Pre-Code Corner: Outward Bound: High Class on the High Seas
“A helluva good picture about heaven!” a September 1930 Variety ad boisterously proclaimed of Outward Bound. Leave it to Warner Brothers to make a surpassingly ethereal, sophisticated picture… and then endorse the hell out of it in a vulgar way.
After watching and researching so many pre-Code titles, I find myself a bit jaded by the era’s antics at times. But every so often, there’s an entry that knocks me for a loop. Outward Bound was one of those pictures.
This pre-Code’s content surprised me, but the reasons weren’t any of the usual suspects—sexual innuendo, violence, or nudity; rather, it was Outward Bound’s allegorical yet grounded manifestation of the afterlife and its unusual consideration and rendering of fraught topics such as suicide and religion that initially piqued my interest. When I dove into research, it was interesting to discover how the picture’s outstanding reception and metaphoric morality altered how those subjects were received—and how the aforementioned acclamation didn’t necessarily equate to a box office hit.
Though the picture is as stilted as its stage origins (it was produced in 1930, after all) and lands a tad too on the nose with its symbolism, Outward Bound’s unique story and powerful performances still captivate. Right after an epic foreword that certainly sets the bar high for this screen adaptation, Henry (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) and Ann (Helen Chandler) apprehensively make a pact; they cannot be together in this life (we find out later that he is married), so it is implied that suicide is the way to ensure they’ll be united in the afterlife.
The next we see the couple, they’re passengers on a ship, but this isn’t just any ocean liner: There’s no crew save for a steward and only a handful of fellow travelers, all of whom have no idea where they’re headed. With the oddities piling up, it isn’t long before drunken Tom (Leslie Howard) realizes they’re all dead. Just as the others—a society woman, a businessman, a lower class “chairwoman,” and Reverend Duke (Lyonel Watts)—start to believe him and become anxious that their true selves will be revealed, the Examiner (Dudley Digges) boards to dole out their fates: namely, heaven or hell. As “half ways,” Henry and Ann are excluded from judgment, but only by happenstance, it turns out; at the end, they seemingly find the courage to return to the real world and receive another chance at life.
Destination: unknown. Almost all outdoor shots in the movie—on land and at sea—are shrouded in an otherworldly fog and haze.
Playwright Sutton Vane penned Outward Bound in 1923, and since the fantastical subject matter scared producers, Vane presented it himself in true DIY fashion, and it worked: The play became a hit, quickly found a larger home on London’s West End, and ran on the Great White Way in 1924… and 1926… and 1928. But that was the 1920s. Though I admittedly have the benefit of hindsight, I believe Outward Bound feels uniquely suited to the Great Depression, showing the entitled, haughty upper class (a rich businessman and a society snob) going to hell for their various indiscretions and chiding those who turn to suicide for being cowardly.
Can you guess where these two, Mr. Lingley (Montagu Love) and Mrs. Cliveden-Banks (Alison Skipworth), are headed?
Even more relatable to the era, Vane claimed in a 1931 Picturegoer article that all the passengers on the ship have one shared thought: They’ve lost their jobs, and they grapple with the question of whether they will be able to continue with their occupations in the afterlife. As Vane summed up: “…My task has been to try to explain, by means of a theatrical allegory, that having taken on a job, willingly or unwillingly, we are not meant to quit it in the middle, provided it is a good job, and life is a good job. Get on with it! Don’t let it beat you! Don’t quit!” That encouragement sounds tailored frankly for early 1930s patrons, doesn’t it?
In most of the Production Code Administration (PCA) files I’ve perused, suicide was frowned upon and religion (and religious figures) were held in the highest esteem. In regards to the former, while we’re led to believe Henry and Ann have committed suicide, the twist is that they survive, and in their “halfway” state they are chastised for lacking courage before they decided to end it all. An early Studio Relations Committee (SRC) script reviewer emphasized the ethical significance the motif provides: “…the entire thing is a strong preachment against suicide. It also is a preachment for living kinder, more generous lives on Earth.” With such a highly moralistic resolution to the suicide storyline—and one that dealt with it delicately, at that—it’s easy to see why the film skirted this potential criticism.
The steward, Scrubby (Alec B. Francis), also a “halfway,” begged Ann to watch over Henry… who is off on his way back to the real world in the background.
However, Outward Bound’s portrayal of a clergyman who is less than perfect and a lighthearted take on Judgement Day would raise red flags, right? Yes, at first. Initial comments on the script from the SRC in June 1930 warned that Reverend Duke may offend audiences, especially as he indulges in cards, smokes, drinks, and engages in some potentially blasphemous talk, the latter referring to a moment when someone brings up a Bible passage and he retorts: “Does it really matter what either of them said? Isn’t it more to the point what you’ve got to say?” Further, the script reader noted that select churches could deem the picture as propaganda, particularly when Scrubby reveals their destination to Tom: “Heaven, sir. And Hell, too. It’s the same place, you see.” If that piece of the dialogue sounds potentially perilous in terms of censorship, how’s this incendiary tirade by Mrs. Cliveden-Banks: “Clergymen at sea are dreadfully unlucky. We shall probably all go to the bottom. If we do, I shall blame the clergyman entirely…”? Unsurprisingly, her quote does not appear in the finished picture.
On the insistence of Mrs. Midget (Beryl Mercer) and Tom (Howard) after he asserts “I’m not fit to pray for others,” Reverend Duke (Watts, far left) recites a prayer—the earliest he ever learned, which he attests is probably the finest he knows.
It seemed Warner Brothers was aware of 1: Just how big the shoes were that this adaptation was trying to fill and 2: The liberties taken with the subject of religion would be… a little difficult to get around. As Andrew Sarris noted in his 1979 piece “The Afterlife, Hollywood-style,” Outward Bound’s lengthy foreword not only set the scene for the epic picture that was to come, it also served to renounce “any intent to offend religious convictions.” But perhaps they needn’t have worried, as the picture’s overall excellence and moral tone ostensibly trumped most potential censorship concerns at the end of the day. (This propensity to excuse certain content due to superior quality or particular tonal approach was not terribly uncommon. One example is the SRC’s defense of MGM’s farcical treatment of 1932’s Red-Headed Woman.) In June 1930, the SRC’s Jason Joy wrote to Warners’ Darryl F. Zanuck to report that nothing in the picture ran afoul of the Code. However, he did caution that some religious groups could object to the “nature of the story,” though he assumed that negative reaction would be limited because the subject was handled so deftly.
Of all the cast, Howard received the most glowing reviews in this, his American film debut. Ironically, he portrayed Fairbanks Jr.’s character Henry in the original Broadway run.
Upon watching a finished cut of the picture, the SRC’s Lamar Trotti gushed to Joy: “Outward Bound is a stunning piece of work of the highest intellectual order, with perfect performances. There is nothing remotely objectionable in my opinion.” Someone signing off as “K.R.” echoed Trotti’s sentiment, writing Joy that the movie “profoundly impressed me” as it did most of the “mature” patrons he viewed it with. “Here is something for the ‘left-wing’ to be gratified over unless some of them feel hurt over portraying a clergyman as a human being,” he wrote. Wow, a religious figure being referred to as a regular person? I think it’s safe to say the film’s glowing assessments blinded them on that otherwise potentially touchy religious point.
But how did those possibly sensitive topics fare with censor boards? Remarkably well, at least in the States; the film got off easy, with only one or two lines facing the chopping block in most areas, one being Tom’s utterance: “You dirty clergyman!” However, in England, where the play debuted, the British Censor Board initially denied the picture a seal of approval. Though the subject of suicide was known to be a tricky one when it came to the British authorities, London’s Film Weekly reported in October 1930 that the objection was most likely taken with the Judgement scenes; the SRC’s James Wingate also presumed the characterization of God and religion was what obstructed approval. “A little broadmindedness on the Censor’s part would do no harm,” Film Weekly scolded on the decision. That’s certainly true, but would it help this profound yet moralizing picture when it came time for public consumption?
The Examiner (Digges, in white), rocking laidback Western gear and an affable attitude (at first), probably appears contrary to what 99.9% of religious groups pictured when it comes to Judgement Day.
Near unanimous critical reviews for Outward Bound mirrored the zeal the SRC held for the movie. In fact, The New York Times’ usually exacting Mordaunt Hall enthused: “Few pictures have held the rapt attention of an audience during a screening… The result is one of those rare pictorial offerings that virtually defy adverse criticism.” But while the whole film was praised and several reviews extolled the courage required to mount the production, select reviewers lamented how Outward Bound’s unusual theme would most likely limit its appeal. For instance, The Billboard celebrated the tale as “magnificently written, perfectly played,” but declared that most small-town audiences would find the movie’s psychology and sentiment too “highbrow,” as the film “stands alone on a spiritual plane of its own.” Indeed, Outward Bound seemed a hit in the largest cities—in September 1930, The Los Angeles Times reported the picture ran multiple screenings and attracted “excellent” attendance since its opening—but even an urban area like Newark, NJ struggled to attract audiences; a December 1930 Billboard article tracking picture performance rated Outward Bound’s business in Newark as a rare “poor” (all other films showing there were rated “fair”), with the comment: “Fans went homeward bound very disgusted.” As someone who was born and raised in New Jersey (and worked in Newark), I’d certainly be curious to see what disgusted those crowds!
Tom calls out Mr. Lingley for failing to give him another chance when he worked for the businessman. “No one ever gave me a second chance! I shouldn’t ask for one,” the haughty man takes pride in declaring. That came back to haunt Lingley when he begged the Examiner for a second chance…
To me, Outward Bound stands out for its allegorical implications and a hearty sense of morals during a period that is known, well, for pushing the latter by the wayside. In reading the PCA files, in particular, it seems that this was the type of high quality, honorable “better” entertainment the Production Code and SRC was so desperately trying to press. But in this case, a picture such as Outward Bound may have been a bit too lofty for typical 1930s audiences who weren’t as concerned with fantasies of the afterlife when they were just trying to get by in this life.
–Kim Luperi for Classic Movie Hub
Kim Luperi is a New Jersey transplant living in sunny Los Angeles. She counts her weekly research in the Academy’s Production Code Administration files as a hobby and has written for TCM, AFI Fest, the Pre-Code Companion, MovieMaker Magazine and the American Cinematheque. You can read more of Kim’s articles at I See A Dark Theater or by following her on twitter at @Kimbo3200.