"You know, just because you're a blonde type doesn't mean you can't suddenly do serious parts."—Cleo Moore.
Noir City knows that bad girls drive San Franciscans wild! Doesn't matter if you're straight, gay, male or female, or anywhere inbetween, above or below: we love our women blonde, buxom, breathtaking and baaaaad! So to satisfy our (ahem!) peninsular obsessions, this year's edition of Noir City revives their immensely popular "Bad Girls of Film Noir" with a double-bill highlighting Cleo Moore: One Girl's Confession (1953) and Women's Prison (1955).
Noir City caught my attention immediately by describing Moore as a curvaceous vixen "who carved a niche for herself as the Poor Man's Marilyn Monroe in a series of tawdry (but oh so enjoyable) sex-driven potboilers." Hal Erickson concurs at All Movie Guide: "Bleach-blonde leading lady Cleo Moore can be described as Marilyn Monroe without the class. Though very likely a nice person in real life, Moore specialized in playing vulgar, conniving trollops; one could practically smell the cheap perfume whenever she swiveled onscreen. After an uncharacteristic film debut as a serial heroine in 1948's Congo Bill, Moore became the favorite leading lady of actor/director Hugo Haas, who churned out picture after picture in which he played an older man ruined by Moore's seductive charms. Retiring from filmmaking in 1957, Cleo Moore entered politics, making an unsuccessful bid for the governor's chair in her home state of Louisiana."
"Cleo" was born Cleouna Moore on Halloween 1928 in Baton Rouge, the capital of Louisiana and raised by her contractor father Murphy Moore in nearby Gonzales, Louisiana, where she graduated from high school in 1941. In 1944 at the age of 15 she eloped with Palmer Long, the youngest son of the assassinated Governor of Louisiana, Huey Pierce Long. Their marriage only lasted six weeks but later provided her ample publicity fodder for her tongue-in-cheek gubernatorial bid for the state of Louisiana.
In 1946 she moved with her family to Southern California and began a successful building construction enterprise with her father. In May 1949 she was heralded as "Miss Plastic Art", posing in a costume made entirely of plastic, from the orchid in her hair down to the tips of her gloves, illustrating the variety of plastic arts to be displayed at the California Hobby Show, held at Shrine Convention Hall, May 27.
An ardent boxing fan, Moore was allegedly "discovered" in 1950 by an RKO talent scout while attending a fight at the Hollywood Legion Stadium. She began attracting press through pin-up and modeling work: severing a tire chain to open up a new Pep Boys store in Van Nuys, California and posing in the sensuous "Riviera Peasant Blouse". Her nights on the town with various men began to provide copy for Hollywood columnists.
Her actual film debut, however, was in the double role of Ruth Carver and Queen Lureen, the white ruler of a forbidden valley in Africa, in the 15-chapter 1948 movie serial Congo Bill produced by Columbia's Sam Katzman. She then worked for Warner Bros. in 1950 and for RKO Radio Pictures in 1950–52 before signing with Columbia Pictures in 1952. She first gained attention as the doomed gun moll Myrna Bowers in Nicholas Ray's film noir On Dangerous Ground (1951).
Moore began starring in films in 1952. Her films include One Girl's Confession (1953), Women's Prison (1955), Hold Back Tomorrow (1955), Over-Exposed (1956) and Hit and Run (1957). She often starred in films directed by actor/director Hugo Haas and appeared opposite John Agar, Richard Crenna, Vince Edwards, and Robert Ryan among other actors.
During this period Moore was one of several buxom blondes to achieve notability following Marilyn Monroe's major breakthrough, the others including Jayne Mansfield, Mamie Van Doren, Diana Dors, Sheree North, and Barbara Nichols. In the mid 1950s Columbia considered starring Moore in a film biography on Jean Harlow's life but the project never got off the ground. There's no doubt she would have been perfectly suited for the role as her screen persona—like Harlow's—was that of an ambitious and predatory blonde out to get everything she can out of life and out of a man. One magazine article defined her film noir bad girl persona as "ruthless" and "amoral" and wryly quipped that in such movies the bad girl "usually ended up dead or in jail, or worse, reformed."
Moore made headlines with several publicity stunts, notably a scandalous five minute kiss with Jack Eigen on live Chicago television in February 1954. Eigen was a well-known radio disc jockey and TV veteran for ABC affiliate WBKB. Moore was on his show to promote her latest film Bait (1954) and the topic of movie censorship and the imposed limits on film kisses surfaced. He suggested that they "go for the record" on live TV as an alleged experiment to test the reaction of his TV audience. Though they sat in separate chairs and the kiss was mild, Eigen was fired after protests from hundreds of women viewers charged him with "vulgarity, coarseness, and bad taste." Eigen said at the time: "I have no guilty conscience. I have been happily married for 18 years, and my wife knew what I planned for the program. If she had thought there was anything unladylike or rude about it, she would have told me." Moore added that the kiss "certainly was not intended to be offensive. I am sorry that this all came about because I wouldn't want anyone to lose his job." Notwithstanding, Moore milked the incident for publicity until gossip columnist Louella Parsons declared "enough already" in her Modern Screen column, gently chiding Moore by stating she was "too pretty, too talented, and too smart" to allow her publicists to continually push the Jack Eigan kissing scandal. But perhaps not. In 1955 she and a New Orleans newspaper reporter repeated the stunt, claiming a new record with a 6.5 minute kiss.
"Whatever she lacked in acting talent, she made up for with her talent for outlandish publicity stunts, ala Jayne Mansfield and Mamie Van Doren" claims Java's Bachelor Pad who—along with the Eigen scandal—emphasized Moore's famous feud with fellow (and more famous) pin-up and movie star Anita Ekberg. "The Swedish Ekberg made the comment that American women were immature and childish," Java writes, so "Moore went on a media crusade (mostly to help her own career) to prove that American women could measure up, in every sense." Java's Bachelor Bad has replicated a rather amazing article "The Great Glamazon Gambit" published in the August 1961 issue of Modern Man (Vol. 11, No. 12). This "curves 'n quotes contest" is a must-read!
One of my favorite quotes by Cleo: "I made a number of pictures, strictly C-pictures that were done on small budgets with a crackerjack director and actor who's now dead, Hugo Haas. Anything I learned about the fine art of acting I learned from Hugo. We made one film called Thy Neighbor's Wife  in which I got flogged at the public whipping post for adultery. I did my best acting in that film, I guess." True to form, when asked who were the most interesting men they knew, Moore responded, "Brando, Holden, and newspaper reporters who want to interview me." Ekberg: "Any man with a by-line, magazine or newspaper."
Moore was named the honorary city siren of Tarzana, California in 1954 and crowned "Miss Billboard" in Las Vegas, Nevada in 1955. Admittedly, these were the various worthless beauty titles starlets received 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.
The positive side of being consigned to bit parts in low-budget films was that Moore had plenty of time to pursue personal interests. As reported in Films of the Golden Age: "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."
In the Summer of 1955 she went on a 60-city tour to ballyhoo Women's Prison. In Houston, the red-blooded Texans nearly tore her clothes off when a dozen boys, aged 16 or 17, wanted to be kissed by her and pulled a ruffle off her blouse as a souvenir. Of related interest, Moore noted this had become a problem when she traveled. "Ever since that Jack Eigen kiss incident, people don't ask me for my autograph any more. They want a lip print for their autograph books. I'm a sport; I go along. So I end up using about ten tubes of lipstick a day. I've even had to buy a darker kind than I prefer to wear in order to make a better print."
In 1960, Moore announced her intention to run for governor of Louisiana. "I was married to Huey Long's son for six weeks," she explained, "and while that doesn't make me an authority on politics, I know a lot about Louisiana. Matter of fact, I'm related to 50 per cent of the people down there. I'm sure I stand a good chance of getting elected." Elsewhere, she stated that she wanted to become "a political Florence Nightingale" and that any great politician had to be a great actor. If elected, she promised more rights for women, but asserted that all her right-hand men would be men. Although this was a mere publicity stunt, and Moore never actually ran for governor, it became so firmly implanted in her press copy that the New York Times stated it as fact in her obituary, as does Hal Erickson at All Movie Guide.
Moore had three sisters: Mari, Voni, and Jonnie. Mari followed in her footsteps and briefly pursued acting under the name of Mara Lea. She had a bit part in One Girl's Confession and a minor role alongside her sister Cleo in Hit and Run.
Moore found success as a businesswoman and real estate developer after her screen career ended in the late 1950s. She embarked on a million-dollar sports center in the San Fernando Valley and ran a profitable petticoat factory. "They have 100 machines going and can't fill the orders," she boasted to reporters. In 1961 she married real estate mogul Herbert Heftler, who she met while making an industrial film (her last professional work as an actress), giving birth to a daughter two years later. In October 1973, at the early age of 48, Cleo Moore died as Cleouna M. Heftler from a heart attack in Inglewood, California.
There are a few notable online fan sites for Moore. One of the most enjoyable is an entry at Glamour Girls of the Silver Screen where a narrative timeline has been assembled from gossip pieces published in various Hollywood screen magazines, which I acknowledge as the source for most of the above biography. Angel Fire likewise has several pages devoted to Moore, including a publicity profile written by Al Hortwits, Director of Publicity at Columbia Studios, wherein he describes her as "a canary blonde." There's also a condensed version of an article on Moore that appeared in Films of the Golden Age, which valiantly defended her against accusations of being a "Marilyn Monroe wannabe." The article asserts: "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." The article adds: "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." Angel Fire has also replicated Moore's wire service obituary.
Brian's Drive-in Theatre (one of my all-time favorite sites) fills in the gaps in her early RKO career: "By 1950, she had become a starlet at RKO Studios, which installed her in several film noir classics, such as This Side of the Law and Gambling House. She also appeared in two 1950 short-feature westerns with Tim Holt: Dynamite Pass and Rio Grande Patrol."
In coming weeks The Evening Class will be offering several photo galleries of Cleo Moore, but, until then, Brian's Drive-in Theatre, Java's Bachelor Pad and Fanpix have substantial offerings.
Of related interest: Noir City Index.
Cross-published on Twitch.