Bound by Flesh-Violet and Daisy Hilton
Photo Courtesy of Sundance Selects The Hilton Sisters visit the set of 'Fazil' in 1928 with leading man Charlie Farrell (left) and director Howard Hawks (right)

Anyone who’s interested in vaudeville, burlesque, sideshows, and the fringes of 20th century show business will know of The Hilton Sisters, Violet and Daisy. These attractive “Siamese twins” (as they were called in those days) were headliners on stage, appeared in Tod Browning’s movie Freaks in 1932 and starred in their own exploitation feature Chained for Life twenty years later. But while they’ve long been on my radar, I must confess that I knew virtually nothing about their lives.

Leslie Zemeckis, who explored the backstage world of burlesque in her last documentary, Behind the Burly Q, now offers a straightforward and thorough biography of Violet and Daisy. She has diligently tracked down a handful of people who, even at this late date, can speak about them first-hand, as well as experts who describe the often-seamy show-business world they inhabited.

It’s not a happy story. Born in England, the twins were abandoned by their mother; perhaps “sold off” is a more accurate term. Appealing and musically talented, they were exploited from the time they were children. Because they were naïve and shielded from the outside world for so long, they were ill-equipped to fend for themselves once they broke free from the guardians and managers who took advantage of them at the height of their fame.

With a wealth of vintage photos, newsreel footage, and readings from the sisters’ autobiography, Zemeckis manages to provide a surprisingly rounded picture of their challenging, often tumultuous lives. It’s comforting to know that in their final days they found good-hearted people who were kind and generous to them.

Bound by Flesh is valuable for what it tells us about the entertainment world, the vagaries of fame, and the way society deals with people who aren’t “normal.” I’m glad Zemeckis decided to make this film while there were still survivors and eyewitnesses to appear on camera. Violet and Daisy deserve no less.

The film opens Friday at the Arena Cinema in Hollywood and the IFC Center in New York City. It is also available on VOD.