Saturday Matinee #138: "Building a Building" (January 7, 1933)
Published August 24, 2013
by Albert Gutierrez
I'm going to let you all in on a little secret. Selecting cartoons for Saturday Matinee is rarely ever done on a schedule. Occasionally, I will "reserve" a particular week for a cartoon that I know I want to cover. When I have a particularly-extensive piece, I'll plan it out weeks ahead as I gather information and go through drafts. And themed weeks often force me to choose something that's relevant to that week. But for the most part, I'll just peruse through my DVDs and decide which character I feel like watching. Sometimes, I'll just ask someone to give me a year, and I pick something from there. It's certainly not the most ideal way to write for this column, but one that certainly helps keep me on my toes. Perhaps because I had been at the One Man's Dream showcase a few days ago, but I had a hankering to watch "Building a Building," Disney's first short of 1933, as they featured a clip of it in the end-of-tour video.
It's a great metal dragon! Actually, that's just a steam shovel chewing away at the land. Controlling such a behemoth is a little mouse we all know and love: Mickey. While he's busy at work, Minnie Mouse sells box lunches to other construction workers. They're animals of all shapes and sizes, very busy building their building. Thanks to a big wind, Minnie's hat flies off and towards the ground, several stories below her. Mickey uses his trusty shovel to lift it up and return it to her. In his elation, he drops a load of dirt onto Foreman Pete, who orders Mickey back to work. Mickey delivers some bricks, unaware when he walks across a traveling beam to another floor, then later on some rope. He drops the bricks, them falling on Pete once more. Mickey wants to get to Minnie for lunch, and finds creative ways of going back down several floors. But he always seems to find ways to ire Pete.
Fortunately, the lunch bell rings in time, and all the workers scatter off the building. Pete temporarily ignores Mickey to eat his own lunch. Mickey tries to impress Minnie with his lunch, but Pete - who's finished his own - finds a way to steal it. Minnie sees this, and offers Mickey a box lunch, free of charge. As Minnie admires Mickey's typewriting skills with an ear of corn, Pete uses this opportunity to kidnap her. Mickey's lunch break ends early, as he must now rescue Minnie. Never mind construction worker Mickey, he's back in his hero role once more. But it's a tag team, as Minnie helps Mickey stop Pete by dispensing hot nails and screws into his pants. A chase begins, as Pete begins shooting at them with an electric hammer that manages to catch itself on his peg leg. This causes the whole building to collapse, though Mickey and Minnie have successfully escaped in Minnie's box lunch cart, which they re-christen as the "Mickey-Minnie Box Lunch."
"Building a Building" actually began life not as a Mickey Mouse short, but as one of Oswald's. "Sky Scrappers" tells virtually the same story, even borrowing several of the same shots and gags. That short featured Oswald and Sadie (one of his many girlfriends), with Pete being the link between the two. Between "Sky Scrappers" and "Building a Building," we can see just how similar Oswald and Mickey are. They play the hero, albeit one thrust into such situations based on their current predicaments of the time. And it works, not just because we enjoy seeing this "everyman" take on something extraordinary, but because we wish to be extraordinary ourselves. Our mundane, humdrum lives are the very reason we go to movies, watch TV, or take a vacation. It's the break we need from such "normality." "Building a Building" (and by extension, "Sky Scrappers") fulfills that need by showing us that even the most plain jobs can become an adventure.
Halfway into the short, the story changes from "Yay, it's Mickey as a construction worker; I hope he doesn't fall off that beam!" into our favorite mouse saving the day. Thus, watching the derring-do in a very real world allows us to imagine such things can truly happen, even if it's only for a few minutes before the "real movie" begins. At the time, Hollywood was sometimes dubbed the "Dream Factory" (MGM in particular), which seems quite fitting. You go here to escape, to become part of something that is not so plausible in the quaint, little towns of middle America or the bustling, gritty streets of the urban northeast. If by some strange happenstance such craziness does occur, at least you'll have the ability to know how to handle such situations. Granted, I've never walked across a high beam with a wheelbarrow of bricks, but I'm sure once I do, I'll make sure to catch a beam as it traverses between floors.
"Building a Building" can be found on two Mickey Mouse DVDs. Naturally, you'll find it among his more popular black-and-white shorts in 2002's "Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in Black and White." And given its immense popularity, the short was also included in 2005's single-disc affair, "Vintage Mickey," alongside other powerhouse black-and-white shorts like "Steamboat Willie" and "The Castaway."