Mill Creek Musings: Chained for Life (1952)

Andre tries to woo Vivian, but she's having none of it. (Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)
Andre tries to woo Vivian, but she’s having none of it. (Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)

Vivian and Dorothy Hamilton are conjoined twin sisters who work the vaudeville circuit together (portrayed by actual conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton, who also appeared in Freaks).

The twins are connected at the lower back/hip, and as such are generally able to live as “normally” as possible; each woman retains full control of her arms and legs.

While working that vaudeville show, Vivian and Dorothy get wrapped up in a publicity stunt orchestrated by their manager (Allen Jenkins). A fellow performer named Andre (Mario Laval) will pretend to be in love with one of the twins in order to drum up press coverage for the entire show.

Andre goes so far as to propose to Dorothy (who is starting to actually fall in love with him), only to decide not to go through with it. And when Andre soon turns up dead, Vivian becomes the prime suspect. But how can she be punished for the crime when her innocent sister will have to bear the exact same punishment?

Harry L. Fraser directs 1952’s Chained for Life, a film partially based on the true lives of the Hilton sisters, who star.

The image quality of the Mill Creek print of this film is pretty low, but it isn’t so distorted that the viewer can’t discern what’s going on. (I actually don’t think I’ve encountered something of quite that low of quality in any of these sets.) The film appears in the Nifty ’50s box set.

Chained for Life is, without a doubt, a unique film in many ways. It poses a difficult question of ethics to the audience: should Dorothy be unjustly punished for her sister’s crime, or should guilty Vivian be able to walk free on account of her sister’s innocence? This seemingly unsolvable ethical dilemma also serves to pose larger questions about the American justice system. An unusual case in which there is literally no way to punish the “evil” without also punishing the innocent is used as an exaggeration of dilemmas faced daily by judges and juries.

(Image: Cinemasochist)
(Image: Cinemasochist)

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this film, aside from the enormous question it poses, is its treatment of the Hamilton sisters (and, at the same time, the Hilton sisters). While the fact that they are conjoined obviously plays a large part in the story, they aren’t treated as a grotesque oddity. The film spends some time exploring the inner struggles they must face due to their condition, including Dorothy’s wish to be separated from her sister and the treatment of the sisters by others who only desire to take advantage of them.

Each woman is given a distinct personality and perspective in the film, which is both surprising and refreshing to see. This is not to say that the film is not exploitative at all; it is, but far less so than I expected it to be.

I couldn’t help wanting to know more about the Hilton sisters after watching this film, as both give incredibly solid performances in the film, with Daisy in particular exuding charisma on screen. Their true life story is unfortunately quite tragic. They were adopted at only two weeks old by a woman who quickly decided to exploit them by using them as an exhibitionist cash cow. When the woman died, she willed the girls to her abusive daughter, who stole the fortunes they had made and used the money to build a lavish home. They were caught up in a scandal when their manager’s wife filed for divorce, citing that he spent “too much time” with the twins. They struggled to break out from vaudeville into films, appearing in only two films before taking up a job at a grocery store and living the remainder of their lives in poverty.

Though their talents have largely been forgotten today, Chained for Life still exists in the public domain and leaves quite a fitting legacy for the women — a legacy that provides insight into a few of their actual struggles as conjoined twins rather than only into the film’s story itself. It’s a truly fascinating watch, worth its 80 minutes if for no other reason than its unique handling of the subject matter.

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2 thoughts on “Mill Creek Musings: Chained for Life (1952)

    1. It’s definitely thought-provoking and has stuck with me for a long time after watching, especially since I learned more about Violet and Daisy. As sad as it is to read about their struggles, I’m glad that during their very brief film career they were able to work on a project like this, portraying characters that have distinct personalities and depth rather than the usual bland, exploitative roles.

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