Prod Co: Fox Film Corporation Dir: Frank Borzage Scr: Frances Marion, from the novel by Owen Davis Phot: Glen MacWilliams, George Schneidermann
Cast: Buck Jones, Madge Bellamy, Virginia Marshall, Edythe Chapman, Leslie Fenton, Jane Novak, Emily Fitzroy, Zasu Pitts
Rachel: It’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.
– Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, 2005)
Steve “Lazybones” Tuttle (Buck Jones) is at best condescended to by his small-town community for his indolent refusal of the Protestant work ethic, and the classic American striving for success and status. But Steve is not just a refuse-nik in the manner of Melville’s scrivener Bartleby, or an embodiment of negative values; he is an extreme example of another American archetype – the Romantic or natural man as eulogised in the mid-19th century by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau (1). He is not someone who consciously turns to nature – he is nature, visceral and unconscious. He is introduced dozing, his body covered in cobwebs; like Bernini’s Daphne metamorphosing into a tree, Steve seems suspended between human and natural or vegetative identities. He is associated with animals, insects, birds, food and drink; his sleeping figure curves exactly into the tree he fishes from (2). He is equally attuned to the winds of natural, seasonal time that blow through the film and knock down the narrative’s flimsy markers of historical time (the World War I interlude; intertitles indicating dates).
The river is a key motif for Frank Borzage as it is for his French contemporary Jean Renoir (3); it is also a spiritual source for Steve (those whose see Borzage as primarily a Catholic director would no doubt point to its baptismal significance (4)). It is in the river that he first reveals reserves of courage and action, and rescues Ruth (Zasu Pitts), thereby becoming guardian of her child, leading to the social and emotional complications that will comprise the rest of the narrative; and it is while wading in the river at the climax that he will abandon the symbolically constricting boots he wears at a community celebration of a deed of unconscious war heroism, renouncing all claims to a fulfilling, emotional life with a soulmate, and returns to his old somnolentexistence – negating the time-honoured character development of popular film (whose most famous recent variant is probably 3 Men and a Baby [Leonard Nimoy, 1987]), whereby the child-man becomes an adult by raising an infant.
Steve forms one part of a classic dialectic between nature and society (5). His most obvious oppositeis Elmer Ballister (William Bailey), whose sharp suits, permanent job, and modern house and transport are validated by community approval. But Lazybones isn’t particularly interested in this simplisticantithesis. Rather the filmshows how nature can be warped by social demands. In those same opening scenes, Steve’s laziness is seen to extend to his immediate surroundings – the dilapidated roof of the home he shares with his indulgent mother (Edythe Chapman); the overgrown garden; the worn picket-fence; the running-gag gate that refuses to swing. In another artwork – e.g. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The House of Seven Gables (1851) or Roman Polanski’s film Repulsion (1965) – such physical dishevelment would be an index of the protagonist’s mental or spiritual decay. Not so here – Steve is revealed to be a good and courageous soul, though his behaviour ultimately condemns him to a life of lonely, sexless renunciation (6).
Unlike the similarly thwarted Ruth and her mother (Emily Fitzroy), Steve remains fundamentally healthy. Ruth – whose entrance turns the narrative from a gentle, turn-of-the-20th century social comedy along the lines of Grandma’s Boy (with Harold Lloyd; Fred C. Newmeyer, 1922) or Our Hospitality (John G. Blystone and Buster Keaton, 1923) into the harrowing melodrama of Way Down East (D.W. Griffith, 1920) – suffers a worse fate. Married, widowed and left with child while away at school, she is brutalised by her mother, and forced to give up her child to marry the socially prized Elmer. She simply gives up and wastes away; Ruth’s “nearly ghoulish” face (7)haunts the film, and clouds its surface sunniness – at one point she terrifies her young child when she breaks the promise extracted by mother and husband, rescues Kit (Virginia Marshall) from a gang of bullies (one of the “negative” communities that threaten the individual or couple in Borzage’s films, most dangerouslythe Nazis in The Mortal Storm ), and nearly suffocates her with long-repressed love.
Lazybones shows how women can be made complicit in their own patriarchal oppression – it is Mrs Fanning who wreaks the most havoc on women’s lives in the film, not just effectively killing Ruth, but poisoning the charming if shallow relationship between Steve and her other daughter, Agnes (Jane Novak). As melodrama theorists have long pointed out, the price for such social capitulation is paid on the ravaged, “hysterical” body. The unrelentingpressure on Mrs Fanning to secure and maintainrespectability proves too much, and the woman who destructively forced her will on others is herself destroyed in mind. But this is poor payback.
It has become a critical cliché to suggest that Borzage doesn’t truly become Borzage – the expressionist-tinged mystic – until the making of F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) (8). Not only does this do a disservice to Borzage’s first, two-reel Westerns (e.g. The Pitch o’ Chance , The Pilgrim  and Nugget Jim’s Pardner ), masterpieces of composition, editing and emotional intensity; but it ignores the thematic affinities a film like Lazybones has to the later masterpieces – the attempt to rein in a “free” man in Man’s Castle (1933); the central importance of World War I and its aftermath in 7th Heaven (1927), Lucky Star (1929), A Farewell to Arms and Three Comrades (1938); the contrast between flawed “natural” family and reconstituted, “chosen” family in 7th Heaven (Ruth’s vicious whipping by her mother is revisited on Diane [Janet Gaynor] by her drunken sister), Street Angel, Lucky Star, They Had to See Paris (1929), Song o’ My Heart (1930), Bad Girl (1931), After Tomorrow (1932), and Young America (1932). The symmetrical scenes where Kit is viewed through a separating window by a relinquishing parent (natural or surrogate) employs an image central not just to Borzage, but film melodrama as a whole.
Borzage’s silent melodramas influenced the look of 1930s Shanghai cinema – many of his films were remade in China, including the classic Street Angel (Malu tianshi, Mu-jih Yuan, 1937) (9) – but Lazybones may have rung a chord with two other, more idiosyncratic Asian talents. A clothesline blowing in the breeze, illuminated by the sun, would become a primary image for Yasujiro Ozu, whose films’ conflicts between fathers and daughters, individual desire and social norms, are played out here (Ozu’s Days of Youth [Wakaki hi], 1929, uses 7th Heaven as a playful intertext (10)). The still-disturbing “incest” plot-point in Lazybones – a middle-aged man falls in love with the adoptive daughter he raised as an infant – would be reworked in Yash Chopra’s controversial Hindi melodrama Lamhe (1991). Lazybones itself, when written about at all, has a mixed reputation among Borzage admirers; Andrew Sarris listed it as one of his best films, while Frederick Lamster dismissed it as a failure (11). Sarris, as usual, is nearest the mark; Lazybones awaits rediscovery as one of its director’s major works.
- Steve is imagined as yet another 19th century literary American, Rip Van Winkle, by his rival for Kit’s affections, Dick Ritchie (Leslie Fenton).
- Steve’s adopted child Kit is similarly linked to nature, such as fish, bulrushes and cow’s milk.
- See, for example, The Valley of Silent Men (1922), A Farewell to Arms (1932), Strange Cargo (1940) and The Big Fisherman (1959). Like Renoir, Borzage made a film called The River (1929); its publicity writer noted “the analogy between the river of water and the stream of love which washes all things clean”. In Frank Borzage’s The River, presented by William Fox: Campaign Book. Included as a special feature on the DVD of The River, Edition Filmmuseum, 2008.
- Frederick Lamster sees Lazybones as a “parable” and emphasises the Biblical references in the film. Lamster, Souls Made Great Through Love and Adversity: The Film Work of Frank Borzage, Scarecrow, Metuchen and London, 1981, p.35.
- John Belton characterises Borzagean melodrama as “a conflict not so much between characters as between spiritual outlooks”. Belton, The Hollywood Professionals Vol. 3: Howard Hawks, Frank Borzage, Edgar G. Ulmer, Tantivy and A.S. Barnes, London and New York, 1974, p. 107.
- For many critics, this is the key Borzage theme, where “characters achieve spiritual gain only through physical loss”. Belton, p. 89.
- David Thomson, A Biographical Dictionary of Film, William Morrow, New York, 1976, p. 442.
- According to Janet Bergstrom, Borzage, whose Fox career began with Lazybones, “was one of those most immediately influenced by Murnau”; Street Angel (1928) in particular was indebted to Sunrise; Borzage and Murnau shared creative personnel and actors. See Murnau and Borzage at Fox: The Expressionist Heritage (Bergstrom, 2007), a film essay included on the Edition Filmmuseum’s DVD of The River.
- Hervé Dumont, “Forgotten Masterpiece”, essay included in the Edition Filmmuseum’s DVD of The River (extract from Dumont, Frank Borzage: The Life and Films of a Hollywood Romantic, McFarland, Jefferson, 2005; a translation of Dumont, Frank Borzage: Sarastro à Hollywood, Nueva Mazzotta, Paris and Milan, 1993).
- David Bordwell, Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1988, p. 72.
- Andrew Sarris, “Frank Borzage”, Cinema, A Critical Dictionary: The Major Film-makers – From Aldrich to King, ed. Richard Roud, Secker and Warburg, London, 1980, p. 139; Lamster, p. 39.