Lazybones, a melancholy tale of thwarted lives in a sleepy small town, is one of Frank Borzage’s most deeply felt films. It toys with melodrama at times, but it’s directed and acted with such quiet emotion that it earns its tears honestly. western star Buck Jones plays Steve, a.k.a. Lazybones, a man who likes nothing better than napping in a tree—when we first see him, he has cobwebs on his shoes. The film starts off sweetly and conventionally, but it takes some peculiar, genre-busting turns. Zasu Pitts, in one of her rare dramatic roles, brings a ravaged, huge-eyed intensity to the role of Ruth, a desperate young mother who is forced to give up her baby. The material is soapy in the mid-section, as this drama over the child plays out, but Borzage keeps his camera focused on his people as they walk up and down the soft-lighted country roads, dreaming away. He makes them seem real because he observes them with patience, and because he gets such intimate, detailed acting from his cast.
There are several scenes of sustained pity and sadness. The self-revealing way Steve comforts Pitts’s young daughter Kit (Virginia Marshall) creates a whole world of revelation and connection between them, especially when her little hand caresses his face. He’s supposed to be making her feel better; instead, he shares his sorrow and crippling awareness with her, joining her to him. This connection they have is especially harrowing when they try to ameliorate the suffering of Ruth as she dies in front of them. “Folks get weary and tired,” Steve says, “they’re just called home, Kit.” Terribly moved, Kit says a prayer for her dead mother, asking God to wash away all the pain she had to endure in life.
Toward the end, when we realize that Steve is in love with the grown-up Kit (Madge Bellamy), we completely understand his feelings, even though they might make us uncomfortable. Luckily, Steve has a wise mother (Edythe Chapman) who is a rock in times of trouble and disappointment, and she sees him through the loss of this girl who has marked his life with love and loss. The ending is unexpectedly tart and abrupt, a little blow to the heart. Lazybones is just about as dark as Borzage ever allowed himself to be—there’s no love story here, only lonely people trying to do their best and not really succeeding.