Leslie Zemeckis’ new documentary about the famous Hilton Sisters is a gentle, educational introduction to a facet of American entertainment you may not be familiar with.
Daisy and Violet Hilton (1908 – 1969) are perhaps best known for their appearance in Tod Browning’s infamous 1932 feature film Freaks. Born conjoined in England, they lived a long and wild life of childhood fame, midway stardom, a few movie appearances, and extreme wealth. They were also dominated by a string of horrible and abusive managers whom they would eventually have to flee. After a string of bad, publicity-based marriages to closeted gay men, the Hiltons would become burlesque performers. It was here that director Leslie Zemeckis (Robert’s wife) would discover them, as this segment of their career was brushed up against in her 2010 documentary Behind the Burly Q. The Hiltons would eventually move to a small town in North Carolina, living out their years in a grocery store.
I was already pretty familiar with the Hilton Sisters going in, but I admit that my interests run a little odd. This portrait-cum-tribute to the Hiltons not only does their memory an extreme justice, but reveals a fascinating side of American entertainment that many people don’t think about. In the years before movie theaters and television, and even before radio was a common device in most households, most people would trek to fairs and traveling circuses for their jollies. It was during this period that small, one-trick acts like weight-lifters, exotic animals, and, yes, freaks could pull down a lot of money. Two pretty young girls who were conjoined at the buttocks, could play instruments, and sing in harmony were a hot commodity during this time, and Bound By Flesh gives us a great portrait of the environment where freaks were common and celebrated.
Zemeckis is, however, cautious to present both sides of the equation. Her interview subjects – some scholars and authors, others just enthusiasts – see this as both a golden time for freak performers, and a horrible time. This is, after all, bare exploitation of certain people, and the Hiltons, while wealthy, were not treated well. Many people see freak shows as base, gross, and abusive violations of individual rights. Bound By Flesh tactfully doesn’t sugar-coat the more grievous sins of circus sideshows. The Hiltons were abandoned by their mother, raised by their midwife, and eventually came into the employ of their adoptive mother’s fat abusive boyfriend that they only referred to as “Mister.” Their eventual marriages were plagued by publicity and dishonesty, and most of their respective grooms were gay men. They were superstars, but their life wasn’t always flowery.
There is a tantalizing recording of Daisy and Violet that is quoted throughout, wherein they reveal details of their lives. I wish we could have heard more of it. What batter way than to hear the story straight from the source? I can only assume most of the recording is either lost or off-topic. One hopes that the eventual DVD release of this film will include the entire recording. And while it’s discussed, there is precious little said about the obscure 1952 feature film Chained for Life, the feature film vehicle for the Hiltons. I own the film (on one of those inexpensive public domain 20-in-one-box DVD sets), and it’s pretty terrible, but I wish I could have seen more about the production of it. I suppose there’s not much to say about an obscure flop from the 1950s.
If you’ve ever had any interest in early American entertainment, the world of freak shows, or in the Hilton Sisters in particular (and I know there are other people like me out there, otherwise this film would not have been made), this is exactly the film you need. It’s not exactly slick, but it’s accurate and passionate, giving the sisters a human eye, while still asking the questions you definitely have. It’s not grimy or exploitative. The Hiltons have had enough if that. Here is their human face.