The major shortcoming of Tod Browning’s Freaks is that its commitment to the horror genre ultimately requires it to betray its empathy for its “circus freak” performers. The majority of Freaks plays like a hangout comedy that just happens to be set in a circus full of amputees, little people, microcephalics, etc., an intentional plea to the audience to find the common humanity in the “ABNORMAL” & “UNWANTED” societal castoffs that work the film’s traveling sideshow. All of this work is undone at the climax when the titular “freaks” wordlessly creep up on & mutilate the physically abled erotic dancer who wrongs them, essentially playing the part of a Universal Monsters-style creature. Largely missing from the violence of this conclusion are the famed conjoined twins The Hilton Sisters. Daisy and Violet Hilton largely manage to escape the more nastily exploitative aspects of Freaks, only enjoying the benefits of its more empathetic opening half, but they weren’t so lucky in real life. From birth, the sisters were exploited for entertainment on public display, often suffering the worst side of show business without ever fully reaping its benefits. The documentary Bound by Flesh attempts to give The Hilton Sisters their full due with posthumous praise for their successes in sideshows, vaudeville, and Freaks, but unfortunately also falls short in fully honoring the value of their entertainment industry legacy in the way they deserved.
Leslie Zemeckis, longtime romantic & creative partner with “Mr. CGI” himself, Robert Zemeckis, has been quietly toiling away as a documentarian in recent years. She’s been directing a series lowkey profiles on long-forgotten female entertainers like burlesque dancers, tiger trainers, and of course, in Bound by Flesh, The Hilton Sisters. Even where her still-developing sense of craft as a filmmaker fails the legacy of her subjects, Zemeckis’s intent in glorifying the conjoined twin vaudeville singers is an unquestionably admirable effort. Essentially sold at birth to a pub owner, the twins were raised from day one to serve as entertaining curiosities for strangers & drunks. As babies, they were displayed for barroom patrons to prod in wonder at the flesh that connected them; their earliest memories were of being curiously touched by strangers for amusement. Their career was built from there, without their consent, by shuffling them from traveling road shows to amusement parks to wax museums as life-long entertainers. By the time they appeared in musical vaudeville acts as young adults, they had no real talent or skill besides being able to sing, dance, and play the piano & saxophone. They had plenty of peak-years struggles with crooked managers, sham marriages and constant emotional abuse, but the toughest times in their life didn’t start until they drifted away from the spotlight entirely and were left unprepared to function as autonomous adults in the real world, much less pull themselves out of financial ruin. Zemeckis does an okay enough job balancing enthusiasm for their onstage accomplishments with honesty about the abusive exploitation that fueled them, but the story being told is consistently more fascinating than its method of delivery. Bound by Flesh is a mediocre film about an incredibly fascinating subject.
One thing Bound by Flesh benefits greatly from is how well the Hiltons’ lives were documented in the public eye. Combining photographs with reel footage of their two motion picture appearances, Freaks & the (very) loosely autobiographical Chained for Life, finds plenty of visual stimulation to accompany its talking head accounts of the history of their lives in carnivals & vaudeville. One of the better side effects of those interviews is in getting a general glimpse of what 1920s carnival sideshows & vaudeville-era exploitation entertainment was like, even including footage of ancient amusement park attractions & attendees. I also appreciated the way its general look is informed by vintage promotional material for sideshow attractions. Much less effective is the employment of former Zemeckis collaborators Lea Thompson & Nancy Allen to vocally dramatize accounts from The Hilton Sisters’ point of view, as filtered through an old-timey gramaphone effect. The movie also disappoints in its lack of interest in the behind the camera war stories from the twins’ two feature film appearances, what they’re currently best know for, and in its gradual decline in enthusiasm when discussing their most tragic, post-fame years (for obvious reasons), despite stretching out coverage of that period of their lives as much as better-documented eras. If you can excuse the lackluster execution in some of the technical details, however, Bound by Flesh is a welcome exalting of a pair of performers who spent their entire lives on the wrong end of exploitation entertainment. There might be a better movie to be made about their lives as empathy-worthy tragedy, like the way David Lynch lovingly profiled John Merrick in The Elephant Man. Either way, Zemeckis’s documentary is worthy enough for the way it draws attention to the often-dehumanized Hilton Sisters and the ugly industry that displayed them as oddities for profit and then dumped them into obscurity with no resources but the limited use of their vaudevillian talents.