I love looking for those little hidden goodies in movies. You know, the inside jokes or director cameos…that sort of thing. One that you see from time to time is where you have a movie that is “based on a true story” that features cameos by some of the real people. Like how in “JFK” you have the actual Jim Garrison playing a small part (as Justice Earl Warren, no less), or Larry Flynt appearing as a judge in “The People vs. Larry Flynt.” But in today’s movie, the two leading roles are played by the actual subjects of the film. I’m talking about the famous conjoined twins The Hilton Sisters…Daisy and Violet. They notably appeared in the film “Freaks,” but this film came 19 years later. 1951’s “Chained for Life.”
The film opens with a man (Norval Mitchell) seated behind a desk speaking directly to the camera. He identifies himself as a judge and tells the audience that he needs their help with a decision. As he begins to tell his story, we flashback to a courtroom where one of the Hilton sisters, yes just one, is on trial for murder. As witnesses are called they begin to tell the story of the girls’ success, leading us into another flashback. Yep, folks, this movie is told as a double flashback!
We see the girls working the vaudeville circuit. By the way, they are renamed Dorothy and Violet in the film. They are successful with their singing act, but their manager (Allen Jenkins) has higher hopes for his stars. He ends up paying one of the other performers, sharpshooter Andre Pariseau (Mario Laval), to fake a romance with one of the girls. Violet wants nothing to do with the guy, but Dorothy is more than willing. Just as planned, all the extra publicity over a conjoined twin involved in a romantic relationship leads to standing room only crowds.
It’s only a matter of time before Dorothy actually begins to fall for Andre, though he is already intimate with his assistant, Renee (Patricia Wright). Still, Andre keeps this well hidden. After all, the publicity is good for him, too. But Dorothy longs to get married. One sequence even shows her dreaming that she gets up out of bed, leaving Vivian behind, to dance and twirl with her man in the garden. It’s a strange sequence as Dorothy is played by an actress much taller than Daisy Hilton is for the long shots. Then in the close-ups, Daisy is positioned next to a tree that, all too obviously, is hiding Violet.
Soon, Dorothy and Andre decide to wed. However, no state will give them a marriage license…claiming that it would constitute bigamy. They manage to find a blind minister who agrees to marry them. The ceremony takes place in front of a sell-out crowd. But after just one night of wedded bliss, Andre dumps Dorothy…and the news hits the papers instantly. Still, the show must go on. After the girls have sung their number, they stand in the wings watching Andre do his sharpshooting act. Unknown to Dorothy, Vivian picks up one of Andre’s pistols and shoots the slime ball mid-act. This all leads us to the judge’s dilema…how can justice be served on Vivian without also punishing the innocent Dorothy?
I’ve gotta hand it to the Hilton sisters, the ladies could sing. But act…um, yeah…no. Lucky for them, their stilted delivery is pretty much par for the course when it comes to this cast. Really, the stand out performances come from the variety of vaudeville performers who help pad the film’s slim running time with their stage acts. We get to see a juggler, a high-speed accordion player, and a guy that does bicycle tricks. These parts of the movie are actually quite fun.
Obviously, this film plays it loose with the events of the Hilton sisters’ lives. While there were struggles to obtain marriage licenses in their real lives…the whole murder plot seems to be completely made up. Not that it doesn’t have potential. The film may have done much better had it simply gone for full on horror. One twin is good, one is evil…you can imagine the possibilities.
Though “Chained for Life” is a pretty weak, bargain basement production, it’s not without entertainment value. The vaudeville acts are worth a watch and, if nothing else, the film is an interesting curiosity.