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.


Anonymous said...

Whenever I think of conjoined twins (actually, I'm slyly trying to cover up my general ignorance... I usually say Siamese twins), I'm inevitably fascinated by how they must have to negotiate dealing with the other twin's suitor or spouse, as you talked about here.
That just seems so challenging, my mind boggles.
But then, it never occurred to me about death taking one of them before the other, and when you mentioned that about the Hiltons, I found that even more surreal and upsetting on a variety of levels.
The brief overview of their lives covered in the book was fascinating and depressing, and I can't quite articulate why it's depressing. Well, for obvious reasons, I guess, from the typical hideous treatment of people by other people, to contemplating more universal issues, spiritual issues, and wondering how this lone case fits into everything.
Man, what a freaking downer!
Thanks, jerk!

But seriously (sheesh, got carried away there, sorry!), FREAKS is one of those countless DVDs I own but haven't seen yet. Uh, DRACULA as well.
This post gives me some extra incentive to check those two out.
But, I also want to check out this book, too. Thanks for bringing it up.
I liked very much how you detailed the human moment depicted on screen with the Hiltons in FREAKS. It's cool to hear someone who obviously appreciates thoughtful direction and performances, which seems very old school (for lack of a better term) or even "un-Hollywood" (which I guess is me being cynical).

Hey, a tangential question: if this book's being released in November, how did you get your hands on it? Is this some perk of your work, he inquired nosily..?

CRwM said...

The Hilton sisters' story is a depressing one in many ways. Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the book is the way in which they were incapable of understanding their reduced circumstances. You want them to save some money and get a clue, but they never get out of their downward spiral. Even as their careers were fading away, they continued to live as if they were the stars of the vaudeville stage. Their frustrating behavior is understandable given that they were forbidden to handle their own affairs until their emancipation. By then they were adults and had no sense of how to manage things.

Their deaths are particularly sad. One of the Cheng and Eng brothers outlived his siblings by several hours. It's theorized, however, that Violet survived several days, carrying her dead sister around with her as she walked around the home. When they were found, Violet had curled them up next to a heating vent for warmth. Coroners noticed Daisy was in a more advanced state of decay than her sister.

On a lighter note, I cannot believe that you haven't seen Dracula! Man, my "I never drink . . . bootleg hooch" joke must have fallen completely flat. Dracula is a better flick than Freaks, but it is hard to underestimate how powerfully weird seeing genuine Siamese twins and half-boys and the like is. A truly amazing and unique film. But then I really dig on that old Universal stuff.

I got a galley copy of the book from my fiancé, who works at a bookstore in SoHo. Working at a bookstore and being a professional book reviewer and lit-blogger of note (see, my soon-to-be better half gets free books by the boat load.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I got the quote... it took me a little bit. "Why does that look familiar..?" And then i realized what you were referencing, and I sort of imagined Bela Lugosi saying the line in my head, Windy City style.
"Ah!... The children of the night... De bears!"
Yeah, I think I see far fewer films than people realize I do. I have an "ability" to gather enough
info through trailers or reviews or some atmospheric buzz (because, i actually avoid reviews of films that i'm interested in seeing because i'm loathe to know TOO much ahead of time (I don't trust critics' self-restraint with info), but that all seems like wishful thinking. I mean, I rarely go see films in theaters, let alone on DVD.
Weird. Stupid. Annoying.
Well, I probably saw more movies when I was younger, and that basic cinema foundation has been helping me fake my way through in any current film discussion.
But as a supposed cinephile, I suck!
Working for about 10 years off and on through the late 80s and early 90s at three different video stores probably helped my film knowledge, but even then, I found I could recommend films better by NOT having seen them. Which sounds stupid, but I used to get a general buzz or feeling about a film that I could generally point people towards certain films, but when I saw the films myself, my uh, (what?) personal ways of processing a film seemed to color it enough that I never trusted my PERSONAL recommendations. I don't know if that's an accurate assessment or just insecurity.
Ah, well! La de da, la de da..!

Oooh, your fiance is a bookseller--my wife would be so drooling now!(at this point, I casually insert info into conversation that my wife has a PhD in English to impress blogger and also inflate my reputation purely by association...)

My sweetheart has a livejournal site that's been entirely corrupted by her obsession with Stargate Atlantis and Harry Potter fan fiction.
("In my craft or sullen art. . .":

An aspiring writer, HP fanfiction actually got my poopsie-pie to write the first draft of a novel that needs some major rewriting (it's like way over a 100,000 words I think). Well, that and the annual NaNoWriMo thing online.
But, enough about my intelligent spouse, dammit...

Yeah, I'd occasionally get some video screeners working the video store thing.
That's great!

Oh man, bla bla bla...
I seem to have camped out permanently on this particular comment. I'm going!