.
Easy Living, The Lady Eve and The Palm Beach Story might be the most obvious Coenesque forebears, along with the likes of Sullivan’s Travels and the bonkers Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. Nowadays film comedy is more or less relegated entirely to the top-billed actor: you get Kevin Hart or Seth Rogen or Kate McKinnon and you point a camera at them and call it a day. The movie is as funny (or unfunny) as the jokes out of the funnyperson’s mouth. But Preston Sturges pioneered something that the Coen Brothers championed decades later, and that’s the mechanics of film comedy as an all-inclusive experience. The actors are funny, sure, and they give funny performances — but there are jokes in the directing, in the way the camera moves, jokes in the editing, jokes in the writing, jokes in the sound design and musical cues. Yes, the Coens would refine their voice in later comedies, leaning less on Sturges and finding greater success with the likes of The Big Lebowski. But pound-for-pound, their funniest is still Raising Arizona.