Thursday, October 05, 2006
Books: A two-for-one deal.
Though the famed conjoined twins, Daisy and Violet Hilton, only appear in Todd Browning's Freaks for about five minutes, they have one of the most memorable scenes. Violet (if you were facing the twins, Violet would have been on your left) is being romanced by the circus owner. Unfortunately, the footage that informed viewers that he's the circus owner was cut from the film. Consequently, his character just appears ex nihilo, giving the impression that he's some sort of fly-by-night lothario aiming to get something he can only chase when the circus is in town. As Violet and the owner pitch the woo, Daisy, whose character is married to a stuttering carnie who fights incessantly with her twin sister, ignores the couple and reads a book. Eventually, the owner moves in for a kiss and he and Violet commence to smootchin'. Daisy, without looking at her sister, suddenly looks up from her book and sits up straight. Then she closes her eyes and arches her back slightly. It is an uncanny but unmistakable image of carnal pleasure.
In a movie full of surreal, unusual, and often brutal imagery, that scene has always stuck out for me. Partially this is because the scene is one of the best moments of acting in a film filled with second-rate and non-professional film actors. Another reason it sticks out is that it is a typical auteur moment for Browning. The director liked to insert brief, evocative moments in his films where, for only a few seconds, the film completely focuses on a side character. Think of that strange hanging moment when Dwight Frye, as Renfield, crawls towards the fainted nurse in Dracula. That moment, a throwaway scene that is never even resolved, is one of the most frightening parts of that film. Finally, however, the main reason the scene sticks out in my mind is that the twins were one of the few "freak" performers who genuinely lit up the screen. Many of the freakish performers existed entirely as the embodiment of their freakishness. For example, Prince Randian, the armless and legless "Living Torso," is really a non-character. He exists in the film only to shock you with what he is. Randian is amazing, but the connection is shallow, immediate, and passing. It is this reductive gaze that critics of the film pick up on. There is something to the claim the film traffics in voyeuristic cruelty. However, the warm life the twins bring to the film shows the movie's approach to its title characters is more complicated than critics would suggest. The twins come off as stars. The film attempts to embrace their full and complex humanity. Unlike the Living Torso, we can imagine that they have lives, loves, and existence independent of the short scenes that grace.
Thanks to journalist Dean Jensen, we don't have to imagine their lives any longer. Jensen's Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet Hilton: A True Story of Conjoined Twins is the first full-length biography of these two unusual stars.
Named after a highly fictionalized memoir the twins produced late in their lives, Jensen's story begins with their birth in Brighton, England. The off-spring of a single woman and a married man, the twins were left in the care of a barkeep and midwife who immediately began to display them to bar patrons. After tours in England and Australia, the twins came to America and made it big on the vaudeville circuit. Mercifully for the twins, they were produced as a genuine "act." The sisters were trained to dance, act, and play instruments. Though it was impossible to completely shake off the uncanny impact Daisy and Violet had on viewers, the fact that they were performing artists of no small talent helped elevate their act above the sideshow and make them respectable names on the vaudeville stage. As to twins rose in popularity, their "adoptive caretaker" sold them to a couple how kept the twins as virtual slaves. Fearing that unscheduled public appearances would diminish the twins' draw, they were confined to circus train cars or the vast estate their owners built out of the twins' earnings. All external communications were closely watched. Daisy and Violet were held as prisoners. Ultimately, their owners made a mistake and allowed the twins access to a lawyer. In a celebrated court case that grabbed national headlines, Daisy and Violet were emancipated.
Unfortunately, in many ways, their best years as a box office draw were behind them. Though they still toured and performed, the death of vaudeville and the increasing public distaste of "freak" acts took a heavy toll on the twins' popularity. They appeared in Freaks only to have that film become a legendary bomb. While Daisy and Violet actually agreed with many of the film's critics, the backlash against the film was an indication that their time as performers was passing. They went from lavish vaudeville settings to county fairs. From county fairs to drive-in movie theaters. What little of their fortune was left was blown on producing the truly horrible Chained for Life, a curious z-grade flick that Daisy and Violet delusionally believed would revive their careers. Finally, having squandered their hard-earned fortune and being unable to land gigs, they took a job in a grocery store. They couldn't even keep that gig: the often ill-tempered Violet insulted a customer and they were canned. A local church offered them rent-free housing, and it is in that house that the sisters died. Daisy went first. They think Violet might have held on for a couple of days, refusing to get help, determined to die still connected to her sister.
Jensen's book is a solid, well-researched work. The style is clean and lively in parts, but it never rises to the level of something you'd read for its own sake. Daisy and Violet are the draw here and it is the sheer tragic and frustrating oddity of their story that makes the book compelling. A good read for those interested in the twins, the vaudeville era, or in that strange jewel in the Universal monster-flick crown: Browning's Freaks.
Jensen's book is published by Ten Speed Press and is scheduled for release in November.