Outward Bound (1930)

Outward Bound (1930) is generally regarded as Leslie Howard’s first film, though it was preceded by several silent  short films, some produced by Minerva Film, the company Leslie had founded in 1919 with his friend Adrian Brunel.

Outward Bound is a film adaptation of Sutton Vane’s play, brought to the stage in 1924 by Robert Milton. In the stage version, Leslie Howard had played the Henry role, with Margalo Gilmore as Ann, while Tom Prior role was played by Alfred Lunt. Six years later, in the film version, Leslie Howard, who was now thirty-seven, played the more mature role of Tom Prior.

Plot summary

The scene is the bar of a transatlantic liner, and the seven passengers soon discover that except for the steward, they are the only people aboard. A little later they also discover that they are all dead and are headed for unknown parts where the Examiner will go over their cases and divide the sinners from the saved. Among the passengers are a pair of lovers who have attempted suicide by gas. At the very end someone breaks in and saves them just before it is too late.


If a half-real, half-allegorical idea with a psychology midriff can be put on the screen in as intelligent a manner as this, then films have a wide future in an educational direction. On that score this film may be considered a laboratory experiment for the rest of the film world to ponder over and learn.
(Variety, 1930)

It is, in fact, a picture in which everybody shines, a picture that, like the play, sends one away from it deeply moved. Mr. Milton has not sought to change the action, but at the same time he has succeeded in giving to this film fine cinematic touches wherever opportunity offers.Leslie Howard, who acted one of the “Half-ways” in the play, undertakes the rôle portrayed by Alfred Lunt on the stage. His vocal delivery, his expressions and gestures leave nothing to be desired. Considering that this is his first talking picture part, he is entitled to all the greater praise for his performance. (Review by Mordaunt Hall, New York Times, September 18, 1930)

Although the Warner Brothers themselves do not seem to be aware of it, they have made a picture of Sutton Vane’s play Outward Bound, which has considerable dignity and restraint. The cast, including Leslie Howard, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Helen Chandler, Beryl Mercer, Alec B. Francis, Alison Skipworth and Dudley Digges, Performs to perfection, and Robert Milton’s direction is simple, honest and effective, if only making occasional use of its medium. This is still pretty much of a stage play.
[…] But do the Warners know this? Do they appreciate Mr. Howard’s sensitive performance? Please read some of their New York advertising: “The Sensational Love Drama, Outward Bound”; “Their Love Affair Is the Talk of the Town”; “A Heavenly Picture of a Heavenly Hell!” Will the Messrs. Warner kindly look me in the eye and explain me just why they they do this sort of thing?
(Review by Creighton Peet, The Outlook, October 1st, 1930)

Undoubtedly one of the finest tributes that could be paid to “Outward Bound” is to judge – it, not as a picture, but as to the success it achieves in its purpose. For, pictorially it is splendidly done. Direction, action, lighting effects and scenery are handled intelligently and with discretion. The answer to the other question, it seems to me, depends almost entirely upon the mental and temperamental viewpoint of the individual. For “Outward Bound” is, basically, only one individual’s theory of how Man will meet his Maker. If you have no belief in existence after death, quite probably you will class the picture as tosh, despite its pictorial virtues. If you are still undecided, there is no question but that you will be strangely impressed by the fanciful story of the seven who could not believe they were dead. Leslie Howard gives one of the most finished and artistic performances of his career. His scene with the steward of the ship carrying the seven to the City of God, when he confirms his believe that he is dead, is superbly done, without a single trace of sentimentality. Every one of the supporting cast, including Dudley Digges, Helen Chandler and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., are equal to the high standard set by Mr. Howard.
(P.T.S., Columbia Daily Spectator, October 9, 1930)

If you want to see a beautifully made and acted picture; a strange, haunting, inspiring screen play see “Outward Bound” tonight.
[…]This theme of a soul that goes through a purging process before it earns a hereafter is developed in a way that is both pathetic and rarely beautiful. All the scenes are photographed in a misty atmosphere to accent the ethereality of the story, and the actors’ faces all seem to express the Eternal Puzzle.
[…] Beryl Mercer’s work is exquisite; Howard gives a vivid performance of the nervous drunkard, and Fairbanks and Helen Chandler are superb as the young couple who are not ready for the great transition.
(William H. Haskell, Albany Evening News, April 16, 1931)

View the Original Trailer at TCM.com


Director: Robert Milton
Writer: Sutton Vane
Adaptation: J. Grubb Alexander

Photography: Hal Mohr
Film Editing: Ralph Dawson
Sound: Glenn E. Rominger


Leslie Howard (Tom Prior)
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (Henry)
Helen Chandler (Ann)
Beryl Mercer (Mrs. Midget)
Alec B. Francis (Scrubby)
Alison Skipworth (Mrs. Cliveden-Banks)
Lionel Watts (Rev. William Duke)
Montagu Love (Mr. Lingley)
Dudley Digges (Thompson, the Examiner)

Original Trailer

Photo Gallery
(click to enlarge)

Leslie Howard

Leslie Howard

Leslie Howard in Outward Bound

Leslie Howard in Outward Bound

Leslie Howard in Outward Bound

Leslie Howard and Alison Skipworth

Leslie Howard in Outward Bound 1930

Lionel Watts, Beryl Mercer and Leslie Howard

Leslie Howard in Outward Bound

Leslie Howard and Lionel Watts

Leslie Howard in Outward Bound

Alison Skipworth, Beryl Mercer, Leslie Howard, Montagu Love and Lionel Watts

Leslie Howard

Leslie Howard

Leslie Howard

Film Weekly, March 14, 1931

 Outward Bound