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Chained for Life

Chained for Life(1952)

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Called upon in the predawn hours of February 5, 1908, to attend an especially difficult birth in the Brighton, England slum of Bear Hill, eminent physician James Augustus Rooth came upon a scene of horror for which even his service in the Boer War could not have adequately prepared him. Writhing on blood-soaked sheets was Kate Skinner, an unmarried 21 year-old grocery clerk, whose screams of what sounded to be mortal terror were matched in volume only by the first cries of her newborn twin daughters. Upon closer inspection, Rooth could see that the otherwise healthy 6-lb. girls were conjoined - fused at the pelvis. The medical term in those days for such an anomaly was "monsters" - a designation that young Kate Skinner accepted as God's judgment for having engaged in premarital sexual intercourse. By way of succor, Dr. Rooth advised the distraught patient that conjoined twins rarely survived their first days of life, suggesting that God had reserved for the repentant young sinner some measure of consolation. But he was wrong.

Abandoned by their uncomprehending biological mother, Violet and Daisy Skinner were raised instead by the midwife who delivered them. A publican's wife, Mary Hilton gave the twins a surname, a home, and the only motherly love they would ever know - such as it was. Though she made a good show of selflessness, Mary Hilton was a shrewd and calculating woman, who sold penny postcards of the babies at her husband's pub, The Queen's Arms, where she promoted them as "Brighton's Siamese Twins" and exhibited them off to anyone willing to pay the price of a peek. Ticket sales permitted the Hiltons to buy a larger pub and they later took the girls on a worldwide tour, ultimately landing in America. Mistreated and exploited, the Hilton twins sued their keepers for their independence (and restitution of a portion of their earnings). Following Mary's death in 1930, they worked the American vaudeville circuit - at one point sharing a stage with up-and-coming comedian Bob Hope.

The Hilton Sisters' success as jazz-playing Siamese twins brought them to the attention of film director Tod Browning, who cast them in his follow-up to Dracula (1931), the sideshow shocker Freaks (1932). (Hollywood legend maintains that F. Scott Fitzgerald, while on the MGM payroll, encountered Violet and Daisy in the studio commissary and vomited at the sight of them.) Controversial during production (studio chief Louis B. Mayer tried to shut production down) and at the time of its theatrical release (at which point the film was roundly censured and banned), Freaks was hardly the vehicle to give the Hilton Sisters a viable film career and so they returned to the stage, where they worked for years and accumulated a sizeable nest egg. The death of vaudeville at midcentury caused a downturn in the sisters' fortunes, forcing them to turn to other money-making schemes. One such venture was starring roles in the exploitation feature Chained for Life (1952), which mixed elements of their actual lives into a courtroom potboiler that found the twins facing the death penalty for murder.

Chained for Life originated in a concept by the Hiltons' manager, Ross Frisco (who owed a considerable, perhaps even indefensible, debt to the Mark Twain story "Those Extraordinary Twins"). Fleshed out to screenplay form by writer Nat Tanchuck (with extra dialogue by Albert DePina) , the production was also cobbled together with an assist from the Hilton sisters themselves, who expressed a desire to augment the courtroom drama with exhibitions of their musical and singing talents. Placed by producer George Moskov in charge of Chained for Life was low budget western director Harry L. Fraser, who had to his credit a slew of cowboy pictures starring Harry Carey, Tom Mix, and a young John Wayne, as well as jungle vehicles for great white hunter turned matinee idol Frank Buck. More importantly, Fraser had been in his youth a vaudeville performer, which gave him an instant rapport with the Hilton Sisters. After an initial rejection from the Production Code of America due to its "repellent subject matter," Chained for Life began filming at Eagle-Lion Studios on Santa Monica Boulevard (the former Producer's Releasing Corporation studio) in August 1951.

Chained for Life was released by Classic Pictures, known for distributing such foreign imports as Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel (1930) and Ealing's Passport to Pimlico (1949). Though the Hilton Sisters had sunk their own money into the production of Chained for Life with the assurance that it would reap substantial returns, the film was an unmitigated disaster - even when repackaged, out of desperation, as a musical! When Frisco signed the sisters for an exhausting junket of personal appearances to help offset the cost of production, the Hiltons elected to sever their professional relationship with their long-time manager. In later life, they put their savings into a Miami, Florida, eatery, whose failure (along with their advanced age and a downturn in the public's fascination with freaks) sent them into abject poverty. The pair was working, as their biological mother had done, for a green grocer when they succumbed to influenza just after Christmas 1968. Their bodies lay undiscovered for several days, at which time it was determined that Daisy had died first, followed by Violet between two and four days later.

By Richard Harland Smith

Sources:The Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet Hilton: A True Story of Conjoined Twins by Dean Jensen (Ten Speed Press, 2012)

Bob Hope: A Life in Comedy by William Robert Faith (Da Capo Press, 2003)

Sideshow USA: Freaks and the American Cultural Imagination by Rachel Adams (University of Chicago Press, 2001)

Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning, Hollywood's Master of the Macabre by David J. Skal and Elias Savada (Anchor Books, 1995)

I Went That-A-Way: Memoirs of a Western Film Director by Harry L. Fraser, with Wheeler W. Dixon and Audrey Brown Fraser (Scarecrow Press, 1990)

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