Kay Martin (Jessie Matthews) is a barge girl on the River Thames, has been all her life ever since she was orphaned and brought up by her father’s best friend Skipper Barnes (Frank Pettingell). However, while she is happy enough as the tomboy taking the wheel of the boat, she still yearns for the excitement of the musical theatre, and is no mean hoofer after spending her spare time practicing singing and dancing on deck. The first mate Steve Barnes (Barry MacKay) is not so keen, and his plans to be an engineer, for which he is studying, seem to him a lot more sensible, even to the point of him yelling at Kay to shut up when she’s performing, but the commotion today when she is singing at the top of her voice and he is protesting at the top of his draws the attention of people on the bank, specifically the canned soup magnate Anthony Gulliver (Roland Young)…
Jessie Matthews’ stellar run of hit musicals came to an end at the close of the nineteen-thirties when behind the scenes issues became too much for her to handle, and though she appeared in other films and television shows intermittently, it was really over for a woman who had been one of Britain’s true cinematic superstars in her day. She and husband Sonnie Hale, who helmed this but did not appear in it, would attempt to make another movie musical after this but that fell apart and was halfheartedly rescued as non-musical comedy Climbing High, whereupon their marriage really hit the rocks and for various reasons the emotionally fragile Jessie was not up to sustaining her celebrity career. Famously, when she died over forty years later she was buried in an unmarked grave, as if she had been completely forgotten, but that was not the case.
She was such a bright performer there were many who recalled her, and if she slipped out of view from the more recent generations those who remembered her brief run of hit movies felt she was worth celebrating. Sailing Along may not have been the best effort to go out on, but they didn’t know that when they were making it, and there were many compensations for what was a deeply silly story, sort of a spoof Pygmalion yarn where Gulliver decides Kay is a “genius” and wishes to promote her to stardom. Mind you, Gulliver it turns out has a habit of declaring young talents genii and nobody has proved him right thus far, so what makes Kay different? Purely because she was played by Matthews and her usual plot developments would depict her character being plucked from obscurity to seize the opportunity to be an entertainer, and so it was here in a not very surprising turn of events.
Not to mention the ending was unintentionally farcical after all she had been through, difficult to believe to boot, but up to that point we did get to see the leading lady demonstrate her Terpsichorean skills, proving that the famed story of Fred Astaire wishing to have danced with her if only the planets had been in alignment and they had actually arranged it would have been quite something. Matthews’ elbows out, high-kicking stylings had an odd elegance all their own, both game for fun and expressive of her soul, not quite like anyone else then or since, and the dances she performed with imported star Jack Whiting were impressive. Elsewhere in the cast, Alastair Sim amused himself and us as an eccentric modern artist who paints Kay’s portrait as a little dot on a wavy line (representing her life on the water), and Athene Seyler huffed then melted as Gulliver’s haughty sister – Young was good in a light comedy role too. On the other hand, MacKay was so aggressive in his lack of regard for Kay that you simply didn’t want them to get together, which landed her with an obnoxious partner by the close of the film, leaving mixed feelings.
[This can be found on Network's DVD Jessie Matthews Revue Volume 4, accompanied by The Good Companions. A gallery is the sole extra.]