Thursday 22 July 2010

Chained for Life (1951)

Directors: Harry L Fraser
Stars: The Hilton Sisters
I'm driving the highway to Cinematic Hell in 2010 for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.

We're here to be entertained and take our minds off things, says Judge Mitchell, but I wish I could take my mind off this. It's a unique story full of fascinating moral and legal questions that centre around a pair of Siamese twins committing murder and matrimony. Some are posed on the wild publicity material. 'What happens in their intimate moments?' the posters ask us. 'Is it legal to marry a Siamese twin?' 'Can they have a normal love life?' You'd think it was a porn film from all this salacious hype but it's far from that. It's a low budget exploitation picture from 1951, loosely based on real events in the lives of the Hilton Sisters, Daisy and Violet. Yes, long before Paris and Nicky there were Daisy and Violet, and they were as unlike the modern Hiltons as you could comfortably imagine. By all accounts they were pleasant, intelligent, talented ladies who simply happened to share a circulatory system. They're the Siamese twins from Tod Browning's Freaks.

Unfortunately, even a full day after I subjected myself to this film I'm at a loss to fully explain how utterly wrong it goes. Even if it was made by idiots who couldn't work out how to point a camera, turn on a microphone or write in coherent sentences, it should still have something to keep us intrigued. How it could have ended up this wasted, I can't quite fathom. After all, it has a pair of Siamese twins playing a pair of Siamese twins. How can anyone go wrong with that? They even play themselves, at least sort of. Daisy and Violet Hilton play Dorothy and Vivian Hamilton, but the events that take place are mostly their events, the pair having lived a rather amazing life together, one that would be well worth a real biopic. Yet somehow writer Nat Tanchuck and director Harry L Fraser systematically removed every fascinating snippet, every salacious situation, every cult moment of their entire lives and showed us all the boring bits in between.

Needless to say Chained for Life was a huge failure. It flopped horribly, even a widespread ban not helping the publicity machine that should have thrived on it. Amazingly it was banned for its lurid nature, even though there isn't a single lurid moment anywhere to be found. In fact it feels like it was deliberately shorn of every hint of such a thing, as if it was an exploitation flick utterly ashamed to be an exploitation flick. It isn't that it doesn't live up to the hype. Exploitation flicks aren't supposed to live up to the hype, that's why they're called exploitation flicks. But surely there should be something! There's a scene where the twins sit up in bed to talk about their lives and how a hypothetical separation would change them. If the crew had left the room while they talked to each other, the camera quietly capturing it, it would have been gripping and poignant. Instead an overblown script murders it all. These Siamese twins aren't even allowed to be real.

The whole thing unfolds in flashback, from Judge Mitchell's courtroom, where Vivian sits accused of murder. This is an awesome setup: just think about it. One Siamese twin is apparently guilty of cold blooded murder but the other is as innocent as a lamb. If that's the court's judgement, then what happens next? They can't only lock one twin up. They can't only fry one in the electric chair. Blackstone's formulation suggests that it's 'better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer,' but how do you apply that here? Unless both twins are found guilty of the very same crime, one has to be assumed innocent before the trial even begins. What's the point of having a trial if a guilty verdict can't be acted upon? What if the guilty twin took out a twelve gauge shotgun and killed the judge in his courtroom with the lawyers and the jury all witnesses to the act? They still couldn't sentence her to any punishment without an innocent suffering.

There are so many permutations to this that it sends the mind reeling, but how many do you think Chained for Life decides to explore? That's right. None. Not a sausage. In the minds of the filmmakers, why would anyone care about legal loopholes to organised massacre when they can watch a man riding around a stage backwards on a bicycle for five minutes instead. No, I'm not kidding. There's enough substance to the Hilton Sisters' lives for this to be a three hour movie but no, we break off for a trick cycling stuntman. We see Whitey Roberts too, who tap dances and juggles, all at the same time, and Tony Lovello, a man who plays classical tunes like the William Tell Overture at breakneck speed on a button accordion. They're all mildly amusing but they have as much to do with the story at hand as the stock footage audience. I can understand the sappy love songs Daisy and Violet duet on, but they aren't even given decent songs to sing.
The only man with any connection to the so called plot is Andre Pariseau, a sharpshooter who performs basic feats for us to be underwhelmed by. He's literally the least interesting character on the bill but he looks a little like Jeremy Irons and he thinks he has some Latin charm, so when the sisters' manager decides to set up a publicity marriage, he's apparently the man who can. Hinkley is a run of the mill sleazy manager, suitably played by Allen Jenkins, who was one of my favourite Warner Brothers supporting actors in the thirties. He looks tired here, not because he's too old for he had a quarter of a century left in him and wouldn't even become Officer Dibble in the Top Cat cartoons for another decade yet, but because he knows just how bad this material is. He served as able support to Cagney, Robinson and Bogart, but here he was stuck under Mario Laval who never acted again. He must have really needed a payday. I hope it worked out.

Of course, we're supposed to believe that Andre really falls in love with Dorothy, not just to play along with the scam Hinkley sets up but because that's amore, and we're supposed to believe that Dorothy falls for him right back. We may buy that these two actors share the same screen on occasion but we don't buy them sharing anything else, least of all chemistry. Worse, Vivian has to get upset at her sister for being a sap over him. That doesn't work at all, not just because they're obviously good people who don't want to get upset with anyone, least of all each other, but because they're real Siamese twins. I'd think that if Mother Nature attached you to someone else by the butt cheek, from birth to death, so that you even had to share the same toilet bowl, you'd get over the whole upset thing really quick too. The Hilton Sisters couldn't take time outs. They were stuck with each other, for better or worse, and better was the only realistic option.

By the way, here's where the lurid and sensational story turns out to be a damp squib compared to the truth. In real life Daisy and Violet were socialites, albeit nothing like Paris and Nicky. Violet had an eye for the celebrities, working through musicians and boxers before becoming engaged to Maurice Lambert, who was a bandleader. The legal shenanigans that Dorothy and Andre have to go through In Chained for Life are a fictionalised version of what Violet and Maurice got stuck with in real life: refusals from 21 states to issue a marriage license. Some thought it was bigamy, others refused because Daisy wasn't engaged too. Two years later, long after that relationship was over, the sisters' agent found a way to make it happen, so Violet married a long term friend, Jim Moore, on the 50 yard line of the Cotton Bowl at the Texas Centennial Exposition. Daisy got married a few years later. None of the marriages lasted, but they didn't actually shoot anyone.

Where exploitation flicks usually play up the sensational, this one tries to hide it. The Vivian and Andre marriage scam is a combination of Violet and Maurice, Violet and Jim and maybe even Daisy and bandleader Jack Lewis or dancer Harold Estep, but it's boring. The stage of the Bijou Theatre isn't quite the 50 yard line of the Cotton Bowl, after all. There's no fortune and fame, no Bob Hope or Harry Houdini, no mention of the twins both being named as co-respondents in a divorce case because they may have been playing around with their married advance agent. We get a vague idea that Hinkley's publicity stunt worked because the Bijou is soon in its third week of standing room only shows, and we get a love triangle. Yes, Andre serenades Dorothy over the phone then gets up close and personal with his stage assistant, the supposedly lovely Renée, who tries to be exotic even though she's Patricia Wright from Spokane, WA, and Andre's a cad.
There's such a lack of romance in this film it's sometimes surprising to realise we're supposed to be moved. The whole relationship starts as an angle, a fraud to generate publicity, and fails to heat up from there. I blinked when Andre proposed so had to rewind to work out what he'd done. 'I love you. Will you marry me.' he asks her, at a restaurant table, almost as an aside while we're not paying attention. Why does she accept? 'I'm not a machine,' she tells her twin. 'I'm a woman. I want to live like one.' Yes, we run through all the standard clichés. 'How much can love demand from us?' the sisters ask each other as we groan into our seats. There's even a dream sequence where Dorothy pretends she isn't a Siamese twin any more by magically turning into someone who only dances in the distance because she's six inches taller and doesn't look remotely like her. For the close ups she stands behind a tree wondering why there isn't an effects budget.

At least we're going to get a wedding night, right? We get a wedding, on stage at the Bijou with a host of uncomfortable looking vaudevillians and audience members, so we must get a wedding night. Well, no. We get a fade to black and Andre's gone. He couldn't do it after all. It's all over. Why did he do it, the vaudevillians wonder. 'I'll tell you why: because he never loved her.' quips Renée, because that's quite literally the best she can come up with. Dorothy's heart is broken but Andre and Renée stay on the same bill to molest each other in the wings, because the show must go on. Why it has to go on with the twins centre stage singing Never Say You'll Fall in Love, I really don't know, because that's just tacky, but I didn't write the script. It's cruel and unusual punishment and the only good thing that it brings is a stunning memory of the twins' last film, made two full decades earlier: Freaks, the most outlandish film classic Hollywood ever released.

Anyone who's seen Freaks knows what happens when normal folks disrespect the freaks: they get their vengeance in truly spectacular style. One of my favourite films of all time, Freaks is everything this film isn't, the Hilton sisters being the only commonality between them, but maybe my joyous memories of Freaks are the reason why there seems to be one well framed shot in Chained for Life. Andre has an intriguing trick, you see, where he can shoot a rifle at an organ and make it play, even though he has a rhythm and the organ doesn't. The twins stand in the wings watching as we remember his prophetic words. 'Accidents can happen,' he threatened Renée before the show. 'Don't forget I use live bullets.' It's no accident when Vivian shoots him dead with his gun. She appears to stand on the other side of a stage flat to her sister, framed head on, their hair colour making them seem like yin and yang. It's a good shot, in both senses.

It took seventy minutes for a good shot and we don't get another one. If you must watch this, do yourself a real favour and quit at this point. Don't go back to the courtroom, where everything is even stagier than it was on the stage. There are no tap dancing jugglers or trick cyclists in the courtroom to distract you with a moment's entertainment. You just have to sit through the inanity of it all as you close in on the worst ending in cinematic history. I don't like spoilers but I'm going to give you this one, in the vain hope that you don't have to be slapped in the face with it after eighty minutes of torture. You see, everything thus far has built up to this moment, this moral dilemma. The lawyers are idiots but they don't matter. Only what the judge does matters, how he rules in this unique case. It's what it's all about. And how does he rule? He doesn't. He cops out at the very last minute and asks you to come up with a ruling instead!

I've watched thousands of films, good ones and bad ones, the best of Cinematic Heaven and the worst of Cinematic Hell, but I can't remember another ending that annoyed me like this one. It feels like the filmmakers, through the proxy of actor Norval Mitchell, look directly at us through the fourth wall and say, hey viewer, you watched our movie. You stayed through the bad acting and the bad writing, the clichéd dialogue and the ponderous narrative. You didn't leave when we mangled the careers of the lovely Hilton twins into this unholy mess of a picture. In gratitude, we should give you our answer to the key moral question that we posed. Not the answer, mind you, just our answer, how we saw it. But no. We can't be bothered. You work it out. It's your problem. Stay up all night if you want. This entire frickin' movie is a waste of your time. It is one long 81 minute question that we can't be frickin' bothered to answer because you suck and we hate you. Have a nice day.

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