Bite Size: Chained For Life (1952)

Daisy and Violet Hilton were a set of English born conjoined twins, with a life story that is arguably stranger and decidedly more exploitative than any of the fictions created during their long career as entertainers. Born in 1911, their poverty stricken mother sold them outright, and they began touring with the sideshow as toddlers.

Daisy and Violet were trained as singers, dancers and musicians (Daisy played violin, while Violet preferred a saxophone). The combination of skills allowed the girls to become a sensation outside of the sideshow, and they played to capacity crowds in the comparatively more respectable burlesque and vaudeville houses.


After years of abuse and wage theft, the Hiltons successfully sued their guardian and her husband for emancipation and financial damages in 1931. Finally free to enjoy the fruits of their labor, they continued to tour as the Hilton Sisters Revue, took a well deserved vacation cruise, and made an appearance in Tod Browning’s Freaks.

While the 1932 film is now regarded as a classic of early cinematic horror, there was a massive backlash at the time regarding the perceived obscenity of such a sympathetic and overt portrayal of “oddities”. With their very existence deemed indecent for polite society and a sea change in popular music and entertainment on the horizon, the Hiltons’ drawing power and fortune quickly dwindled into a quagmire of financial problems and doomed publicity stunt marriages.

By 1952, the sisters were dead broke. With a over a decade of misfortunes behind them and an ever narrowing field of prospects, they signed on to make a film for exploitation producer George Moskov. Chained For Life lets schlock imitate life, incorporating some of the pair’s actual troubles into the potboiler plot.

Opening in an suspiciously jury-less courtroom mid murder trial, the film’s narrative unfolds in a series of flashbacks as each of the principles takes the stand. Dorothy and Vivian Hamilton (Daisy and Violet Hilton) are the headliners of a vaudeville act. With box office receipts slipping, their sleazy manager (Allen Jenkins) comes up with a can’t miss publicity stunt. The theater will hold a mock wedding for one of the siblings. After Vivian declines, he arranges the faux marriage for Dot. Andre (Mario Laval) is a sharpshooter in the show, and for his role as bridegroom is paid by the week.

Andre is what the parlance of the time would have called a “cad”, and is soon unsatisfied with both his salary and the fact that he can no longer shag his assistant with impunity. Slowly he puts his oily charm to work on Dot, convincing her to marry him for real. After grifting large chunks of her money, he jilts her via newspaper article after just a single day. Violet, never having approved of the scheme in the first place, avenges her sister’s broken heart by shooting Andre from the wings with one of his own pistols.

There was potential here for a campy sort of grimy noir, but it fizzles rather quickly given the sisters’ flat delivery. They look uncomfortable at having to emote, and one or the other shoots a nervous look straight into the camera at multiple points in the film. Their real life marriages ended in an incompatibility of sexual orientations, not murder, but the meta echoes of bigamy accusations, golddigging con artists and earnest pleas for acceptance as separate individuals with basic human needs lends a distinctly uncomfortable air to the proceedings. Life had been far less than kind to the Hiltons, and here they are reenacting lurid recreations of some of their worst traumas just to keep a roof over their heads.

Perhaps in a concession to the limitations of the film’s stars, the love triangle plot is treated almost as an afterthought, while an above average slate of vaudeville acts pad the runtime to feature length. It’s an interesting time capsule of a vanished form of popular entertainment, and one of the better extant examples of the sisters’ singing, which they are far more adept at than dramatic acting.

None of it is quite enough to wash away the oily, seeping stain of obvious underhanded profiteering. The non ending of the film makes it worse. Having facilitated the desired sideshow, the film makers opted to hurry up and cut to credits with a cop out that will hark back to the frustration of anyone who had the unfortunate luck of having Frank R. Stockton’s The Lady, Or The Tiger? assigned to them as required reading in primary school.

Unsurprisingly, the Hilton Sisters never made another film. They made personal appearances at drive ins showing their modest filmography as a double feature. When even that small bit of reflected lemonlight tapered off, they worked as checkout clerks in a grocery store until their death in 1961.





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