Part of the Weird Cinema DVD Box Set.
My dad once told me that Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) scared the hell out of him as a kid. That statement could have sent me on a downward spiral into disillusion and shame. Luckily, we just laughed our asses off. Really? Plan 9? To his credit, he specifically referenced the scene in which Tor Johnson, complete with eerie white contact lenses, awkwardly emerges from his freshly buried grave. All right, I’ll admit it. This scene could freak some poor kid out, especially when he’s watching it on the late show, his face inches from a tube TV, feeling the warmth of the screen radiate onto his cheeks. Of course, my dad introduced me to the Universal Horror classics so he was well-versed in black and white monsters lurking in the shadows. He has not, however, had the pleasure (?) of seeing Edward D. Wood Jr.’s first feature film, but I can imagine he’d find it just as memorable, if not downright disturbing.
Plan 9 may be Wood’s calling card and arguably greatest film, but his most personal and important work is 1953’s Glen or Glenda. It’s an often baffling but never boring plea for understanding and tolerance. Made during an era of great prejudice and mistrust of anyone or anything different, the film is a jagged, near-experimental exploration of transvestitism masquerading under the guise of a sex-change exploitation film. Astonishingly progressive for its time, Glen or Glenda mixes elements of eroticism, horror, surrealism, docudrama, and educational films into a semi-coherent mess that works horribly as an exploitation cheapie but surprisingly well as an art film. Exploitation is meant to titillate, but save for some confused hard-on's, this film refuses to be pigeon-holed into such a category and likely bewildered anyone that crossed its path.
The bizarre history of both the film and the man who made it are inextricably linked and widely reported-on in documentaries and books as well as Tim Burton’s outstanding 1994 feature Ed Wood. Far be it for me to outline all of the weird behind-the-scenes goings on of Glen or Glenda, but it at least helps to understand who Edward D. Wood Jr. was to get an idea of why this picture turned out the way it did. This film has been overshadowed by its more popular (and more fun) cousins Plan 9 and Bride of the Monster (1955), but as a window into the psyche of its one-of-a-kind creator, it’s essential.
To quote Johnny Depp’s superb performance as Wood in Burton’s biopic, “I like to wear women’s clothes.” It’s fairly straightforward. Wood was a transvestite who felt most comfortable in women’s clothing, right down to the undergarments. He felt that this aspect of his personality and lifestyle made him the perfect candidate to direct a film meant to capitalize on the then-sensational story of the first widely publicized sex change. Producer George Weiss, so wonderfully played by Mike Starr in Ed Wood (I literally can’t think of Weiss looking any other way), offered Christine Jorgenson, née George Jorgenson, the chance to appear in the film and make a more straight-forward narrative. Luckily for bad movie lovers everywhere, Jorgenson declined and Wood entered the picture. It’s funny the way things work out. Can you imagine this film, with or without Wood’s involvement, being made during this time period? Like the far less entertaining Chained for Life (1952), in which filmmakers exploited the real-life conjoined twins The Hilton Sisters, the movie would likely have been a dry, toothless and tame affair, lacking in any flair or creativity. In Wood’s admittedly amateurish hands, it became something much, much deeper and much more bizarre. Thanks to Ed Wood (and technically The Golden Turkey Awards), a whole new generation was introduced to Glen or Glenda. Whether or not that generation is grateful for that fact depends on the viewer since Wood’s opus is unlike any other film ever made.
The personal and professional relationship between Wood and faded horror star Bela Lugosi allowed the filmmaker to add a small degree of respectability and name-recognition to his weird little films. No matter what, once you’re famous, you stay famous. Sure, younger generations may begin to forget, but as long as there’s a relative or a friend with a love of movies, it’s certain that Lugosi’s legacy will be passed on and he won’t be forgotten. His presence here, billed as ‘Scientist’ but clearly acting as a God-like figure, is a real head-scratcher. It’s obviously an economically clever move since his entire part was likely filmed in one day or even half-a-day of the four-day shoot. In the credits, his name is as large, if not a little bigger, than the title. He delivers a monologue which, with some heavy lifting, makes some sense. Then he is seen mixing potions in a laboratory, proclaiming, “A life has begun!”
Back in his study, I guess, which is festooned with weird artifacts on the shelves and a full skeleton hanging nearby, he stares off to one side of the screen for a while, then hears a baby cry. We immediately cut to a transvestite who has committed suicide, slightly indicating that with every birth comes another death. The police and press shove their way into a room, accompanied by famous cutaways to a radiator for seemingly no reason but likely because Wood had nothing else to cut to. Although it’s terrible, Wood at least understood the basics of filmmaking; that angle changes need to be covered. He’s reserving his jump cuts for the more magical bits of his story.
We move into a doctor’s office, which seems to be the standard in exploitation films as doctors were thought to know all back in the day. Doctor Alton, played by Timothy Farrell (frequent Wood player, future L.A. County Marshall and convicted felon), speaks with Inspector Warren, another Wood all-star, Lyle Talbot (who would go on to have a respectable career). Wood’s dialogue is practically elliptical. It has a quality all its own, where it doubles back on itself in a choppy fashion while delivering clunky exposition. It feels as if the actors are quoting a textbook and not speaking like real people. Talbot in particular is saddled with some immensely tricky dialogue like:
“From policeman to inspector, twenty years of it. I guess I've seen everything there is for a policeman to see. Yet I wonder if we ever stop learning, learning about which we see, trying to learn more about an ounce of prevention. I'm a man who thrives on learning. We only have one life to live. We throw that one away, what is there left? Doctor, I'm hoping to learn something from you. And with that knowledge, maybe save some human from a fate which I just witnessed a few days ago...a four-time loser. This type of case comes to me as well as yourself many times during the course of one month.”
“Isn't that what's thought of most policemen? The laws are written. The policeman is hired to see that those laws are enforced. We have a job to do. As in most jobs, there's always somebody who doesn't want that job to be done. In most factories today, the employer has put up suggestion boxes. Even the employer needs advice once in a while. I think in the case that we're referring to; I need advice. Maybe it shouldn't have happened as it did. But it did. Perhaps the next time, we can prevent it.”
I know these are long quotes to pull, but they're so confounding and require such mental gymnastics to unpack that I’m shocked Talbot didn’t topple over his seat or gnaw his cigar in two. Before we get into the meat of the picture, we’re treated to one of the film’s most famous exchanges.
Inspector Warren: I'd like to hear the story to the fullest.
Dr. Alton (in a dramatic close up and delivered straight to camera): Only the infinity of the depths of a man's mind can really tell the story.
Lightning strikes and we finally meet Glen, you know, like in the title? Glen, played by Wood but credited as Daniel Davis, is dressed in ladies’ attire and shuffles along a sidewalk somewhere in Los Angeles. In this guise, he is actually Glenda. Newspapers pop up with explosive print, including one clearly pasted on, reading ‘Man Nabbed as Girl.’ The film is practically an anthropological study of civilization and its advancements. The narration describes society’s initial reluctance to accept planes and automobiles and questions why the transvestite lifestyle is any different. The definition of transvestitism is made clear more than once throughout the film, as well as the difference between being a transvestite and a homosexual. One scene in particular was originally removed from the original cut and it’s surprisingly frank. A man tries to come-on to Glen when he’s dressed as Glenda, and he coldly rebuffs him.
The film indicates that a transvestite’s upbringing has a great deal to do with their desire to wear women’s clothes. A recurring nursery rhyme about “big green dragons that eat little boys” indicates an emotionally fraught childhood marked by sexual confusion and guilt. He’s caught wearing his sister’s clothes, resulting in a hilariously overwrought reaction when she enters. Much later in the film, the second and more minor story, which was tacked on to fulfill Wood’s commitment to deliver a sex-change film, still contains the most telling detail. A young boy (“Tommy” Haynes) doesn’t fit in and his mother always wanted a girl, so she dresses him in girl’s outfits. Along with a story about cross-dressing in World War II, the story draws direct parallels to Wood’s own experiences.
It’s very important to note that a great deal of these scenes are presented in either a direct, dry manner or in an outrageous, ‘far too ambitious for its budget’ barrage of ideas. The film climaxes with an unbelievable nightmare sequence that lasts nearly twenty minutes. It must be seen to be believed. Wood had very few tricks up his sleeve, but it’s likely he didn’t know whether he’d ever get the chance to make a film ever again, so he goes all out. The daring and outright audacity of this sequence can’t be understated. With increasingly inconsequential and confusing cutaways to Lugosi merely observing, Glen collapses. Characters walk like robots through a sea of darkness. Barbara (played by Wood’s girlfriend Dolores Fuller) is trapped under some flimsy-looking wood but Glenda can’t budge it. She changes into Glen, who is suddenly ‘man’ enough to lift the wood off of her.
There are scenes of bondage and strip teases which were added in by Weiss to pad the runtime and spice things up but it surprisingly works within the context of the twisted sexuality and the roles in which men and women play that Wood wants to show. There’s an interminable rape (?) scene and a woman who is tied up for pleasuring herself. A wedding involving a priest and a devil figure (Captain DeZita, who also plays the stern and disapproving father later in the film) haunts Glen. Random people appear out of thin air, utilizing the simple in-camera jump cut technique, and crowd around Glen only to move away, revealing Glen has changed into Glenda. Characters make faces and walk toward the camera as fluttering fingers are superimposed around them. Finally, some semblance of a plot returns and the sequence even seems to be the catalyst for Glen to reveal his secret to his fiancée, Barbara.
Wood has a soft-spoken and gentle quality which suits the character fine, but Dolores Fuller has a lot of trouble with her dialogue. She also says they have to wait for her to finish college before getting married, but she looks to be about thirty. The beginning of the scene shows Glen and Barbara talking but the narration drowns out their dialogue, probably for the best. She reluctantly accepts him for his proclivities and hands over the iconic angora sweater. This is where the movie should reach its logical conclusion, but we’re not done yet.
The second story involves Alan/Ann, a pseudo hermaphrodite according to the doctor; a term I’m sure most of the general public did not even know. The movie takes on its most educational film vibe, utilizing even more stock footage than previous scenes and promoting a positive attitude toward a life choice. In a surreal cut, Dr. Alton is now sitting with Glen and Barbara, but doesn’t appear to be talking to them. In fact, he’s talking about Glen’s condition but is speaking as if they’re not even in the room. He switches without warning and they continue the conversation as if this is all normal. Lugosi returns and uses his ‘powers’ to change Alan to Ann with another in-camera trick. Dolores and Glen are married, proving the doctor’s point that “Love is the only answer.” The movie ends on a fairly dark note, as the doctor, inspector, and then Lugosi himself reflect on the many less fortunate individuals who may die by society's cruel hands or their own for being different.
The fact that Glen or Glenda works as both a personal drama and a hilariously bad movie of epic proportion is a testament to the wide-ranging power this film has. It’s not Wood’s most fun venture, but its angora-like warmth and charm will continue to entertain and befuddle audiences the world over.