Wednesday, August 10, 2011

#369. Chained for Life (1954)

Directed By: Harry L. Fraser

Starring: Violet Hilton, Daisy Hilton, Mario Laval

Tag line: "Joined together, how can they make love to separate husbands?"

Trivia:  Much of the plot was derived from real events in the lives of Siamese twins Daisy Hilton and Violet Hilton

Immediately following the opening titles of 1954's Chained for Life, we're greeted by a well-dressed man, seated at a desk, who proceeds to address the audience. “Ladies and Gentlemen, I'm glad you're here. You came to be entertained, and to forget your troubles”. He then shifts to a much more serious tone, leading us to believe that 'forgetting our troubles' isn't going to be an option. “This story has a real problem. It is the story of Vivian Hamilton, accused of murder”. The gentleman is Judge Mitchell (Norval Mitchell), who's presiding over the Hamilton murder trial, and the “problem” he's referring to involves the physical condition of the accused. You see, Vivian Hamilton (Violet Hilton) is one-half of a conjoined twin, and the man she's accused of killing was the husband of her “other half”, Dottie (Daisy Hilton). If found guilty of murder, Vivian (and, by default, Dottie) will be executed. Does punishing a murderer justify the killing of an innocent person? 

We join the trial already in progress, after the prosecution has presented their case, meaning we're only going to hear the defense's side of the story. It's a small bit of audience manipulation, wrapped inside a film that, from start to finish, is nothing if not exploitative. 

It all began a few months earlier, when Vivian and Dottie, who had a successful singing act, were headlining for a vaudeville show. Their manager, Hinkley (Allen Jenkins), hoping to boost ticket sales, hired sharpshooter Andre Pariseau (Mario Laval) to romance Dottie whenever the press was around. The headlines this faux love affair generated caused a sensation, but what started out as a simple publicity stunt was complicated when Andre, after catching a glimpse of how much money Dottie earned from the show, proposed marriage. Dottie, who always had a crush on Andre, accepted, and even though they were denied marriage certificates in 27 states (the official reason for the refusal was “bigamy”, due to the fact Dottie was a conjoined twin), they did eventually tie the knot. But Dottie's happiness quickly turned to heartnreak when Andre abandoned her the next day, leading Vivian, in a fit of rage, to shoot Andre as he performed his sharpshooting act on-stage that very night. 

Chained for Life goes to great lengths to build a connection between the audience and the conjoined sisters, whose story of hardship and heartbreak make up the crux of this film, yet the more the movie patronizes and sanctifies the sisters, the more seedy and exploitative it feels. Part of the reason for this is undoubtedly the pathetically bad performances delivered by the Hilton sisters, a pair of real-life conjoined twins whose only previous film experience had been 22 years earlier, in Tod Browning's Freaks. This time out, their characters are expected to deal with intense emotions, such as deep love and bitter hatred, yet not once does either sister's delivery rise above what I'd classify as pleasant conversation, meaning we never truly feel how awful life has treated them. This, and the fact that we're consistently beaten over the head with the “we're people, too” message (most notably in a very ill-concieved dream sequence, during which Dottie fantasizes of being free from Vivian), pushes us to the point of complete apathy for their plight. 

Chained for Life is a film that set out with the best of intentions, yet due to its poor execution, ended up feeling every bit as manipulative as the behavior it hoped to condemn. The Hilton sisters, who, due to their physical condition, were exploited by a variety of people throughout their lives, certainly knew what it felt like to be victimized. After watching Chained for Life, so will you.

No comments: