Swinging the Lambeth Walk

About the film

An avant-garde piece produced by Len Lye, colours and shapes accompany the popular 1930s tune 'Swinging the Lambeth Walk'.

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  • Release year - 1940
  • Director - Len Lye
  • Running time (minutes) - 3 mins 32 secs

Original description

An ingenious abstract colour film interpreting a famous dance tune on the screen in the form of moving patterns.

'In this film coloured designs convey in simple visual form the rhythm of 'The Lambeth Walk'. Patterns move and mingle in time to the music. The sounds of the various musical instruments are interpreted in as simple and direct way as possible, and each note was studied for its individual characteristics before it was drawn and coloured. Double-bass notes are conceived as thick cords of colour vibrating vertically on the screen, while the notes of the guitar are shown as separate horizontal lines. The different sound qualities are indicated by the extent of vibration, and the pitch of the notes by their position high or low on the screen.

The music is composed of excerpts from recordings by popular dance bands. Len Lye, a New Zealander, who developed this original film technique, chose the excerpts for their orchestration of the original tune, and aimed at capturing the emotional spontaneity of good jazz, rather than at creating an intellectual exercise in visual accompaniment.'

(Films of Britain - British Council Film Department Catalogue - 1940)

Did you know?

  • A memo from the 1945 British Council Film Department lists the reasons for films being withdrawn from circulation. It states that “Swinging the Lambeth Walk, a colour cartoon film made by Len Lye, is a failure in that no theatrical manager will show it. A sneak preview of this film was given at the Cosmo Cinema, Glasgow, but the audience howled it off the screen and the manager had to take it off before the reel finished.”
  • Opened in May 1939, the Cosmo Cinema was Scotland's first arts cinema, and only the second purpose-built art-house in Britain after the Curzon Mayfair in London.
  • Roger Horrocks, author of a book on Len Lye, writes, ‘In 1939, the Lye family had so little money that... Grierson associates concerned about their desperate financial situation managed to organise [a] commission through TIDA (the Travel and Industrial Development Association), with top-up funding from the newly established British Council. This was Swinging the Lambeth Walk,... the project baffled bureaucrats who could not see popular culture as having any connection with travel — in fact, they were appalled that a government agency should sponsor such a frivolous project.'

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