Constance Moore

Engaging star of 1940s 'B' movies
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The Independent Online

Constance Moore was a popular screen actress during the 1940s, though most of her films were "B" movies. She had beauty, poise, a melodious singing voice and dramatic ability, and in her one Broadway appearance she introduced a Rodgers and Hart standard, but, according to the director Mitchell Leisen, for whom she appeared in several films, she lacked the ambition necessary to achieve top stardom. "Connie's a very talented girl," he said, "and she should have been a much bigger star, but she was more interested in her husband and their kids."

Born in Iowa in 1919, but raised in Dallas, she always wanted to sing. When she was 15, her godfather, "Uncle Jack" Marvin, who owned a chain of drugstores throughout Texas, sponsored a pair of radio programmes for her on CBS's local station. During the next year, she would sing on the radio at 7am before attending school and at the end of the school day rush back for the 5pm show. The following year, the station hired her to sing with its house band, and she also took her first night-club engagement, singing with Ken Meyer's orchestra.

It was in 1936, during the celebrations for Texas's centennial of its independence from Mexico, that a talent scout for Universal Pictures, Rufus Le Maire, heard Moore on the local radio station, and offered her a contract. Her mother at first refused, saying that her daughter was making a good living in Dallas, but after Le Maire raised the offer, Moore's mother accepted and allowed her daughter to move to Beverly Hills, where she lived with an aunt.

She made her screen début with bit roles in the Alice Faye musical You're a Sweetheart and a "B" thriller, Prescription for Murder (both 1937), before taking a leading role in the western Border Wolves (1938) opposite the singing cowboy Bob Baker. Variety reported, "Constance Moore, blonde from Texas, suggests some future possibilities." Universal had bleached her brunette hair blonde, but later she was allowed to let it revert to its natural shade.

The studio kept her busy, with parts in 11 films released during 1937 - she was one of a vocal trio in Reckless Living (1938), and she played minor roles in such fare as The Crime of Dr Hallet, State Police, Wives Under Suspicion and The Missing Guest, plus another leading role opposite Baker, in The Last Stand (all 1938). In 1939 she achieved some prominence when cast in a leading role in the 12-part serial Buck Rogers, in which she was the girlfriend of the time-travelling hero (Larry "Buster" Crabbe). She played the daughter of W.C. Fields in the comedy You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939), and had the small role of a bride in John Stahl's lachrymose drama starring Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer When Tomorrow Comes (1939).

She graduated to featured roles in the musicals Hawaiian Nights and Laugh It Off (both 1939), but they were minor films, as were Ma, He's Making Eyes at Me and La Conga Nights (both 1940), though Film Daily commented that Moore's work in the latter was "outstanding", adding, "Her ability as a singer and her very apparent dramatic ability should bring her right to the front."

Moore then starred opposite Dennis O'Keefe in one of her brightest "B" musicals, I'm Nobody's Sweetheart Now (1940), which won praise for its witty script and fine playing. Variety called it, "One of those surprise programmers that comes along at too infrequent intervals . . . spontaneous and effervescing entertainment". Film Daily stated, "Moore's delivery of hot songs is superb."

After playing the leader of an all-girl orchestra in Argentine Nights (1940), the first film to star the Andrews Sisters, she was offered a contract by Paramount, and eagerly accepted. Her first Paramount film was a low-budget musical, Las Vegas Nights (1941), remembered now only because it was Frank Sinatra's screen début (as a vocalist with Tommy Dorsey's band), but she was then cast as the female lead in a major film, I Wanted Wings (1941), which was to be the studio's biggest money-maker of the year. "It was an important film for me," said Moore,

because not only was I the top-billed female lead in a cast including Ray Milland and William Holden, but I was playing a young woman who was patterned after an idol of mine, the great wartime photo journalist Margaret Bourke-White.

As the photographer in love with a wealthy air cadet and former Manhattan playboy (Milland), Moore had a prominent role, but the film was stolen by newcomer Veronica Lake, with her "peek-a-boo" hairdo. Thirty years later Lake wrote vindictively of Moore, claiming that the actress turned the director Mitchell Leisen against her, gave all-night parties which kept her awake, and supported a grasping and vulgar mother. Leisen called the book

the most vicious thing I've seen . . . every word of it is untrue. Connie was pregnant, and the heat at the San Antonio location was really getting to her and we were afraid she would lose the child, which ultimately happened. So you can be sure that, under those circumstances, Connie wasn't fooling around while we were on location.

Moore commented,

Veronica Lake was her own worst enemy . . . Despite all this, I Wanted Wings remains one of my favourite pictures.

Moore worked with Leisen again on the comedy Take a Letter, Darling (1942), starring Rosalind Russell and Fred MacMurray, in which she was a tobacco heiress who wants an advertising executive (MacMurray) to take a more than professional interest in her account.

She then retired briefly to give birth to a daughter, and while convalescing she was offered a leading role on Broadway in the Rodgers and Hart musical By Jupiter (1942, the last complete show that the song-writing team wrote together). Ray Bolger starred as the effeminate husband of an Amazon chieftain, and, though Bolger dominated the show with his comic flair and dazzling dancing, Moore (as Antiope, sister of the Amazon queen), introduced the plaintive standard "Nobody's Heart".

Katharine Hepburn had become a star playing the role in the play 10 years earlier, and Burns Mantle, critic of the Daily News, wrote, "Unless signs fail, this musicalised version will do something of a like service for a pretty little blonde lady named Constance Moore." Moore, describing the show as "the best thing that ever happened to me", said that being on stage in a big production gave her extra confidence:

I even had the nerve to learn to dance in the first film I did afterwards, Show Business, and I never tried that on the screen before. I would have been afraid to.

The highly entertaining Show Business (1944) was one of Moore's best films. Produced by the comic Eddie Cantor as a vehicle for himself and his then mistress, Joan Davis, it also gave strong roles to George Murphy and Moore, who shared a particularly engaging song and dance to the song "It Had to Be You" and joined their co-stars in two bright routines to "Dinah" and "I Want a Girl".

Moore than received star billing in two musicals at Republic, the nostalgic Atlantic City (1944), which traced the growth of that ocean-side resort, and Earl Carroll Vanities (1945), in which she was a Ruritanian princess who visits New York to secure a loan and instead becomes a Broadway star. One of the songs Moore introduced, Walter Kent and Kim Gannon's "Endlessly", was nominated for an Academy Award. Her last starring roles were in Delightfully Dangerous (1945), Mexicana (1945), Old Sacramento (1946), Earl Carroll Sketchbook (1946) and Hit Parade of 1947 (1947). She then worked in television and night-clubs; her last acting role was in 1967.

In 1939 Moore married an actors' agent, John Maschio, who later worked in public relations, then real estate, and their marriage lasted until his death in 1998. The couple had two children, and lived in a large house overlooking Beverly Hills.

Tom Vallance