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  • nickkarner

Chained for Life (1952)

Part of the Weird Cinema DVD Box Set.

The first Tony Awards broadcast I ever saw was in 1998. My sister, being a much bigger musical theatre nerd, had slowly but surely introduced me to original cast albums. The show was hosted by Rosie O’Donnell who, at that point, hadn’t become ‘scary’ and was practically the den mother of Broadway. Her daytime talk show was a huge deal and she’d often have the cast of this or that musical come on and perform. One of that evening’s nominees was The Scarlet Pimpernel, whose performance of “You are my Home” on her show still gives me chills to this day. The other Best Musical nominees included Julie Taymor’s iconic The Lion King, a breakthrough project that resulted in her directing some good movies and the train wreck that was Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark. Ragtime, basically what Stein, Strouse, and Schwartz’s Rags wanted to be, was the big historical musical of the year. Ironic, considering 1776 was currently in revival and nominated elsewhere.  Rounding out the four nominations was a scrappy, polarizing, cult musical fiercely defended by its fans. This was one of those dark horse, artsy nominees that didn’t run long but is meant to indicate that the Tonys can appreciate ‘edgy’ material. 

Side Show had, especially for a musical, an unusual premise. A (mostly) fictionalized portrayal of the real life ‘Siamese Twins’ Violet and Daisy Hilton (1908-1969), who first appeared in carnival freak shows and later vaudeville and burlesque houses as a singing duo. The fact that they really were a pair of singing sisters does make the idea of turning their lives into a musical much more probable. Violet, portrayed by Alice Ripley, is a romantic who wants to settle down while Daisy, played by Emily Skinner, is more vivacious and longs for the spotlight. The show explores their complicated relationships with men and each other. Armed with a fantastic score and a now-legendary dual performance (representing the only time two actresses were nominated for one Tony Award), Side Show was powerful and frustrating at the same time. Sadly, only the latter adjective can be attributed to the dull and quite wooden feature film starring the real Daisy and Violet, Chained for Life (1952). 

A full 20 years after their appearance in Tod Browning’s extraordinary Freaks (1932), the Hilton Sisters would be in less sensitive hands this time. They’d be flung head first into the realm of pure exploitation cinema. Harry L. Fraser is certainly not the worst filmmaker to helm this project. A B-movie director through and through, he specialized in westerns while also doing a great deal of work as a writer, scripting a 1943 adaptation of Batman, as well as The Fighting Parson (1933) and the wonderfully awful I Accuse My Parents (1944). This would be his final film as a director before briefly moving into television prior to retirement. If there had been an attempt to make an accurate portrayal of the Hilton Sisters’ real life, I doubt Fraser would have been up to the task. The darkness of their true story would likely make for a compelling but deeply depressing film.

Since writer Nat Tanchuck (along with collaborators Albert DePina and Ross Frisco, idea only) didn't want to plumb the depths of truth, we’re presented with a turgid and melodramatic backstage drama involving the sisters being duped by a greedy scoundrel. As in real life, they perform in a variety act and their sleazy management think it would be great publicity if the twins got hitched. They rope one of the other performers into the scheme, but things get complicated fast. 

The reason Side Show works, at least on the soundtrack, is because of the personality difference between Violet and Daisy. There’s an intensity to their all-sung arguments and a lamentable regret that they can never leave one another without dying. These ideas are lightly touched upon, but the real Hilton Sisters are sadly not up to the challenge. They are, to put it simply, bad actresses. Stiff and unconvincing, I wonder if they had a good laugh at the dialogue they had to deliver or thought the whole enterprise was preposterous and phony. Perhaps it was difficult to emote these flat, unrealistic scenes when their own reality of being abused, hidden away, and forced into show business was constantly on their minds. They emancipated themselves at age 23 to try and gain some semblance of self-respect and independence. Years after the production of this film, they settled into obscurity in my home state, working as grocery store cashiers. A chilling aspect of their deaths is that Daisy died first of the Hong Kong Flu while Violet is assumed to have died two to four days later, meaning she was still attached to her dead sister for at least 48 hours. Chained for Life treats the women sympathetically but does them no favors with its shoddy production values and cliché storyline. 

The title comes up in barely-legible fat font and then, as usual when you’re about to see something different from the norm, someone is there to ease us in, lest we start foaming at the mouth. Immediately, we sense something is off as a judge (Norval (Norval?) Mitchell) speaks to camera. Well, not really to camera, but more in the general direction of the camera. It seems as though he’s speaking to the theatre audience, but this breaks a tradition (and not in a good way) that even Edward D. Wood Jr. didn't mess around with. When addressing the ‘audience’ of a movie, speak directly to camera. Otherwise, and this is certainly evident in Chained for Life, it looks terrible.  

A dissolve moves us into the judge’s courtroom as the Hamilton Sisters (Violet playing Vivian and Daisy playing Dorothy) take the stand. A man named Andre Pariseau has been killed and their lawyer asks Vivian to recount the events leading up the murder. She does, in a robotic fashion. Not for the last time, she stops speaking at the word “and” but the dissolve seems to be a second too late so she’s left frozen mid-sentence before the scene cuts to a flashback. Imagine a play where an actor speaks the last line of a scene and the lights should go down, but instead the actors just stand there, staring at each other, waiting for the blackout.  

The sisters are onstage rehearsing or possibly auditioning. I guess the orchestra is backstage because we hear full accompaniment but only see a single piano player on stage with them. They’re not half-bad, really. They lack stage presence, but the singing is pleasant. When Andre (Mario Laval, in his one and only screen appearance, thankfully) shows up, he’s obviously a smoothie. What’s odd is that for a few lines, he sound Italian, but then the accent disappears. The guys in charge convince him to be the “Romeo” in the phony marriage publicity stunt with the girls. The dialogue is patently unrealistic as the sisters initially refuse the idea but within ten seconds reconsider and go along with it. Andre will marry Dorothy in a big onstage wedding. 

Vivian and Dorothy are a hit on the vaudeville circuit, but the movie drags along aimlessly by featuring the other acts in the show for needless padding. Of course, more screen time for Daisy and Violet would just mean more bad acting, but a juggler and then an accordionist who will not leave the stage are extremely irritating. We find out that Andre is a stunt shooter with an assistant, Irene/Renee (Patricia Wright), whom he is having an affair with. She doesn’t like this marriage business one bit but the piece of shit Andre sees it as a huge moneymaker. He lays on the charm and Dorothy actually falls hard for him. In a scene that actually has some value, Andre plays a love song to a sleepy Dorothy over the phone while Irene comes up and kisses him. 

Dorothy dreams of being separated from Vivian and dancing in a beautiful garden with Andre. This is the scene that most closely mirrors a moment in the musical where Daisy breaks from her sister and dances with her love interest. Of course, this is impossible to achieve, so we have a Wayne’s World-style shimmer to mask the Dorothy double and Vivian is conveniently hidden behind a tree for close-ups. Dorothy wakes up and in an awful display of fake crying (it practically feels like a “fuck you” to the filmmakers), she wants to find a way to separate them once and for all. 

A scene with a doctor and his colleagues is decently written but has a built-in fault since we know it’s impossible for these two women to be separated, otherwise they would have done it already. In real life, they did look for ways to separate but medical science simply wasn’t sophisticated enough back then. Again, I wonder if this scene was painful to shoot as it was essentially art imitating life, quite literally. A random lady tells Dorothy, “As a woman, I admire your courage,” and to go ahead and get married anyways. It’s very presumptuous and none of her business. I was reminded of a scene in the film Christine (2016) in which the deeply depressed title character goes to a help group where a partner listens to her problems and advises her. The scene plays out and the adviser keeps telling her to just do the things that she wants, but it’s not that simple. It’s very frustrating to see someone trying to solve a life problem with a quick fix. Vivian should’ve told her to “shove off.”

In another event pulled from real life, the sisters and Andre are denied a marriage license due to allegations of bigamy. A heavy-handed scene with a blind minister raises some questions about crises of faith and the women being looked on as abominations and not human beings, but the overt religiosity wears thin. Still, they’re able to secure the marriage license after all and it’s held at the Bijou Theatre (doubtful on this movie’s budget). The announcer welcomes the 2500 guests, who are mostly stock footage or Grateful Dead-level super fans of the twins. There's an ultra-brief ceremony, to which I expected the audience to scream, “That’s it?!”  

Andre abandons Dorothy in one night yet she still loves him for no reason at all. Not only that, they have to continue performing as if nothing has happened, even though the events are reported on in the paper and anyone who can read would know about it. Dorothy even proclaims her love after we’ve seen Andre making out with Irene. Not kissing, mind you. I mean real snogging. The weirdest part about this cut is that they show Irene and Andre, then only Vivian, not Dorothy, somehow trying to indicate that Dorothy didn’t see any of this even though she is literally joined at the hip with Vivian. 

The movie has been poorly building up to the climactic death scene. The non-stop courtroom scenes interrupt the action, stymieing any momentum, but now we’re here. Andre is playing an organ with a rifle (what the hell?) while his other guns sit at a prop table near Vivian/Dorothy. Vivian stares daggers at Andre, grabs the gun, and plugs him. Why is it that every time someone in the 50’s got shot, it looks they’re going to faint or have indigestion?  This is all told by Vivian herself and yet the judge claims to be having a tough time with his decision. Pardon me, but what is the problem here? I agree that Andre was garbage and deserved what he got, but she shot him. In cold blood. The prosecuting attorney makes a solid case and I can’t help but agree with him, even though I’m still rooting for the sisters. The defense attorney argues that the women have never been treated as human beings so they shouldn’t be subjected to the laws of man. In other words, everyone treats them like freaks but it’s not fair to punish them like normal people only when a crime is committed. It’s a point, sure, but in a place like Texas, these ladies would fry. 

The main issue is that Dorothy didn’t shoot Andre, but Vivian did. How can you jail one without the other? Apparently, in the 17th century, a pair of conjoined twins, Lazarus and Joannes Baptista Colloredo, escaped being executed even though Lazarus had murdered a man. The argument was that Joannes was innocent so his death would be unjust. The judge reaches a similar conclusion, although I think his decision could have major repercussions regarding other murder trials down the line, but let’s not worry about that, shall we? The judge finally looks at the camera and asks the audience for their advice on what to do. He literally says “Help me.” The end. It’s a strikingly bizarre ending to go out on. He doesn’t specifically say Vivian is ‘not guilty’ but it’s clear from his statement that she’s going to get off, so why is he asking the audience for help? Does he expect an answer? Like in Lost in Yonkers? “I don’t think the actors can hear you. They’re just pictures on a screen.”

Thanks to the documentary Bound by Flesh (2012), we have a much clearer understanding of the Hilton Twins and their difficult, tragic life. If their story must be dramatized, I’ll always prefer Side Show to Chained for Life and maybe someday a more accurate telling of their story will be produced.  


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