“Bound by Flesh,” a 2012 documentary directed by Leslie Zemeckis (married to Robert Z.), is about the Hilton twins. Violet and Daisy were the most successful vaudeville act in their day—which is saying quite a lot. In 1908, Violet and Daisy were born conjoined and sold—yes, sold—by their mother to an entrepreneur named Mary Hilton. Hilton was an uncaring guardian, intent on exploiting the twins for all they were worth.
I missed Violet and Daisy at the AFI Film Festival, so I was glad to get the chance to see them at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. The film tells the Hilton twins’ unusual and often tragic story. One of the nifty things about the doc is what you learn about sideshows, midways, and freaks along the way via interviews with the twins’ biographer, Dean Jensen, and historian James Taylor, as well as Ward Hall (“King of the Midway,” if he does say so himself).
“Bound by Flesh” is entertaining, if somewhat depressing. Violet and Daisy loved performing, by all accounts, but when they were finally emancipated from the folks exploiting them, they succumbed to others eager to cash in—often people who weren’t nearly as savvy as Hilton and her later partner Meyer Meyerson. Meyerson married Hilton’s daughter during the twins’ tour in the Outback and “inherited” them when Mary Hilton died. The twins had been so, well, “sheltered” seems like the wrong word, they had no idea how to look out for their own interests, or how to spot others who might be reliable in doing so. They were repeatedly swindled and exploited, finally left stranded at a drive-in appearance by a “manager” who drove off with whatever money they had earned.
There is precious little footage of the twins, and sadly none to speak of from the height of their career in vaudeville. They appear in Tod Browning’s infamous “Freaks” (1932) and a visible twenty years later in an unfortunate-looking film titled “Chained for Life.”
The Hilton twins, like Chang and Eng, retired (though not by choice) to North Carolina. Violet and Daisy’s last job was weighing the fresh food at a supermarket in Monroe, North Carolina, where they lived in a house owned by a local church. (Before there were scales in veggie and fruit section, these items were weighed up at the one and only available scale.)
The film doesn’t take a position on the question of whether freak shows were good for freaks or were simply a form of exploitation. The Hilton’s goddaughter, who grew up around freak shows and the twins, claims that those in shows were an unhappy group. Ward Hall and James Taylor both insist that freaks had a community in freak shows and were able to make a good living there, whereas their employability outside such enterprises was severely limited. Further, after freak shows and midways lost favor with the public, various entertainers told Hall and Taylor they would return to performing if they could.
Perhaps both perspectives are true. Earning a living in a community of folks who accept you is surely a good thing…but that may not mean that the community—itself isolated and rootless—is ideal. (Which all brings to mind a very good “X-Files” episode—“Humbug” [Season 2, episode 20], as well as Katherine Dunn’s 1989 novel Geek Love.)
Above, the twins in Freaks
Leslie Zemeckis, who also directed the doc “Behind the Burly Q” (2010), has said in interviews that the early 20th-century public’s fascination with freaks is akin to the public’s current enthrallment with television reality shows. This is an analogy I don’t understand, though I should admit here that I don’t watch any reality shows. I used to watch “Project Runway,” but eventually I couldn’t watch it, either.
The “stars” of reality shows are, by and large, talentless, infuriatingly entitled, and often stupid—or, at least, edited to appear so. The Hilton twins, by contrast, were multi-talented, having been forced to learn various instruments, dancing and so on. They were also special, whether one thinks of this as an insult or a compliment. There is nothing special about the people on reality shows. They are popular precisely because their audience believes they’re average people, or would be average if they weren’t drowning in money. They are famous simply because someone put them on television. They are not gifted, they are not unusual, and their life experience has not afforded them a particularly unique perspective.
Whatever else one might say of people who used to be called freaks, it was precisely their difference that made them special.