Anyone who’s interested in vaudeville, burlesque, sideshows,
and the fringes of 20th century show business will know of The
Hilton Sisters, Violet and Daisy. These attractive “Siamese twins” (as they
were called in those days) were headliners on stage, appeared in Tod Browning’s
movie Freaks in 1932 and starred in
their own exploitation feature Chained
for Life twenty years later. But while they’ve long been on my radar, I
must confess that I knew virtually nothing about their lives.
Leslie Zemeckis, who explored the backstage world of
burlesque in her last documentary, Behind
the Burly Q, now offers a straightforward and thorough biography of Violet
and Daisy. She has diligently tracked down a handful of people who, even at
this late date, can speak about them first-hand, as well as experts who
describe the often-seamy show-business world they inhabited.
It’s not a happy story. Born in England, the twins were
abandoned by their mother; perhaps “sold off” is a more accurate term. Appealing
and musically talented, they were exploited from the time they were children.
Because they were naïve and shielded from the outside world for so long, they
were ill-equipped to fend for themselves once they broke free from the guardians
and managers who took advantage of them at the height of their fame.
With a wealth of vintage photos, newsreel footage, and readings
from the sisters’ autobiography, Zemeckis manages to provide a surprisingly
rounded picture of their challenging, often tumultuous lives. It’s comforting
to know that in their final days they found good-hearted people who were kind
and generous to them.
Bound by Flesh is
valuable for what it tells us about the entertainment world, the vagaries of
fame, and the way society deals with people who aren’t “normal.” I’m glad
Zemeckis decided to make this film while there were still survivors and
eyewitnesses to appear on camera. Violet and Daisy deserve no less.