He gets caught napping even by the local fish quick enough to leap off the line after waking the faint-hearted fisherman, insists that his ragged roof doesn’t need fixing as it’s not raining and asks his Mom (Edythe Chapman) to remind him to fix their wonky gate: “that darn gate!” says everyone who passes through it today, tomorrow and for years to come.
There’s surely not much mileage in this lazy tale I hear you cry and yet Frank Borzage’s film is gently misleading; elegantly side-swiping the expectations of audience and Hollywood alike with a narrative that is far harder than it looks.
The director elicits some superb performances from his cast, chiefly from Buck Jones who was best known for cowboy roles and yet here creates a nuanced character as far away from genre preconceptions as you could imagine. Jones is a handsome chap and looks like one of life’s easy winners and yet here he presents as a man preparing himself for disappointment by prevarication: why look life square in the eye when you can just sleep it off.
|No flies on Steve: they all get caught in the spider webs on his shoes...|
Is he waiting for something to happen? When it does he is quick to react and demonstrates physical and moral courage and yet… will these acts change him into a more acceptable “hero”? Maybe he does enough and deserves security in his own nature after all it’s the energy and ambition of the more aggressively moral souls around him that create the misery. Lazybones is as much about the competitive consensus as it is about the titular slacker: he remains true to himself whilst the others in passing judgement lose out.
|Emily Fitzroy and Jane Novak|
Borzage’s composition and cinematography is suitably dream-like with cameramen Glen MacWilliams and George Schneiderman picking up the wonderful light of the rural settings: something so bright that any sensible man would shield his eyes and just lie back on a tree trunk to bask…
Written by Frances Marion from a play by Owen Davis the film is a tale of the unexpected that only really makes itself known in the closing sequences but I won’t give those away…
|Emily Fitzroy and Jane Novak|
It begins with Frank’s gentle routines being disturbed by the arrival of his sweetheart Agnes Fanning (winningly-winsome Jane Novak) and her fearsome mother (Emily Fitzroy). The two ride in by tandem and Mrs Fanning’s stiff-backed posture lets you know to expect the worst… She cannot disguise her disgust at Steve and certainly doesn’t want his relationship with Agnes to develop.
Steve manages to get his jalopy running and momentarily impresses before it blows up, he tells Agnes he has plans and whilst in a more typical film there would be a hidden secret to rescue his fortune here you cannot be so sure.
Mrs Fanning much prefers the local “Beau Brummel”, Elmer Ballister (William Bailey) who she has lined up for her elder daughter Ruth (Zasu Pitts); he’s a real go-getter and full of it. She writes to Ruth telling her to return from her teaching post and prepare herself for wedlock. But Ruth has been rather busy away from home having married a sailor and born his child only to be rapidly widowed following his death at sea.
She returns home with her child convinced that no one will believe that she has ever been married (no licence?) and in a moment of desperation, throws herself into the fast-running waters on the edge of town. Now we see how fast Lazybones can move if he wants to as, hearing her cries he wakes from his slumber-fishing to dive in and save her.
|Ruth after the rescue...|
Safely on the river bank, Ruth tells all and Steve agrees an unlikely plan to save her reputation by looking after her baby daughter until she has the strength to confess all to her mother. He returns home with the baby spinning the tale of finding her abandoned and spurred on by Elmer’s callous disdain, announces that he will adopt.
Ruth is safe for the moment but when she finally tells her mother the old harridan refuses to listen or believe taking a stick to her terrified daughter in a genuinely shocking moment. Mrs Fanning may well be the wicked witch of the mid-West but a shadow of shame hangs momentarily across Emily Fitzroy’s brow before she grits her teeth in cruel resolve.
Ruth cannot take her baby back and Steve realises that he’s in for the long haul. Agnes cannot face this with the inevitable implications concerning the child’s true father, and she tells poor Steve that she will never speak to him again… her final card played to her lasting regret.
Events move forward to 1915 with Kit now a young girl (played by Virginia Marshall) who is still regarded with suspicion by the locals. Agnes sees her trying to befriend a local child only for the mother to pull her away whilst Steve tells his adopted daughter that it’s all his fault for being lazy.
War comes and Steve listlessly enlists only to find himself an accidental hero after he sleeps through the order to advance and ends up capturing a German squadron from the rear. He returns to a hero’s welcome and to find Kit all grown up and looking mighty pretty (Madge Bellamy).
Kit is in love with one Dick Ritchie (Leslie Fenton) who has even fixed that darn gate. Richie proposes but Steve also realises that he has feelings for his young ward…OK, that’s a bit from left field but it’s not the only surprise as events play out in a very European way…
Lazybones packs an accumulation of little punches that leave your thoughts provoked long after the film has stopped playing. It is an intelligent film from Mr Borzage and one that stands the test of time with a message that nothing should be taken for granted in a World of false formalities.
In addition to Buster Jones, Zasu Pitts is also on song, giving her all in her uniquely-unsettling way as the woman with her life ruined by the need to keep up her mother’s appearances whilst Emily Fitzroy is also good as her sister Ruth whose heartbreak is slower burning but none the less real.
Lazybones is available on the Murnau and Borzage box set from TCM – very collectably-priced on Amazons but you can also watch it more cost-effectively on Netflix US.