I recently watched Chained for Life, the 1951 oddity/star vehicle featuring conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton (1908-1969). In the movie, the sisters star as thinly-disguised versions of themselves, Dorothy and Vivian Hamilton, on trial for the murder of Dorothy’s husband-of-convenience Andre Pariseau (the story unfolds in flashback as the pair tell their side of the affair). In the film, Pariseau (played by Mario Laval) is a marksman performing in the same Vaudeville revue as the Hamilton sisters; when their manager gets the idea of staging a love affair to boost publicity, Pariseau goes along with it for an increased share of the profits, even going so far as to propose marriage (even as he continues to carry on with his assistant). But Dorothy’s feelings are all too real, leading to conflicts between the sisters who are literally inseparable.
Chained for Life has been called an exploitation film, and if any performers can be described as exploited, surely the Hilton sisters are at the top of the list: born to an unwed mother in Brighton, England, the twins were more or less bought by the delivering midwife, who put them on display from infancy and continued to “manage” them for decades, until the sisters won their independence after a contentious trial. Even after that, they were unprepared for the difficulties of life on their own and continued to be ill-served by subsequent handlers. The low point, and the end of their career, came when they were unceremoniously abandoned in Birmingham, Alabama, where they took a job at a grocery store and lived until succumbing to the Hong Kong flu years later.
The term “exploitation film” often brings to mind gratuitous sex or violence, but Chained for Life is quite tame on both fronts, and like many films of the era it at least purports to be instructional; it’s more thought-provoking than edgy. In reality, it is the audience’s curiosity and desire for titillation that are exploited, and whether through posters that resemble tabloid front pages or trailers that teasingly edit together the most shocking parts of the movie, “exploitation” is often a byword for films that promise more than they deliver. Although more polished and coherent, Chained for Life reminded me of an Edward D. Wood production, particularly Wood’s attempt at a “message movie,” Glen or Glenda? Chained even opens with a portentous, Criswell-like monologue from the judge in the murder trial, who invites the audience to ask themselves how they would mete out justice in such a case. We hear from doctors on the limits of surgery and we witness the legal difficulties in procuring a marriage license (both problems the real-life sisters had experience with). A kindly reverend makes a case for the dignity of all lives created by God, whatever form they take; and in his closing remarks, the defense attorney alludes to the bigotry, cruelty, and, yes, exploitation that the sisters faced throughout their lives. Although the central puzzle of the film (how can the court punish the guilty twin without wrongly imprisoning or executing the innocent one?) is left unresolved, there is no question that the audience is meant to conclude that Pariseau (a smooth Latin lover type who is only in it for the money) got what he deserved.
The marriage under false pretenses calls to mind Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks, which also turns on the callous exploitation of an outsider’s affection by a pair of “normals” (and in which, incidentally, the Hilton sisters had also appeared, albeit as secondary characters). The difference between the two films is striking, however: Freaks is a one-of-a-kind blend of horror, pathos and melodrama, an expressionistic fable with long wordless stretches, compelling images, and a genuinely shocking ending. Despite a few stylistic flourishes (such as a dream sequence in which Dorothy imagines herself separated from her twin, free to dance with her beloved), Chained is content to tell its story in businesslike fashion, consistent with its courtroom setting and air of social uplift (it does, however, include the newspaper headline SIAMESE TWIN TO WED VAUDEVILLIAN, which is in my opinion in the running for Best Headline Ever). They are essentially films of different eras: the cruelties visited on the Hamilton sisters are less overt than those depicted in the side show world of Freaks, but are no less painful for being covered by a veneer of politeness. The level of craftsmanship is quite different as well: while the Hilton sisters had a long-running musical act, singing duets in harmony, their acting is stiff and artificial, calling attention to the staginess of their banter (their scenes really do play like something by Ed Wood). In short, Freaks is a classic; Chained for Life is a curiosity.
Having said that, Chained for Life has its rewards. I always enjoy films that feature genuine acts of performance, whether music, dance, martial arts, or the kind of talents usually filed under “variety,” and Chained for Life’s Vaudeville setting provides numerous opportunities. In addition to the sisters’ musical act and Pariseau’s marksmanship (including playing a pipe organ activated by rifle shots, in one of the film’s most baroque sequences), we get an accordionist tearing through the William Tell Overture, a juggler, and a clown with a trick bicycle act.
One might accuse the filmmakers of trying to pad out an already brief running time, and it wouldn’t necessarily be wrong (the trick bicyclist is pretty dull, even if you’re into old stage acts), but the performances (and many like them in movies of the era) provide a glimpse of live entertainment as it was experienced in times gone by. A great deal of surviving footage of entertainers of the past comes from film excerpts, either from features like this or from shorts meant to accompany the longer films. (The contrivance by which the story halts and a famous artist is invited to perform their signature act is still with us, of course, whenever an appearance by a guest star needs to be justified; staging their performance as a show within the show is an obvious solution, but not the only one.)
Chained for Life is also a cult film, a label often applied to movies so singular that they fascinate a small number of viewers, even as they drive large audiences away. There are so many types of cult film—from trashy exploitation and low-budget amateur productions to expensive, little-loved flops and insane, auteur-driven visions—that it would be impossible to cover them all, but one thing they all have in common is the perception on the part of the audience that this movie was made for them personally: for those of us on their wavelengths, cult films speak to the weirdness in our souls.
Mulling over the show-biz milieu of Chained for Life, I wondered: are there cult operas? Cult stage musicals? After a moment’s thought, the short answer was yes, of course there are, and for many of the same reasons that films develop cults. There are musicals notorious for their epic failure (like Carrie, based on the Stephen King book, which closed after only a handful of performances) or for their troubled production history (Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark will surely not soon be forgotten), and until recent years most flops would leave only a cast recording behind, if that.
Of course, many cult films are also musicals; in some cases they are adaptations of stage works, such as the ur-midnight movie The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which was already a phenomenon as The Rocky Horror Show in London before being turned into the long-running film. Little Shop of Horrors exhibits a complete life cycle, originating as a quickly-filmed Roger Corman horror comedy, being turned into a stage musical, and finally returning to film in a big budget adaptation (which replaced the original film’s and stage musical’s bleak ending with a happy one; if you haven’t seen the original ending that was scrapped after poor audience testing, it’s really something). But many original movie musicals have cult appeal for their singular vision and the heightened qualities inherent in musical theater.
Just as original cast albums can keep Broadway shows in circulation, motion picture soundtracks can serve as advertisements for the films they come from, or take on lives of their own: to name one example, I was intrigued by the soundtrack to Otto Preminger’s 1968 comedy Skidoo, in which stars from the golden age of Hollywood collided with a druggy flower power satire. As great as that sounds, when I finally saw the movie, I found it mostly unfunny and, dare I say, square. (Interestingly, while a straight play or movie can have the air sucked right out by the kind of “Hey, why don’t you sing us your hit song?” interruption I mentioned above, the songs are often the only places where musicals come alive. I’m sure it’s at least partly a matter of context and expectation: if you’re watching a movie starring Elvis, you just know he’s going to pick up a guitar sooner or later.)
Musicals, like film, are a collaborative medium, and the expense involved in producing one often leads to the rough edges and idiosyncrasies being sanded down, but personal visions can still come through. For example, the same year Chained for Life was made, E. Y. “Yip” Harburg, lyricist for such hits as The Wizard of Oz and Finian’s Rainbow, collaborated with composer Sammy Fain on Flahooley, a satire of consumerism and conformity inspired by Harburg’s blacklisting in Hollywood (Harburg was never a Communist party member, but for his refusal to name names he was blocked from working in Hollywood from 1950 until 1962, and also had his passport revoked during that time). Despite numerous changes made to tone down the political references (originally, the talking doll of the title was supposed to say “Dirty Red!” instead of laughing), Flahooley is truly a strange mixture, combining boardroom satire of the kind Stan Freberg specialized in; an Oriental fantasy version of Arabia, including a genie in a lamp and exotica star Yma Sumac as an Arab princess; and marionettes devised by puppeteer Bil Baird (the puppets were the American people—get it?). Flahooley closed after forty performances on Broadway, but after reading about it, how could I not track down the soundtrack?*
Of course, it wouldn’t be a stretch to call operas and musical theater cult interests to begin with: like cult films, musical stage works attract an intensely devoted fan base that is only a small part of the larger public. Operagoers are apt to have strong opinions about what they like and what they don’t, taking seemingly small matters very personally. Both art forms have much in common with the films that draw cult audiences: there are outré scenarios with lurid hooks, exotic locations, larger-than-life characters, and the often-campy artifice of the stage. How many operas include deceptive lovers or mismatched marriages as plot devices?
Even going back to its origins, opera featured personalities that would be recognizable to modern cineastes. The divas of seventeenth-century Venetian opera had adoring fans, carefully-managed public images, and behind-the-scenes clout, much like celebrity entertainers today. (And much like today, opera stars would demand ego-flattering changes to productions: in addition to the common practice of aria substitution, which continued until the nineteenth century, there are examples like castrato Luigi Marchesi, who insisted on entering the stage on horseback, wearing a helmet festooned with multi-colored plumes, regardless of the role.)
In the nineteenth century, Richard Wagner’s operas took on a quasi-spiritual dimension, and the “cult” designation was almost literal: fans of his work were referred to as “Wagnerites,” and if they were at all able they would make the “pilgrimage” to Bayreuth, where Wagner’s work could be performed in a theater custom-built to his specifications. Before the birth of motion pictures, it was the theatrical stage on which craftsmen perfected the arts of captivating, even manipulating, the moods and desires of audiences.
If there is a cult within the cult of musical fandom, it is probably to be found Off-Broadway, where productions can be a little more transgressive without scaring away the big crowds demanded on Broadway. In fact there is a consistent pattern of Off-Broadway successes moving into the mainstream, beginning with The Fantasticks and including such shows as Little Shop of Horrors and Urinetown, and in many cases the smaller budgets and narrower appeal of such shows allow their creators the freedom to speak more frankly than was possible in traditional Broadway. It is intriguing to note the absorption of Off-Broadway talent into both Broadway and Hollywood musicals. Alan Menken and Howard Ashman moved from Little Shop of Horrors to Disney’s The Little Mermaid, and by all accounts were instrumental in raising the level of ambition for Disney’s animated feature films at the time, leading to the early ‘90s blossoming of Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin before Ashman’s untimely death. More recently, Robert Lopez has gone from co-creating the musicals Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon to co-writing songs for Disney’s Frozen (another story of a pair of sisters who want very different things from life).
Given the intense identification with outsiders fostered by the last few decades of musical theater (and popular culture in general) and the continued fascination with both freaks and the machinery of the entertainment industry, it should not be surprising that Daisy and Violet Hilton have been the subject of a Broadway musical. 1997’s Side Show, by Bill Russell and Henry Krieger, makes a useful contrast to both Freaks and Chained for Life: moving from the carnival freak show to the Vaudeville circuit, it too includes a staged marriage, but unlike its predecessors there are no clear-cut good guys and bad guys. Despite the twins’ stage appearances portraying angels, songbirds, and Egyptian princesses, they are simply human, making compromises to get through life as best they can. There is still glamour and beauty in Side Show, but the tone is one of regret and world-weariness rather than the gothic excess of Freaks or the noir-tinged procedural of Chained for Life. Naturally, the theme of duality is present, and some characters can be described as two-faced, but the conflict between the outgoing Daisy and retiring Violet is placed front and center. Side Show also more closely examines the men in the twins’ lives and their difficulty in accepting what a commitment to one of them would really mean, without letting faithless or cowardly lovers off the hook. In the show, the one man who truly loves Violet, Jake, is African-American, but he knows the world would never accept them together, dramatizing another barrier that could only be considered as subtext in the lily-white Chained for Life.
Other subtexts aren’t hard to find in either the musical or the cult film. For the most vital, but not only, example, the identification of musical theater and being gay is so ingrained as to be a cliché, but there is truth to it. A primary convention of the theater is its camaraderie and acceptance of everyone as they are—one of the standard tropes of show business, second only to “The show must go on,” is that the troupe is a family, no matter what—and the distancing, unreal effect of the theater has historically allowed its practitioners to express themselves in coded language, even when their love “dare not speak its name.” This frequently came through in gay theatergoers’ identification with the divas and the idealized (heterosexual, until very recently) lovers onstage. Outsiders frequently recognized themselves in cult films as well: whether gay or straight, it seems plausible that while the glamour of the theater may seem preferable to ordinary life for many audiences, there’s a similar identification with the monsters and misfits of the horror and science fiction films that also attract cult audiences. Outwardly opposite, they appeal to the same impulse, intertwined in such figures as the Bride of Frankenstein and Vampira.
The goal for audiences, just as it was for the real-life Hilton sisters and their fictionalized counterparts, is acceptance: self-acceptance first, and then the acceptance of a partner, if one can be found. Traditional happy endings often end on the latter, but sometimes the former is enough. Consider Frozen, radical (at least for a Disney movie) for its embrace of sisterhood as the real true love, and ending without a romantic match for Elsa, the Snow Queen. Some interpret her anthem “Let It Go” as a metaphorical coming out of the closet; it needn’t be, of course–taken at face value it’s a powerful statement of independence, comparable to singer Idina Menzel’s other big song, “Defying Gravity” from Wicked–but such an interpretation is more than tenable. Musical theater and film continue to be powerful for the ways in which they give voice to yearnings that cannot (yet) be put into words: as Daisy and Violet sing in Side Show’s most intimate and powerful number, “Who will love me as I am?”
* Those soundtracks can keep the flame alive for underperforming shows: Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins baffled audiences in its initial Broadway run, but it has gone on to be a favorite of college and regional theaters. Away from the financial pressures of Broadway, Carrie has been revised and revived a few times, and even Flahooley has had at least one revival.