Tod Browning’s Freaks is a fascinating oddity in its plot and affection shown to the real circus performers starring in it. Several of the film’s cast tried to make a go of a film career, especially conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. A fascinating biography about the women, The Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet Hilton, is a worthwhile read about their attempts at a film career, the cruel publicity stunts they endured, and the making of this film, Chained for Life. Part autobiography and part exploitation film, much like Freaks was, Chained for Life lacks Browning’s deft hand behind the camera, leaving nothing but filler, titillation, and exploitation.
Vivian and Dorothy Hamilton (Violet and Daisy Hilton, respectively) are conjoined twins on trial for murder. Vivian has shot and killed Dorothy’s philandering husband, but the judge is at a loss for what to do since executing the murder will simultaneously kill an innocent woman.
The legal limbo here is interesting and pays tribute to the Hilton sisters’ own trial for bigamy (early legal proceedings feared a man marrying conjoined twins was really getting a two-for-one deal…thankfully, we’ve evolved). Unfortunately, that’s the only item of interest in Chained for Life and that leaves the runtime half-empty, so to speak. Mired in legal, financial, and personal problems by the 1950s, the toll is evident on both women. These aren’t the bright-eyed neophytes of Freaks, who are able to enjoy the company of men. Instead they looked tired and drained, then again that haggard look could have been their horror at reading this script.
Their fluid acting in Browning’s film feels stilted and uncoordinated here. Violet speaks the majority of the dialogue, and the two sisters never engage in any type of conversation with each other or anyone else. One twin usually says something as the other waits for her cue to talk, looking dazed with a plastered smile on her face in the meantime. It’s a very odd, robotic method of acting and it’s unknown why they performed that way. The director employs some interesting camera trickery during a dream sequence where the twins envision their separation. Shooting the actress from behind makes the fact she’s not either Hilton evident, but the actual separation technique is done nicely.
The saddest thing is, unlike Freaks where the women were individuals touring on the road, Chained for Life treats the story and its heroines like the freaks. The judges’ “opening statement” to the audience – “After you hear this story…” – should be painted on the side of a billboard. The trial itself is fifteen minutes of the movie, at best. Almost half of the 81-minute runtime is purely filmed circus footage of an unassociated accordion player and a juggler. Apparently used for atmosphere, giving the audience a taste of the world the sisters are living in, the performance goes on and on, filling up space where the script didn’t bother putting anything down. If you removed the circus footage this would be a 30-minute short film.
A character says during the trial the twins “are conditioned to live as an entity.” That sums up what this movie thinks of the Hilton’s. Unlike Freaks, which humanized the world of circus performers and treated them like people, Chained for Life treats Daisy and Violet Hilton like an oddity. The lack of intense characterization or discussion about the women’s feelings – outside of one speech – illustrates this film isn’t about them, it’s about titillating 1950s audiences of the time.
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