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The Water Gipsies (1932)

Jane Bell has lived on an old barge moored in the Thames with her feckless father and sister ever since their mother died, but she would prefer her life to be more like the movies -- ... See full summary »




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Cast overview:
Lily Bell
Fred Green
Peter Hannen ...
Frances Doble ...
Barbara Gott ...
Mrs. Green
Mr. Pewtar
Mr. Bell
Charles Garry ...
Mr. Green
Betty Shale ...
Mrs. Higgins


Jane Bell has lived on an old barge moored in the Thames with her feckless father and sister ever since their mother died, but she would prefer her life to be more like the movies -- reality is being courted by an inarticulate canal boatman, Fred Green, and cleaning the studio of a local artist, Bryan, on whom she has a hopeless crush that leads her to refuse Fred's offer of marriage. When her father loses his job and her sister takes up with a rich young gambler, she becomes engaged instead to Ernest, whose Communist beliefs represent the only fixed set of ideals in her life. But her position as Bryan's sometime model and muse is too precious to give up, even if he doesn't pay any attention to her... and even if Ernest resents it bitterly... Written by Igenlode Wordsmith

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Release Date:

7 November 1932 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

Crime at the Canal  »

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Technical Specs


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Aspect Ratio:

1.37 : 1
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Did You Know?

Crazy Credits

Jane Bell, who wants to live like the pictures, finds Fred Green, the canal-boatman, a disappointing lover. See more »


Version of The Water Gipsies (1955) See more »

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User Reviews

A belittled film verges on excellence
21 January 2007 | by (England) – See all my reviews

Having come directly from two weeks spent working on a narrowboat -- on the Grand Union, no less -- I was naturally curious about "The Water Gipsies", and its incidental depiction of 1930s working practices; how exactly, for instance, did one work a horse-drawn boat into a lock in the absence of any reverse gear? (The answer, as shown in this film at least, is that you let it glide in under momentum alone while judging the timing extremely carefully!) But I knew better than to expect documentary accuracy, although there weren't that many obvious howlers: the boat appeared, extravagantly, to be travelling without a cargo, making the sheeting-up of an empty hold rather superfluous, and I doubt that hanging around in the mouth of an open lock would have been any more popular then than it is now. Confusing a narrowboat with a river barge, however, can still reliably put up backs all down the canal!

Contrary to everything I'd heard about the film itself, on the other hand, I was very pleasantly surprised. This isn't a B-movie; it's a main feature with extensive sets and smooth production values, striking direction, and some jolly decent acting. Ann Todd is not only gorgeous but has more than enough talent to carry the story in her central role, and the only problem I could see with her accent is that the dialogue she is given occasionally fails to match the faded gentility of the family shown on screen -- it felt more like inconsistency in the script than in the actress. Meanwhile, there are some scenes that are extremely effective.

The film probably had an admitted advantage in that it was an adaptation of a book I never particularly liked; no sacred cows to be threatened. (In fact, I enjoyed it considerably more than I ever enjoyed the novel.) Like many classic literary works, the story in general gains by the condensation, and it is skilfully done, with characterisation established by economical, cinematic means in place of the original novel's devices. Much is conveyed via purely visual elements, such as the vacuum-cleaner flex yanked tight by an oblivious charwoman, or the single wordless shot of Ann Todd's face through a rain-lashed railway carriage window. Far from deserving the opprobrium ladled upon it, "The Water Gipsies" in my opinion is often not only beautiful but comes close to being a very good film indeed, and for IMDb purposes I found myself only a hair's-breadth short of rating it 8/10 overall.

What lets it down are the occasional clumsy lurches into sentimentalism or into melodrama. The sequence of Jane's wild-deer terror and Ernest's furious jealousy is genuinely unnerving; the cheap and poorly-staged river drama that follows plunges us straight into B-movie territory. The heavy-handed symbolism of placing Jane next to a series of meaningful movie posters is likewise over-milked. And the final shot is sappy beyond all credibility compared to the earlier canal scenes; although romanticised the film had hitherto retained a plausible rough edge, with Jane in sensible skirt and brogues seen heaving at heavy lock gates, or sharing a bed with Fred's blowsy mother.

Other scenes that left me slightly puzzled were the choice to show certain shots in the skittle contest but not -- for some reason -- the actual winning throws: artistic decision to focus on the spectators' reaction, or simply inability to reproduce the necessary skill? And it came as something of a jolt to gather only belatedly, from the following dialogue, that Jane's demand "Love me -- love me -- love me!" was intended to refer to a far more carnal relation than her appeal earlier in the scene "Can't you love me a little?"; censorship or not, one would have thought that this significant distinction might have been more clearly telegraphed.

"The Water Gipsies" falls short of greatness. But nonetheless it displays far more talent than I was led to expect, and left me curious to revisit the source work -- quite an achievement, when the latter was a book I disliked.

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