Jan 11, 2012

Chained For Life (1951)

Director: Harry L. Fraser
Screenplay: Nat Tanchuck, with additional dialogue by Albert de Pina, based upon an idea by Ross Frisco
Producer: George Moskov
Music: Henry Vars
Cinematography: Jockey Feindel
Spera Productions; 73 min; B&W

Violet Hilton (Vivian Hamilton), Daisy Hilton (Dorothy Hamilton), Mario Laval (Andre), Allen Jenkins (Hinkley), Patricia Wright (Renee), Norvel Mitchell (Judge Mitchell)

There is a moment in Tod Browning's 1932 film, Freaks, in which a man kisses one of the siamese twin sisters, while the other twin, is also visibly enjoying the kiss. This blatantly sexual moment in one way illustrates how Freaks was marketed for years as an exploitation film for its frank, lurid details. However, on the other hand, Browning's controversial, shocking yet touchingly beautiful melodrama uses such moments to illustrate how these sideshow attractions, despite their deformities, are people too, and yes, can have natural sexual impulses just like everyone else.

After appearing in that 1932 film, sisters Daisy and Violet Hilton (who were joined at the hip, yet shared no vital organs and each had four limbs), spent years in the carnival circuit, and as a musical act (piano-violin duo). They returned to the silver screen one last time for this golden-age exploitation picture.  Such films from the 1930s to the 1950s would illustrate taboo subject matter to entice viewers, all while masquerading as educational pictures or morality plays in order to skirt the censors. In most cases, these movies would intercut such sensational aspects with explanatory title cards, or sequences of some expert discussing whatever social ill the film exploits. Chained For Life is also of the "roadshow pictures" tradition in that the film is bookended with an authority figure (in this case, a judge) who addresses the viewers about suspending our own moral judgments as we witness the story within.

However, despite the usual accepted liabilities of these poverty row wonders (bad acting, poor production values), all one can rightfully ask is that these films, you know, shock. Since Chained For Life is about the attempts for one of the sisters to marry, surprisingly, the frank sexuality evidenced in Freaks is ignored here- despite the lurid marketing of this picture, at heart, it is a rather straightforward melodrama.

The Hilton sisters play The Hamilton Sisters, a singing act in a failing vaudeville revue. In order to score at the box office, their promoter comes up with the sensational marketing campaign that one of the sisters is to marry Andre, who is part of the trick-shooting act also featured in the show. (His partner, Renee, played by the tantalizingly sexy Patricia Wright, is not so amused by this arrangement.) Certainly, Andre courts Dorothy, who really does fall in love with the smooth-talking gigolo, but sister Viv is less than flattered by Andre, who is also slyly chiseling her for her new-found wealth that has resulted from this publicity stunt. However, once the marriage takes place, and Andre has reached the pinnacle of his popularity thanks to this campaign, he dumps Dorothy in short order. Viv shoots Andre, and is put on trial for murder. Many states forbid Dorothy's marriage, because technically, it is bigamy as she and Viv are conjoined. Ironically, although they are forbidden the right to marry just like anyone else, the court does not hesitate to persecute them as they were anyone else. The film ends with the judge unable to decide whether to incarcerate both of the women or not at all, and thus asks the viewers what they think he should do.

Although structurally this movie follows the traditional pattern of the roadshow films, one senses that the makers were actually trying to make something out of this. Despite the limited budget, the cinematography is crisp, and scenes often play with fluid tracking shots. Director Harry Fraser had previously made countless B-grade cheapies for PRC, and this film by comparison is an art-house picture. The major plot element where Andre leaves Dorothy is however presented as a newspaper headline. So many second features of yesteryear would use this device in order to save money by not filming a scene: however, in this case, not visualizing that moment is a tasteful decision, as we don't need to see these ladies being degraded further onscreen. Chained For Life is a much more austere picture than Freaks, but indirectly the sensibility is the same: we are presented with a story about people with abnormalities who are trying to have lives like real people. (There is even a jaw-dropping dream sequence, where, thanks to the help of a lens effect and a body double, Dorothy envisions herself physically separated from her sister, rising up from the bed they share, and dancing on her own.)

The honourable Judge Mitchell boldly confronts the viewer with the thought: "No matter what your problems are, they can't be as bad as theirs". Indeed- offscreen, the Hilton sisters experienced hardships no-one should have to endure: from being physically abused at a young age by their stepmother, to being abandoned much later in life by their promoters, penniless in a strange town, forced to pick up the pieces and start over again. Upon facing these adversities, all while trying to have a normal life, the Hiltons were survivors; and based upon accounts I've read, it also appears that the ladies were very nice people; but still, in all honesty, actresses they were not. Although this film is always fascinating to watch because of the unusual subject matter, it may be easy to sympathize with the Hamilton sisters, but in truth the movie doesn't have the panache it could have beyond its novelty value, as the Hiltons' onscreen presences are tired, glum, and passionless. However, wouldn't we be, after spending a lifetime of difficulties no-one else could imagine?

The ultimate beauty of Chained For Life is in its own dichotomy: it indirectly succeeds in its seeming desire to be more than the quick-buck exploitation picture it was fated to be. The exploitation of this transcendent little wonder is actually experienced within the viewer, not in the sensational matter onscreen.  While the movie ends without a proper story resolution, the payoff is indeed what the judge suggests in his dialogue to the viewer: we are forced to evaluate many things we have just witnessed. In this converse logic, as we see the beauty within two unusual people, we are even led to view how the film's flaws equally force us to consider other truths.

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