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Evelyn Lambart

Overview of work

Evelyn Lambart

Canada’s First Lady of Animation
By Marc Glassman

Evelyn Lambart will always be recognized for two things, neither of which reflects on the quality of her own work. She was Norman McLaren’s closest collaborator, the co-director of six of his films, including such masterpieces as Begone Dull Care, Short and Suite and Lines: Horizontal. As important as her role in McLaren’s work—and it was absolutely essential, including, most famously, incorporating dust in Begone Dull Care—Lambart was, perhaps inadvertently, a pioneer. She was the first female animator in Canada and one of the few women in the world working even as a co-director in any form of cinema during the 1940s and ’50s.

<strong><em>The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse</em></strong> (1980). © NFBEvelyn Lambart was one of Norman McLaren's close collaborators. © NFB
The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse (1980). © NFBEvelyn Lambart was one of Norman McLaren's close collaborators. © NFB

It’s ironic that Lambart’s international fame rests on these achievements rather than on her own films. Never a flag-waving feminist, she resisted making rabble-rousing statements about her struggles as a woman in the male dominated Film Board of the War and immediate post-War years. And while Lambart avoided criticizing the aesthetic decisions made by McLaren, it is noteworthy that her own films don’t resemble the work of her mentor and collaborator.

<strong><em>Begone Dull Care</em></strong> (1949). © NFB<strong><em>The Lion and the Mouse</em></strong> (1976). © NFB
Begone Dull Care (1949). © NFBThe Lion and the Mouse (1976). © NFB

When she finally began to make films on her own in 1968, Lambart’s work was a stunning departure from that of McLaren. Gone were the muted colours or black and white imagery of Mosaic, Lines: Vertical and Around Is Around. Lambart’s palette was almost deliriously rich, her films a riot of reds, yellows and blues. Gone, too, was the rigorous experimentation of the McLaren years.

In its stead, Lambart animated a series of films in which characters created by cutouts moved through black backdrops. Eschewing the abstract nature of McLaren’s work, Lambart embraced narrative. All of her films told simple stories, comprehensible to children, that were often based on fables. Her characters, most often birds or mice, were confronted with moral issues, centred on greed and the nature of friendship. Always well crafted, Lambart’s work is charming, traditional and very, very innocent.

Most Lambart films, from Fine Feathers to The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse, offer lovely stories that can be read on two levels, for the receptive child and the thoughtful parent or accompanying adult. In The Hoarder, for instance, Lambart creates a marvellous fable. A blue jay grabs everything he can, from berries to a mother bird’s eggs. Finally, the jay goes too far: it steals the sun. Without the warmth of the sun, all will wither and die. Even the grasping bird recognizes this, and the sun is restored to its rightful place in the firmament. While The Hoarder is intended for children, Lambart’s tale has clear implications for adults who may also be critical of our materialist society.

Her masterpiece, Mr. Frog Went A-Courting, is less didactic, and slightly sinister. Animated to the rhythm of an old English folk tune sung liltingly by Derek Lamb, we follow the tale of a lovesick frog who wins the hand of a beautiful little mouse. After elaborate preparations, the wedding party, led by Uncle Rat, travels on a boat, only to be eaten, one and all, by a large snake. This is Lambart at her funniest: the film is lively and not too dark for children.

Although Lambart’s films are quite different from those she made with McLaren, some vestiges of his style did remain. Her films, like his, avoid all dialogue. Music remains very important, whether it’s the compositions of Maurice Blackburn or the folksinging of Lamb. Her concern for the relationship between sound and image indicates that Lambart still shared some aesthetic concerns with her old colleague.

Still, if there was an influence on Lambart’s work, it is more likely to have been Lotte Reiniger. The first important female animator, whose 1926 feature The Adventures of Prince Achmed was a legendary success, Reiniger worked at the NFB in the 1970s. The women must have been aware of each other for decades. Reiniger’s silhouette characters are a clear precursor to Lambart’s cutouts. Both animators preferred to retell legends in their films; each told a Christmas story and used classic fables as starting off points for their films.

Reiniger and McLaren aside, Evelyn Lambart can stand alone, as an artist and filmmaker. Her work deserves to be rediscovered by a new generation.

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