“Some argue that this kind of thing puts Ed Wood into the company of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí.
Should we buy this argument? Pull the string!”–IMDB Glen or Glenda FAQ
DIRECTED BY: Ed Wood, Jr.
FEATURING: Bela Lugosi, Ed Wood, Jr. (as Daniel Davis), Dolores Fuller, Timothy Farrell,
PLOT: A transvestite is found dead, a suicide. Seeking to understand more about this phenomenon, a police inspector visits a psychiatrist who explains transvestism to him using the example of Glen, a heterosexual man who is tormented by the question of whether he should reveal his passion for cross-dressing to his fiancée. Meanwhile, a sinister, omniscient “scientist” (played by Bela Lugosi) occasionally appears to cryptically comment on the action (“pull the string!”)
- Producer George Weiss wanted to make a film to exploit the then-current case of Christine Jorgensen (born George William Jorgensen), one of the first men to have successful sex-reassignment surgery. According to legend, Ed Wood convinced Weiss that he was the right man to direct the picture because he was a transvestite in his private life and understood gender confusion. The resulting film, shot in just four days, ended up being more about transvestism than sex-change surgery.
- Against Wood’s wishes, Weiss inserted bondage-themed imagery into the dream sequence to give the film a dash more sex.
- Wood himself plays the transvestite Glen (and Glenda) under the pseudonym Daniel Davis.
- In his own life, Wood did not take the advice he gave his character in Glen or Glenda to honestly discuss his desire to wear women’s clothes with his betrothed. Wood’s first wife had their marriage annulled in 1955, after Ed surprised her by wearing ladies’ undergarments to their honeymoon.
- This is the first of three collaborations between Wood and then down-on-his-luck and opiate-addicted Bela Lugosi. Three of Lugosi’s final four credits were Wood films.
- Some reviews of Glen or Glenda refer to Lugosi’s character as “the Spirit” rather than “the Scientist”; were there two separate sets of credits, each with a different name for the character?
- Wood’s 1963 novel “Killer in Drag” features a transvestite character named Glen whose alter-ego is named Glenda.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Such a wealth of possibilities! What about the hairy Satan who inexplicably shows up at Glen and Barbara’s dream wedding? And who can forget Bela Lugosi, yelling nonsense at the viewer while his angry face is superimposed over a herd of stampeding buffalo? The iconic image, however, is Wood’s intended emotional climax: in a ridiculously touching gesture of unconditional acceptance, Glen’s girlfriend Barbara strips off her angora sweater and hands it to the wide-eyed transvestite.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A narratively-knotted 1950s pro-transvestite pseudo-documentary, told in naively earnest rhetoric via a wandering structure that includes flashbacks inside of flashbacks, would have made for a worthwhile oddity in itself. But throw in Bela Lugosi as a one-man Greek chorus reciting fractured fairy tales, and include a fourteen-minute dream sequence mixing Freudian symbolism, bargain-basement Expressionism, bondage, and a guest appearance by the Devil and you achieve incomparable weirdness, the way only Ed Wood could serve it up—on a bed of angora.
Clip from Glen or Glenda
COMMENTS: Ed Wood had a secret, and it’s not just that he liked the feel of silk panties under his rough trousers. Transvestism, in a way, was the least of his issues. Given his chosen vocation—movie director—it was lack of filmmaking talent that was in fact his major life hurdle. But his incompetence was an even less well-kept secret than his famous angora fetish. Wood’s lack of aptitude for cinema is apparent in nearly every frame of film he shot, every clumsy edit, every bizarre stock footage selection, every clunking line of his scripts (Wood writes dialogue that reads like it was ripped from the pages of tomorrow’s tabloids, before the copy editor could get to it). No, the real secret of Ed Wood is how, despite all of his manifest failings, he made a couple of movies that were, in their own unique way, masterpieces. If he has made only one oddly compelling unintentional comedy, that could be considered an accident. Wood, however, produced two works of accidental genius: the alien grave-robbing howler Plan 9 from Outer Space and this woebegotten plea for transvestite tolerance. There is something at work here, something special about this personality. Wood’s work is surprisingly rich, alternating layers of misbegotten absurdity with childlike wisdom. His movies are complex in their simplicity: his hasty blunders are more compelling and reveal more about human nature than the carefully contrived schemes of more accomplished craftsmen.
Although Plan 9 is the better movie to watch with a group of wisecracking chums, the confessional Glen or Glenda is Wood’s most personal (and weirdest) film. This is where we first, and most nakedly, encounter his eccentric persona: eminently fallible, tormented but hopeful, an endlessly enthusiastic experimental filmmaker with few resources, either monetary or intellectual. In Glen or Glenda, against all odds, Ed’s sunny optimism shines through the narrative clouds of his own making: he makes us believe that society should embrace Glen’s desire to get dolled-up as his alter-ego Glenda and go out window shopping for sweaters. But he convinces us despite his own best efforts; he persuades via his harmless-looking performance in drag and through his aching sincerity, not by his arguments. From a rhetorical standpoint, Wood’s case is ridiculous. The only position the film needed to forward—that the transvestite is harmless to society, so, live and let live—is made only implicitly. Instead of simply being content to demystify the lifestyle, Wood contorts his brain trying to come up with explanations to convince the viewer that wearing women’s panties is a boon to manly men like Glen. (You get the sense that Wood is really trying to convince himself, not us—taken together with the often unexplained personal symbolism, the movie has the voyeuristic feel of a dramatized internal monologue that we’re spying on). Wood’s pro-cross dressing arguments take the form of made-up facts (men’s overly tight hats cause baldness!), basic logical fallacies (people once thought airplanes were unnatural, but now they accept them; people think transvestites are unnatural, so they should accept them, too), and dime-store psychology (Glen’s feminine alter-ego “was invented as a love object to take the place of the love he never received as a child”). Some arguments are counter-intuitive to anyone not named Ed Wood: he theorizes that men’s apparel is “rough, coarse, starched,” but women’s wear is designed (by men) strictly for the comfort of “Little Miss Female.” Ed never heard of whalebone corsets or high-heeled shoes?
Ironically, society has by and large come around to Ed’s tolerant philosophy today: but no thanks to the arguments given here, which make transvestism seem like an even more deranged pastime than the white-bread audiences of Joseph McCarthy’s America would have thought going into the film. For example, the inexplicable presence of “Scientist” Bela Lugosi, whose role in the tale is never explained, seems an addendum of insanity. Lugosi wasn’t necessarily a great actor, but he boasted one of the silver screen’s most forceful presences, and he was in full-bore ham mode here. Wood was not one to preach restraint, and he gave Bela the meatiest of florid dialogue to chew on. Lugosi’s performance here is a thing of rare beauty, that a better director would have quashed. The film begins with a shot of the Scientist, sitting in his drawing room reading some dusty tome of forgotten lore, in a chair with a wooden cobra attached to the back. His bookshelves are lined with skulls. There’s a skeleton and an executioner’s ax in the background. “Man’s constant groping of things unknown, drawing from the endless reaches of time, brings to life many startling things” are the words he begins the film with, starting off in mid non-sequitur. After reciting more pseudo-poetic nonsense, the Scientist goes to a table and mixes some chemicals together. “Life has begun!,” he proclaims, doing pushups with his eyebrows. Then he watches stock footage of “people, all going somewhere,” perched above a busy city street in split screen. Who is he? What is he doing? Why such contempt? We don’t know.
Lugosi isn’t a second narrator, as is sometimes contended. He’s not impartial, and he very rarely provides plot information. He prefers to speak in obscure portents: “bevare of the big green dragon who sits on your doorstep. He eats little boys. Puppy dog tails, and big fat snails!” He smirks and scowls at other characters in the film, and watches Glen’s libidinous dream sequence with disgust. At one point Glen appears before him and goes down on bended knee, but the Scientist contemptuously dismisses him with a wave of his hand. Lugosi’s character exists outside the movie’s own reality. Misanthropic to the core, he appears to represent God—a cruel maker who mixes up his creations’ sexual identities, then despises those he himself has malformed. He is, at the very least, some sort of omniscient puppet master: his catchphrase is “pull the string!” Whatever this character means to Wood, Wood won’t tell us. Bela here is like Ed’s imaginary friend, only we, the audience, can see him, but not understand his purpose.
Midway through the film, Wood deploys an amazing 14-minute dream sequence to mop up any audience members not yet alienated by random encounters with the Scientist and his bitter, fatalistic commentaries. This sequence is an embarrassment of riches (though those not tuned to Ed’s bizarre wavelength may find it a simple embarrassment). It’s filled with strained, confused symbolism. A tree branch falls on Barbara; Glenda, in drag, can’t lift it, but in his masculine suit, Glen is able to rescue her. The domestic sets feature a slanted fireplace a la Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. A hairy Satan appears at Glen and Barbara’s wedding, nodding approvingly, then returns later to taunt Glenda. Echoey children’s voices accusingly recite the old nursery school rhyme about what little boys and girls are made of, and crowds of people point fingers and laugh at Glenda. Lugosi pops in occasionally, wagging his head disapprovingly. I’m halfway convinced that Wood modeled this sequence on “Un Chien Andalou“; if not, his ability to accidentally stumble on the same disorienting techniques used by the Surrealists is remarkable.
With the dream sequence, Ed throws intentional Surrealism into a movie that was already unintentionally surreal—and then, his producer unintentionally surrealized it further. Needing more sex in the film, George Weiss decided to splice in footage of beckoning matronly women stripping to their underwear, a girl in black cocktail dress being lightly whipped by a shirtless man, two gagged ladies in light bondage play, and other (tame) fetish clips from stag films in his collection. Weiss apparently assumed that, since it was a dream sequence and the movie was already disjointed, no one would know these clips came from an outside source. He was right; the scenes fit Glen’s deranged state of mind and Glen or Glenda‘s general erotic confusion, and most viewers assume they are Wood’s work. The result is incredible, stretching out Glen’s already substantial fever dream to epic lengths. It’s not Ed, but it’s of a piece with his work, and, like Lugosi’s magnificently mad performance, it indicates how Wood drew insanity to himself, and incorporated it by accident.
“Only the infinity of the depths of a man’s mind can really tell the story,” muses wise Dr. Alton, reflecting on the riddle of the transvestite. Glen or Glenda is a trip into the infinity of Ed Wood’s mind. Guilelessly, he’s working out his own obsessions before our eyes, in the guise of making a simple plea for tolerance. We have seldom, if ever, seen as transparent a portrait of one man’s soul on celluloid as we do here in this stream-of-consciousness film that comes to us unfiltered from the mind of Ed Wood. The movie is confused because Wood is confused. (“My mind is in a muddle. Like… thick fog. I can’t make sense to myself sometimes,” confesses Glen). Unlike the work of other bad movie auteurs like Coleman Francis or Tommy Wiseau, whose incompetence and narcissism generate only scorn or embarrassment, we feel genuine empathy for Ed. However bad his execution, it’s clear the man has a good heart and a passion for creation, and he’s doing the best he can with the tough hand he was dealt. We love Ed because he’s a misfit, because he’s sincere, and because he’s strange. Glen or Glenda is as much legend as movie. Watching it is like being initiated into a secret cult of coolness. Do so.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“What distinguishes it from other low-budget efforts are the occasional mad flights of fancy. Most involve a weird scientist, delightfully played by Bela Lugosi in eye-popping fashion.”–Variety (contemporaneous)
“If there hadn’t been a surrealistic film movement earlier in history, GLEN OR GLENDA would surely have started one… In addition to shoehorning in Bela Lugosi as a spokesperson for rattled humanity, Wood incorporates stock footage only a deranged person could thematically link to a saga of cross-dressing (e.g., shots of stampeding buffalo). This is truly the cinema of expediency.”–TV Guide
IMDB LINK: Glen or Glenda (1953)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Glen or Glenda (1953) FAQ – Although we have linked Glen or Glenda‘s IMDB page above, we would like to call special attention to this humorous FAQ, which is almost a scene-by-scene breakdown of every absurdity contained in the film
The Unbroken Dream of Edward D. Wood, Jr. – This exhaustive review from Radiation Cinema sets the stage with a wealth of (possibly legendary) biographical information about the bizarre Mr. Wood
Glen or Glenda: Psychiatry, Sexuality, and the Silver Screen – A serious academic article about Glen or Glenda (naturally, focused mainly on the film’s depiction of gender roles) from the August 2003 issue of “Bright Lights Film Journal”
“Beware! Take Care!” – The Delirious Poetry of Ed Wood – Another sober consideration of the film, with a detailed analysis of the dream sequence, written by Budd Wilkins for Acidemic
Glen or Glenda (Comparison: US DVD vs. Australian DVD) – A breakdown of some (mostly minor) discrepancies between the U.S. Image Entertainment release and the more complete Australian release
GLEN OR GLENDA – Information about Michael Penny’s musical comedy stage adaptation of the film
GLEN OR GLENDA: NAIVE SURREALISM’S ARK OF THE COVENANT – Alfred Eaker’s take on Glen or Glenda, written for this site
DVD INFO: Glen or Glenda is available in many different formats, almost none of which come with special features. The most recent release is Legend Films’ 2012 version (buy), which offers a “fully restored” black and white print along with a colorized (!) version of the film. (Legend also colorized Plan 9 from Outer Space—no one really knows why). The bare-bones single disc edition from Image Entertainment (buy) is still widely available. Glen or Glenda sometimes pops up on bargain double-feature discs: one example pairs it with Wood’s far less interesting film Jail Bait (despite the name, the latter dull gangster film with no salacious content beyond a blackface minstrel show) (buy).
The best, though most expensive, release is Image’s 6-disc “Ed Wood Box” (buy), which also includes Jail Bait, the Lugosi horror Bride of the Monster, Plan 9, the boring Monster “sequel” Night of the Ghouls, the documentary The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood, Jr., and scattered bonus features.
Glen or Glenda is also available to rent or buy on-demand.
(This movie was nominated for review by kengo, who described it as “Ed Wood at his finest. Makes ‘Plan 9 from Outer Space’ look stylish and coherent. Gloriously delirious.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)