Cleo is often dismissed by film historians as a Marilyn Monroe wannabe, along with most of the other busty blondes of the era. This is an unfair characterization particularly in Cleo's case as she entered films the same year as Marilyn and even beat the more famous blonde into the pages of LIFE magazine by almost a year. She never mimicked Marilyn in any of her films, never copied any of her cheesecake poses or wore similar dresses.
Cleo Moore's film career spanned 10 years and 18 motion pictures, eventually reigning as one of the two queens (with Mamie Van Doren) of the "bad girl" B movie genre. Current fans have made hot items of the posters and memorabilia to these films.
Unlike many of the actresses of her era, Cleo Moore used her actual birth name in her career. She was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on October 31. Her publicists claimed the year was 1928 or 1930 but she may have been born as early as 1923 as she graduated high school in 1941. Cleo always claimed she graduated early which is possible concerning that is not uncommon for small town students of the era but 13 or 15 seems unlikely.
Within a few years of graduation,
Cleo married the youngest son of the late Louisiana Governor Huey Long.
She eloped with Palmer Long in 1945 but the marriage ended within six weeks.
marriage, nevertheless, was frequently used for publicity purposes during Cleo's career.
Cleo headed for Hollywood in 1946 determined to be a star. She made her film debut in 1948 as the leading lady in the Columbia serial CONGO BILL. There was a bit of a gap between the serial and her next movie work but by late 1949 she was a Warner Bros. starlet appearing in at least two films for the studio.
Feeling her Southern accent
was holding her back, Cleo studied voice with Josephine Dillon, Clark Gable's
first wife and a renowned vocal coach. She moved on to a starlet
contract at RKO-Radio where she was featured in six pictures.
Cleo's best RKO film was Nicholas Ray's
ON DANGEROUS GROUND, a film noir classic. Cleo shared some sexy scenes with Robert Ryan and was singled out by the press as a rising young starlet.
B movie director/screenwriter Hugo Haas, a well known character actor, was among those impressed by her performance. He signed her to star opposite him in STRANGE FASCINATION, a 1952 Columbia Pictures release, casting her as a sexy blonde who destroys a distinguished pianist.
The Haas/Moore teaming proved to be a success and Cleo replaced Beverly Michaels as Haas' regular star. Cleo and Hugo made seen pictures together, with Haas starring opposite her in all but one (though in some of these films, their characters are not romantically involved.) The movies consistently received fair to poor reviews but proved to be moneymakers, thanks much to the hard selling of Cleo's sex appeal in the advertisements. Despite Haas' producing, directing, writing, and co-starring in the pictures, Cleo was unquestionably the main star of each film, receiving top billing and prominence on the movie posters. Haas was often not even pictured, understandable since her was fiftyish, hefty, and not in the least bit handsome.
Cleo quickly established
herself a strong screen persona, albeit as a B star, as an ambitious and
predatory blonde out to get everything she can out of life and out
of a man, much like the early pre-MGM Jean Harlow films. These
films sprung out of the film noir genre as "bad girl" films, films starring
sexy actresses as often ruthless and amoral young women. At the end
of the movie, the girl usually ended up dead or in jail, or worse,
reformed. This type of film had been around since the early talkies
and enjoyed a big resurgence in the late 40's with films like DETOUR and
THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE but the genre really took off in the 1950's
and Cleo was
almost unrivaled with her success in the genre.
Columbia signed Cleo as a
contract player and kept her busy with cheesecake shots that regularly
hit the newspapers and magazines. Her measurements, like all curvy
starlets, were unblushingly reported but at times varied. The average
figures given for the actress being 37 1/2 -
22 1/2 - 36 1/2. She also began winning the various worthless beauty titles many a starlet receives to obtain publicity. "I've found that before you become a star you have to spend a few years being Miss Ping Pong," she once commented.
Several press profiles could not help but compare the beautiful blonde starlet to the current queen of beautiful blondes in Hollywood, Marilyn Monroe. Unlike many of her contemporaries, Cleo felt no hostility toward Marilyn. In fact, she once named Marilyn one of her three favorite movie stars, along with Marlon Brando and Joan Crawford. She similarly spoke with awe and respect of her blonde predecessors, Jean Harlow and Mae West. (Many fans feel Cleo most resembles the early Harlow of all of the 50's blondes with her predatory, tough sexy babe persona.)
Making only a couple of low-budget films a year left Cleo plenty of time for other pursuits. She began a successful building construction enterprise with her father Murphy Moore and developed her skills as an artist. A portrait she did of Jack Benny was unveiled when the comedian was inaugurated as Abot of the Friars Club in 1954 and she also reportedly did incidental art for the poster of one of her films, THY NEIGHBOR'S WIFE.
Cleo's career was progressing nicely (she was named one of the top five most promising actresses for the year, along with Rita Moreno, Lori Nelson, Anne Francis, and Barbara Rush) but suddenly a new threat to her career appeared on the scene - this time at her own studio. Studio chief Harry Cohn had determined newcomer Kim Novak was the blonde to topple Marilyn, not Cleo, and placed Kim in the starring role in the film PUSHOVER, a film for which Cleo had been announced. Kim Novak on the Columbia lot was certainly more of a threat to Cleo's career than superstar Monroe.
Cleo attracted the attention of Hollywood's premier gossips, Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, in 1954. In January, Hedda named Cleo one of the surest bets for stardom in one of her newspaper columns. Louella, on the other hand, gave the ambitious blonde a light slap in her October column in Modern Screen, stating Cleo was "too pretty, too talented, and too smart" to allow her publicists to continually push the Jack Eigan kissing scandal.
It happened on February 16, 1954. Cleo was in Chicago promoting her film BAIT and was interviewed by Eigan over ABC affiliate WBKB. The talk got around to movie censorship and the imposed limits on film kisses. Eigen then suggested to Cleo that they go for the record over live TV, to which she readily agreed. The duo bussed for "more than two minutes" (Associated Press) to a "five-minute kiss" (Newsweek). The kiss was mild; the twosome sat in separate chairs, but the blue noses of Chicago were aghast. Hundreds of complaints came in from viewers and the story made front pages around the country. Cleo successfully exploited the incident for months until Louella cried "Enough Already!"
Cleo made headlines again when she announced on a nationally televised talk show on NBC on March 4, 1955 that she would eventually run for Governor of Louisiana. She stated she would run on a platform of women's rights, particularly in the business arena. She talked confidently of her plans for years and insisted it was not a publicity stunt, targeting 1960 as the year. She never did run for Governor, yet the idea was so firmly implanted in her press copy most of her obituaries stated she did in fact run, including the New York Times. Nearly every other film reference book has also published this false information.
Columbia starred Cleo in two minor A programmers away from Haas. She starred with film legend Ida Lupino and Oscar nominee Jan Sterling in WOMEN'S PRISON, today a cult classic and certainly Cleo's most famous film. Indeed, Cleo created a prototype just as classic as Lupino's hard as nails matron and no women's prison movie since, satiric or straight, would think of leaving out a sexy, dumb Southern blonde character ala Cleo Moore.
The other film was OVER-EXPOSED, arguably her best film and certainly the most lavish of her starring vehicles. She played a dime-a-dance girl who ends up one of New York's most prominent photographers. The young Richard Crenna was her leading man. Gowned by Jean-Louis, Cleo is gorgeous and gives her best performance, indicating Hugo Haas may have made her somewhat famous but was also holding her back.
Alas, the old film studio system was dying all around in the late 1950's and Cleo was soon dropped by Columbia. She was reunited with Haas was last time in 1957 in HIT AND RUN, her last feature film.
Cleo drifted out of show business at the end of the 1950's. Her last professional work seems to be an industrial short film which lead to her meeting real estate mogul Herb Heftler. Cleo and Heftler were married November 19, 1961. Cleo Moore, the fifties' premier B movie bad girl ended up a Beverly Hills socialite!! Cleo became a mother in 1963 when she gave birth to a daughter.
Cleo Moore died October 25, 1973 from a heart attack. She was said to be 44 but may have been slightly older. Sadly, she died long before she first acquired a cult following in the 1980's as the quintessential B movie bad girl of the 1950's. Her posthumous fame is growing all the time as fans born years (even decades!) after her last film now avidly collect glossy photos, posters, and information on the star. She is recognized as one of Hollywood's all-time sexy blondes and now boasts her own web site. Hail, hail Queen of the B Movie Bad Girls!!!
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