Glen or Glenda?recommended viewing

Maybe society should just try to understand them as human beings.
★★★★★
☆☆☆☆
Released: 
1953
Director: 
Edward D. Wood, Jr.
Starring: 
Ed Wood [as Daniel Davis], Dolores Fuller, Bela Legosi, Lyle Talbot
The Setup: 
Strange drama / plea for tolerance on transvestism.
Discussion: 

Although this site is ostensibly about bad movies, certain expressions of flat-out ineptitude have never interested me; there has to be something more to it. This is why I have avoided the works of the director most often held up as having produced the worst movies of all time, Ed Wood. I don’t just want to see flat-out idiocy. But a reader on my message board really recommended this one, and said it had a undercurrent of melancholy that made it really special. It does, and a whole lot more.

First, let’s talk about varying ways of looking at movies. Most often we look at the finished product, what the director intended or was trying to do, and how well that came off or didn’t. But another was is to look at the finished product, removed from the director’s intentions or budget limitations, and just interpret what is there. This can become tricky, as it can be troubling to interpret a movie one way when we know that the director intended it a different way—or didn’t have a plan at all. In this particular case, we know that the many disparate elements came together for largely unrelated reasons—Wood had access to Bela Legosi and wanted to use him no matter what, softcore sex was inserted after Wood handed over his cut, etc.—but I think that the most interesting way to look at this is to interpret WHAT IS THERE, regardless of how it came together or what the director intended. And that is how this review is going to proceed.

We open with a painted backdrop that a landscape with clouds that form disdainful human faces in the clouds. Over this comes a paragraph that says this movie dares to show a certain segment of society without sensationalism, just presenting the facts, ending with “You are society—JUDGE YE NOT!”

We then cut to Bela Legosi, eyes closed, in a chair. It is debatable whether this first shot is supposed to allude to a coffin and Legosi’s most famous role as Dracula, supported by the way Legosi slowly opens his eyes and leans forward, as though rising from his coffin. He is sitting in a room with skeletons and various “creepy” stuff around. He speaks about society and those who are ‘different’ in a menacing way, at one point looking down on people passing below him via a horizontal superimposition. He talks about “a new life,” then we transition to the body of a transvestite who has killed himself in women’s clothes, so that he can be in death as he wished to be in life. We hear a recitation of his long, poetic suicide note. Here’s a good example of what I was talking about in terms of interpreting what is there in the finished product of the film; Legosi is in this film simply because Wood had access to him and his star name might boost interest in this movie. This is why, one suspects, his speeches throughout are so cryptic and barely related to the main film. However, the effect in the finished film is that he is a sort of God or supernatural figure who is watching over and perhaps controlling the fates of the characters on a plane below—just as we saw him peering down over crowds of people on the street below. So the entire action of the film seems to be the result of impulses set in motion by this menacing God-figure.

The suicide of the transvestite makes for front-page headline news—apparently over the next several days—and sends this big gangster-type, cigar-smokin’ cop to the office of a psychologist for answers, so very moved and interested is he in the plight of the transvestite. The doctor begins to explain, and we suddenly cut to Legosi as he intones “The story is begun!” The narrator, presumably the psychologist, explains that the transvestite is sadly misunderstood by society, but then argues that humans were not born with wheels or airplanes, but invented them. We hear the voices of old coots and rednecks who argue against the invention of wheels and airplanes. The narrator argues that wheels and airplanes are two ways that man has improved on nature, and that transvestism or sex reassignment is the same way. He then makes the argument that men’s clothes are uncomfortable, and shows a man at home after work, still in his uncomfortable business suit, sans tie. This is contrasted with the silky leisure wear of women, which is delightfully comfortable and soft to the touch as well. A good deal of humor arises from the straightforward way these arguments are delivered, as though that make any kind of sense at all. Best in this regard is the next one, that men’s hats are tight and restrict blood flow to the head—which results in male baldness. The option for men simply to buy less snug hats is not mentioned. Women’s hats, by contrast, do not restrict blood flow to the head. Full stop. End of story. Women’s hats—yes, ANY woman’s hat, of ANY size—does not restrict blood flow to the head. And that’s just all there is to it. During this time we also see a man with a beard in a dress—or is this supposed to be a woman in male drag?—and the narrator talks about how most people would laugh at her.

We are then introduced to Glen. Glen is played by the director of the film, Ed Wood, working under the name Daniel Davis. He is engaged to be married to the blonde and busty Barbra, played by Dolores Fuller, Wood’s real-life girlfriend at the time. We hear that Glen is not homosexual [this is said with a certain amount of distain for homosexuals], he just likes to dress as a woman and sit around like that, or go out walking the streets, getting a thrill out of imagining that he can “pass.” We see that he was once discovered in his sister’s clothes, and find that his mother told him he always looked better in womens’ clothes. At around 22 minutes in we have our first proper scene between Glen and Barbra, wherein she says she has seen the headline about the transvestite that killed himself, and doesn’t understand what kind of mental turmoil the guy must have been in. She’s thankful that she and Glen are ‘normal,’ but it’s obvious that she is open to understanding and sympathetic to the ‘pain’ transvestites go through, rather than just considering it all weird and rejecting it outright. She also notices that Glen’s nails have gotten very long, and are almost as long as hers. She says that they ought to paint them, just for fun.

Glen then goes shopping for lingerie, as the narrator tells us about how hard it is for “the hundreds of thousands of Glens out there” to buy clothes without inciting shame. Glen looks at a nightie, but cannot resist putting his hand into the breast, which causes the saleslady to react with creeping horror as the narrator tells us that “something” about the way transvestites look at the fabric or touch it just too long tips people off that something’s not quite right. This, as are many key moments throughout the film, is punctuated with a sudden burst of lightning and thunder. We then hear the voices of two men having a conversation. I believe we are to understand these men to be workers, as we see stock steel mill footage as they speak. One speaks sympathetically about the pain the transvestite feels, forced to try to fit into a world that restricts his blood flow [there are, we are to believe, many more sympathetic people out there than one might expect], and includes an inadvertently funny line “Do you know what would happen if every man in this country who wanted to wear women’s clothes or felt like a woman went to their doctor and wanted a sex change?” Which is funny just for the underlying assumption that nearly every man in this country wants to wear women’s clothes and/or feels like a woman. Then the sympathetic guy responds “Maybe society should just try to understand them as human beings.”

Then we have the centerpiece of the movie, a 15-minute DREAM SEQUENCE. It begins when Glen [dressed as Glenda] comes home and collapses on the floor. First he and Barbra are relaxing by a fireplace—all rendered on exquisitely fake sets—when suddenly Barbra is trapped beneath a tree that has apparently fallen into the living room, trapping her. Glenda is unable to help her, but she goes and changes into Glen, who is able to lift the tree and set her free. They then get married, and we see that Satan [or a generic demon, it isn’t made clear] also attended the wedding. Throughout the recent parts of the film, Legosi has come in to talk about a green dragon that sits on one’s porch that eats little boys, snails, and puppy-dog tails. This reference to the old childhood rhyme is contrasted with how girls are made of “everything nice.” Then Legosi observes as we witness some burlesque routines, seemingly forcing Glen to watch as well. Then Glen is in a room with a large blackboard, on which is written “Puppy-dog tails” and “everything nice.” He is also assailed by sneering children’s voices saying these things as well, as we also hear the sound of a strong wind. Then he envisions disdainful men and women, all looking like very conventional, disapproving members of society, appearing as apparitions in his living room. They all gather menacingly around him as he cowers against the wall. Then the demon appears again, making his way through the crowd. The demon presumably transforms Glen into Glenda, who is then able to vanquish the disapproving crowd. Then Barbra transforms into the demon and back again. First she is wearing something black, while Glenda is wearing white, but Barbra changes to wear exactly what Glenda is wearing—and starts laughing at him. Then there is an entire crowd laughing. Then we have more of the demon, and hear again about the green dragon that eats little boys, and we return to Glenda, waking up on the floor.

Glen has been unsure whether he should tell Barbara, but finally he does. She has an intense moment in which she leans back in her chair and we cut again to Legosi. It’s not until we come back to her in that chair that we understand that Barbara had a vision. In her vision, Glen enters the room where Legosi is and kneels down before him. Legosi throws out his hand and Glen vanishes. Back in reality, Barbara stands up, undoes her angora sweater, the one Glen has been fetishizing this whole time, and hands it over to him.

We then return to the psychologist and inspector—remember them? Remember how this entire story, dream sequence and all, is merely the story the psychologist is relating to the sympathetic inspector? The inspector summarizes that what he’s hearing is that Glenda is a character created by Glen as a love object to take the place of the love he never got as a child. We then, at 54 minutes in, begin a second story!

This is the story of Allen, who was in the army, but kept a suitcase full of clothes stored at a certain location so he could change into them and wear them during his free time. Now, you probably didn’t think there was going to be a place for stock war footage in this movie. Well, you’d be wrong. After this we learn that Allen was a pseudo-hermaphrodite, which is explained that he has one set of fully-developed genitalia and one set less developed, so they had to choose what his sex would be. They chose male, but Allen soon desperately wished to be a girl. We then see what is supposed to be a sex change operation [heavily advertised in this film’s trailer and on its poster], but you can’t see anything except white sheets and gauze. The narrator describes how the operation is handled, with thunder sounding just after he mentions the part of the operation that is “the removal of the man.” We then see Allen walk into the room with Legosi , just as Glen did earlier. He also kneels at Legosi’s side, and Legosi once more raises his hand and makes Allen vanish. The difference this time is that Legosi raises his other arm, and Allen appears again on the other side, as a woman. This is Anne. We find out that Allen’s father did not love him because he didn’t play sports, thus preventing Allen’s father from boasting to his friends about his son. Allen’s mother hated her own father and, we are told, Allen reminded her of him, so she gave all her love to her daughter, which made Allen want to be a daughter to receive his mother’s love.

We then see Glen and Barbara in the psychologist’s office. The doctor explains that the “love object” persona of Glenda will, in time, be transferred to Barbara, and thus Glen will supposedly be “cured.” We are then told that Glen’s story has a “happy ending,” and we see the two of them running from a church, supposedly just married. It’s impossible not to notice that apparently no one else attended their wedding.

You know, I was going to now write a long piece trying to interpret the movie as it is, but I kept being overwhelmed by the feeling that there really is no consistent vision behind it, no overarching statement being made, so attempting analysis would be just so much masturbation. It’s too bad, with that tantalizing dream sequence and especially the scenes in which Glen [and Allen] appear in the room WITH Legosi—that is, they have been transported to meet with their God, the overseer who is controlling their lives, and the way he transforms them… but you know, I just don’t think it goes anywhere. It doesn’t add up to much at all.

Two things, though: I would bet as much as $25 that this film was a tremendous influence on Twin Peaks-era David Lynch. The parts of the dream sequence where we hear a loud rushing wind as we see apparitions of mysterious figures, and especially the scenes in which Glen or Allen appear in Legosi’s mysterious room, which seems to exist in another dimension, are virtually recreated in the “Red Room” sequences of Twin Peaks. Secondly, the page on this film from Wikipedia says that Dolores Fuller, who played Barbara, was not aware of Wood’s transvestism and was not fully aware of the nature of the movie. It says she found out only at the premiere, which she found “humiliating.” This makes one wonder if these facts are behind the rather hopeful interpretation that Glen’s transvestism will vanish completely the more he becomes comfortable and is loved by Barbara—he is, through the movie, both coming out to her and telling her that if she stays with him his desire to wear her clothes will eventually go away.

Okay, one more thing. I find it interesting that the people in the movie who really express sympathy for the plight of the transvestite and transsexual are [save for Barbara] all men. And not just men, but big, traditionally masculine men, like the cigar-smoking investigator, and the steel worker. Even the man arguing with the steel worker seems to acknowledge that many men want to wear women’s clothes or “feel like women.” The woman in the lingerie shop reacts with horror when she realizes what Glen is up to, there are several women that appear as the disdainful apparitions in Glen’s dream, most of the faces in the sky that appears under the credits seem to be women, and even Barbara laughs at Glen in his dream as he is wearing the same outfit she has on. One wonders if Wood felt that men are, underneath it all, more understanding of transvestism—after all, we are told, many of them want to wear women’s clothes—and it is women who require that men remain in their rigid roles and uncomfortable clothes. Another interpretation is that maybe Wood felt that if only he could be a woman, he could be a better woman than most women.

Overall, about 75 times more interesting than I thought it would be. Definitely worth watching: it’ll keep you amazed, appalled, riveted [in parts]… but ultimately maybe a little frustrated that it doesn’t add up to a cohesive statement as interesting as some of its parts. Except that society should be more understanding, of course. The reader who originally recommended this talked about the overwhelming sense of melancholy in the scenes of Glenda walking around or just sitting in his room, and that’s there, but there is a great deal more emotions going on throughout. I feel a little about this like I did while watching Caligula: There are certainly better-made films, but few as interesting and truly worth watching.

Should you watch it: 

Yes! Especially if you are gay or transvestite.