Glen or Glenda (1953)

Own it!

review by Scott Hamilton and Chris Holland
See also:


Heavenly Creatures


Glen or Glenda

Lava Lamp

Our rating: one LAVA® motion lamp.

If only they had coordinated outfits
before the party, the whole ugly
scene could have been avoided.
Anyone who has watched Tim Burton's biopic of Ed Wood in tandem with any of Wood's actual work will probably notice the complimentary (if tongue-in-cheek) filter through which Burton shows us the notorious b-movie director. It may be that Burton hopes to help us see Wood as Wood saw himself – a joyous filmmaker with the ability to turn a few friends in costume and some stock footage into a serviceable movie with breakneck speed. Take, for instance, Burton's portrayal of the climactic scene in Glen or Glenda. The young transvestite's bride-to-be signals her willingness to help her future husband work through his problems by removing her angora sweater and handing it, lovingly, to her man.

From Burton's film, one gets the sense that this is Glen or Glenda's final shot. If only it had been! That would have meant that Ed Wood possessed a coherent sense of drama. Instead, this moment comes twenty minutes ahead of schedule, and is followed by an entire story about a transsexual who served in World War II, presumably wearing a brassiere the entire time.

"Ahh... my latest invention!
I shall call it 'Nads!' "

Another blow to the film's dramatic structure is the fact that Glen or Glenda has more framing sequences than an arts and crafts store. The most infamous of these features Bela Lugosi as the "Scientist." Lugosi sits in a crowded study, fiddling with random props, occasionally talking while random stock footage runs under him in a double exposure, but most often delivering non-sequitur dialogue like "No one can really tell the story. Mistakes are made. But there is no mistaking the thoughts in a man's mind. The story is begun." One might suspect he was reading the dialogue from a badly translated foreign film, but truth is more likely that Wood actually wrote it that way – or Lugosi was allowed to ad lib wildly on a theme.

Most of the scenes are also introduced as stories told by a police inspector (Inspector Warren, played by Lyle Talbot) and a psychiatrist (Dr. Alton, played by Timothy Farrell) in the therapist's office. One wonders where Alton got his degree because he keeps fudging the line between transsexuals (people who feel trapped in the body of the improper gender) and transvestites (people who are compelled to wear the clothes of the opposite sex). The reason for this is that writer/director/star Wood was supposed to be making a film about transsexuals to capitalize on the sex change of George/Christine Jorgensen, which was making headlines at the time. But Wood himself was a transvestite, and that's the story he really wanted to tell. So both concepts were plopped into the Ed Wood machine and what came out is an amalgamated slurry of sexual confusion.

"I believe the word you're
looking for is 'annulment.' "

The angora-covered heart of the movie lies in the scenes where Ed himself plays Glen, the perfectly normal guy with a hot fiancée and a tendency to don leather pumps. The movie actually makes an impassioned plea for understanding and sympathy towards transvestites, a plea that would be quite laudable if it weren't for the ridiculous presentation. First of all, in a wonder example of psychological projection, Ed Wood would have us believe that hundreds of thousands of men in America are transvestites. (Given that it is extremely difficult to find statistics on transsexuals or transvestites even today, one wonders where Wood got his numbers.) Later, the film makes the incredible argument that comfort is the main reason men would want to wear women's clothes. Yes, bras and heels just scream comfort!

Wood also links the tight hats of the day to male pattern baldness, ponders the modern society's reversal of primitive decoration instincts, and makes his characters natter on about the psychology of transsexuals and transvestites. This is done in an educational, almost documentary style, with a deep-voiced narrator giving voice to Wood's internal monologue.

"Female has the fluff and the finery, as specified by those who design and sell. Little Miss Female, you should feel quite proud of the situation. You of course realize it's predominantly men who design your clothes, your jewelry, your makeup, your hair styling, your perfume. But life, even though its changes are slow, moves on."

We're not quite sure what it means either, but it must have made sense to Ed Wood.

"Show us your spooky face, Ed!"

The film rolls along through Glen's life, showcasing his relationship with Barbara and his life as a transvestite. Lugosi makes occasional interjections ("Pull the string! Pull the string!"), but for the most part it's just scene after scene of Glen fondling women's clothing and talking with his transvestite buddy about his problems. Finally, before we all die of boredom, something happens.

On the verge of making the decision to reveal his secret to Barbara, Glen falls into a waking nightmare inhabited by disapproving onlookers, Barbara, Glenda, Satan (!), Bela Lugosi, and a bevy of bondage strippers. (Legend has it that these last were added by producer George Weiss, who was chagrinned to discover that Wood had shanghaied the dramatization of the Christine Jorgensen story into an onscreen exploration of his own psyche.) Glenda faces off with Barbara in an impromptu wrestling match, Satan plays the proud best man at Glen and Barbara's wedding, and legions of extras point and laugh at Glen, who is given the "look, I'm lit from beneath so I must be evil" treatment. Interspersed with these scenes are close-ups of Lugosi (who raves on about green dragons and puppy dog tails) and, uh, "dance" numbers by the ladies of S&M burlesque.

Once our journey through Ed Wood's subconscious is done, it's time to take a trip into his collection of stock footage. Almost as an afterthought, Wood gives us the thinly disguised story of Jorgensen. Alan/Anne ("Tommy" Haynes) is presented as a pseudohermaphrodite, "one who has one perfectly formed organ of either sex, and one imperfectly formed one that's difficult to detect." Alan lives a life of furtive transvestism, even managing to keep his secret throughout his military career during World War II. (The stock footage, some of it seen again in Plan Nine from Outer Space, figures prominently here.) After he returns the war, Alan undergoes the necessary surgery – on screen, although hardly graphically – to shed his life as a man and becomes the woman he always knew he could be. Happiness has its price, however: "Even then when the operation is over, the sex change, the [hormone] shots must continue as long as Alan lives."

"Wow, look at that Dennis Rodman...
What a freak!"

We return briefly to Glen and Barbara, who have triumphed over Glen's feelings of sexual inadequacy and transferred his identification with the female sex to Barbara. "Glen has found his mother, his little sister, his wife, and his Glenda all in one lovely package. Thus Glen's case has a happy conclusion."

For a director's debut feature film (Wood's only previous work was a twenty-minute short called "The Sun Was Setting"), Glen or Glenda at least has the distinction of being unusual for its type. Although headline-exploitation films were a dime a dozen, few of them went after their subjects with quite as much gusto, or went as horribly wrong. Mostly they were borderline titillation, films made with as low a budget as possible to play beneath the conversations of teenagers spending their weekends at the drive-in theaters, or between burlesque shows. Glen or Glenda is the kind of movie it is difficult to ignore in any situation. If the protagonist's constant appearance in a blonde wig didn't grab your attention, then the chaotic nightmare sequence will be sure to make you sit up and take notice.

We thought only Pia Zadora
had scenes like this.

Ed Wood historians agree that Bela Lugosi, horror star of the '30s and '40s, was reluctant to appear in Glen or Glenda, as it would certainly signal the very end of his legitmate career. By this time, however, Lugosi was broke, thoroughly washed up, and addicted to morphine, so he took the job. He does look as though he is enjoying himself greatly, mixing up stage chemicals and barking his strange lines with authority. At the very least, we can credit Wood with knowing how to use his big-name actor to the best effect. You just know something important and sinister is going on when Bela Lugosi presides over a scene.

Unfortunately (at least for Wood and the film's financiers), Lugosi's presence was no guarantee that Glen or Glenda would make money. Wood never made another film for George Weiss again, and the film itself did very little business until the '80s, when it became a modest college and arthouse theater hit. Wood and Lugosi were both dead before this work would be (ahem) appreciated, but at least financial success did eventually become real for this oddity from the '50s.

Glen or Glenda is undoubtedly Ed Wood's most personal film. Does that make it his worst? The more popular Plan 9 From Outer Space probably has that one wrapped up, at least in terms of sheer frustrated ambition. But Glen or Glenda does give us a peek into the mind of the artist as a young man . . . dressed as a young woman.

Review date: 07/31/2002

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