Favorite movies don’t always overlap with the canon of great movies. Sometimes they’re not even good. I wouldn’t call this selection a “guilty pleasure,” really; instead, it’s a movie made with so little talent and so much enthusiasm that I can spend hours pondering its mysteries. It’s Glen or Glenda (1953), the first feature film directed the infamous Edward D. Wood, Jr. I don’t remember when I first learned of this film. It’s hidden deep within the recesses of my childhood.
Coming from a family of devoted B movie fans, Ed Wood was of course in our pantheon along with Roger Corman, William Castle, and Inoshiro Honda of Godzilla fame. I saw Plan 9 at any early age (and many, many times since), as well as Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. (I think my father was disconcerted by how many times Martin Landau says “fuck.”) And somewhere along the line, I learned that Wood, the reputed “worst director of all time,” had made a movie about crossdressers. Some years ago, I turned up a DVD copy at the public library; my initial response was a mix of amazement, shock, and some third adjective involving surprise at the film’s low quality. Plenty more viewings would follow.
Glen or Glenda is a curious animal. On the one hand, it follows in the long tradition of classical exploitation filmmaking: movies made starting after WWI that pretend to educate while attempting to titillate. Glenda producer George Weiss had already attached his name to such movies as Test Tube Babies and Racket Girls, the latter of which has been in MST3K, and is probably the least sexy movie about female wrestling. Glen or Glenda was intended follow in this long-standing mold by ostensibly telling the public about sex-change operations while actually providing a teasing glimpse of taboo sexuality. All the trappings are visible, but with Wood at the helm, the film took off in several very strange directions at once.
Initially, Glen or Glenda looks like your usual exploitation movie. It has a topic, its selling point, and it’s even got what Eric Schaefer (writing in Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!: A History of Exploitation Films) calls the “square up”: the title card at the beginning justifying its existence, and warning that “this is a picture of stark realism”—generally code for “There might be some stock footage of a woman giving birth that shows her vagina.” However, for reasons unknown to anyone, the film then jumps to an aged, morphine-addicted Bela Lugosi sitting in a room full of skeletons and holding a book. His incomprehensible, long-winded monologue, all delivered in Lugosi’s inimitable Hungarian drawl, sets up the unpredictable, inexplicable structure of what is to come.
As Lugosi’s monologue demonstrates, it’s largely Wood’s script which keeps this from being just another bad exploitation movie. His dialogue is often redundant, usually stilted, and never good, yet grows increasingly strange, as if Wood had been drifting in and out of touch with reality (and the art of writing) while creating it. Similarly, the narrative as a whole makes stabs at being conventional, but consistently misses its mark, as if Wood’s internal compass were driving him toward the avant-garde.
Sure, a story starts up: a transvestite named Patrick commits suicide, a dim-witted police inspector goes to talk with a psychiatrist, and the psychiatrist launches into the usual “Let me tell you a story…” spiel that frames many exploitation films, Reefer Madness being a well-known example. But no sooner does he attempt to narrate the life of Glen/Glenda than Bela interrupts, signaled (as always) by a flash of stock footage lightning, and begins commenting on the psychiatrist in the vaguest terms possible: “There is no mistaking the thoughts in man’s mind… the story is begun…”
Lugosi’s presence is one of the film’s true mysteries. The obvious answer is that Wood was friends with Lugosi, and wanted to give the ailing veteran some work. Furthermore, Lugosi’s (somewhat faded) star power could potentially lend the movie some slight mainstream credibility; hell, he gets top billing. Even so, why locate him so undecipherably within the movie, intruding on the actual narrative, and generally making the entire film inaccessible to ordinary moviegoers? Both his dialogue and milieu feel drawn from another, even weirder movie, perhaps some uneasy mesh of fatalism, mysticism, and mad science.
Even without Lugosi, Glen or Glenda would be an outlier among exploitation films. Not only does it deviate heavily from its intended sex-change subject matter, but at times it feels uncertain what its subject matter is. Transvestites, or modern man’s inability to overcome destiny (albeit phrased much less coherently)? While most exploitation films let their morality tale plots flow unhindered, the psychiatrist frequently stops his own story to meditate on sexuality and tolerance. At one point, Glen visits his friend Johnny for advice, and Johnny tells his story, within a story, within a story.
All of this is exacerbated by the production values, which are even lower than those in Bride of the Monster and Plan 9. During the psychiatrist’s digressions, the film resorts to merely suggesting the existence of a set: a sign reading “BUS STOP” indicates a bus stop, and a water cooler evokes an office. Wood’s extreme dependence on stock footage also has its consequences: many scenes are reduced to voiceovers underscored by the same few seconds of cars on a freeway, or people on a busy sidewalk, and over a minute and a half of the Alan/Anne story consists of WWII battle footage (this, in a film that’s barely an hour long). Other uses are total non sequiturs, most infamously the buffalo herd stampeding while Lugosi chants, “Pull the string!”
Granted, pointing out badness in an Ed Wood movie may be like shooting poorly executed scenes in a barrel, but I think these examples help show why this movie is worth all the attention I give it. Many of these creative choices weren’t just bad, but unnecessary, and not really justifiable. I’d say this willingness to do the wrong thing, even if the only effect is undercutting traditional narrative cinema, sets Wood apart from the bulk of exploitation craftsmen, who were content merely to film their hackneyed story and maybe inject it with a few minutes of burlesque shows.
Glen or Glenda does have the requisite burlesque padding—inserted, may I add, right in the middle of the movie, with no narrative context whatsoever—but it has so much more going on that the drawn-out stripteases and softcore bondage porn feel like an interruption from the normal outside world of ’50s sleaze, in opposition to the ascended gibberish Wood’s been serving up. This padding is also sandwiched inside Glen/Glenda’s nightmare, the point in the movie where the main narrative (the psychiatrist’s story) intersects with the oneiric horror movie atmosphere of the Lugosi interludes.
This is a movie that takes its subconscious’s noctural soliloquies and puts them on the surface for the audience for the audience to puzzle over. During the nightmare sequence, both the visuals and the sinister, cackling dialogue become completely opaque, and you wonder, if this was transcribed and psychoanalyzed, would some new truth about gender identity be revealed? Or is there no meaning, just intimations toward one? Also, is that guy the devil?
It really is a movie brimming with mysteries, possibly wrapped in additional riddles and enigmas. Its incessantly tangential structure doesn’t help, as the movie repeatedly doubles back on itself, leading the viewer down stories and lines of argument that look eerily familiar. A few salient points can be gleaned from these many approaches, however, and the clearest of these is a plea for tolerance. Ultimately, this is a movie rooted in autobiography and personal interest—Wood’s own transvestism. And it’s remarkably progressive, in its own surreal way, asking (sometimes) for an acceptance of all gender and sexual identities.
Admittedly, the film does make more than a few self-contradictory statements and engages in some obviously false reasoning, but what emerges from the majority of the viewpoints presented is an internal consensus: if a man feels more comfortable in woman’s clothes (or a woman’s body) then those options should be available to him. (Unsurprisingly, female transvestites and transsexuals aren’t even considered.) The film’s one mention of homosexuals comes when the psychiatrist specifies that Glen is not one, but it’s not a condemnation by any means, itself a minor triumph for an era when the word “homosexual” was verboten in mainstream cinema.
Of course, Glen or Glenda doesn’t even come close to being a systematic or intelligible defense of transvestism, but that’s hardly its purpose. Instead, I see it as Ed Wood personally expressing, under the only circumstances he could, his feelings about crossdressing and gender identity. And amid a flurry of hysterical expressionism, he manages to say that people should accept ideas even if they seem strange at first. If Ed Wood had had a shred of talent or artistry, he might’ve been Jack Smith or Kenneth Anger. But he didn’t, thank God, and thus he was Ed Wood. With its indecisively multifaceted narrative, its manic mix of genres and messages, and its wildly idiosyncratic take on human sexuality, Glen or Glenda is one of my favorite movies.