Monday, April 17, 2023

The NFR Project: Gus Viser and his Singing Duck


Theodore Case Sound Test: Gus Visser and His Singing Duck

Made May 12, 1925


The most enjoyable Registry entry so far is absolutely ridiculous. A duck sits in front of the camera on a pedestal. A man enters and picks up the duck. His face is whitened, his hair is parted in the middle and slicked down – he looks like the embodiment of an R. Crumb cartoon. While holding it in the crook of his arm, he begins to sing the popular tune “Ma! (He’s Making Eyes at Me).” Every time he gets to the word “Ma” in the song, he manipulates the duck so that it quacks.

That’s it. That’s the bit.

It’s hilarious and strange, and probably constitutes animal abuse. This act would be lost in the mists of time were it not for the efforts of the unsung chemist and inventor Theodore Case, who pioneered research into the development of synchronized sound for movies.

Case collaborated with the better-known Lee de Forest on techniques for capturing and reproducing sound on film, but split away from him after not being credited properly for his contributions. At his lab in back of his mansion in Auburn, New York, Caase filmed hundreds of experimental sound shorts. A fire destroyed most of them, but a few dozen still exist.

They are all vaudeville acts. Perhaps Case chose them in part because of their static nature, making it easier for a carefully placed microphone to pick up the sonic nuances of each performer. The otherwise-unknown Visser’s act prompts a host of questions. How did he come up with this idea? Was he a big hit? What did the duck think of all this? Did he have one special duck, or would he just pick one up in whatever town he was in? Where do Gus Visser and his singing duck stand in the grand pantheon of entertainment?

The NFR Project is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: ‘The Flying Ace’.

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