Cast & Crew
Harry L. Fraser
Photos & Videos
Vivian Hamilton, conjoined at the lower spine with her sister and singing partner Dorothy, is on trial for the murder of Dorothy's ex-boyfriend, magician Andre Pariseau. As the sisters' friends and colleagues take the stand to testify, the story of the murder unfolds: The Hamilton sisters are a popular singing act when their manager, Hinkley, convinces theater owner MacKenzie to back a publicity stunt in which the sisters will pretend to marry second-billed Andre. Andre, who is being paid handsomely for the stunt, sees that Vivian does not like him and so begins courting Dorothy in earnest. Forced to go along on the couple's dates, Vivian begins to quarrel with Andre, while at the same time Dorothy falls deeply in love. While the stunt attracts huge crowds to the theater, Andre makes Dorothy an apparently sincere marriage proposal and she happily consents. When Andre's onstage and offstage partner, Renee, grows jealous and confronts him, he confides that it is all just a plot to get more money out of Dorothy. To prove his point, he calls Dorothy and sings to her, kissing Renee while Dorothy dreamily says goodnight. That night, Dorothy dreams that she is separate from Vivian, dancing in a beautiful garden with Andre. She wakes crying and tells her twin that although she has had to bury her emotions all her life, she cannot deny her love now and wants to be free. Vivian is horrified by the thought of separating, but agrees to consult a doctor about an operation. Unfortunately, after extensive testing Dr. Thompson informs them that separating their spinal cords would be too risky, both physically and emotionally. Female doctor Ekhardt then urges Dorothy to marry and have children as she is, and although Dorothy agrees, they soon discover that most states will not allow her to marry Andre, calling it bigamy. They visit blind reverend Dr. Burnham, who believes that faith can overcome any barrier and promises to marry them in the eyes of God. Although Dorothy wants a church wedding, Andre arranges for the ceremony to take place after their show in a public service. As Burnham leads them through their vows, the packed audience titters. That night, Vivian looks away as Andre embraces Dorothy, but within days, he backs out of the marriage, declaring in the newspapers that he cannot go on with it. The sisters valiantly continue to perform, but Dorothy struggles with heartbreak. One night soon after, Vivian watches as Andre kisses Renee. He then begins to perform an act involving pistols, and when the cart with the guns on it rolls near Vivian, she picks one up and shoots him. Back in court, the prosecuting attorney demands the death sentence for this premeditated murder, but the defense attorney points out that to punish Vivian with death or life imprisonment would mean similarly punishing her innocent twin. He also states that they have been denied a normal life and it is only in their punishment that they are suddenly treated as normal citizens. Judge Mitchell deliberates for five days. On the sixth, he finally declares that he cannot doom Dorothy for Vivian's behavior and must leave both sisters' punishment for a higher court to decide. As the Hiltons are cleared of the charges, the judge wonders if he made the right decision.
Harry L. Fraser
Albert De Pina
Gioacchino Antonio Rossini.
George Van Matar
Chained for Life -
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)
Chained for Life -
Much of the plot was derived from real events in the lives of Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton: the sham-marriage for publicity; the difficulty getting a marriage license due to morals concerns; the vaudeville singing career.
The opening credits list Violet and Daisy Hilton as "The Hilton Sisters." The film begins and ends with scenes of Norvel Mitchell, who plays "Judge Mitchell," addressing the viewing audience about the difficulties of both the twins's lives and the legal decision he needed to make. In the film's closing scene, he asks audience members to let him know what their verdict would have been. Modern sources add Sheldon Leonard to the cast, but he was not identified in the viewed print.
Chained for Life was inspired by the lives of conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hamilton (1908-1969). The sisters were abandoned by their mother and reared by a midwife named Mary Hilton. According to a 1951 International Photographer article, but contrary to the film's portrayal, the twins could have been separated as children but Hilton, planning to earn money by displaying them, would not allow the operation. The girls remained mistreated and exploited until, at age twenty-three, they found a lawyer who helped them to recoup some of their earnings. They went on to enjoy a successful vaudeville career as singers and appeared in one other film, the 1932, Tod Browning-directed M-G-M picture Freaks (see the AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40). Ross Frisco, their manager, wrote the story for Chained for Life.