Thursday, September 3, 2009

Chained for Life (Raymond Spera Productions, 1951)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched a really peculiar movie I’d just downloaded from Chained for Life, a 1951 movie featuring real-life conjoined (“Siamese”) twins Violet and Daisy Hilton as thinly fictionalized versions of their real selves, “Vivian and Dorothy Hamilton.” Produced by Raymond Spera and George Moskov, directed by Harry L. Fraser and written by Ross Frisco, Nat Tanchuck and Albert DePina, Chained for Life is a combination courtroom melodrama and vaudeville story (which in itself quite dates this film; between the archaic camera technique, the crappy sound and the overall stiffness, this looks more like an early-1930’s movie than anything from 1951, especially since all of it takes place either in a courtroom or a theatre and therefore we never see any cars) framed in a courtroom in which Vivian is on trial for murdering Dorothy’s husband. Most of the film is presented in flashbacks narrated by the various witnesses at the trial, all of whom were involved in one way or another in the Hamiltons’ vaudeville career.

They were headlining a bill at the Bijou Theatre (singing vocal duets which sound pretty much like what the Andrews Sisters would have if there’d been only two of them and they’d been conjoined) which also featured marksman Andre Pariseau (Mario Laval, who got an “introducing” credit; I joked that he certainly didn’t have the voice of Mario Lanza but his character had all the moral creepiness of Pierre Laval) and his sidekick Renée (Patricia Wright, a tall, rail-thin actress who makes a fascinatingly androgynous Dietrich-esque impression in top hat and tails, her costume in the act) and several other (real) variety performers, including juggler Whitey Roberts (as himself) and a quite good accordion player who played the William Tell overture and the Hungarian Rhapsody — though I wondered how the writers and director missed doing the obvious gimmick of having Andre shoot an apple off Renée’s head while the accordionist played William Tell.

The Hamiltons’ manager, Hinkley (Allen Jenkins at his most Allen Jenkinsish, and proving that he hadn’t lost a bit of his character-actor authority since his salad days at Warners in the 1930’s), concocts the idea of having one of the conjoined twins get engaged to be married — and he picks Andre as the one Dorothy is supposed to get married to. Vivian is convinced he’s a rotter, but Dorothy falls genuinely in love with him and believes he returns her affections. Vivian, it turns out, is right; Andre has gone along with the “marriage” gag only for the extra $150 per week in pay Hinkley has promised him — he’s really in love with Renée — and though they’re actually married on the stage of the theatre (to a sold-out audience), that night Andre refuses to go through with the wedding night, and his desertion of Dorothy makes headlines in the carefully unnamed city in which all of this is taking place. Vivian, who never liked Andre in the first place, concocts a way of getting revenge by taking up one of Andre’s guns and, in the middle of his act, shooting him.

Eventually, she’s arrested and put on trial, and the dilemma becomes how to punish her for having committed murder without also punishing the innocent Dorothy. Judge Mitchell (Norvel Mitchell), who’s trying the case without a jury (and who opens and closes the film with a Crime Does Not Pay-style on-screen narration), resolves this dilemma by finding Vivian innocent (Charles suggested he could have found her guilty but suspended her sentence), then puts it in our laps as the audience, asks us how we would have found if there’d been a jury and we’d been on it, and returns to a theme he expressed in his opening narration to the effect that if we thought we had problems, just consider what the Hamiltons went through!

Though the central plot premise ensures that the film can’t be anything more than a rather kinky exploitation piece (the writers take care to point out to us that in 27 states it’s illegal for a conjoined twin to marry because it’s considered bigamy), and in some ways Dorothy Parker’s acid remark for one of a pair of conjoined twins in Hitchcock’s Saboteur (“You’ve got to do something about your insomnia! I’ve done nothing but twist and turn and lie awake all night!”) tells more about the dilemma of having to live this way than all 67 minutes of Chained for Life, the film is actually surprisingly sensitive and well done. The Hamiltons have nice if not especially compelling singing voices (they sing in close harmony the way the Duncan Sisters did in the 1920’s), the songs are surprisingly good (though in a late swing style that would have been considered dated in 1951, they could have been at least minor hits even without the gimmick of being introduced by conjoined twins), the story is presented as tastefully as it could be given its central premise, and director Fraser clearly knows what he’s doing.

The most compelling scene is the dream sequence in which Dorothy envisions herself separated from Vivian and dances with Andre in a sylvan glade — it’s quite obviously a studio “exterior” inside a soundstage, and the emancipated Vivian is of course a double, but Fraser keeps his camera far enough away from the double that her presence doesn’t “out” the movie, and the closeups (which really are of Dorothy — with trees and other bits of nature blocking out our view of Vivian from the image) are heart-rending and indicate that these women were not entirely without acting talent (as does the marvelous closeup of Vivian looking on with revulsion when she realizes her sister is actually in love with this creep who’s been paid to say he wants to marry her). One oddity of the movie is that Vivian and Dorothy don’t look that much alike — their faces are similar but Vivian is dark-haired and Dorothy is blonde, and aside from the ungainly way they walk as one it’s not all that clear just from watching the movie that they’re actually conjoined in real life and not a normal pair of sisters just faking being Siamese twins for a movie plot.

What’s most amazing about Chained for Life are the writers’ periodic pleas for understanding — the twins themselves give us quite a lot of dialogue about how they’ve adjusted to their condition over the years, but they also lament that in order to make this bizarre existence work for them they’ve had to forsake love, marriage and children. Indeed, in the age in which same-sex marriage is being so hotly debated, a lot of the dialogue for the twins comes off as quite analogous: members of an oppressed minority lamenting being told by the government and the church that love and marriage with the person of their choice is socially and legally beyond them. Chained for Life is really quite a movie, a good deal better than it had a right to be given that it’s fundamentally an exploitation film, and a rather nasty one at that — though it’s one of those movies that gains from the existence of the Production Code, because of which the filmmakers could only hint at the kinkiness instead of showing it full out the way it would be done today if anyone today were to attempt a film like this at all.