In the 1920s and 30s, the twins Violet and Daisy Hilton were as close to being vaudeville royalty as any two people could get. They were talented performers: they could sing and dance, they played any number of musical instruments, they were witty and charming and crowds of fans flocked to their shows every night. They also had one other appealing factor: a small piece of flesh on their backs that had conjoined the sisters since the day they were born.
Growing up with such a visible physical handicap, their eventual success was not necessarily expected. Born out of wedlock in 1908, their mother saw them as a punishment and expected, or rather hoped, that they would die. Medical conditions at the time made this prospect more than likely—fewer than 1 in 100 conjoined twins made it past infancy. When they survived their first night, she abandoned them, leaving her daughters with her landlady, a woman who saw in them the opportunity for profit.
From infancy, the twins passed from guardian to guardian, marketed as “freaks” and eventually touring Australia and America as members of a “freak show.”
They were a huge success. Whereas most of the performers just stood there, Violet and Daisy put on a show. Using the same talents that would make them successful in vaudeville, the twins soon became stars and they even appeared in the pre-code, cult classic filmFreaks by Tod Browning.
Their success as performers was particularly remarkable in light of their unhappy off-stage lives. Their guardians, originally the landlady but eventually a series of other caregivers and managers, exploited them to the point that they never saw the profits from their work. Being raised in such a controlled environment, they were ill-equipped to detect when someone was swindling them out of fair pay; however, the market dwindled after the rise of the motion picture industry and the girls were left destitute and alone.
Bound by Flesh is an excellent documentary. The storyline was well-crafted and I found myself drawn into the tragic lives of these two girls who, it seemed, were exploited at every turn. The world in which they worked felt foreign, almost like a fantasy novel, but, as in many fantasies, the real world crept back in through the people, whose familiar drive for money and power soured the girls’ lives as they grew. The film also included interviews with Ward Hall, known as the “King of the Sideshow.” He was the last of the sideshow promoters in the style of a P.T. Barnum.
Bound by Flesh is produced, directed and written by Leslie Zemeckis (Behind the Burly Q), produced by Jackie Levine and executive produced by Robert Zemeckis.
Sundance Selects will open the documentary theatrically in New York at the IFC Center and select other theaters, VOD, and iTunes on June 27, 2014.
Images courtesy of impawards.com, agileticketing.net, and randompictures.blogspot.com.