The conjoined twins who were more famous than movie stars in the 1920sS

At a strange time in history when freak shows, vaudeville, and the nascent movie industry intertwined, a celebrity phenomenon gripped the world. A pair of gorgeous, young conjoined twins called The Hilton Sisters became the hit of vaudville with their musical act. They hobnobbed with Harry Houdini, Charlie Chaplin, and movie stars. And after they sued their manager/stepfather for emancipation, they riveted the tabloids with their drinking and partying, and their weird star turn in the movie Freaks. Their nearly-forgotten story — complete with bizarre sham marriages and media scandals of epic proportions — is brought to life in a fascinating new documentary called Bound by Flesh.

Directed by Leslie Zemeckis, Bound by Flesh is a documentary offers an incredibly sympathetic portrait of Daisy and Violet Hilton, while also paying homage to the sensationalistic way they marketed themselves. Zemeckis came across the women's story while researching a documentary on burlesque performers. The twins had turned to stripping when their vaudeville days were over, but as Zemeckis discovered, they were in many ways the 1920s version of the Olsen twins.

The conjoined twins who were more famous than movie stars in the 1920sS

Like the Olsens, the Hilton sisters began their careers as babies. In 1908, their unmarried mother sold them at birth to a local tavern owner in Brighton, England, who put them on display and sold postcards with their picture to curious gawkers. At that time, conjoined twins rarely survived childhood, and it's almost certain that their mother assumed they would die as infants after she sold them. But the girls — who shared no organs, and were joined only by a flexible mass of tissue and muscle that connected their circulatory systems — grew up healthy. Their "stepmother" made them practice singing and musical instruments, dressing them up in giant bows and lacy dresses so that they could perform in the "freak" sideshows at fairs.

This was the era right before movies went mainstream, and fairs were all the rage as popular entertainment. Sideshows with freaks were often the biggest draw, and the freak world had never seen anything quite as arrestingly adorable as the Hiltons. Given that most freaks simply sat while paying visitors admired them, the Hiltons were taking sideshows to another level. They actually entertained visitors with patter and giggles and cute little routines.

The conjoined twins who were more famous than movie stars in the 1920sS

Eventually, the girls' stepsister took them on a tour of Australia, where she married a man who became their new "stepfather" and manager. When their stepmother died in England, she actually left the girls to their manager in her will. Once he'd secured ownership of them, their manager set out to build up their career in America. He was a savvy businessman, and managed to take them from the freakshows to vaudeville, where they eventually made thousands of dollars a week (a hefty sum in those days). When their friend Houdini discovered that the now-adult girls had no money of their own, while their stepfather and sister lived in a luxurious mansion, he advised them to get a lawyer.

What followed was one of the most sensational tabloid stories of the 20s, where the Hilton sisters sued their manager for independence. During the course of the trial, they revealed years of abuse and confinement — as well as profound naivete. They had never managed money, nor their careers. And when they were given the chance to do both, all they wanted to do was party. Imagine the headlines if the Olsen twins were not only carousing all night with men, but they were also conjoined twins. People could not get enough of speculating about what it would be like to bed these gorgeous, unusual young women.

But unfortunately, like many young starlets, the Hiltons lost their lustre. Though their charm had brought them from freak shows to vaudeville, it just didn't translate into Hollywood fame. They starred in the universally-panned (but now cult classic) movie Freaks, but their movie careers stalled out after that. They tried to go back to doing sideshows, but fairs were dying out — just like vaudeville. And so began the women's slow decline into obscurity, punctuated by weird publicity stunts. One of the sisters fell in love and wanted to get married, but a judge refused to allow it based on the idea that it was bigamy. The press followed them from town to town as they tried to get married and were refused again and again until finally the young man gave up.

It seems that later, when the Hiltons' careers were fading, their managers wanted to recreate that scandal again. Twice, their managers arranged for the sisters to "get married" (both times to gay performers) in public, just to get some press. The sisters also did a semi-autobiographical movie in the 1950s called Chained for Life, which basically sank without a trace.

And then they had nothing left. They were abandoned by their manager in a tiny midwestern town in the early 1960s, and luckily the locals took pity on them and gave them a place to live on church property. From all accounts in Zemeckis' film, it sounds like the last few years of the women's lives were actually among their best. They got a job at a local grocery store, made friends, and had a nice home. Nobody was trying to exploit them for their freakery — though nobody wanted to make them famous, either.

What makes Zemeckis' film more than just a sad story of two exploited women is that it also shows us how the Hilton sisters fit into a unique moment in American media history. These women were basically like the YouTube stars of the 1920s, famous in a medium that attracted millions, but didn't translate into other media very successfully. Their fame was dependent on the structure and allure of vaudeville and fairs, and they simply couldn't exist in a world ruled by Hollywood — and, later, television.

The other aspect of Bound by Flesh that works so well is its compassionate portrait of two women who were, briefly, famous for their beauty despite their unconventional bodies. Certainly they were exploited, but once they controlled their own destinies, they continued to seek fame not in spite of who they were, but because of it. Even when medical technology emerged that could have successfully separated them, they refused to do it. Being conjoined was who they were, and they weren't ashamed of it.

Bound by Flesh is currently playing at film festivals. Find out more on the film's official website.