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A group of assorted persons find themselves on a ship bound for no
conceivable destination. Little do they know, that they are all dead
and sailing towards judgment in this evocative and moving psychological
drama about life and death.
The script-which was based off a broadway play-is very well done. The final results are still stagey and the whole movie seems to take place in one room, but because of the brisk pace and timeless themes of life, death, and what happens after you die there is never a dull or slow moment in the movie. It's dramatization of life after death is mesmerizing and still holds up after all these years. This is Leslie Howard's (Gone with the Wind) first American film, he acted in the stage version of this film, so his acting tends to be on the melodramatic side. Of the young couple, Helen Chandler (Dracula) gives the better performance. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. brings down Chandler's tragic intensity and the young couple story line with his over-the-top performance. As for the rest of the cast, some performances are better than others, but no performance gets too melodramatic to the point where it's distracting from the great story or the eerie, almost scary, atmosphere. I saw this movie on TCM recently and I noticed that it is not available on DVD or VHS and I think that's a real shame. Overall: a very thought-provoking, atmospheric, early-talkie drama. Would be great for rainy days. Beryl Mercer (Public Enemy), Lyonal Watts, Alison Akipworth, and Slec B. Francis also star.
*** out of ****
The story of the man who wrote Outward Bound is probably more
interesting than the play itself if that's possible. Sutton Vane was an
actor who joined the army at the outbreak of World War I and was
invalided out due to a bad case of shell-shock. The horrible memory of
the war stayed with him even though he tried to go back to performing.
The play Outward Bound was written by Vane as a catharsis, his own message about how differently people view life at the moment of judgment. Vane could not interest any of the mainstream producers in London to back his play, he raised the money and produced it himself. It struck a chord with post World War I audiences in first the United Kingdom and then in America.
When Warner Brothers got the rights to the play they were lucky indeed to get several of the original cast from Broadway to repeat their roles for the screen. Leslie Howard, Lyonel Watts, Dudley Digges and Beryl Mercer did these parts on Broadway in 1924 when the play ran for 144 performances.
Several people find themselves on board a most mysterious ship which seems to be continually traveling in fog and only one crewman, a steward is on duty. It turns out that only a young couple, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Helen Chandler, seem to know what's happening. They're all dead and the ship is heading towards a meeting with the Great Examiner who will determine their fates.
Why they and steward Alec B. Francis are the only ones of the passengers that knows what's happening and what happens to each one you'll have to see the film for. Outward Bound with a message that's less Christian centered might very well find an audience today. Unless you believe that their are similar ships carrying people from an Islamic, Jewish, Buddhist, etc. cultures to their fates which the author by no means excludes.
Though melodramatic in spots, Outward Bound is still a haunting film about people on the brink of eternity.
The cast's dramatic performance style reflects that of serious stage
of the time. Over all, the feel of this movie is very "English" when
compared to the crudely mannered World War II era remake.
I was swept up into the young couple's dilemma. The dramatic tension of this (the original) version, is so finely honed that I found myself sitting on the edge of my chair, nervously biting my nails, on the verge of tears. The 1930s was truly the golden age of movies.
After seeing "Between Two Worlds" the 1944 remake of this movie, it is safe to say that both have their own merits. This film, made early in the talkie era reflects the effects of transitioning to sound from silents. The acting is stagey, overdone and very overdramatic. The players seems ill at ease probably due to the presence of the microphone and also from the fact that some were stage actors where the exaggerated gesture was appropriate. The story, adapted from the stage play, looks like what it is....a stage play. But the cinematography is wonderful, light and dark clearly deliniated; shadows which give it a very eerie look. It has such a great story line....passengers on a ship going to Heaven or Hell without their knowledge....that it holds interest in spite of some of the emoting that takes place. Leslie Howard goes over the edge in the scene where he realizes what is happening and it borders on comedic. Frankly, he is just not very good in this part. John Garfield plays in much more realistically in the 1944 film. Montagu Love, as the business man of shady reputation can't hold a candle to the wonderful George Colouris who played that part in the remake. The less said about Doug Jr. and Helen Chandler as the young lovers the better. One has to remember that this is a very early movie and those of us who love early cinema are prepared for the mannered acting that was often seen during this time in movie history. It is worth seeing; in fact, see this one and then see the remake. You might like the remake better but give the original a chance. You may like it.
Many years ago, I happened to catch a 1944 film called "Between Two
Worlds" on television. Knowing that this was a remake of the seldom
shown "Outward Bound", I was eager to see it,and I wasn't disappointed.
Unfortunately, I have seen that version only once, but I do remember
that the plot was striking and that Sydney Greenstreet, in a rare
sympathetic role, was utterly memorable and just about stole the film.
Just this past Monday, I managed to finally see the original "Outward Bound". It turns out to be a beautifully photographed (by the great Hal Mohr) film with a striking use of light to create both an eerie effect and,at one point, a breathtaking otherworldly effect, something that Mohr would later win an Oscar for in the 1935 "A Midsummer Night's Dream".
As for the script, it is by far the best-written, most eloquent dialogue I have ever heard in an early talkie, rising very nearly to the level of poetry at times.The sound quality of the print that I saw(on TCM) was also quite good, with every word clearly intelligible.
But what unfortunately, and perhaps unavoidably, ages this movie, is the acting. Some of it (from Alison Skipworth) is quite good, and Leslie Howard, as Tom Prior, is excellent, as long as he is being a charming rogue.
But, the minute the plot starts to gain in intensity, his performance starts to fall apart and become unintentionally funny (something I definitely don't remember happening in "Between Two Worlds", where John Garfield played Tom Prior). There is a climactic moment, at which Howard finally guesses the secret of the voyage, when we can almost sense a first-act curtain descending, because of the way that Howard delivers his lines and the fact that the camera lingers on him several seconds as he stands frozen, a demented, uninentionally hilarious, pop-eyed expression on his face.
Other actors are also hammy, though they don't all reach the level that Howard does when he goes momentarily berserk. The lovers, played by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Helen Chandler, are actually worse, almost always wildly overacting, and Leslie Howard looks restrained compared to them. Montagu Love overdoes his pompous business tycoon,but he never quite gets to the point of being unbearable--he is actually supposed to be rather aggravating. Alec B.Francis is stilted and unremarkable as the ship's steward,and totally devoid of personality in comparison to the actor who would play his role in "Between Two Worlds"--Edmund Gwenn (Santa Claus himself in "Miracle on 34th Street").
The little-known Lyonel Watts is nearly unbearably unctuous and even whiny as a defrocked priest. But Dudley Digges, another member of the original cast, is quite good in the stern and mysterious role of Thompson,the Examiner--he seems to be one of the few early film actors who understood that acting for film and live theatre are different.
The film's direction has all the staginess of an early talkie---only a few imaginative camera movements, but those eerie lighting effects would have been difficult to duplicate on a stage in that era. There is no music except for the opening and closing credits, and this also dates the film, although it adds to the spooky atmosphere.
"Outward Bound" is certainly worth checking out, but despite what Leonard Maltin says, it is an unfortunately dated film, and its remake,"Between Two Worlds" seems more preferable.
Massive stage hit was an early talkie starring Leslie Howard as a man
who finds himself on a ship that is "outward bound." Stunning dialog
and beautiful cinematography help this allegorical tale of passengers
stranded onboard a mysterious ship. A huge stage hit in London and New
York, Outward Bound was am ambitious talkie for 1930 and features some
wonderful performances (a bit stagy, but wonderful) from Howard as well
as the great and underrated Alison Skipworth. Also good are Douglas
Fairbanks Jr., Beryl Mercer, Helen Chandler, Alec P. Francis, Dudley
Digges, and Montagu Love. Lyonel Watts is a bit much as the vicar. This
was remade in the late 40s as Between Two Worlds, starring John
Garfield and Eleanor Parker.
Leslie Howard always seemed to be wasted in blah film roles and its nice to see him here in a worthy role. And Skipworth is a total delight in any film you can catch her in...... Here she plays a most unusual part, and plays it beautifully. All her little hmmms and gutteral sounds add fathoms to the dialog. And note her first name is misspelled in the opening credits.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
We watch as several different passengers board and wander about the
decks of a ship. The exterior is covered in fog and the characters are
confused about how they got on board or where they are going. The whole
place is shrouded in mystery, but we slowly learn that all of them are
dead and are sailing to their judgment. Henry (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.)
and Ann (Helen Chandler) are a married couple determined to stay
together. Tom Prior (Leslie Howard) is a bit of a drunk, but an astute
and generous man. Mrs. Midget (Beryl Mercer) is an elderly woman from
the slums who is snubbed by many of the passengers. Most of the wealthy
people are selfish and snobby (Montagu Love, Alison Skipworth).
The dialogue is almost as enchanting as the setting and the actors really bring their characters to life. Most notable is Howard who appears here in his first feature film. He seems well suited to film although his lyricism certainly stems from his experience on the stage. Chandler and Fairbanks are a bit less natural but their story is interesting and heartbreaking. What is great about this movie is that although we know a big twist from the start, the fact that the passengers are dead, it is not without surprises. The ending throws several unexpected wrenches that further liven the story. Do not miss this one.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The written prologue before the credits in "Outward Bound" asks the
audience to cordially put themselves in the same position as the first
night audience and believe the deep sincerity that Warners tried to
bring to their talkie feature. Sutton Vane's eerie, allegorical stage
melodrama about the destination of the human soul was certainly the
most striking Broadway play of the 1924 season (144 performances) but
it really polarized audiences of the time. When Warner Bros. bought it
to the screen they retained Beryl Mercer, Dudley Digges, Lyonel Watts
and in his film debut Leslie Howard, all from the original cast but
even though the New York Times listed it as 6th best film of the year
it was not a success.
The film starts out conventionally enough with young lovers Henry and Ann (Douglas Fairbanks Jnr. and the lovely Helen Chandler) planning to leave on a trip and worrying about what might happen to their dog, Laddie - the truth is they are planning to leave life itself.
They find themselves on a fog enshrouded boat along with a group of assorted passengers - alcoholic writer Tom Prior (Leslie Howard), a snobby dowager, Mrs. Cliveden-Banks (Alison Skipworth), a nervous priest (Lyonel Watts), a kindly charwoman, Mrs. Midget (Beryl Mercer) and a ruthless industrialist (Montague Love). They are all greeted by the steward, Scrubby (Alec B. Francis) but, oddly enough, none of them can remember their destination. Despite drinking heavily Prior soon sobers up to the fact that they are all lost souls on their way to Heaven - "and Hell too" Scrubby confirms his fears.
The first half is an extremely static movie that would be enjoyed a lot more by the viewer who knew nothing about the story. Prior spends a lot of time trying to convince the skeptical passengers of their true destination. The boat has no captain or crew or lights. The only lights are eerie rays that come from the cabin and light up the boat like a halo. The film brightens up a bit when "The Examiner" comes on board and Dudley Digges plays him as a weather beaten old rascal. All the passengers are to be interviewed by him to determine their placing (whether they go to Heaven or Hell). It definitely quickens the pace of the movie and there are no prizes for guessing where Skipworth and Love are bound for!!! The vicar and "The Examiner" are old friends and the latter is quick to reassure him that he will always have a job continuing on his missionary work helping the poor. Beryl Mercer's role is a real surprise packet and unlike other comments I have read I did not find her whiney!!! I thought she was one of the more humane characters in the movie. Funnily enough, Ann and Henry's names are not on the list - that is because they are "Half Ways" and cannot be judged. Because they are suicides they are destined, like Scrubby, to sail forever on the boat greeting new arrivals.
For many who saw it in 1930, the slow moving narrative and talkiness did not detract from the spirituality but today it definitely does not hold up that well. Helen Chandler was very popular in 1930, 1931. She had a quirky, little girl lost appeal, you couldn't mistake her uniqueness for any other actress. Even though her role was small, she convinced Hollywood that she was someone to watch out for in "Outward Bound" and she found her niche as the "new Lillian Gish". Unfortunately after a couple of years her movie heyday was finished and it was back to the stage.
The chirons at the beginning of 1930's "Outward Bound" tell us in
aching detail how Sutton Vane's play took the London stage by storm. It
subsequently was done on Broadway not once but twice (the second time
was some years after this film), and the film uses three of the play's
original cast: Leslie Howard, Beryl Mercer and Dudley Digges. The film
was remade in 1944 as "Between Two Worlds" and the plot was changed
slightly to reflect World War II.
"Outward Bound" is the story of several people on board ship, but none of them knows the reason for being there or where they're going. Finally they figure out that they are all dead and face the judgment of The Examiner (Digges) who arrives to tell them their fate. Heaven and hell are really the same place, it turns out, and those going to the less desirable place merely have some things to work on before heading upward. Two people, however, will not be leaving the ship - that's the suicide couple (Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Helen Chandler) who, like the purser, are "halfways" and must stay on the ship for eternity.
The film is very bizarre looking, in a good way, very foggy, with an amorphous skyline when the outside of the ship (a toy boat) is shown. The atmosphere is appropriately dark and eerie. The problem with "Outward Bound" is two-fold. The acting is melodramatic and very stagy; also, the actors don't have the talkie "rhythm" down yet, so they sound very stilted. Leslie Howard, who in the film takes the part played on stage by Alfred Lunt, gives no indication that he will become a great film star - his performance is for the stage and terribly hammy. Interestingly, both he and Fairbanks Jr. not long after this movie would give wonderful performances, Howard in "The Petrified Forest" and Fairbanks in "Love is a Racket." Fairbanks in particular had a remarkably modern acting technique, but not in "Outward Bound." Strangely enough, as with "Between Two Worlds," there is something compelling and sympathetic about most of these characters. Perhaps it's a fascination we have with the afterlife, but the story does hold together, and we do care what happens to the "good guys" on the ship. I admit to liking "Between Two Worlds" better, especially the suicide couple plot, which is better handled in the latter film.
"Outward Bound" today is an interesting artifact but worth seeing, especially if you can follow it up with "Between Two Worlds."
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
There have been many theories of what comes during that transition from
life to death, and in this first film version of the successful British
play, it is an early variation of Albert Brooks' "Defending Your Life".
Instead of one man comically defending his existence on that third rock
from the sun, you get seven of them, all quite different, and all
destined for immortalities that reflect the lives that they lead.
There's the young couple in trouble who seem destined for a world in
between life and death because of a double suicide, the young alcoholic
afraid of facing his own immortality, the lonely char woman who gave up
her child so he could have a better existence, a ruthless businessman
who refuses to accept the fact that his earthly power can't be
transfered further, and the snooty society matron who despises the idea
of spending eternity with a husband she married for position and
ultimately despised in spite of his undying love for her.
All of these people must face the judgment of the examiner, a raucous every man (played with great gusto by Dudley Digges), and to some, he will be their best friend, to others, their worst nightmare. He has no patience for fools, and that will not sit highly with the obnoxious Montagu Love or the uppity Allison Skipworth. Reverand Lyonel Watts is delighted to find that he's an old acquaintance, certain that past mistakes that got him ex-communicated will doom his soul, while young lovers Helen Chandler and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. fret over the examiner's refusal to talk to them. Cockney Beryl Mercer's destiny seems almost certain, her saint-like presence and love for a son she gave up clear in her desire to reach out to everybody around her. As for Leslie Howard, he is so insecure about past mistakes, he has no idea that all he has to do is want to repent in order to be saved.
Some biblical scholars may choke over the message of the film, but the script seems to utilize more theorizing from the life of Jesus Christ and his simple message of salvation than the more complex old testament. It basically tells you that all you need to do to make it past the examiner's judgment is to wish for your own salvation and it shall be granted. In the case of Love and Skipworth, their characters are not repentful at all, while the love of the two suicides is all it will take to redeem them. As fantasies go, it is sweetly written and filmed, and as supernatural films go, it is beautifully photographed with some images that may haunt you as you reflect on it after it is over.
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