In their 1987 book, Too Funny for Words: Disney Greatest Sight Gags, Disney Legends Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston noted, "The first Mickey films had been developed so carefully in story that there was really no need for dialogue, other than an occasional 'Yoo-hoo" from Minnie (Building a Building, 1933)." The citing of Building a Building was by no means a random choice on the part of these two Studio veterans; this early Mickey Mouse black and white classic is an amazing and wonderful combination of story, music, character and pratfall comedy, orchestrated by Dave Hand in what was his first directing assignment for Walt Disney. It was released seventy-five years ago today on January 7, 1933 and richly deserved the Academy Award nomination it subsequently received.
Building a Building was built upon a then common foundation, the standard Mickey-Minnie-Pegleg Pete triangle formula used in many of the Mouse's early era cartoons. But the short spins out from that premise in so many other entertaining ways. While Mickey's personality driven steam shovel initially takes center stage, it is in fact lunch cart vendor Minnie who quickly takes the reins of the cartoon via the snappy "Box Lunch" musical number. A cacophony of pounding hammers and rivet gun percussions accompany Minnie in a sky-high choreography that grows to include painters, bricklayers and carpenters. The vignette ultimately concludes with a clever sashay performed by Mickey's aforementioned steam shovel.
The short then segues into a series of Harold Llyod-inspired stunts and construction site daredevilry, as Foreman Pete plays rival to Mickey for Minnie's affections. In an interesting twist, the over-the-top pratfalls are mixed deftly with Douglas Fairbanks maneuverings. One moment Mickey is partaking in a plausible impossible of high altitude gravity defiance, the next he and Minnie are furiously attempting to outrun Pete's uber-destructive rivet gun rampage. Their rope swinging, beam-balancing, cement trough bobsledding escapades can almost rival the action found within any Indiana Jones adventure.
The short is full of funny moments both loud (Pete calling Mickey a "blankety-blank baboon") and quietly amusing (workers parachute down from the building when the lunch whistle blows). One especially notable sequence features Mickey transporting a load of bricks via platform elevator. The animation became a textbook example of the squash-and-stretch gag technique, to the point where Walt subsequently showcased the scene on the Disneyland television show.
Especially interesting about Building a Building was a curious dynamic that it created between director Hand and Walt himself. As critically well-received as the fim was at the time, it elicited a entirely different reaction from Walt, as Hand explained in an interview with Michael Barrier in 1973:
"He told me that I shouldn't be in the business, on my first directorial job on shorts. That was Building a Building. Walt had the extra animators, and I suppose he saw a directorial ability in me—I say that humbly—so he gave me this story that was turned down by other directors and said that I was to direct it. This was my introduction to Disney direction, although I had directed before Disney. He didn't care about what I'd done before. But he wouldn't give me any of the key animators, the guys who could animate. He gave me these little, junior fellows. He said, 'Hell, Dave, you've worked with juniors as supervising animator, you can work with these fellows.' Well, there was a lot of personality stuff, and how do you get it out of juniors? Anyway, when the picture was previewed, I felt happy, because I happened to have counted the number of laughs in the picture, because it was my picture. Never mind the number, it was up there—actually, twenty-one. I was very happy—happy for the studio, not for myself. The next day, Walt came into my room, and he stayed through noon hour—about an hour and a half—and told me where I should have been, instead of in an animation studio, and how did I ever think I could direct. This is true: Walt isn't here to defend himself, but I assure you it was true. He knocked me down until I was lower than a snake's belly. I don't know why he did it, because I know the picture was all right: I heard the audience at the sneak preview."
Hand's efforts on Building a Building and other shorts were ultimately vindicated. As Hand himself noted, "A very peculiar man, Walt was. But I took it. I took it, and before long I was directing Snow White [laughing]. Don't ask me how I got it."