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Zasu Pitt’s Hands: The Preternatural Delicacy of Borzage’s “Lazybones”

For her comic shorts wit Thelma Todd, and most of her comedic screen work, the assets Zasu Pitts made the most use of were her wide eyes—laughs were guaranteed every time her orbs displayed extreme incredulity. Herman G. Weinberg, among others, at least mildly deplored her "reduction" to a comedic figure, because her work in Stroheim's Greed, to his mind and I would hope to the mind of everybody who sees it, established her as a great tregedienne. One scene that haunts all who see it is the one in which her character, Trina, reduced by her money-lust to a miserable hoarder, undoes the tresses of her long hair and lies on a bed, handling the gold coins that are her only fortune in the world. It's not just her hair but her hands—their long, grasping fingers—that are unforgettable.
So too is this the case in Frank Borzage's Lazybones, made in 1925, a year after Greed. Pitts plays Ruth Fanning, the daughter of a social-climbing woman (Edythe Chapman) who's arranged a marriage for Ruth...not knowing that Ruth, supposedly away at school, has had a child by a now-dead husband. On her return to her hometown, Ruth abandons the baby by the river where the titular lazybones, Steve Tuttle (Buck Jones), is fishing. He discovers the child, hears Ruth's story, and adopts the baby himself, in spite of the fact that it means the end of his own affair with Ruth's sister Agnes (Jane Novak). Years later, Ruth, dying—of heartbreak, of course—visits Steve and asks to see her daughter Kit. Look at that hand, above, grasping at the young woman's back, very nearly about to tear the buttons from her blouse. Here is the eloquence of silent movie acting and the primacy of the image at their peaks.
Lazybones is an exemplary Borzage picture—its solidity of construction matched by an almost breathtaking delicacy of feeling. Borzage was an actor himself, and every performance here is a small miracle. Not just Jones, a Western star who was cast against type. There's a scene late in the film, after Steve has returned from the war a hero, and Mrs. Fanning and surviving daughter Agnes are reflecting on their now-empty lives (everybody else in town is off to a dance celebrating Steve's return). Mrs. Fanning reveals to Agnes that Ruth shared her secret with her, and that she forbid Ruth to claim the child. Now she sees Ruth's ghost as the wagon bearing Steve and Kit passes. The way she turns as she returns to her divan expresses a crushing world-weariness.
Minutes later, at the dance, the now-grown-up Kit (Madge Bellamy), overjoyed after a marriage proposal from Dick Ritchie (Leslie Fenton), swings off the gazebo, in a twirl both seductive and carefree. She can't wait to tell "Uncle Steve"—who, unbenownst to Kit, is in love with her—of her betrothal.
The film practically teems with such grace notes/privileged moments. It's quite fitting that Lazybones is the first Borzage film of the new Fox box set. The picture situates the viewer perfectly for the other highs to come, some of which I'll be treating in future posts.

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