Lazybones (1925, Frank Borzage)

“If I had to choose between Elmer and the itch, I’d start scratchin'”


Kind of an unexpected story. Not that Street Angel was business as usual, plot-wise, but somehow I expected this one to be more normal and boring, which is maybe why I put off watching it for four months. Lazybones is a very lazy boy with an amazingly patient mother. He’s hot for neighbor Agnes Fanning but doesn’t do much about it, just expects her to marry him someday. Her sister Ruth is summoned home from college by their dour, domineering mother to marry snotty businessman Elmer, but Ruth has already been secretly married and widowed and has a baby. So she does the natural thing: puts the baby safely in a basket then jumps into the river to drown herself. This is the only act of free will performed by the Fanning sisters in the movie… they do everything their forbidding mother demands, to the ruination of both of their lives. Ruth spends the next 15 years unhappily married to Elmer, sneaking glimpses of her daughter through the window, having no more kids and finally dying of illness/madness, and Agnes breaks up with Lazybones and spends her days shut up in mother’s house, only learning the truth at the end.

Ruth (left) and Agnes:

Lazybones, meanwhile, agrees to raise the baby (it’s a girl, his mother tells him). Raises her well with the help of mother, but doesn’t get any less lazy. He goes off to fight in the WWI trenches and stumbles into heroism when he sleeps through a battle and finds himself behind enemy lines, helping take 20 captives. Comes home and finds his adopted daughter has become a young woman, so he starts falling creepily in love with her, until she’s fortunately whisked away into marriage by a nice local boy. LB grabs his fishing pole and heads for the river, as if the last eighteen years was just one long afternoon.


Lazy Buck Jones was in 150+ westerns and this, and his grown stepdaughter (above) Madge Bellamy starred in John Ford’s The Iron Horse a year earlier, would later appear in White Zombie.

Emily Fitzroy (of The Bat and the original Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) played the evil mother of sisters Ruth (Zasu Pitts of Greed, Ruggles of Red Gap and Stroheim’s The Wedding March) and Agnes (Jane Novak of some Harold Lloyd shorts).


Senses of Cinema refers to Ruth’s “illegitimate daughter.” Has the author not seen the movie lately, or is it like Miracle at Morgan’s Creek, where we know that Hollywood must provide a girl with a lost or deceased husband in order to have a child, but it’s understood by the viewer that the girl wasn’t actually married – a complicit understanding between film and audience of the limits imposed by censorship? Ah, Michael Grost agrees: “While there is a censor-placating marriage ceremony for Ruth (Zazu Pitts in a great performance), this is a thinly disguised look at the problems faced by unwed mothers and illegitimate children. It recalls Way Down East (D. W. Griffith, 1920). The negative look at small town life, and the wasted lives full of pain of rejected people who live there, also recall True Heart Susie (D. W. Griffith, 1919).”

M. Grost again:

Borzage’s heroes love technology. The hero’s main passion is tinkering with his car. Unfortunately, he never does anything serious with this interest, unlike later Borzage heroes who become engineers or scientists. The hero’s car links him to high technology and progress in the opening scenes. By contrast, his well-dressed, well-to-do rival drives a lavish horse-and-buggy. This suggests that respectability and social prominence are linked to backward, anti-progress forces. Kit and her boyfriend eventually open a garage, while the hero is away at war. Such garages, run by the heroes of later Borzage films, are a principal locale of Borzage’s cinema: Big City, Three Comrades. They too are signs of technological modernity.

A. White for New York Press:

Comparing Lazybones to its contemporary literary landmarks The Great Gatsby, Manhattan Transfer and An American Tragedy helps define how movies transmit deep insight through visual power. Steve, a feckless young man at the dawn of the automobile age, anticipates the existential protagonists who wait for life to happen. Letting romance pass him by, Steve helps an unwed mother raise her child and then slowly awakens to passion. Borzage shows Jones and Madge Bellamy’s sensuality with startling erotic attention—throughout his career he was certainly a master of the romantic dual close-up—and this conveys a profound sense of lost opportunity, of everyday tragedy. And this insight compares well to 1925’s other cinematic landmarks: The Gold Rush, Greed, Seven Chances, The Last Laugh, Master of the House—less ostentatious but no less deep.

Lazybones doubtlessly influenced the Johnny Mercer-Hoagy Carmichael song that celebrated Southern ease; more proof that Borzage’s films once touched the core of pop mythology. (Just as Bad Girl and After Tomorrow are quintessential Depression-era films, containing emotional values the recovering nation still hurries to forget.) In its sublimely simple way, Lazybones epitomizes the potency of American pop art at its most morally sophisticated—the same greatness that is underrated in Spielberg.

A. Kendall for TCM:

Lazybones, made prior to Murnau’s arrival on the lot, helps illuminate the degree to which Borzage’s visual style was influenced by the emigre. Borzage is in full command of the emotionally complex characters and moments of bitter pathos that highlight his “prime” work, but it lacks the visual eloquence that Murnau brought to the studio. … The emotional texture of Lazybones is remarkable for a film of 1925, and it would surely stand alongside Borzage’s best-known works, were it not for a misguided turn in the final reel, when Lazybones falls in love with his adoptive daughter Kit, who has just come of age. The sudden shift from paternal affection to sexual desire derails our identification with the hero, and makes us aware of the filmmaker trying to pile more pathos onto the story than its narrative framework can support.