The first film Frank Borzage made for William Fox, more than ten years into a career that would ultimately brush against the half-century mark, was Lazybones, adapted from a moderately successful novel and subsequent stageplay. It's the story of Steve Tuttle (Buck Jones), the local layabout in a small American town. A man who'd rather sleep while pretending to fish than do anything else - particuarly fix the gate in front of the house he shares with his mother (Edythe Chapman) - Steve's incredibly laziness has earned him the affectionately scornful nickname of "Lazybones." When we meet Steve, he's been courting the lovely Agnes Fanning (Jane Novak), though one gets the impression that it's not going anywhere, even if Agnes finds him sweet, largely because her mother (Emily Fitzroy) is a rampaging tyrant who views even the smallest moral failings - such as Steve's inveterate sloth - with something close to biblical rage. Much better for Agnes to marry the dull but well-off Elmer Ballister (William Bailey).

And if Mrs. Fanning has that much of a problem with something as innocent as being lazy, you can bet she'd blow a gasket if she found out that her other daughter, Ruth (Zasu Pitts) has been left a single mother after the sailor she ran off the marry died at sea only a few days after the wedding. Knowing that her mother would never believe that the baby wasn't born out of wedlock (and probably assuming that the whole "I ran off to marry a sailor" story wouldn't go over too well, either), Ruth has taken the only course of action that her addled wits can muster: she takes the baby to the river's edge in a basket, prepared to abandon or even murder her little girl. It so happens that Steve is there on one of his fishing trips, and he offers to bring the baby home and raise her with his mother; Ruth gratefully excepts this uncharacteristic gesture of maturity, and thus does Steve become even more of a pariah, having taken into his house an unnamed foundling whose parentage he refuses to divulge.

As the years pass, the girl, named Kit (played as a child by Virginia Marshall, and as an adolescent by Madge Bellamy) is treated with disdain by the townsfolk, but loved deeply by Mrs. Tuttle and "Uncle Steve". Eventually, a sick Ruth nears death, and reveals herself to her daughter, over Mrs. Fanning's firey objections; but as Ruth dies soon after, the secret remains buried. Ultimately, the Great War breaks out, and even shiftless, lazy Steve can't remain idle; he goes off to Europe, where he accidentally becomes a war hero. Returning to a lavish welcome, finally recognised by the townsfolk as a worthwhile human being, he discovers that he loves Kit and wants to take her as his wife. It's a bit late for that, though: in his absence, she has fallen for Dick Ritchie (Leslie Fenton), a charming boy her age who arrived just after Steve left, to be the requisite man of the house at the Tuttle residence. Unwilling to spoil his ward's happiness, Steve unhesitatingly gives his blessing to their marriage, and as they drive off to an optimistic future, he returns to his sleepy existence on the riverfront.

This is all a bit reminiscent of another film that William Fox gave to one of his bright young directorial acquisitions five years earlier: Just Pals, an early triumph for the young Jack Ford, before he'd taken to calling himself "John". It's got the same central concept of a decent but unambitious man, viewed as the Devil Himself by the archly moralistic townsfolk; in both cases the young man proves his mettle by taking responsibility for a child without a family; and both films feature an against-type lead performance by Buck Jones, a contract player mostly popular for his Westerns. But there's really not much else connecting the two works: Ford's film was a sweetly uplifting fable, where Borzage's was a faintly tragic mellerdrammer. And stylistically, there's absolutely nothing that Borzage seems to have taken from the other filmmaker: like most of Ford's later masterpieces, Just Pals is relentlessly fixated on how people fit into their surroundings, and his film thus plays out in a series of absolutely precise compositions of doorways, trees and buildings. Borzage, aiming for the raw human core of his story, instead focused primarily - very nearly exclusively - on faces. In particular, the first half-hour of the story or thereabouts uses just about as many close-ups as I think I've ever seen in an American silent before, and even in the medium and long shots, the focus is always on the human beings and their expressions, rather than the world around them. In fact, I'm not certain that I can recall a single shot any further back than a standard long shot (essentially a shot with the top and bottom of the frame defined by the head and feet of an adult).

(Admittedly, the use of background is significant: Steve is always set in front of idyllic landscapes, while just about everyone else is scene in more turbulent settings. But this seems to me gilding the lily. Everything we need to know is right there in the faces and body language of the actors).

There's only one way you can hope to get away with something like this, and that's to have great performances, so it's good for Borzage that his actors were all so good, particularly Jones, Bellamy and Pitts (although Fitzroy, in the film's only stereotypically broad "silent movie" performance, is a lot of fun as the villain). The middle of the film especially is full of subdued sorrows, such as the shots of Ruth watching Steve and Kit playing in the yard as the Fannings ride past in their showy automobile; Pitts looks over the backseat like a Kilroy drawing, a look of infinite longing on her face, while Jones is stricken by a pang of some kind of remorse, knowing that his own happiness with the darling toddler comes at the cost of a mother's happiness; he waves the baby's arm at her mother, and everything about it is tender enough to make your whole body melt. I will not even describe the scene in which Kit and her mother are reunited just in time for Ruth to pass away; it is unabashedly melodramatic, and for some that alone will be a turn-off, but to my mind it is a perfect tearjerking moment.

That, in brief, is what I think separates Borzage's film from many of the other great American movies of the mid-'20s: he isn't trying to reinvent the wheel stylistically, but to create the most moving human drama he could manage, using the most marvelous, under appreciated tool that any film director can wield, and that is the human face. He wasn't like young John Ford, trying to prove his worth by knocking anybody's socks off, and he wasn't one of those crazed Germans, pushing the cinema as far into subjective representations of character psychosis as it could go. By 1925, he was already a name director, and he had the luxury of just doing what he did: making his audience feel. If Lazybones isn't necessarily the most memorable or important film because of it, I'd still argue without hesitation that it's a wonderful near-masterpiece, absolutely worthy of rediscovery.