Eleventh Hour ★★★½

Never in a zillion years did I ever guess I'd have the chance to see an original print of one of the original Superman shorts, but lo and behold they screened Eleventh Hour at the Georgetown Twin Drive-In after Man of Steel as the intermission between that and The Great Gatsby (for which my friend and I did not stay, owing to the time of night and him having to work the next day).

The first nine Superman shorts were produced by Fleischer Studios for Paramount and only the finale, Terror on the Midway, touches on the war. The second wave were farmed out to Famous Studios and were all propaganda pieces, most of them ripe with racist depictions of the Japanese. Some of that's on display here in Eleventh Hour but at least it isn't as overboard as some of the other shorts (looking at you, Japoteurs).

It was hilarious, really, that in about one minute the animated short film established everything that we needed to know about who Superman was, when it took Man of Steel most of its 143 minute run time to cover the same origin content. It was the perfect microcosm of just why it's so bothersome that Hollywood is hellbent on origin stories instead of just getting on with the story at hand. Did audiences in 1942 - when Superman was only three years old - need to be spoonfed his life story in order to go along with his adventures the way that we apparently need to be in 2013 after 75 entire years of the Kryptonian being part of pop culture? Of course not. So why do we?

That comparison aside, Eleventh Hour is interesting not only as a Superman adventure but also as a piece of wartime propaganda. Clark Kent and Lois Lane are imprisoned in Japan, apparently having been apprehended for some reason as reporters. Every night, Clark sneaks out as Superman and commits acts of sabotage against the Japanese.

It's particularly interesting because this was made at a time when Superman wasn't an omnipotent god. He was far more restricted in his powers, and it explains why Superman could participate in World War II without being capable of ending it all by himself. Conversely, it's hard to imagine telling a story about Superman fighting the Taliban without having to get into Superman choosing not to strongarm anyone into compliance. I actually prefer this Superman, where he has just enough might to do what the rest of us wish we could do but not so much might that we wonder what the point even is of him intervening in this conflict but not that. The Superman of Eleventh Hour was incapable of stopping the war all by himself, so he does the next best thing: He fights in it as best he can.

The animation holds up well today, even if the quality of the print Georgetown had was pretty dark and hard to see at times. It's easy to see the influence that design work had on Bruce Timm: the cleanliness of the lines, the fluidity of motion and the overall kineticism of the short are all things that we see in his work as cartoonist and as animator.

Also: Sammy Timberg's thrilling score completely owns Hans Zimmer's meandering musical accompaniment for Man of Steel.

I'd have rather seen The Arctic Giant (Superman fights a T.rex!), Volcano or The Mechanical Monsters, but ultimately I'm just grateful and thrilled that I actually got to see any of the original Superman short films on the big screen. Those shorts remain the definitive screen adventures of the Man of Steel for good reason. Even if this is the only one I ever get to see in such a setting, I'm glad I got to see it.

Eleventh Hour Re-Ranked on My Flickchart (#1069/1516

Eleventh Hour < Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) --> #1069
Though I enjoy Eleventh Hour as both a Superman story and as wartime propaganda, I was more taken by John Barrymore's captivating work as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Eleventh Hour > Hot Cross Bunny --> #1069
Eleventh Hour isn't the best of the 1942 shorts, but it's plenty strong enough to defeat the amusing but forgettable Hot Cross Bunny.

Eleventh Hour > How Do You Know --> #948
I like the cast of How Do You Know and it's not as bad as its reputation, but it's also not as interesting or as fun as watching Superman as a wartime saboteur.

Eleventh Hour > The Prince of Tides --> #853
I don't think I was in the right place to watch The Prince of Tides when I saw it on VHS in the mid-90s. I probably owe it a second viewing, except I just don't *want* to watch it again. Superman > family trauma.

Eleventh Hour > Major League --> #805
Major League is fun, but it hasn't held up for me as well as I had hoped. The racism in Eleventh Hour makes me cringe, but otherwise it's actually a thrilling Superman adventure and its animation impresses even today.

Eleventh Hour > Family Business --> #782
The comedy & heist parts of Family Business make great viewing, but the drama parts feel clunky and incongruous. Going with Eleventh Hour here, which benefits from being all about the action.

Eleventh Hour > Presto --> #770
Presto is a lot of fun and one of my favorite Pixar shorts, but having now seen a 35mm print of Eleventh Hour I'm even more wowed by the animation work of the 1942 Superman shorts. It isn't the best of them, but it's still dazzling (despite its overt racism).

Eleventh Hour > Tenure --> #764
I got a kick out of Tenure and I really liked its cast, but the truth is I had to pause to remember it. Eleventh Hour isn't particularly complex storytelling, but the action and animation are terrific.

Eleventh Hour > Carrie --> #761
I sympathized with Spacek's Carrie but the truth is I wasn't very invested in her story. I liked the gym teacher, though. Going with Superman taking on the Japanese in WWII in Eleventh Hour here.

Eleventh Hour < The Savages (2007) --> #761
Having seen a 35mm print of Eleventh Hour, I think even more highly now of the animation work and it is a thrilling piece of wartime propaganda, but I'm more taken with the skewed humanity of The Savages.

Eleventh Hour was re-ranked on my Flickchart to #761/1516