A working writer of early 20th century stage and screen, Adeline Leitzbach had a formula for successful writing, “Careful plot, careful character delineation, well established atmosphere and plenty of heart interest with a dash of comedy thrown in.”
In the silent film era, the female voice was particularly strong in comparison with today; half of all copyrighted films from 1911-25 were written by women. Among these writers was Adeline Leitzbach (1887-1968), a screenwriter and playwright out of New York City, whose words graced the silver screen, Broadway, and, according to some sources, even the vaudeville stage. She worked alone or in collaboration, most famously ghost writing for budding acting sensation Mae West in the early-to-mid-1920s. It’s due to her connection to Mae West that Lietzbach is best known today, but that association is just a small part of her writing legacy.
Typing away at 2552 University Avenue in the Bronx, Leitzbach saw her fortunes rise along with her neighborhood, which blossomed in the ‘20s when middle-class families from Manhattan flocked to its new modern housing and convenient subway access to the city. Leitzbach’s work was usually set in and around the City and consisted of mysteries, dramas, and comedies. Her stories often centered around the upper classes, but she did enjoy writing smaller slices of life. On one of her manuscripts entitled “Unwelcome Wife” she notes: “This story has no murder, no robbery, no hold-up, no rape— no crime of any kind. There are no gunmen, gangsters, bootleggers or shady ladies in it…. It’s just a simple story of people and their emotions…. There are plenty of big scenes and tense situations to say nothing of big acting moments…. There is also opportunity for a great deal of comedy and laughs aplenty…” Additionally, toward the end of her career, Leitzbach created a radio series that featured stories of average people in the environs of New York City.
The Adeline M. Leitzbach papers at the American Heritage Center consists of two boxes containing over 50 manuscripts— novels, stage plays, motion picture stories, radio plays, novels, and other pieces. Born in Buffalo, New York, Leitzbach and her mother moved to the Bronx following the death of her father in 1909. For movies produced both in Hollywood as well as New York, Leitzbach began to earn her living in as early as 1917. She had a few of her plays produced on Broadway and in 1922 began a brief collaboration with Mae West. With West she wrote “The Hussy” (1922; unproduced) and the scandalous “Sex” (1926). Not only did the subject matter of “Sex” create a stir (landing Mae West in jail for 8 days on moral charges following a raid of the theater), but playwright J.J. Byrne sued West on the basis that his play “Following the Fleet” had been lifted and its moral message subverted. In court, Adeline Leitzbach appeared as a witness for the prosecution, admitting that she and West had adapted the Byrne original, however the presiding Federal judge threw the complaint out completely, washing his hands of what he felt were substandard and salacious plays that didn’t deserve defending. Following the courtroom dramatics, the “Mae West” period was over for Leitzbach, but her career continued. The AHC’s Adeline Leitzbach papers do not appear to contain any material related to her work with Mae West; the scripts to both “The Hussy” and “Sex” reside at the Library of Congress.
To be found among the AHC’s collection are two of Leitzbach’s Broadway plays— “The Night Call” (1922) and “Dora Mobridge” (1930), the later appearing under the draft titles “The First Stone” and “Dollars and Sex” (on one of the drafts, in the character list, there is an epplisis and a star penciled in next to Dora Mobridge’s name as if to indicate the title for which the play would ultimately be named). Neither play was well received in its day. “The Night Call” was panned by Women’s Wear’s Kelcey Allen: “ bootleggers, rum runners, the use of radio and constant diming of lights failed to make … [the play] an exciting thriller or mystifying production… The author has adopted about every conceivable method in an attempt to build a mystery melodrama with the result that it becomes a piece of crude patchwork.” (4/27/22). “Dora Mobridge” was lambasted by the New York Herald Tribune (“rambles from dullness to hysteria and back again to boredom” [New York Herald Tribune review by Howard Barnes, 4/21/30]) and the New York Times (“the most pathetic venture of the season” [New York Times, 4/21/30]). Her most prominent work for Broadway was “Success” (1918). Although “Success” (written with Theodore Leibler, Jr.) does not appear in the AHC collection, a seed of the same story can be found under the title: “Death Comes to Broadway: An Original Drama for the Screen” (an 81-page treatment). Considering it’s genesis as a screen story, it’s therefore kismet that the Broadway show would eventually find its way to the silver screen when “Success” was adapted into a 1923 feature film with a screenplay co-written by Leitzbach and Leibler, Jr. (with titles by George V. Hobart). (Leitzbach’s sometime collaborator was the son of impresario Theodore Leibler, Sr., who, with his producing partner George C. Tyler presented 240 plays, notably bringing Eleanora Duse to America in the later part of her celebrated career.)
Success tells the story of alcoholic Shakespearean actor Barry Carleton whose wife leaves him to raise their daughter alone and who, many years later, is reunited with his daughter when they end up playing Lear and Cordelia together in what becomes an instant hit. In Leitzbach’s undated but presumably earlier story “Death Comes to Broadway,” noted actor Barry Steele, in the same situation, helps his long lost daughter become a stage success but keeps his true identity a secret, until he winds up in the hospital in the climax, at which point all is revealed.
The original Broadway show ran for 64 performances according to the Internet Broadway Database, and received a rave review from The New York Times (“stiring heart appeal and an abundance of humorous lines… unusually well acted” [New York Times review by Eugene Kelcey Allen, 1/29/18]). The 1923 film featured ingénue Mary Astor, who would soon co-star in two high profile John Barrymore vehicles and would later win an Academy Award. There are no known film prints of Success. Two still photos from the production were recently added to the Leitzbach papers. Without captions, one appears to feature Stanley Ridges and Mary Astor, the other Naomi Childers and Brandon Tynan, left to right respectively below.
Stay tuned tomorrow for Part II of this series about Adeline Leitzbach and her papers at the AHC.
– Submitted by Gary Rutkowski, AHC intern from UW American Studies