Glen or Glenda (1953)

“Beware of the big green dragon that sits on your doorstep. He eats little boys…puppy dog tails and big, fat snails. Beware…beware!”

Directed by: Edward D. Wood, Jr.

Starring: Bela Lugosi, Edward D. Wood, Jr. (Credited as “Daniel Davis”), Dolores Fuller, Timothy Farrell

In a Nutshell:

Glen or Glenda is Ed Wood’s remarkably impassioned directorial debut and the first of the alt-auteur’s collaborations with on-the-skids horror icon Bela Lugosi. As a transvestite himself, Wood’s film was a semi-autobiographical plea for tolerance and understanding for other cross-dressers who feared stigma, alienation and the long arm of the law.

As with Plan 9 From Outer Space, Wood’s enthusiastic attempts to explore the subject are offset by an ultra-low budget, stilted acting, stream-of-consciousness dialogue, and Bela Lugosi hamming it up while apparently ad-libbing on a horror movie set. For all its hokiness, it is still a radical piece of work about a subject that wouldn’t enter mainstream conversation for another few decades.

The Plot:

We open with a rather dapper-looking Bela Lugosi, playing some kind of non-specific narrator/creator/God-type character, pottering around a lab crowded with plastic skeletons and other Halloween-y type junk. For a few minutes he muses, almost unintelligibly, about the nature of man’s accomplishments. Then a baby cries and a siren wails… a life has just begun as another has ended…

Down on earth, we find out about the sad story of Patrick/Patricia, a tranvestite who has committed suicide after getting busted four times for wearing women’s clothes in public. The inspector in charge of the case wants to find out more about transvestitism and visits Dr. Alton (Farrell), who tells him the tale of Glen/Glenda (Wood)…

Glen is a smart young man about to get married to his fiancĂ©e Barbara (Fuller), but is tormented because although he has been cross-dressing since he was a kid, he has so far kept it hidden from her. He consults another transvestite buddy of his (according to Wood’s figures in the film, hundreds of thousands of American men at the time were secret cross-dressers). Can he carry on living a lie, and will Barbara accept him if he tells her his secret? And will he get his hands on that lovely Angora sweater he fetishizes so much?

Glen’s story is interspersed with Wood-the-writer/director’s scattershot musings on the subject. We take a brief trip to deepest darkest Africa to consider how tribesmen still dress up fancy to attract the opposite sex; how menswear is designed for work and therefore not comfortable for lounging around the house, and how tight hats cause baldness in 7 out of 10 men (again, the figures); two Ordinary Joe steelworkers talk about how society should be more lenient to transvestites.

Once Glen’s narrative concludes, we then get another brief tale, which feels as though it was added as an afterthought. This time we follow Alan/Anne, a decorated World War II veteran and pseudohermaphrodite who always kept a case of women’s clothes handy while fighting overseas, and now decides to undergo a sex change operation to become a lovely young lady.

Performances:

Being an Ed Wood joint, Glen or Glenda isn’t exactly an actor’s movie. If, like me, you are arriving at the film from Ed Wood via Plan 9 from Outer Space, it’s fun to see the man himself on-screen playing the title character. He’s charming enough but just as wooden as most of the other actors, apart from…

Bela Lugosi, who appears to be relishing the hell out of the role of the Scientist/Creator/God, is at least entertaining. There is something touchingly boyish about the way Lugosi tinkers around with his mad scientist props and gets his fangs into his nonsense monologues.

Musical Moments:

William Leva’s main theme is actually really lovely; tender, melodic and hopeful. Howard Shore paid beautiful tribute to it in his score for Ed Wood.

Sex/Violence:

Very little to see here, apart from some tawdry S&M and suggested rape scenes that looks like they were added after the fact to the film’s astonishing dream sequence. This may have been the work of producer George Weiss to punch up the titilating content for the exploitation crowd.

Verdict:

What is worse (and therefore, better) out of Plan 9 from Outer Space and Glen or Glenda? The jury is still out on that one, but it is safe to say they are both pretty bad. However, they have enough idiosyncratic touches to suggest that Wood was indeed a visionary filmmaker, albeit one hampered by budgetary limitations and his own lack of talent. Glen or Glenda, set in the real world and not relying on “special” effects, certainly isn’t as unintentionally hilarious as Wood’s sci-fi magnum opus, with most of its accidental comedy value coming from the overripe dialogue (“Or that which they wear on their nightly visit to Morpheus, God of sleep”).

Ultimately, Glen or Glenda is a rather admirable film considering the limitations Wood faced and the societal attitudes of the era. Firstly, for a debut movie made with no money, it is really quite ambitious, trying to tell two stories, skipping back and forth in time, introducing a God-like narrator, and busting out a show-stopping expressionistic dream sequence.

Secondly, to use his first film to talk about trans issues while there were still anti-crossdressing laws in the US was pretty ballsy. OK, so most of his arguments are pretty garbled, but his sincerity comes across loud and clear. I have to take my tight-fitting man’s hat off to Mr Wood Jr. for this one…

Rating: 5/8

Trailer:

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