Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Glen or Glenda (1953)

When discussing bad movies, it is impossible not to mention Edward D. Wood Jr. Played by Johnny Depp in Tim Burton's 1994 biopic Ed Wood, Depp portrays a man blinded by his own enthusiasm for the craft. He is so enthralled with the process of making movies, he ignores the clunky dialogue, wobbling sets, and egregious continuity mistakes.

In Glen or Glenda, Wood's feature directorial debut, the man's amateur approach to filmmaking shines through. However, the film is surprisingly ambitious, technically, narratively, and thematically. The core of Glen or Glenda tells the story of the cross-dressing Glen (or Glenda). Wood plays the role himself, inspired by his own transvestitism and fetish for angora sweaters.

Wood's career moved backwards with regards to skill and subject. Glen or Glenda is his passion project. It is essentially transvestite propaganda, exposing the trials, tribulations, and prejudices beset onto those who wish to dress like (or become) members of the opposite sex.

It is only after this project that he moved on to more trivial subjects. After Glen or Glenda, Wood transitions to campy science fiction (with Bride of the Monster and Plan 9 from Outer Space), follows up with pure exploitation (The Sinister Urge) and eventually finds himself directing horror porn (Necromania).

Even the first shot of Glen or Glenda maintains this reverse mentality. It begins with a close up of Bela Lugosi as the Scientist. The camera dollies backward in order to expose the unique attributes of the room, and only when the camera settles a good 20-30 feet away does Lugosi begin to speak.

A conventional (or better skilled) director would have done the exact opposite. But as evident in Glen or Glenda, Wood does not think comprehensively. The entire film is a muddled mess of converging and diverging narratives, numerous themes, contradicting arguments, and hyperactive focus.

The Scientist opens the film as the harbinger of a tale both unusual and macabre. Normal citizens would cower in terror at its mere mention. Once he gives his prophetic introduction, the film changes focus to a transvestite who commits suicide, unable to deal with the societal and legal persecution he has endured as a cross-dresser.

In an attempt to deal with this strange case, Inspector Warren (Lyle Talbot) seeks the advice of Dr. Alton (Timothy Farrell), an expert on transvestite and transgender people. Alton begins with a diatribe about the oppressiveness of society, ignorance of its citizens, and uncomfortable nature of men's clothing. It is less an attempt to explain transvestitism and more a promotional video for the cross-dressing lifestyle.

Once he's done browbeating society, he moves on to the actual story of Glen/Glenda, an otherwise normal man, engaged to be married, and besieged by the sinister urge to dress as a woman. He dotes on his fiancée, all the while wringing his hands and gulping loudly about when he's going to tell her about his hidden shame. He seeks the advice of fellow transvestite Johnny (Charles Crafts), which goes into another flashback about Johnny's marriage ruined by his cross-dressing ways.

Dr. Alton stops narrating for a while so that Glen may engage in a bizarre dream sequence with low-key lighting, howling wind, and the Devil. Lugosi also makes brief transitional appearances, with stock footage of lightning, roadways, and stampeding bison.

In the middle of the dream sequence, Wood slips in another dream sequence featuring Lugosi leering at the simulated rape of a restrained woman on a couch. The sequence is more a demonstration of the Kuleshov Effect than in relation to anything in the film. Wood admitted that he only included the scene to add "spice."

The film then goes back to the initial dream sequence. At its conclusion, Glen ultimately decides to tell his fiancée everything. She is confused, but ultimately understanding. It seems that Lugosi was a bit misleading in his introduction. Though this is a story of horrid, demonic possession of the human psyche, it is easily cleared up with open communication and professional help.

Glen's problems are resolved. Movie's over, right? Wrong. Dr. Alton follows up this story with the tale of Alan/Anne, a "pseudohermaphrite" who decides to change his sex. This afterthought is more focused than Glen's story, though Wood does include a solid three minutes of battle footage for no reason.

Glen or Glenda has its problems. There's no doubt about that. However, it is still an incredibly progressive film. It handles a taboo subject with openness and humor. Wood seems inspired by his personal experience, and the writing is much better than his later films. The scene with Glen and his cross-dressing friend is terribly shot (lingering on an open door for several seconds while the two have a conversation off-screen), but adequately written. And Wood is a surprisingly capable actor, able to express emotion and subtlety.

Glen's dream sequence is wonderfully inventive and surreal. David Lynch admits to using the wind sound effect extensively in Eraserhead. It's amazing how Leonard Maltin can decry Glen or Glenda as "possibly the worst movie ever made" while calling Eraserhead "surrealistic, bleak, and often unsettlingly hilarious."

If the film has a fatal flaw, it's its complete lack of focus. Lugosi serves as storyteller, while the psychologist narrates. Most of Glen or Glenda is an effort to pad the film to feature length. If Wood took some time to establish a consistent narrative and tone, this might be considered a groundbreaking film instead of camp classic.

What to drink:

The girliest cocktail at Chili's.

Quotable quotes:
Scientist: People. All going somevere. All vith their own thoughts... their own ideas. All vith their own... personalities. Ven he's wrong, because he does right. Ven he's right, because he does wrong. Pull the string!

Inspector Warren: I'd like to hear the story to the fullest.
Dr. Alton: Only the infinity of the depths of a man's mind can really tell the story.

Woman: If the Creator had meant us to be born girls, we certainly would have been born girls.
Dr. Alton: ARE WE SURE? Nature makes mistakes. It's proven every day.

Dr. Alton: And get the hat! Better still, get the receding hairline. Men's hats are so tight they cut off the blood flow to the head, thus cutting off the growth of hair. Seven out of ten men wear a hat, so the advertisements say. Seven out of ten men are bald.

Glen's Mother: Go ahead and wear your sister's dress, Glen. You always did look much better as a girl than you do as a man.

Johnny: Say, you really look down in the dumps.
Glen: I guess I've got a problem.
Johnny: Haven't we all?
Glen: I mean, a real problem, one I've never had to face before.
Johnny: Our whole existence is one big problem after another.
Glen: I want to get married.
Johnny: You have a problem!

Scientist: Bevare! Bevare! Bevare of ze long green dragon zat sits on your doorstep. He eats little boys. Puppy dog tails. Big fat snails! Bevare. Take care. Bevare!
Arbitrary ranking system:

A rainbow coalition of stars.


  1. Excellent write-up. I love GLEN OR GLENDA and find it just as surreal and inventive as ERASERHEAD. I think it's my favorite Wood movie.

    Thanks for submitting this as part of the blogathon.

  2. Thanks for the response. I know what you mean. The dream sequence in Glen or Glenda is masterfully done. There is a lot of experimentation in this movie, and some of it doesn't work but shockingly some of it does.

    I constantly vacillate as to whether Wood actually knew what he was doing or not. Really I think he did have some skill as a filmmaker, but a lack of patience and resources.