A note from Lindsey: I recently reviewed the later film version of this story, Between Two Worlds. I decided to watch and review both versions for comparison (and because I love both Paul Henreid and Leslie Howard).
Outward Bound (1930) is a talkie based on the hit play of the same title by Sutton Vane. An opening title card refers to the story as “one of the most important stage plays of this generation.” According to IMDb Outward Bound is also the first American film of a TMP favorite, Leslie Howard. Robert Milton directs this version of the tale of strangers, stuck on a boat with no clue where they’re headed.
After the credits roll, we meet Henry (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) and Ann (Helen Chandler), a young couple who seem to be preparing for a trip. Soon enough they end up on a boat full of strangers in a dark and foggy night, and we learn that they’ve not taken a vacation at all: they’ve actually committed suicide.
One by one, we learn about each of the ship’s passengers and they slowly begin to realize that they’re headed to either heaven or hell. An “examiner” will soon show up and determine the paths of their afterlives.
Appearing alongside Fairbanks, Howard and Chandler are Beryl Mercer, Dudley Diggs, Alec B. Francis and others. Many of the film’s cast members, including Leslie Howard, Dudley Diggs and Beryl Mercer, starred in a 1924 run of the play at the Ritz Theater. Helen Chandler went on to star in a stage version of the story in the late 1930s, alongside Vincent Price and Laurette Taylor.
This 1930 version of the story is quite different from Between Two Worlds, and not just in that the later film was updated and adapted to the World War II period.
The films’ moods are completely different. Gone in the 1930 version are the extreme sentimentality and undercurrent of eerieness that are apparent in the 1944 film. Outward Bound‘s mood is much closer to that of a straightforward drama. In a way this works in the film’s favor, because even though it isn’t as flashy a telling of the story, it doesn’t have any of the melodrama that made Between Two Worlds borderline-corny in certain scenes, nor does it have that overzealous score.
The casts of both films are equally wonderful, though I’d say the cast of Outward Bound is ever-so-slightly more successful in portraying the story as a whole. Between Two Worlds puts a lot of emphasis on the young, suicidal couple, and Outward Bound does as well… but in Outward Bound there are other stand-out performances, including that of Leslie Howard, which give the film a sense of balance between each character’s storyline rather than seeming to emphasize one over the others. In Between Two Worlds it is not the script that puts the emphasis on the young couple, but the magnetic performances of Paul Henreid and Eleanor Parker.
When all is said and done, I really enjoyed watching both of these films, for different reasons. Between Two Worlds is higher on melodramatic entertainment value, but I also appreciate Outward Bound‘s serious handling of the thought-provoking, judgment day-based subject matter.
Outward Bound has unfortunately not been released on DVD, though it survives in full and is sometimes shown on TCM. It ran on June 7, so I’m not sure how soon they’ll run it again… but keep an eye out for it, because it is well worth watching!
The score: 4/5