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Chained for Life (Harry L. Fraser, 1954)


Conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton serve as the exploitative main attraction in Harry L. Fraser’s cult classic Chained for Life. These real life twins, who were most famous for their campy turn in Tod Browning’s Freaks (their only other screen credit), were given a slightly more serious role in this second feature. Playing Vivian and Dorothy, twins who work in a flailing vaudeville troupe, the Hilton sisters find themselves on trial for murder. Through a series of extended flashbacks, we learn that the murder occurred after Andre (Mario Laval), a fellow performer, broke Dorothy’s heart, annulling an arranged showbiz marriage. The judge/narrator who opens and closes the film suggests that their case presents some unfathomable moral dilemma for us to grapple with, but their sensationalistic trial and the wacky defense offered up seem mostly designed to stir prurient interest. Indeed, the closest the film comes to being a social message movie occurs in moments such as when the twins’ marriage license application is denied due to charges of bigamy or while a marriage ceremony is edited to suggest that the audience’s anxiety about a ménage à trois is some form of bigotry.


The rest of Chained for Life is just as much a hodgepodge as its supposed moral. The melodramatic love triangle at the film’s center is scarcely enough to sustain the film’s run time. As such, many of the Chained’s scant eighty one minutes are taken up showcasing the various acts in the sisters’ questionable variety show. There are comedy bits, sharpshooting, juggling, accordion playing, bicyclists, and singing, courtesy of the sisters, who naturally duet. Their harmonizing prowess is clearly not the prime attraction here, but they acquit themselves well enough as songstresses. As actors, they are a bit less successful. They read what could be catty dialogue (e.g. “If I have a date, you have a date too, my dear!”) with generally wooden delivery. Chained for Life becomes, then, something of a freak show. There’s little here beyond the twins’ unique condition to warrant viewing the film, which somewhat undercuts its overall message of assimilation. Chained for Life’s most memorable moments, whether Dorothy’s daffy dream sequence in which she imagines herself separated from her sister or the few scenes in which the sisters consider a life-threatening operation to be surgically detached, emphasize their conjoined state. In the final analysis, then, this stands as a singular but singularly counterproductive melodrama.



Jeremy Heilman