“It’s the longest hour on Earth,” is my brother’s capsule review of Ed Wood’s first feature, Glen or Glenda, a 1953 film that is about transgenderism/transvestitism. I have always found this and other critiques of the movie that describe it in such harsh terms unfair; noted American film critic Leonard Maltin once described is as “possibly the worst film ever made”. Yes, Glen or Glenda is poorly directed and produced – it is an Ed Wood movie, after all – yet it is ambitious in its own way and has a good message. In fact, that message is weirdly topical in 2020.
Let’s start with some background. George Weiss was a producer of what was known at the time as “Z movies”. These were films too cheap to even be considered B movies. The whole concept of B movies originated in the days when double features were a thing in American cinemas, where the B movie would sort of be like the B-side of a single; something of obviously inferior quality, meant to at least partially take up space. Z movies are films that were much cheaper than that, often using non-actors and padded out using stock footage and/or sections of other B or Z movies. They played at drive-ins a lot, often performing the function B movies did for A movies for B movies themselves.
Weiss was a specialist in a type of Z movie known as exploitation – movies made as quickly and cheaply as possible to cash in on whatever the latest tabloid sensation happened to be at the time. In early 1953, that was the story of Christine Jorgensen, the first person widely known in the US to have had sex reassignment surgery having been born biologically a man. Weiss wanted something done as swiftly and for as little money as possible to try and cash in on the Jorgensen story and Ed Wood assured him that he was the man to do it.
It was shot in four days and you can tell. A large portion of the film is composed of stock footage with voiceover on top. According to legend, the film failed to live up to even Weiss’ low expectations, but he’d pre-sold the film and put it out anyhow. It was supposedly poorly received amongst audiences of the day and Weiss and Wood never worked together again on a film that saw the light of day, although Weiss did produce part of a film a few years later that was directed by Wood with the working title Hellborn which was never released.
Part of the issue with Glen or Glenda is that it is highly experimental. This is unusual for Wood, who in all of his later pictures tried to stick within the boundaries of genre, albeit it ineptly. For instance, Plan 9 is sci-fi, Bride of the Monster is horror. Glen of Glenda is essentially an art house movie. It begins with five minutes of Bela Lugosi alone in some sort of mad scientist laboratory. He pontificates on the meaning of life, like in this, the film’s opening monologue:
“Man’s constant groping of things unknown, drawing from the endless reaches of time brings to light many startling things. Startling? Because they seem new. Sudden. But most are not new to the signs of the ages.”
Lugosi stares down at stock footage of a street scene and says:
“People, all going somewhere. All with their own thoughts, their own ideas. All with their own personalities. One is wrong because he does right. One is right because he does wrong. Pull the string! Dance to that which one is created for!”
I can only imagine what 1953 American audiences must have thought of this Lugosi intro. Once it finishes, we come to our first proper scene: a male transvestite has killed himself in a hotel room and the police have arrived. This leads to what frames most of the rest of the movie – making the Lugosi scenes even more bizarre in the context of the film, if that were possible – the cop who found the transvestite’s body talking to a psychiatrist about the case. As standard film set ups go this is pretty lame – we have no idea why this cop is so obsessed with a case that involved no criminality for a start – but as Ed Wood set ups go, it’s actually not bad.
The psychiatrist does some boiler plate on the differences between transexuals and transvestites that is mostly reasonably accurate, save one huge, glaring issue – the film advances the idea that people with gender dysmorphia are in fact hermaphrodites. Further, that in most cases the alternative sexual organs are hidden, and what sexual reassignment surgery does is bring them to the fore, so to speak. I realise this is a massive scientific error, but at least the rest of it mostly stacks up.
At least until we get farther on in the movie. There you will find some more fake news to digest, my favourite being:
“Seven out of ten men wear a hat, so the advertisements say. Seven out of ten men are bald.”
It is also filled with wonderful Ed Woodisms, a personal fave being:
“Modern man is a hard working human.”
Interpolated between scenes involving the psychiatrist talking about why men’s clothing is a form of torture in voice over, all over mostly random stock footage of motorways and metal factories, is what is the film’s central story – that of Glen, a transvestite, and his fiancee, Barbara. In one sense, the scenes with Glen and Barbara are the real movie, with everything else around it being padding.
Glen is played by Ed Wood himself in what I believe is his only appearance as an actor, or at the very least the only speaking part he ever took in a movie. Which is strange given Wood is one of the best actors in any of his films. I wouldn’t call him great or anything, but he has a presence and intensity utterly lacking in a lot of the thespian wannabes that haunt his pictures. A prime example, unfortunately, being the woman who plays Barbara – Wood’s real wife at the time, Dolores Fuller. What plays out on screen is essentially a version of Wood and Fuller’s real story; Wood was in actual fact a transvestite himself. Despite essentially playing herself, Fuller is really not up to it, giving one of the worst screen performances I have ever seen, anywhere, ever. In fact, the more I think about it, one of the main reasons people dump on this movie so much is down to her performance, which is never less than hideous in any scene throughout Glen or Glenda.
To recap, we have the psychiatrist/stock footage segments, the Glen and Barbara story and the Bela Lugosi portions, the latter of these being jarringly random both in context and in and of themselves. Picture Lugosi sitting in a large chair while stock footage of running buffaloes are crossfaded over him, all while the ageing Hungarian bellows:
“Pull the string! Pull the string! A mistake is made! The story must be told!”
This is all ticking along – and then you hit the 35 minute mark and it all goes out the window. What you get then is an almost entirely dialogue-free 15 minute art installation which I think tries to give us deeper insight into the psychological torment Glen suffers from as a secret transvestite. The psychiatrist is lost completely during this very long section – but Lugosi comes back every once in a while to babble some random crap like:
“Tell me! Tell me, dragon! Do you eat little boys, puppy dog tails, and big, fat snails?”
It is hard to explain this 15 minute “artsy” section with any cogency. Satan features heavily. Glen pops in and out of women’s clothing. There is a whole section involving whips and chains and women who are not in any other portion of the movie (some of these bits apparently came from other Weiss productions). Once the art installation is finished, we finally get to the iconic scene: where Glen finally tells Barbara about his transvestism and she takes off her angora sweater, leaving her in nothing but a bra up top, which she hands it to Glen.
That should have been the end of the movie. But we’ve got another 15 to 20 minutes left to play out. You see, the problem is that Ed Wood had been instructed by Weiss to make a picture about transsexuals. And the overwhelming majority of Glen or Glenda up until the 50 minute mark is about transvestites – and in fact, the film specifically and repeatedly tells you that transvestites are not transsexuals and shouldn’t be confused for one another. At least, the parts that aren’t random crap are about that. So, not only would Wood have not made a film about transsexuals were he to end with the angora sweater scene, he would have made a film that was very, very specifically not about transexuals and furthermore, kept reminding you of that fact.
What we get to make up for this deficiency is, well, more stock footage, but that won’t be a surprise to you if you’ve made it this far. This time, the psychiatrist tells the story of “Alan”, a thinly disguised Jorgensen who decides to undergo surgery to become a woman. It’s pretty lame going, unfortunately. Wood tacked it on and it feels it.
Overall, I appreciate both the ambition and the sensibility of Glen or Glenda, despite its glaring problems. And seeing a film that at least is partially about transsexuality from the early 1950s – and a movie from that era that is 100% about not fitting into society’s norms – made me think about where we are in this debate now that it is 2020.
The strangest thing about the current trans debate that hit me after a rewatching of Glen of Glenda is that the film’s central conceit – that people who are born into the wrong body as well as anyone who feels compelled to do things that drive them out of the mainstream of society should be treated with compassion – is now more controversial in a way than it was in 1953. Feeling bad for trans people is now considered looking down on them in some fashion. The main societal narrative of the day says we should treat trans people like gay people – that their lifestyle is no way bad for them and it is only society’s opprobrium that stands in the way of their happiness. Only, I think this is a poor way of looking at things.
Surely being born into the wrong gender, ie, a gender you don’t feel represents the gender you feel you are inside, is an unfortunate turn of events. You can’t choose to have a penis if you weren’t born with one, to start with. The surgery that exist to get as close as possible to changing one’s gender is still pretty substandard. Pretending this doesn’t matter is also bizarre. It’s sometimes as if being transgender is being presented as a lifestyle choice, when surely to those with gender dysmorphia, it’s much more serious than that.
Pretending our bodies are meaningless and that we can imagine ourselves as anything and have that imagination become reality, is ludicrous and self-defeating. I would go back to the ethos of Glen or Glenda – can’t we all just accept one another and our idiosyncrasies for what they are? If someone’s lifestyle has zero impact on your own, why do you care what someone else likes to wear?
If you haven’t seen it, give Glen or Glenda a whirl. It’s not as much fun as Plan 9, but it’s actually got even more heart. Again, while it can’t be described as “good” in any normal sense, it’s weirdly entertaining.