How a 1907 Film’s Dancing Pig Became a Creepy Internet Meme
Note: This is the forty-first in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my favorite 1907 film, THE DANCING PIG, director unknown.
The vaudeville tradition has always fascinated me. Vaudeville acts were popular from about the 1880s to the 1930s, and they were stage productions united by a troop or simply a place and time. Vaudeville shows were variety shows, which can be seen in the tenor of early television especially, featuring unrelated comedy, singing, dancing, musical, and any other performance acts strung together. Some of film’s earliest comedy geniuses got their start in vaudeville, like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, and many more were inspired by the vaudeville tradition. Stand-up and sketch comedy can be traced to vaudeville, and in this comedic context, I’ve always been interested in its history.
Perhaps more so than “serious” stage productions, early film was fueled by vaudeville traditions and concepts. Many of Thomas Edison’s earliest actualities were brief looks into vaudeville acts filmed in Edison’s Black Maria studio, but with no considerations for the potential of film. Trick films were totally taking the magic tricks vaudeville magicians could pull off live and twisting them into ways only the new moving pictures could do. Besides the vaudeville staples and conventions we have seen translated into other media, some miscellaneous, quite strange types of acts went around the vaudeville circuit. Due to the difficulty in capturing live performances in their original form for vaudeville’s entire life, some of the strangest may be lost to history forever. As it stands now, however, THE DANCING PIG (1907) is a phenomenally bizarre relic of the by-gone days of vaudeville.
THE DANCING PIG is a four minute long film that, in the tradition of those Edison actualities, just presents a vaudeville act without much filmic adaptation or innovation…with one exception. The act features a person in a large anthropomorphic pig suit harassing and being harassed by a human woman. Vaudeville, amirite!?!
A common thread of my favorite early 20th century films is the design of outlandish creatures and/or environments. Georges Méliès’ films, specifically, have the kind of slightly menacing illustration I’m referring to, but of course, his style was reflective of a popular art trend of the time. It, without much knowledge of art movements, was some kind of blend between traditional crude symbolism and growing utilitarian “graphic design.” In any event, the design of the titular dancing pig is representative of this aesthetic that I love oh so much. It’s just so weird.
In the film, the impressively large, deft, and winky gentlepig comes out and begs the dining woman either for her company or some of her food. Either makes sense because he’s a pig, which are known for being needy and hungry no matter how many fancy clothes they wear. He doesn’t take no for an answer, so he’s a problematic pig at best, but then he accosts her physically from behind, which makes him disgusting, again at best. The girl responds in a puzzling yet justified way by tearing the pig’s own clothes off his body, humiliating him and showing him the folly of animal’s desire to emulate man. The pig is very modest, but somehow the pig’s reduction to his base embarrassment leads the woman to forgive him. The two proceed to dance it out, and the pig comes out in a beautiful dress and dances some more.
Up to this point, the camera has never moved. The film is portraying a static stage show. For the film’s final few seconds, however, it cuts to a close up of the pig sticking its strangely long tongue out of its sharp-tooth-filled mouth while blinking erratically and wiggling its massive ears. Some have called this final sequence nightmare fuel. I think it’s hilarious.
The pig’s design alone, as mentioned earlier, is great. But the suit’s ability to transfer life into the suit by means of moving mouths, winking eyes, wiggling ears, and yes, long tongues is technically impressive. Somehow, I feel like I’m actually looking at a hellish human-pig hybrid, not just a 20th-century human in a 20th-century version of a mascot suit.
THE DANCING PIG is wholly strange, and somewhat spontaneous. The film really only cuts about three times. While it’s not an incredible spotlight on a breathless live performance, the vaudevillian nature of the film makes it have a different energy than the more crafted films of the time. It hearkens back to the even earlier days of cinema (as in, maybe five to seven years), and presents such an incredibly entertaining, weird, and yes, unsettling experience. Unfortunately, we don’t know who brought us this strange treat. THE DANCING PIG’s director is unknown, perhaps because there wasn’t any actual directing of the scenario beyond the crafters of the act. Even still, the origins of the little play itself aren’t clear. Only Pathé’s production of the film is known.
So how did this 110-year-old film become a current day internet meme? There isn’t any one compelling story to tell, and to call the image of the pig’s hand-in-a-sock tongue protruding past its much more convincing and disgusting teeth a viral sensation would be an exaggeration. Le cochon danseur is a millennial novelty, passed around the internet when sites like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter allowed long-forgotten cultural relics to be revisited. The pig was an incredible look back at yesteryear, when French people made creepy-ass films that were supposed to be funny and convincing “special effects” were still decades away.
The pig even became involved with the massive “Creepypasta” community. A video entitled “Dancing Pig: Director’s Cut” (only able to find the above reacts video to it, not the original video itself), posted by YouTube user Max le Fou, told a tale of a series of disturbing “glitches” that plagued the creator’s original viewing of the film. Here’s an excerpt, found on the “Villains Wikia,” Know Your Meme, and the Creepypasta subreddit (this should give you some sense of the film’s limited “viral” scope and the communities in which this film is being passed around):
“After a long minute in the black, the pig appeared. It was the last shot from the original movie, the hideous one where the pig was sticking his tongue and laughing with his creepy face. The scene was playing in loop, still with that light noise sound. The whispers came back, but were more distinguishable, but still sounded like gibberish. Some long and low cries started to play. They became more and more loud. Sometimes, the screen jumped, displaying subliminal images. When I tried to pause the video to see the pics, I could see very grotesque scenes. A guy splatted by a train. A human corpse being opened by a surgeon. I started to feel bad… and at the end of the video, the cries were so loud, I had to mute the sound. But it’s not the scariest part… the worst part was the last second of the movie. The pig’s picture suddenly gets in sorta 3D for some reason and I feel like his tongue were at only 10 inches of me! I jumped from my chair and YouTube displayed its links, like it does when a video is finished…”
In the wake of this kind of treatment, and probably unrelated to it, others discovered THE DANCING PIG and created content about how weird it is, usually framing the story about how the film is absolute “nightmare fuel.” The Independent, for example, ran a story called “This 1907 silent film ‘Le Cochon Danseur’ is all kinds of creepy.”
That’s fair. It’s true. But as with a lot of the “react” culture the internet has propagated, it’s a little unfair to the subject of the reaction. I’ve become the uppity “actually” guy online myself by saying this, but THE DANCING PIG is not just a weird little…well, shit, it is. It’s weird. It’s a novelty. It’s kinda creepy and pretty funny. But it’s fucking beautiful, is what it is. It’s this great little time capsule of a totally different time and place, of out-of-the-box creativity that simply doesn’t look like anything else we have today.
Most of these otherwise reductive reactions get to the heart of that, articulately or not, but ultimately, THE DANCING PIG represents the beautiful experiments and striking images a visual medium like film can produce. I will never forget le cochon danseur, and his characterization as the crux of the entire film. I just hope THE DANCING PIG, my favorite film of 1907, will be shared and exposed to an audience totally unfamiliar with the early days of cinema. Their reactions may not be mine, but the spreading of good films is never a bad thing. And goddammit, THE DANCING PIG is a phenomenal one.
Make sure to catch up on and keep up with all of my essays on my favorite films here.