(1953) Written and directed by Edward D. Wood, Jr.; Starring: Bela Lugosi, Edward D. Wood, Jr., Lyle Talbot, Dolores Fuller
“I’m a young punk and here I’m working with the great master and I was fighting the fact that am I doing right by the man; am I doing right by the film?” – Ed Wood (on working with Bela Lugosi, excerpt from Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr., by Rudolph Grey)
“To me, Ed Wood was the Orson Welles of low budget pictures.” – Dolores Fuller (excerpt from documentary The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood, Jr.)
Schlock cinema finally gets its due in the AccidentallyHilarious blogathon, hosted by film writer/researcher extraordinaire, Fritzi of Movies Silently. I’m proud to contribute with my review of the film that entrenched Edward D. Wood, Jr. in the collective unconscious of bad cinema connoisseurs everywhere, Glen or Glenda. So, without further preamble, get out your blonde wigs and angora sweaters, because it’s gonna be a wild ride.
One of the most common nuggets of advice to fledgling scribes is to write what you know. Triple-threat (writer/director/star) Wood, a cross-dresser himself, obviously took this advice to heart, in his exposé of the soft, satiny underbelly of transvestite culture. Mr. Wood, under the pseudonym Daniel Davis (you’re not fooling anyone, Ed) starred as the title character, who grapples with his dual identity. Produced by George Weiss for $26,000, Glen or Glenda was released in some markets with the more lurid titles I Led Two Lives or I Changed My Sex.
Bela Lugosi, as the Scientist, appeared to be acting in a completely different movie (or universe). When he’s not sitting in a chair, providing oblique commentary on Glen/Glenda’s dilemma, he’s performing science-y experiments with beakers and test tubes. Lugosi threatens to steal the show from Wood as the sage overlord, with proclamations such as “Beware of the big green dragon that sits under your doorstep” and “Pull the string!” Ever the consummate trouper, he deserved an award for treating Wood’s material with more dignity than it probably deserved.
Wood spares no opportunity to milk the cross-dressing theme for all it’s worth, as Glen grapples with revealing his secret to his fiancé Barbara, played by Wood’s real-life girlfriend Dolores Fuller.* He apparently didn’t know the meaning of the term “heavy handed,” with depictions of Glen walking by a department store window to admire women’s apparel, or lovingly stroking a nylon nightie. Later in the film, Satan makes a guest appearance at an imaginary wedding, and women cavort in sheer negligees, mocking Glen’s gender-inappropriate clothing decisions. At one point, the narrator stops to chime in about our protagonist’s sexual orientation: “Glen is not a homosexual. Glen is a transvestite, but he is not a homosexual.” (Do you get it, audience? He’s not a homosexual. Why would you even think that? Bad audience.) The second half drags (Ba-da-dum! I’m outta here.) a bit, with several minutes of footage added by producer Weiss of women lounging around in lingerie,** and an extended sequence about a gender re-assignment operation (thus justifying the alternate titles). Although Wood or Weiss couldn’t secure the rights to tell the life story of the first transgendered individual, Christine Jorgensen, the film lapses into a lengthy explanation of the sex change procedure.
* In an interview, Fuller claimed she didn’t know about Wood’s fetish for women’s clothing prior to filming Glen or Glenda. When she discovered his secret, she commented, “I wanted to crawl in a hole somewhere” (The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood., Jr.). After Fuller left Wood a couple years later, she found her niche as a songwriter, collaborating on ditties for various artists, including more than a dozen Elvis Presley tunes.
** Weiss needed to pad out the film in order to push the film’s running time to 70 minutes, necessary for securing distribution (Nightmare of Ecstasy).
Because this is a “serious” examination of transvestitism, get ready for a half-assed explanation by a psychiatrist (Timothy Farrell, who doubles as the narrator), explaining Glen’s predilection toward wearing women’s clothing: his mother wanted a girl, and his father didn’t pay attention to him. We’re also informed that Glen’s condition can be cured if Barbara is dedicated enough to him. In addition to espousing specious behavioral science claims, Wood’s film is a treasure trove of quasi-profundities (“…All those cars. All going someplace. All carrying humans, which are carrying out their lives.”).
Ed Wood has often been hyped as the worst director of all time, but I call shenanigans. While his movies will never be considered AFI-worthy, they’re far from the worst ever made. One of the biggest crimes a film can commit is being boring, and Wood’s handiwork is far from it. He approached Glen or Glenda with the naïve assumption that he had something profound to say – the fact that he so utterly missed the mark is our gain. This accidental ineptitude makes his movie entertaining in a way that self-conscious, pre-fab dreck by filmmakers who should know better (I’m looking at you, Sharknado) will never match. It’s tough to beat Glen or Glenda for pure, misguided entertainment value.