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Hollywood has never been shy about using sex to sell its movies, or its movie stars. In fact, in all its guises — from the kiss that inevitably ends a hokey romantic comedy to the sweaty, graphic (and often clumsy) carnality of today’s R-rated and NC-17 films — sex has always been the film industry’s most trustworthy, enduring commodity. Sure, violence is a perennial favorite, and people will almost always pay to see a good sci-fi or fantasy flick. But in the end, very few movies in any genre manage to hold viewers’ attention without at least one unapologetic, unmistakable nod to humanity’s mysterious and forever fascinating mating rituals.
In the middle part of the last decade, meanwhile, many Hollywood studios put their faith in photographs of their comeliest stars striking what, in retrospect, were perfectly absurd poses, wearing perfectly absurd outfits. The creation of these “pinup” shots — often referred to by the catchall term “cheesecake” (see below) — was a miniature industry all its own, with stylists, makeup artists, electricians, grips and other behind-the-scenes experts working with photographers and, of course, the actresses themselves to produce publicity stills.
The origin of the term “cheesecake” to characterize these pinup shots is a matter of some contention, although one of the most widely accepted explanations is that men who first saw these sorts of photos in the early pinup days would exclaim that looking at them was “better than [eating] cheesecake.”
For our purposes, what’s striking about the pictures in this gallery is not just that there are a couple of future stars here among the half-dozen young starlets — including three-time Oscar nominee Piper Laurie and the famous Yvonne De Carlo — but that LIFE’s Ed Clark made all these pictures in order to demonstrate the variety of ways that one studio, Universal, tried to sell its own stars to the public.
One of LIFE’s west coast correspondents, Virgina Hobbs, wrote at the time that the photos in question feature “cheesecake-wise Universal starlets . . . demonstrating the most prevalent ways and means of girl presentation.” In other words, the studio allowed Clark to photograph a number of its most promising young stars, and even lent stagehands and makeup artists, so that LIFE could show its readers how “cheesecake” was made.
The actresses featured in this gallery are: Piper Laurie (born Rosetta Jacobs); Canadian native Yvonne De Carlo (born Margaret Yvonne Middleton); Leslye Banning (born Mary Lousie Welch); Joyce Holden (born Jo Ann Heckert); Peggy, a.k.a., Peggie Castle (born Peggy Blair); and Susan Cabot (born Harriet Shapiro).
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.