The lives of last century’s most famous conjoined twins are recounted in Leslie Zemeckis’ entertaining documentary “Bound by Flesh.” A colorful if sad tale of low ebbs and high exploitation, this slightly campy yet respectful flashback feels a tad longer than it is, due to somewhat repetitious use of limited archival materials. But it’s an absorbing glimpse of a unique, largely forgotten showbiz chapter that spanned decades of great change in public tastes and popular media. Broadcasters should step right up, with editing for hourlong slots viable.
Violet and Daisy were born in 1908 Brighton, England, to an unmarried barmaid who viewed their uniting “ribbon of flesh” with horror as a punishment from God. She readily handed them over to her employer, uneducated pub owner and savvy entrepreneur Mary Hilton, who immediately began exhibiting them to the public — first in their crib at home, then in the tacky sideshow-style venues of their seaside resort town, then farther afield in music halls. Soon they were touring Europe and beyond. During one grueling jaunt across Australia, Mary’s daughter acquired a husband and the girls a new Svengali in a man named Myer Myers, who engineered their U.S. debut.
The petite, winsome twins, trained not just to show themselves as “freaks” but to sing and play instruments, fast became a sensation. They shared the stage with top national acts (at one point teaming with a young Bob Hope), at their height commanding up to $5,000 a week — very little of which they saw, since their minders controlled the purse-strings. Moreover, they were kept socially isolated and subjected to harsh physical discipline.
In a well-publicized 1931 trial, the twins at last won legal independence at age 22. They were not particularly well equipped to handle it, however, falling prey to bum business schemes and inept or predatory handlers time and time again. Meanwhile, vaudeville’s demise pushed them into the lowlier burlesque circuit alongside strippers.
Some jarringly out-of-period, generic soundtracked rock music aside, the packaging is apt, tricked out with silent-film intertitles plus occasional fake “wear” to suggest old film stock. The story is told mostly in the voices of various contempo interviewees, including pop historians and a few surviving acquaintances.
The tone occasionally verges on the too-cute, but the only real problem is that the archival materials are spread too thin. A rich array of resources are tapped to illustrate the Hiltons’ half-century era in general, but the limited range of footage specific to them (notably bigscreen appearances in Tod Browning’s 1932 “Freaks” and the quasi-autobiographical 1951 cheapie “Chained for Life”) means the same clips and photos get milked past their welcome.