Film Reviews


By • Jun 27th, 2014 •

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I’ve been fascinated with the Hilton Twins since the 60s, when I caught FREAKS at Tulane University. Among all the physical anomalies on display in Tod Browning’s morally questionable film, some at peace with their lot, others obviously mentally handicapped by their outward disability, only Daisy and Violet Hilton, the conjoined twins, were pretty and sexy. (Johnny Eck, the boy with half a body, was also good looking, and apparently he was wall adjusted and glad to be working on the Browning film. The Hiltons were not. They didn’t want to be considered as freaks.)

BOUND BY FLESH is their story. Lorded over by handler/guardians until their twenties, the reputed vast sums of money they earned in vaudeville, etc., never made it into their bank accounts. By the time they finally gained their freedom legally, their theatrical possibilities had dwindled. Vaudeville was dying, circus freak shows were frowned upon, and they were completely naïve and unprepared to handle their own finances, so the money they earned going forward, including $100,000. they were awarded by the court, slipped through their fingers as they slipped into obscurity and poverty.

The documentary was co-produced and directed by Leslie Zemeckis, who previously made the feature doc BEHIND THE BURLY Q, a voyage into the world of burlesque. BOUND BY FLESH is an allied subject; in fact the twins actually gave burlesque a try, but it apparently wasn’t what the drooling patrons wanted to see.

In a phone conversation with Ms. Zemeckis, she confirmed something I’d always heard – that one sister was more outgoing than the other. “Daisy was the ‘sunnier.’” Even in the doc, when we hear them speak, Daisy has more to say than Violet. However, she added, the disparity in their personalities wasn’t large.

Interview footage with people from the era, some who knew them, recall the girls’ exploits, giving testimony to the ill-fated arc of their lives. We watch a montage of newsreel and movie clips, stills, newspaper clippings and actual filmed interview footage with them as we piece together their attempts to fan public interest. Houdini, who apparently advised them about self-hypnosis so that one of them could enjoy the company of men while the other zoned out, is referenced, though not in those exact terms.

CHAINED FOR LIFE, the fictitious feature film they funded, based loosely on themselves, is represented through clips, and the clips are as degraded as any I’ve seen over the years, suggesting that the original negative is MIA. The director explained that the twins lugged prints around with them to show in towns where they would entertain, but that the exact whereabouts of the original materials, sadly, is unknown. A quick call to Robert A. Harris, who restored LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, piqued his interest, and he’s looking into the whereabouts of the original 1952 B&W negative. If he turns up something, I’ll do an addendum to this review. *

Chang and Ang the conjoined twins from Siam whose notoriety coined the term ‘siamese-twins’ shared a liver: when one went, the other quickly lapsed into shock and followed. In the case of the Hiltons, there were no organs shared, but the poison would have slowly seeped into Violet’s system. The sisters never wanted to be surgically separated, and vowed to die together, and that is what Violet seemed to augment in those last days after Daisy had died of the Hong Kong flu. She sat near a heat vent in the floor and waited for death to come. It’s a pretty amazing scene for a narrative feature – in fact a powerful script device could be to start the film with Daisy already deceased, and Violet reminiscing as she waits grimly to join her sister. I hope Ms. Zemeckis gives the subject matter a second whirl in that form.

If there is one criticism of BOUND BY FLESH, and it’s a minor one, it’s that certain stills are shown too often because the need to tell their story as fully as possibly exceeds the amount of visual support material that the filmmakers had access to. (I’ve been in that position myself when doing docs.) Other than that, it’s a compelling and enlightening piece that will probably make you want to explore the Hilton’s era more expansively.

* Robert Harris got back to me within days with his findings. He had located a 4-reel 35mm fine grain at UCLA, which means that, while all the copies that are ‘out there’ are dupey-looking, at least preservation material does exist, and if it’s ever decided to make a new negative and great-looking prints, it will be possible.

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