Film Torments: Glen or Glenda (1953)


THIS WEEK on Film Torments, we finally take a look at the progenitor of the good-bad film in Hollywood: Glen or Glenda, by Ed Wood.

The legend of Edward Wood, Jr. speaks for itself. The auteurial force behind Plan 9 from Outer Space is a man of inimitable stature in the cult film circuit, and remains the yard stick by which the next Worst Film Ever is measured. Before Uwe Boll, before Tommy Wiseau, before Neil Breen, came Ed Wood, and many would argue, from the comfort of their weekly midnight screenings, that he’s never been bettered. Or worsened, I’m not sure.

Glen or Glenda, A.K.A. I Changed My Sex!, was Wood’s debut feature. Beyond featuring prominently in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood biopic – a wonderful film that captures the wonderfully botched essence of all that the man strove to achieve – it also contributed sound clips to David Lynch’s Eraserhead. I haven’t yet seen the notoriously strange Eraserhead, but I imagine it isn’t half as surreal as Glen or Glenda, a hysterically weird trainwreck of a movie that defies classification, inverting all aspects of the film-making technique to the point of accidental experimentalism.

This is one of the most inept movies that ever made it to limited release, but it is also one of the noblest. To boil it down, the movie is a docu-drama fever dream defending the practice of transvestism, told in detached vignettes and framed by, Dr Alton, a psychiatrist (Timothy Farrell), and his long-winded explanation of what exactly transvestites are… that is itself framed by Bela Lugosi’s Scientist, rambling about dragons and little boys.

Just roll with it.

Just roll with it.

The film’s incompetence is matched only by its sincerity; Wood himself was a cross-dresser, and the project was deeply personal as a result, prompting him to include autobiographical elements. Though credited as Daniel Davis, perhaps this is what gives his central performance as Glen/da a poignant edge, and provides his dialogue some surprising depth. As the film opens proper, the body of a transvestite named Patrick/Patricia is discovered, accompanied by a suicide note.

Framed simply, Wood slowly pans down to the body on the bed, as narration reads the note aloud. It harps on the prevailing anti-LGBT sentiment of the time, and unlike Wood’s usual gamut of over-written nonsense posing as dialogue, this note actually hits the emotional lyricism that he was often so desperate to achieve. There’s none of the bathetic sheen that Wood usually, inadvertently, gave his lines; it’s honestly rather powerful.

But before that, the giant wall of text that opens the film implores its audience to “judge not!” in bold print, insisting that this picture is one of “stark realism”. We immediately cut to Bela Lugosi’s underlit face, as the camera zooms away from him, while he monologues about moral relativism and mixes potions on an oak table. What does this have to do with transvestism? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Lugosi continually crops up throughout the movie in transitional shots; whether he is overlaid over a flash of lightning or a buffalo stampede, he will always say something nonsensical.

This, on the other hand, makes perfect sense.

This, on the other hand, makes perfect sense.

“Pull the string!” he cries repeatedly at one such juncture. Nothing, either before or after, pertains to this line. It is a non-sequitur of the highest order, made even more hilarious by how its connecting scene is Glen/da worrying about confessing their transvestism to their wife. “Beware the little green dragon!” Lugosi repeatedly intones, glaring down the camera lens, snarling to himself. He is a spectator from nowhere, offering cryptic remarks about mankind as a species, and it boggles the mind how his segments were included in the final cut.

As well as indulging his transvestism, Wood also indulged Lugosi, his childhood idol, providing the former Dracula with income after the legend had fallen on hard times. Wood’s indulgence resulted in the mauling of the film’s focus and, as a result, we have no idea whether we’re meant to be listening to The Scientist, listening to Dr. Alton or empathising with the story of Glen/da. The film was bankrolled to capitalise on the still-recent story of Christine Jorgensen; why then, in the midst of Alton’s endless spiel about Glen/da’s plight, is Bela Lugosi prattling on about “puppy dog tails”?

It’s part PSA, part documentary, part melodrama, part softcore porn, part horror movie. It’s impossible to attach a single genre to this film because it pulls us in so many wildly divergent directions. It’s a surreal mishmash of stock footage, mismanaged editing and terrible acting. Some segments are so abjectly strange that I found myself stunned speechless by how bizarre it all was.

No joke - this is a bit sad.

No joke – this is a bit sad.

Take the freeform experimentalism of Glen/da’s ‘dream’ state. I have no idea where to begin describing this stuff: there are images of a bound woman on a sofa being whipped by a shirtless man, while Lugosi watches, silently, and then a bunch of people in Glen/da’s life surround and point at him/her, occasionally cutting to Glen/da’s traumatised face while he/she grapples with his/her demons – literally. This happens for ten straight minutes, in front of a black backdrop, with hysterical strings and harsh wind effects fighting for audio dominance.

It’s so rampantly bizarre that I fixated on its weirdness. I was unable to decide whether it was intentional symbolism (the man defiling the body of woman, representing Glen/da’s internal conflict) or obvious padding to stretch the film to feature-length. I was so engrossed by it that the last 20 minutes had passed me by in an expository blur. Wood takes five sentences to say what any standard writer would say in one; the psychiatrist narrator’s oration is endless as a result, spewing maxims and adages like, “Only the infinity of a man’s mind can truly tell this story,” as he looks directly into the camera.

His narration is laid over stock footage of foundry work and cars travelling down the freeway; it’s laid over images of city streets; it’s laid over scenes where characters are actually speaking to each other. It’s so thunderingly obvious and heavy-handed, so perfectly over-indulgent that it somehow transcends the meaning it wants to express. It’s like Reefer Madness, if the director of that movie had been wholly in favour of marijuana and wanted to extol its benefits and place in society. It’s maddening, and much of the film is spent trying to decode that unravelling sense of insanity.

I wish my demons were this casual.

I wish my demons were this casual.

Wood, for his part, is surprisingly not a horrendous actor. Whether it’s the autobiographical nature of the film that drove his performance or not, he imbues Glen/da with pathos and conflict, grappling with his/her dual identity, culminating in that dream sequence where he is both terrified and elated. Everyone else, however, is terrible. Dolores Fuller – Wood’s real-life partner at the time – fumbles and slurs her lines with gusto, and Lugosi is an outsized parody of his Dracula persona.

The editing is harsh and abrupt, made especially apparent when the divergent themes of the narrative are already spiralling off into each other at whim. In one scene, Glen/da discusses his/her problems with a friend, and the conversation takes place entirely off-screen because the camera is, inexplicably, focused on the door from which he/she came in. Though Wood’s subject was wildly progressive for the time, his film-making prowess was simply laughable.

And it still is, with the gulf of 63 years between its initial release and the modern day. It’s a beautiful disaster with a heart of gold, buoyed on the back of a deeply enthusiastic, painfully earnest man who only ever wanted to make movie magic. In his own way, he did make magic; the fact it comes from a movie preaching tolerance and acceptance for transvestism makes it all the sweeter.

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