Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Intimate Lives & Loves of Violet and Daisy Hilton³

Daisy and Violet Hilton are conjoined twins and talented musicians who became successful vaudevillians before going off to Hollywood where they made several films. In the tradition of Helen Morgan Cubed, the ladies' lives have been represented in an autobiography (a WORLD INTERNET PREMIERE* downloadable from this blog in PDF format), a movie and a musical.

Film: Chained For Life

Chained For Life is a vanity project designed as film noir that was released in 1951. I hesitate to call it exploitation because people exploit themselves. (Isn't that what we do?) It's not a very easy movie to watch as the sisters are ... um ... exploited with many of the plot points fictionalized from experiences in their real lives including a sham marriage and private paeans for love.

The story revolves around the vaudevillian Hamilton Sisters and Vivian's (Violet) murder of Dorothy's (Daisy) husband. The husband/nuptials are a sham having been perpetrated by (and on) the sisters for promotional purposes - although Dorothy does fall in love with the fellow. In one particularly fascinating scene, Dorothy dreams of being separate from her sister, dancing and cavorting with her lover in a garden.

Aped 47 years later by the creators of Side Show

Chained For Life begins as a cautionary tale with the judge who presides over the movie's murder trial introducing the story; it then flashes back to the events that lead up to the murder. Along the way, the film captures the singing talents of the Hilton sisters in three sweet duets: Every Hour of Every Day, Never Ever Fall In Love, and Love Thief. (Music clips are below and on YouTube.)

Best public copy; Amazon Prime version is good too

Book: The Intimate Lives and Loves of the Hilton Sisters

The Intimate Lives and Loves of the Hilton Sisters is also a vanity project - a slight autobiography written by Daisy and Violet Hilton to coincide with the release of Chained for Life. The first seventeen pages of the $2 trade-sized paperback are devoted to the Hilton's story with both sisters taking the pen; the concluding 33 pages are a novelization of the tale told in Chained For Life. Takeaways from the autobiographical section include:

  • The sisters were born in Brighton, England.* No birth year is mentioned but there is a sentence that reads In 1929 we became legally of age. If this means 21, they were born in 1908. The twins early years were also documented in a medical journal article published in 1911 called The Brighton United Twins (PDF will download.). It discusses the medical details of the infant twins (they shared an anus, separation would cause death). Again, no birth year is given but a photo of the toddlers captioned Present day confirms their birth year as 1908.

  • At two weeks old, the sisters were given to Mary Williams (Auntie) who raised (and beat) them. They lived above the Queens Head Pub in Brighton before moving to San Antonio, Texas. Auntie had five husbands and daughter Edith.
  • During their youth, Daisy and Violet were trained to read and play music, recite, dance, and sing. Auntie (and Edith when the former died) managed their performing career which took off internationally and in the United States. They were headliners and played vaudeville with luminaries of the day like Harry Houdini, Sophie Tucker and Jimmy Durante.

  • In 1927, unbeknownst to the sisters, Edith and her husband enslaved them in a guardianship. The Hiltons went to court in 1930 to get their freedom and dissolve any business arrangements that had been (illegally) put into place. This is when they found out about their birth home in the UK.
  • The case was decided in the sisters' favor. All existing contracts were dissolved and they were given $67,000 in bonds, $12,000 in cash and $20,000 in personal effects.
  • They crafted a revue in which they played violin, piano, and saxophone, did ballet and adagio dancing, and performed in sketches.

  • Violet married as a publicity stunt in Texas (after 21 other states denied request for a marriage license). They were still married (at the time of publication) although Violet acquiesced that the marriage had no meaning and Jim could have a divorce anytime he asked.
  • Daisy married a few years later for love. The sisters awoke on the tenth day and found the groom was no longer there. Daisy initiated divorce proceedings and they never saw him again.

Their story trails off in a few paragraphs following the second marriage disclosure but the tome is illustrated with stills from Chained For Life and, as mentioned, a quite detailed and well-written novelization of the movie's plot. The film and book could arguably be called one of the first film and book tie-ins.

WORLD INTERNET PREMIERE: I found a copy of The Intimate Lives and Loves of the Hilton Sisters, bought it (for 60 times $2) and scanned it. You can download the PDF from the Hilton Sisters folder on 4Shared. (The folder also contains a PDF of the Brighton United Twins medical journal article.)

Musical: Side Show

In 1997, Side Show opened on Broadway with Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley starring as Daisy and Violet (respectively). This musical version of the sisters' story has book and lyrics by Bill Russell and music by Henry Krieger, played 91 performances, and was nominated for five Tony awards (Best Musical, Book, Score and actresses). The New York Library for the Performing Arts Theatre on Film Archives has an archival video recording of the show.

Despite some soaring ballads, the lyrics often tread the same ground and the book has taken very great liberties with too many life points - including a puzzling swap of their side-by-side physical placement. (See Freaks and Facts below.) Their story is musicalized around love - something of which they didn't have (or get) so the story ultimately feels forced. The audience is asked to believe that not one but TWO men were capable of falling in love with the sisters prompting:
  • A scene in which the musical Daisy dreams of being separated from her sister, dancing and cavorting with her lover in a garden. (Did they really just ape that scene from Chained For Life?)

    Norm Lewis played Porgy on Broadway in 2012
  • A scene in which the phenomenally talented Norm Lewis electrifies (us and) the musical Violet with You Should Be Loved (soaring ballad), a juxtaposition which not too subtly equates the Hilton's struggle with the African-American struggle.

Who Will Love Me As I Am and I Will Never Leave You are two more soaring ballads, these sung by Skinner and Ripley as the Hilton sisters. They are both powerful songs and riveting performances. All of these songs were captured for an original cast recording which is still available. Last year director Bill Condon spearheaded a revival of the musical. This new version played in La Jolla, California and will be on the boards in Washington, D.C. in 2014.

Pretty fuckin' incredible

Freaks and Facts

Interestingly, the sisters' autobiography has only one sentence that refers to the performance for which they are most remembered. As Terry figured, the [marriage] stunt paid off. We went to Hollywood and made several films. One of those films was Tod Browning's film Freaks.

My assumption is that when the book was published and sold, Freaks had not yet taken its proper place in the cannon of American popular culture. The 1932 MGM film, based on the short story Spurs (available in PDF), concerns freaks in a circus side show and the normal circus entertainers who work with them. The sisters undoubtedly had no idea that Freaks would later (and further) cement their celebrity.

In Freaks, the ladies essentially play themselves. Daisy is on the right when watching the film (and looking at pictures of the sisters) and Violet is on the left. In most adult pictures, Daisy is blonde. This fact is altered in Side Show although I'm not sure what was gained by switching the placement of the twins in the minds of the audience. (Is it easier to remember which twin is which when their names are in alphabetical order?) Several times in the musical the girls sing the following patently false verse:
Daisy: I'm Daisy
Violet: I'm Violet
Daisy & Violet: We're nothing alike
Violet: I'm to your right as you watch our show
Daisy: She thinks she's always right. Not so. I'm Daisy
Violet: I'm Violet

According to The Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet Hilton: A True Story of Conjoined Twins by Dean Jensen, the Hiltons' last public appearance was in 1961 at a drive-in cinema in Charlotte, North Carolina where their tour manager abandoned them. With no means of transportation or income, they took a job in a grocery store as a bagger and a checker. On January 4, 1969, after they failed to report to work, the grocery store called the police. The twins were found dead in their home, victims of the Hong Kong flu. The autopsy reported that Daisy died first; Violet died between two and four days later. They were buried in Forest Lawn West Cemetery.

I've mentioned how uncomfortable it is to watch the sisters but that's not because they were conjoined. The exploitative (there's that word!) nature of the people around them is horrifying and uncomfortable to watch. Freaks is different because they are portrayed as normal - which is how Daisy and Violet Hilton might've liked to be remembered.

Music Clips from Chained For Life

Every Hour of Every Day

Never Fall In Love

Love Thief

POSTSCRIPT: More photos can be found at the Daisy and Violet Hilton Petit Photo Gallery. During research, I discovered that Leslie Zemeckis made a biographical documentary in 2012 called Bound By Flesh. I couldn't find that the film is available so I wasn't able to see it.

*In England, the sisters' home was above the Queens Head pub; their manager chose this location for its proximity to the Brighton Train Station. They were born in a house on Riley Road on the outskirts of Brighton.