In the early days of cinema, movie shows often travelled the countryside in horse drawn carriages, popping a tent here and there and proceed to separate the suckers from their shekels – just like travelling carnivals and sideshows.
As cinema progressed into permanent venues, there still remained a few bands of these fly-by-night exhibitors who would outright rent out a vacant commercial space or a run-down theatre to screen their cheap tawdry melodramas intent on “educating” the great unwashed about “sensitive” (if not forbidden or downright taboo) subjects.
The production code was a boon to this disjoitned band of cinematic pioneers dubbed “The 40 Thieves” by legitimate exhibitors and local law enforcement agencies. The fact that Hollywood would shy away from these “Daring! Shocking! True!” topics was their main selling point.
Any manner of corruption wether moral, legal or physical was fair game. Taste was not an issue. In fact, lack of taste just made the lines in front of the ticket window longer.
Hollywood’s own attempts at shocking audiences had only drawn fire from the emerging mainstream culture. Director Tod Browning‘s Freaks (now hailed as a masterpiece) was a startling drama set against the backdrop of a travelling carnival and it’s sideshow. Browning, fresh off the success of Dracula (the 1931 version with Bela Lugosi) was given carte blanche for this film where he would be able to show the human side of the “human curiosities” he himself had travelled with in his youth. Despite portraying the handsome circus performers as the true monsters, Freaks so reviled “proper” audiences in 1932 that it ended Browning’s carreer. MGM unceremoniously dumped the film and sold it outright to one of the more notorious of the 40 Thieves, Dwain Esper.
Esper travelled the country side exhibiting the film along with a travelling company of “interesting people”. Once he had squeezed every penny out of it, he changed the title to Nature’s Mistakes or Forbidden Love and managed to squeeze out a few more.
The cast of Freaks is made up of midgets, dwarves, pinheads, a bearded lady and all manners of “birth defects” ranging from missing limbs- such as the legless Johnny Eck or the “Human Torso” Prince Radian- to co-joined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, arguably the film’s best know stars.
The Hilton Sisters were born in England in 1908. They shared a pelvis and circulatory system and therefore could not be separated. Female “siamese” twins are even more rare than male ones (Their own press releases claimed they were the first such pair in 3000 years). So their lives were spent in the public eye as they toured the world from a very young age before arriving to America in the 20s where they became the darlings of the Vaudeville circuit.
Their love lives were the topic of many a tabloid story and their attempts at normalcy (like getting married) is a mixture of real desperation (21 states refused them marriage licenses on moral grounds labelling such a union bigamy) and showbiz ballyhoo (the publicity from their failure only sold more tickets).
So it was just a mater of time before someone came up with the idea of exploiting their own story in Chained for Life, a sleazy weepie cheapie.
Chained for Life tells the story of vaudeville performers Dorothy and Vivian Hamilton (played by “who else?”) as they ascend to stardom. Their dirtbag manager cooks up an idea to sell tickets and pays his trick shooter André to “romance” the twins. Vivian hates the Gallic guy’s guts and finds the whole idea repulsive – but Dorothy falls for it. Now in her forties, she sees this as her one chance for love and even has a dream of waltzing alone in her garden, free to have privacy with her lover.
The scheme works and ticket sales go through the roof. Dorothy is really strung along by André who is secretly having an affair with his beautiful blonde assistant (Now there’s a completely unexpected twist). Vivian discovers this and her rage reaches a peak when Andre jilts Dorothy leaving the poor sentimental dear heartbroken.
And so, during André’s performance, Vivian takes one of his pistols from the prop table and plugs the salacious frog in full view of the horrified audience.
It’s an open and shut case. The premeditated murder was committed in a theatre full of witnesses. However, sending Vivian to the chair or life imprisonment constitutes a major legal conundrum: How to punish the guilty without destroying the life of an innocent? (You’ll have to see the film to see how they work this out.)
A decade later, the girls were penniless again and were to appear in a cult revival of Freaks. In 1962, they were literally abandoned in Charlotte, North Carolina by their unscrupulous manager. A local grocer gave them a job and they spent the last 7 years of their life there working the checkout – Daisy bagged while Violet worked the cash register.
In 1969, they passed on from the Hong Kong flu in their tiny trailer. Forensic evidence suggested Violet survived daisy by two to four days. A inconceivably lonely end after a life spent- not only under constant gaze- but where solitude itself was an unimaginable concept.
Here, in it’s entirety, is Chained for Life:
Pain Level: 7/10
Quality of Pain: In stereo!