Many of you have seen it, a lot of you probably love it, and I think it’s safe to say that some of you find it…unsettling. Oh yes, it’s one of the most viral bits of Edwardian film footage in existence–the split-reel oddity Le Cochon Danseur (1907) that many of us simply know as The Dancing Pig.
First bursting into the Internet in the 2000s, it’s become a go-to all-purpose “check out this creepy old film” film. YouTube alone has dozens (and dozens) of copies of it, and GIFs of it float about generously on social media. There are memes. There’s fan art. There’s even Creepypastas. But aside from all this 21st century hullabaloo, it’s also been a film festival mainstay since the ’80s, when the late, great historian David Shepard had a copy of it struck from an original negative.
It’s not hard to see why it’s so popular. People love, and I mean love old-timey things that have aged into creepiness (although sometimes the bar for “creepy” is annoyingly high). The Dancing Pig has it all–old-timey-ness, a simple scenario that’s also inexplicable, surreal visuals that are easy to remember, and a length short enough to be appreciated by even gnat-like attention spans. Oh, and this final shot, its crowning glory:
Truly, without that shot this little curio might not have the cult following it has. Or rather, deserves. Then again, how do you not like a film showing a huge anthropomorphic pig hitting on a girl (or maybe begging for food?), getting humiliated when she pulls his clothes off, and getting spruced up in a dress and ladies’ hat and dancing with the girl for the audience’s merriment? As many have pointed out, the pig costume’s darn impressive too–the “nightmare-inducing” shot at the end is definitely meant to show off its expressive abilities. (Part of the nightmare has to be those teeth. Pigs do have sharp teeth, but those are just alarming.)
There seems to be a persistent rumor that the end shot is meant to be interpreted at the pig having eaten the girl, maybe because it’s preceded by the scene of the pig walking back onstage alone. Err, I’m thinking that’s a stretch. There’s also a rumor that there’s actually two people in the costume, the second being someone very petite (a child or teenaged girl?) riding “piggyback” (heh heh) to work the facial mechanics. That’s possible, I suppose–it’s a pretty wide costume and you can see the impression of something, or someone, when the pig turns around.
So where did this 115-year-old film come from, and is there anything we can discover about its backstory? As I mentioned, David Shepard seems to have unleashed it on the world, and it eventually wound up in Flicker Alley’s “Saved From the Flames” collection of 54 old and unique films. It’s often been described as a “vaudeville” act, but it actually seems to be a French music hall act (vaudeville was American), since we know it was filmed by the French studio Pathé-Freres. It was a popular nickelodeon offering to the point that more than one version was filmed as the older negatives wore out–so I’ve heard.
I did find a surprisingly detailed entry on TV Tropes about the film, which mentions that it’s missing a scene where the pig, alone, sits at the table (maybe the assistant we briefly see puts it back?) and gets drunk on wine before stumbling away. No sources, however. IMDb turned out to be pretty useless (this happens on occasion), naming “Mercury Millard” as the director and the two actors “Ewing Tordella” and “Edith Trublanchet.” If the site’s to be believed, all of them made this one film and absolutely nothing else. I might put money on the theory that someone pulled those names out of a hat and called it a day.
There was a mention on the Nitrateville forum about the pig being played by animal impersonator Alfred Latell, but after some poking around I felt that was inaccurate. Latell was an American vaudevillian and seemed to specialize in realistic animal impersonations, mainly dogs from the looks of it–and not anthropomorphized pigs in tiny top hats. Hmm, where else could I look? Not knowing French threw a wrench in the idea of searching old newspapers, and there’s no detailed discussion of the film in any books I have. But lo and behold, just when I started to feel tingles of despair a surprisingly recent Reddit thread came to the rescue! With sources, might I add.
Here’s what a user named gerardmenfin helpfully wrote:
“It was the movie adaptation of a vaudeville act or operetta called the Cochon mondain (The Worldly Pig) or Little Poucette (depending on the advertising, or maybe the act underwent some changes) that had been shown with great success from January to April 1907 at the Casino de Paris. The creator of the character was a mysterious ‘Mr. Odéo’. The Pig danced while his female companion sang popular tunes, as shown on this blog page dedicated to the character.”
The blog page, Images Musicales, was equally helpful and even had some wonderful vintage images! I was delighted to see this, for example:
And this charming poster:
But wait, there’s more! Getting back to our friend gerard at Reddit:
“…The movie version was released by Pathé in May 1907, right after the show had run its course…We can speculate that Mr. Odéo himself was playing the part, which would explain the rather high quality of the costume, which had been sturdy enough to be dancing on stage for 4 months.
“…Mr Odéo went on with his Cochon Mondain stage act in Europe (he was in Lisbon in 1912) and elsewhere. He was back in Paris in August 1920 at the Théâtre Marigny, where he shared the stage with Maurice Chevalier. His act was named L’Homme-Cochon, the Man-Pig, but it seems to have been a ‘quick-change’ number, where Odéo turned into a pig, but also into a chimpanzee, an elephant, and a chicken, using suits consisting in a ‘wicker frame stuffed with horsehair and covered with jersey cloth’. In an interview given for the Petit Bleu de Paris (12 August 1920), Odéo said that he used to be a salesman but had become an artist in 1902. He had been travelling the world since, showing his ‘animals’ as far as China, where he had found the audience ‘intelligent, vibrant and enthusiastic’: if we believe him, it was not just the French who had become fond of the Dancing Pig.”
He also includes info on how Mr. Odéo’s act was advertised and such back in the day, but I don’t want to borrow all of that Reddit thread’s thunder. Check it out here!
So that clears up much of the mystery! What an age we live in, when films cranked by hand well over a century ago can become Internet memes, Creepypastas and slightly unsettling peeks into unique areas of pop culture history.