Fairbanks and Helen Chandler (who soon after this would appear as Mina in the original Bela Lugosi Dracula) play Henry and Ann, lovers in some sort of illicit romance. (It turns out that Henry is trapped in a loveless marriage to someone else.) Henry and Ann share some foreboding dialogue that suggests they are going to kill themselves—they wonder about who will take in their pet dog, Laddie.
Instead, they find themselves aboard a passenger ship. Other passengers include Tom Prior (Howard), an alcoholic; the mild-mannered Rev. Duke; Lingley, an obnoxious businessman; Mrs. Cliveden-Banks, an unbearably snobby society matron; and Mrs. Midget, a considerably more humble charwoman. Something is "queer" about their voyage, however. No one seems to be able to remember how they got on the ship, or for that matter why. The ship has no lights. The seven of them are the only passengers on a large ocean liner, and "Scrubby" the genial steward seems to be the only crew member...
Outward Bound was an adaptation of a hit stage play. Several of the actors from the play reprised their roles, and Leslie Howard switched from playing Henry on the stage to playing Tom on film. When the play was brought back to Broadway in 1938, Helen Chandler again played Ann.
Remade in 1944 as Between Two Worlds with John Garfield as Tom.
- Afterlife Express: The ship, taking seven souls to either heaven or hell. Scrubby explains that they're the same place, but the experience is different.
- The Alcoholic: Tom was drunk when he died, shows up to the afterlife drunk, and tells everyone that he'll be spending the whole voyage in the bar. When he starts to realize what's going on, he forces himself to sober up.
- Almighty Janitor: "Scrubby" the humble ship's steward turns out to be everyone's guide to the afterlife.
- Barred from the Afterlife: The reason that Scrubby is the crewmember and guide is that he killed himself, and thus is doomed to sail the ship for eternity, going to neither heaven nor hell.
- Contrived Coincidence: The Reveal that kindly Mrs. Midget is actually Tom's biological mother does raise the question of how they both happened to die at exactly the same time.
- Eiffel Tower Effect: The bell that tolls midnight, when Henry and Ann are supposed to kill themselves, is Big Ben.
- Judgement of the Dead: The "Examiner" looks over the case files of all the dead, chats with them for a little bit, and then decides if they're going to heaven or hell and what their afterlife will look like.
- Noodle Incident: How did Duke die? Mrs. Midget, Mrs. Cliveden-Banks, and Mr. Lingley are all old enough to credibly have died of natural causes. One might guess that Tom died of some alcohol-related cause. Rev. Duke however is a stumper. Although Duke is pretty despondent about having lost a job, we know he didn't kill himself, as he's not doomed to ride the ship with Scrubby.
- Obsessive-Compulsive Barkeeping: What's Scrubby doing when he tells everyone that yes, they're dead and they're riding an Afterlife Express? He's cleaning glasses behind the bar, of course.
- Ominous Fog: The first hint that something is not right on the ship is the spooky fog that settles over everything and never lifts.
- Only Mostly Dead: When the ship pulls into port the Examiner knows nothing about Henry and Ann and does not have case files for either of them. It turns out that they are only "halfway", as they are not quite dead yet.
- Personalized Afterlife: Thompson the "Examiner" reviews your case and decides what kind of afterlife you get. Duke gets assigned to be an Examiner like Thompson, since as it turns out they knew each other in life. Mrs. Cliveden-Banks gets paired up with her departed husband, which is a punishment, as she was a Gold Digger who hated him. The hell set up for Lingley isn't described, except for Thompson's ominous warning that Lingley will "suffer". Tom is apparently a marginal heaven candidate as he gets sent to the "slums", which are still better than wherever Lingley's going. The kind and decent Mrs. Midget is given a seaside cottage, but she gives it up; see The Reveal below.
- Psychopomp: Scrubby the steward, who helps his passengers deal with the realization that they're dead and they're headed to the afterlife.
- The Reveal: Not the Dead All Along bit, as that is revealed at the end of the first act. Instead near the end we find out that Mrs. Midget is actually Tom's birth mother. She passes up a seaside cottage in order to spend the afterlife in less snazzy accomodations taking care of her son.
- Rich Bitch: Mrs. Cliveden-Banks is an awful sneering snob who calls humble Mrs. Midget a "creature" and is unbearably snooty to everyone. And it turns out that she "trapped" her sucker of a husband into marriage.
- Smithical Marriage: Henry pretty much gives it away when he stammers out that Ann is "my...wife."
- Spoiler Opening: The long opening title cards reveal that the story is set in the afterlife. It isn't that much of a spoiler, as Tom figures this out a half-hour into the movie anyway.
- What Did I Do Last Night?: When Tom can't remember how or why he happend to get on the ship he writes it off to this. He's wrong.