Welcome back to our queer film retrospective, “A Gay Old Time.” In this week’s column, we revisit 1954’s Glen Or Glenda, the first film from legendary B-movie director Ed Wood.
Film has existed primarily as a means of entertainment for pretty much as long as it’s been around. But, as the form has evolved through the decades, it’s gone on to have a reach far beyond just keeping us amused as we sit in a dark room for a few hours.
Film has driven and changed cultural conversations, transcended national borders, and formed a new language to communicate ideas. It became a tool that allows the audience to empathize with and project onto fictional characters, while also working as a conduit for filmmakers to explore their deepest questions, dreams, and fears. Making movies has allowed people to deal with—and exorcise—their inner demons.
This week we’re diving into a film that does just that with Ed Wood’s 1953 seminal classic, Glen Or Glenda.
Infamous for being considered one of the worst films of all time upon its release, it blends documentary with narrative, Ed Wood’s persona life with fiction, and mixes together elements of various genres—from monster movies to industrial videos—to create a fascinating (though deeply stuck in its time) portrait of a man that enjoys wearing women’s clothing.
Glen Or Glenda is told in many narrative layers, following a police inspector (Lyle Talbot) that is trying to understand the mental state of a man that committed suicide and was found wearing women’s clothes.
He goes to a doctor (Timothy Farrell), who tells him about two different cases of men that went through similar circumstances: a man named Glen (Ed Wood himself)—who had an affinity for wearing female clothes and kept it from his wife until the guilt ate him alive—and a soldier named Alan (‘Tommy’ Haynes) who decided to have a sex change operation.
Monster As Metaphor
The film is told in about three different narrative framing devices. One has Dracula screen legend Bela Lugosi as a narrator (in a role that most definitely inspired the Criminologist in Rocky Horror Picture Show), framing the movie as a horror allegory, inspired by the Universal Studios monster movies that he himself starred in decades earlier.
The connections that the movie makes between queer people and monsters are not the most eloquent or timely, though there are some resonant allusions to being an outsider there.
The second layer has the Inspector and the Doctor discussing the two separate cases as if telling a folkloric tale. They are trying to understand these two different people as medical cases. The way that they treat Glen/Glenda and Alan with respect and dignity and not as broken outcasts or with any judgment definitely stands out.
That being said, they’re not afford much humanity, either—they’re seen merely stats and symptoms for these officials to examine and mull over.
The More You Know…
As they talk, scenes play out where Glen/Glenda and Alan are shown to be coping with their feelings. It’s here that the movie loses its narrative friction the most, and becomes almost like a public service announcement.
It’s shot, performed, and edited in the same style as an after-school special—almost with the intention of teaching the audience about crossdressing, gender reassignment surgery, and different expressions and identities (albeit, with outdated terminology the English language has advance far beyond). These are by far the most fascinating sections of the film.
Inside Ed’s Head
If you’ve watched the 1994 Tim Burton film Ed Wood, you’ve seen a heightened account of what went on behind the scenes of this movie, and how Ed Wood balanced his personal life with the filming of Glen Or Glenda.
Wood himself often dressed in women’s clothes at a time in American history of strict conservatism and focus on traditional family. Consequently, he projected a lot of his fears and insecurities into his films. All of them dealt with monsters and outcasts in some form. But Glen Or Glenda may have been the most personal of it all, as he literally projects and embodies the story himself.
By playing the character that is analyzed—the subject that others need to learn about and understand—Wood gets to act as his own therapist. A case study within his own film, the director is able to examine his personhood in from a more detached, objective point-of-view. He’s attempting to justify his existence—not just to others, but also to himself.
Out Of Time
This, unfortunately, leads to a lot of moments and explanations that are painfully dated, especially as the movie tries to understand many identities and orientations at a time when the proper language just didn’t exist.
A moment in the end where Glen/Glenda is “cured” of his crossdressing by simply “killing this fictitious character and passing on the traits of Glenda to his wife” is particularly hard to look back at. Its conclusion is basically these things can simply be willed away, which isn’t remotely true.
So, while Glen Or Glenda doesn’t hold up as an informative piece about the trans experience—or even necessarily as a form of entertainment (it falls into the exploitation genre)—it does remain a fascinating project of self-examination.
The Art Of Self-Projection
Through Wood’s playful use of genre and the inventive ways he fluctuates between fiction, docudrama and surrealism, we’re given glimpses into the mind of a legendary filmmaker. It’s a unique and rather melancholy portrait of a man just trying to understand his own self.
It’s for those reasons that Glen Or Glenda stands the test of time, even if its views on queerness do not. It’s a testament to the power of film, how it can reflect the lives of those sitting in front of the screen or behind the camera. Ed Wood may not have had the ability to actually voice what he was going through, but he found a way to express it the best he could through his art.
Glen Or Glenda is streamable via Prime Video, Hoopla, Tubi, and PlutoTV.