Etta Moten

Actress who broke the stereotype of the black woman in Hollywood
Click to follow
The Independent Online

ON 5 November 2001 the actress and singer Etta Moten celebrated her 100th birthday with more than 400 friends and fans at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Chicago. Harry Belafonte led the guests in singing "Happy Birthday" before Moten blew out the single, oversized candle on her three-foot-high birthday cake. Belafonte said:

She gave black people an opportunity to look at themselves on a big screen as something beautiful. In her we found another dimension to being black in our time. She was a true, shining star.

Born in Weimar, Texas, Etta was the only child of the Rev Freeman F. Moten, a Methodist minister, and Ida Mae Norman. She was just five years old when her family realised she possessed a beautiful singing voice and encouraged her to join the church choir. When an early marriage fell apart, Etta's parents took care of her three young daughters so she could study at the University of Kansas. During her senior year Etta was invited to join the prestigious Eva Jessye Choir in New York and she promptly took up the offer after graduating with a degree in voice and drama in 1931.

Early stage appearances included two Broadway musicals: Fast and Furious (1931) and Sugar Hill (1931). The play Zombie (1932) took her to Los Angeles, where she commenced her screen career.

It is not generally known (or recorded in books about Hollywood musicals) that Etta Moten was one of the first singers to be employed in Hollywood secretly to "dub" the vocals of leading ladies who couldn't sing. Later, in the 1940s and 1950s, this became a common practice when non-singing stars such as Jeanne Crain, Rita Hayworth, Cyd Charisse and Vera-Ellen were cast in musicals. Moten was one of the pioneers in this field, and almost certainly the only black woman to work as a voice-double for white actresses. Among those she dubbed were Barbara Stanwyck and Ginger Rogers in Professional Sweetheart (1933), the first and only time Rogers's small but melodic voice was "ghosted".

On-screen, in the classic Warner Brothers musical Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), Moten sang the emotionally charged "Remember My Forgotten Man" in the memorable finale, brilliantly choreographed by Busby Berkeley. In RKO Radio's extravaganza Flying Down to Rio (also 1933), memorable for the first pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Moten made another unforgettable appearance, this time as a South American night-club singer, performing the wonderful "Carioca", while the camera zooms in for a close-up of her lovely, smiling face.

In 1934, when the Oscars introduced a category for Best Song, the "Carioca" was included in the first line-up, but lost out to "The Continental" from another Astaire and Rogers musical, The Gay Divorcee. However, in spite of her promising start, limited opportunities and her steadfast refusal to play stereotypical maids meant that Moten did not work in Hollywood again.

On the strength of her success in films, and on the concert stage, on 31 January 1934 Moten became the first African-American woman to perform at the White House when President Franklin D. Roosevelt invited her to sing at his birthday party. Later that year she married Claude Barnett, founder-director of the Associated Negro Press, a wire service for African-American newspapers.

Though active on the concert stage, and in music festivals, Moten had to wait until 1942 before returning to the Broadway stage, taking over from Anne Brown as Bess in George Gershwin's folk opera Porgy and Bess. It was a role Gershwin had long envisioned for Moten, even though she was a contralto, Bess a soprano. Sadly, a strained voice forced her to give up singing in 1952.

With her husband, Moten travelled during the 1950s as members of a US delegation to Ghana. She also represented the United States at the independence ceremonies of Nigeria, Zambia and Lusaka. After Barnett's death in 1967, she became more active in civil organisations (she was a member of the National Council for Negro Women) and community projects in Chicago, working with the DuSable Museum and Lyric Opera.

In 1979 Moten's brief but glorious contribution to the Hollywood musical was acknowledged when she was inducted into America's Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. To commemorate her 100th birthday in 2001, the actress Halle Berry presented her with a special award during the Chicago International Film Festival's tribute "Black Women in Film - From Etta to Halle".

Etta Moten was modest about the small but important contribution she made in redefining the stereotypical image of black women in films. She was one of only a handful of black artistes to be integrated into big production numbers in Hollywood musicals. Her only surviving daughter, 83-year-old Sue Ish, says:

She was given credit for changing it, but Mother said, "I didn't change it. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time."

Stephen Bourne

Etta Moten, actress and singer: born Weimar, Texas 5 November 1901; married secondly 1934 Claude Barnett (died 1967; one daughter, and two daughters deceased, by her first marriage); died Chicago 2 January 2004.