Classic Reel : Glen or Glenda

Cast: Ed Wood (credited as Daniel Davis), Timothy Farrell, Lyle Talbot, Dolores Fuller   and Bela Lugosi

Directed by: Ed Wood

Year of Release: 1953

Plot: A police detective investigating a suicide talks to a psychiatrist who tells him two stories, one of a transvestite and a pseudo hermaphrodite.

Ed Wood was a film producer, director and writer whose enthusiasm and passion for his work made up for his lack of skill in film making. Today, he has the unfortunate legacy of being remembered as the Worst Director of all Time, for  his campy, badly made movies. Glen or Glenda (alternative titles ‘I Changed My Sex’, ‘I Led Two Lives’, ‘He or She?’) written and directed by Wood is considered one of the worst movies ever made.

Shot in merely four days, it was made  on a low budget, ran for an hour and five minutes and had a deep voiced narrator, Timothy Farrell, who also played the psychiatrist- Dr Alton.

To say the least, it’s rather exhausting to watch and you would probably go, 'what is this s***?'
For one thing, there are scenes where we hear dialogue but not the people talking and the visuals looking a bit choppy as though the camera man didn’t have a steady hand. Another is the role of horror legend Bela Lugosi (Dracula, White Zombie, Night of Terror) in the movie who spent most of the time sitting in an arm chair or mixing chemicals in a study/lab filled with scientific paraphernalia. Credited as ‘The Scientist’, he makes comments about Humanity; at times contemptuous, other times really creepy.

Beware. Beware. Beware of the big, green dragon that sits on your doorstep. He eats little boys, puppy dog tails and big fat snails. Beware. Take care. Beware. 

Pull the string! Pull the string!

As the movie has a narrator, we don’t exactly know who he’s supposed to portray, though some viewers might say he’s a symbolic representation of God, viewing humans and the changing world with a cynical eye. One of the things Ed was known for was shooting scenes in one take, hence you would notice in Lugosi’s first scene the shadow of the camera man when the camera zooms out. Another was the shoddy props and continuity errors; there was a newspaper with an obviously taped on headline (look closely at the text on the rest of the paper), the repeated appearance of the same costumes in different settings and the constant use of stock footage.

And there is the very disturbing dream sequence midway in the movie of a man whipping a woman (Fifty Shades of Grey comes to mind), two women making out, a woman doing some sort of weird strip tease and a woman who seemed to being raped, the ‘scientist’ and Ed Wood’s character Glen watching.

 And what was with the ‘devil’ with the hairy horns...made of hair???

 Gross. But apparently, that wasn't Wood’s doing but the movie’s producer’s George Weiss- who wanted to add extra scenes to the movie, as it was rather short.
But if you ignore the bad parts and mistakes, you would see the general message being passed in  Glen or Glenda, and some symbolism.  It was a semi-auto bio/docudrama as Wood (a transvestite himself, true story) was exposing how society was quick to judge transvestites and transgenders without really understanding them and tried to present the difference between both, along urging society to show them sympathy and tolerance.  Definitely a controversial subject in the 1950s era, where there was little or no sympathy for people not considered normal in American society.

After Bela Lugosi’s monologue, we open to the scene of a suicide. A transvestite, Patrick/Patricia had taken his own life, leaving a note explaining why he did it, via a voiceover. For some reason, while the note’s content is being read, the camera moves to the
 radiator in the small room. Back to Patrick, he had been arrested more than once over his cross dressing and sent to prison. Since he knew it would happen again because of his continual habit of wearing women’s clothes, he killed himself, leaving instructions he wanted to be buried in the clothes he preferred wearing.

Let my body rest in death forever, in the things I cannot wear in life. 

Wanting to know more, the police detective called to the scene, Inspector Warren (Lyle Talbot) goes to see a psychiatrist Dr. Alton, who tells him the story of Glen/Glenda and Alan/Ann to explain.

Glen (played by Wood) is a transvestite who hides his habit from his fiancée Barbara (played by his then girlfriend Dolores Fuller). From the narrative, it’s made clear Glen isn’t gay;

 Glen is not a homosexual. Glen is a transvestite, but he is not a homosexual. 

He started the habit after borrowing his sister’s dress -as a child- for a Halloween party.  Glen is torn and filled with guilt; he doesn’t know whether to tell Barbara about this before or after their wedding or simply give up his inner female self, Glenda, for good.
The movie showed a few scenes where, as Glenda, he’s wearing a hat, an angora sweater, skirt and  jacket but other scenes where he is seen as Glen,

staring at women’s clothes being displayed at a shop’s window and asking to see some lingerie;  his face looking
anguished as he does so and when he's walking home. More so, a conversation with his friend John (also a cross dresser) further stretches his dilemma as Johns wife left him because of his habit. 

He’s haunted by mocking voices and hallucinations tormenting him of his habit, including a dream scenario where the devil is grinning beside as he and Barbara are being married.

  When he tells Barbara at last, she symbolically accepts the way he is by taking off her angora sweater and giving it to him. A therapy session with Dr Alton determines Glen and Barbara’s future and Glen’s story ends there. Glen was able to come to terms with himself and made a choice. But according to ‘The Scientist’;

But what of the others, less fortunate Glens, the world over? Oh snips and snails and puppy dog tails? 

 The other story is about Alan/Ann. He was born a boy to the disappointment of his mother who wanted a girl, thus raised him as one. He tried fitting in with both male and female school mates but was rejected by both. After secretly identifying as a woman for years, he’s able to change his sex after hearing about sex change operations while recovering from injuries he sustained
from World War II and becomes 'Ann'.
What Ed Wood was also trying to say is that trans people aren't freaks and shouldn’t be judged so fast. According to the narrator,

If the creator had wanted us to be born girls or boys, we certainly would have been born girls or boys. But are we sure? Nature makes mistakes; we can correct that which nature has not given us. Yet the world is shocked by a sex change when it clearly shouldn’t be.

And as for cross dressers, they simply like dressing in clothes of the opposite sex and aren't freaks either, as most of them aren't even gay, but normal heterosexual males- like himself. Inspector Warren even asked Dr Alton if Glen had gay tendencies and got the reply, ‘Absolutely not! It is very seldom that a true transvestite does’. The narrator seemed to even as far as to question women who call men with similar tastes to them as ‘effeminate’ or ‘fruits’.

Little Miss Female, you should feel quite proud of the situation. You of course realise it’s predominantly men who design your clothes, your jewellery, your makeup, your hairstyling, your perfume.

Not to everyone’s taste; considering the subject matter, which is still presently a touchy one in this modern era. Ed Wood’s movies may have sucked but for him to pick such a controversial issue, he was ahead of his time.


Ed Wood was actually  a transvestite, favouring angora sweaters. In an interview, Dolores Fuller insisted Ed's drinking problem was  the reason why she broke up with him, NOT because of his cross dressing. 

Glen or Glenda was referenced a lot  in Seed of Chucky. 

 In the 1994 biopic Ed Wood, directed by Tim Burton, he was played by Johnny Depp, Bela Lugosi by Martin Landau, Dolores Fuller by Sarah Jessica Parker and Ed's eventual wife Kate by Patricia Arquette.


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