Directed by Edward D. Wood, Jr.
Lyle Talbot – Inspector Warren
Bela Lugosi – The Scientist
Edward D. Wood, Jr. – Glen/Glenda
Timothy Farrell – Dr. Alton
In November of 1943, A young marine went charging up the smoldering beach of Tarawa Atoll, rushing eagerly into the breech of furious hand-to-hand combat with the enemy. As the forces met, a Japanese soldier slammed his rifle butt into the marine’s mouth, knocking out all of his front teeth. This particular young marine was known for his physical toughness, however, and had a potent reputation as a fierce combat soldier. He spit clots of blood and teeth into the sand then rammed his bayonet home with all his strength. The Japanese soldier fell into the sand, clutching himself. The Marine was in a blood rage, however, and stood over the opponent, thrusting his bayonet down over and over before reason returned.Our young, toothless warrior handily survived the four day battle, which proved to be some of the war’s bloodiest fighting in the Pacific Theater. Indeed – so unhampered was he by the red bra and panties he wore under his Marine uniform throughout, he emerged with medals.
The Marine, of course, was Edward D. Wood Jr., who, judging by his hearty plunge into the hottest points of battle, never feared death. He would tell his curious collection of friends years later that it was not getting killed at Tarawa that frightened him – it was getting seriously injured. If that happed, Marine doctors or nurses might discover he was a transvestite, which would be difficult to explain to his fellow brothers in arms. Dying would have been much easier.
Throughout his life, Wood’s clumsy and touching moments of confession or revelation would always go decidedly poorly. His first wife, Norma McCarty, kicked him out of the house on their wedding night. Wood, undressing for a presumed consummation, was still wearing the ladies’ panties he had worn for the ceremony. McCarty declined further participation and the marriage was annulled the following day. In 1959, Wood regular Lyle Talbott was elected to take a very drunken Wood home after the wrap party for the infamous Plan 9 From Outer Space. Wood was several gimlets past speech and was unable to give Talbott a home address. Finally deciding not to leave Wood on the sidewalks of Hollywood, he drove him to his own home, which he shared with his wife and kids. At his wife’s courteous insistence, Talbot (somewhat reluctantly) plunked the large, besotted director in the main bedroom for the evening. The following morning, as Talbot, wife, and kids were having breakfast, Wood came clunking out of the couple’s bedroom wearing some of the wife’s clothing (a couple sizes too small at that). Talbot reacted with sheer horror. He demanded Wood remove his wife’s things and all but physically threw him from the house, screaming at him the whole time. The two never spoke or saw one another again.
After the historic Battle of Tarawa, Wood went on to serve with an intelligence unit in the South Pacific until he got a leg torn up by machine gun fire. He was Honorably Discharged from the Marines in 1944, having earned the Silver and Bronze Stars, Two Purple Hearts, and a Sharpshooter’s Medal for his zealous service.
After the war, Wood drifted a bit, as ex-soldiers often do. He gave college a brief, half-hearted whirl, then went to work in a traveling carnival, biting the heads off chickens as the geek - sometimes appearing as the Half-Man, Half Woman; in other words, perfect employment for an eager young man that drank far too much vodka and liked the sheer quality of a well-made negligee. Being a carny didn’t fully satisfy, however, and he eventually fell in with the fringe element of Hollywood, working at odd jobs along the tattered and soiled edges of the movie industry. Around this time, Wood became increasingly determined to make his own movies. This had been a long-held dream, lurking right behind the blood-soaked sands of Tarawa and the crunch of chicken heads. Once ensconced in the seedy apartments of Hollywood, Wood was able to engage his greatest gift: an optimism that was superhuman in its power; and an ability to move forward under circumstances that would crush a normal soul. Throughout his life, the utter and complete defeats, indeed, the profound humiliations, that would have beaten the dreams from an average man served only to give Wood strength and increased energy.
Over the next few years Wood did find work with a camera, but the results were little more than home movies. Still, his jaw-dropping zest never failed to leave an impression. Then, in 1952, Wood saw an honest-to-God window of opportunity that made him quiver with excitement: That year Christine Jorgenson’s successful sex reassignment operation became a media event, making headlines throughout the world. Sensing the moment, Wood sprinted into the offices of low-rent Z-movie producer George Weiss and made his case. Wood explained that he was uniquely positioned to tell Jorgenson’s story and wanted to turn the shy, dental student’s unusual story into a movie. Weiss, after hearing Wood’s reasoning, agreed to fund a modest effort. Wood approached Jorgenson who, without a great deal of consideration, took a pass on the project. Undaunted (ever undaunted) and with Weiss’s money in his pocket, Wood quickly decided to write an autobiographical script and film his own story instead.
Glen or Glenda is the story of Glen, a young transvestite, and his tortures trying to fit into a society eager to shun him for his devotion to women’s clothing. At times Glen or Glenda feels like a quasi-documentary (albeit a cracked and angry one), and at other times a twisted adventure into the world of the profoundly lost and lonely. It is stuffed full of the usual Wood stock footage (nearly always jarring in its placement). It boasts a lugubrious and melodramatic performance from Bela Lugosi as “The Scientist” in which the ill and drug-addicted legend sits in a padded chair and mouths sentence after sentence of bleak, disjointed rambling that, oddly, hold the ear as if one were hypnotized. But most importantly, it stars the man himself, Edward D. Wood Jr. in a kind of duel role: As Glen, struggling to make his fiancée, Barbara (Delores Fuller), understand his “condition;” and then also as Glenda, tromping through the seedier locals and storefronts of Los Angeles, wearing an ill-fitted blond wig, a boxy skirt and high heels, and trademark angora sweater and hat.
The film is most assuredly inept, but that misses the point by a mile. An authority as beloved as Leonard Maltin has called it “probably the worst film ever made.” These sort of insights are rather like describing Hurricane Katrina as the worst day on record for kite flying – undoubtedly true but failing entirely to capture a thing’s power and significance.
Glen or Glenda is the most courageous and self-revealing movies ever offered up by an American film maker. The sheer balls it must have taken to make this film, to step so far outside of the conventions of a society, probably isn’t possible anymore. Films today, as all know, are made to shock – the intention is to make you vomit or find revulsion in the main characters. Film makers since the 1970s have worked so desperately hard at this, there is simply no amount of blood or gore which retains the power to furrow the brow; no amount of deviance that seems breath taking, disgusting, or even vaguely enticing or tempting. Nothing can surprise or repulse, because nothing is taken that seriously. We have seen so far behind the curtain that we’ve forgotten there is a curtain. When Wood made this film in 1953, such was not the case. Films then were taken more at their word and Wood made this film straight-up.
Along these lines lies the thing of beauty about Glen or Glenda: it was not made to titillate or shock. Quite the reverse, Glen’s struggle with normal society – marriage, love, 9-5 employment, and men’s attire – is meant to persuade one to an understanding perspective. It is Glen’s (Wood’s) struggle for “normalcy” which make this film so shocking. To watch Wood as Glen, sitting in his shabby, atomic age dump, dressed in his cheap men’s suit while he desperately makes idle chit-chat with his fiancée, is to watch a moment of terrible pain and tension - like waiting for the circus geek to bound at the bars of his cage, chicken blood dripping from his mouth and his eyes showing all white. This thin veneer of poverty-strapped normalcy barely concealing a torrent of strange makes Glen or Glenda one of the most unique and flat bizarre films ever made; and if there has ever been a film by an American that remained so completely true to a film-makers vision, I haven’t seen it or been told about it. Certainly, no concessions are obvious here to satisfy convention, to say the least.
It is extremely doubtful, despite his confessional sales pitch to producer Weiss, if Wood could have gotten this film off the ground without the participation of Bela Lugosi, whose powerful aura could still conjure attention. Wood plays to his strength from the opening credits – placing Lugosi’s name before, above, and in the same font-size as the title itself. The film even opens with the stark, still-handsome face of the great Dracula (the actor, though ill and drug-addicted by 1952-3, was teetering on the brink of the startling desiccation that would ravage his appearance. By the filming of Bride of the Monster in 1955, the decline was obvious), sitting in a moth-eaten chair in the middle of a small, narrow, moth-eaten set. Skulls and old books adorn the bookcase behind Lugosi, a skeleton and a mummy stand in the corners. The heavy drone of organs give way to a lonely howl of night wind. Lugosi is reading from a tome as large as his torso. He closes the book, looks directly at the camera and, without bothering to introduce himself, begins lecturing:
“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. The signs of the ages. . .”
Lugosi’s “Scientist” will be one of the major threads of the movie, speaking to the camera from his chair, working in an extremely threadbare laboratory (right next to his chair), and sometimes speaking to us as a voice-over. Lugosi wraps up his opening monologue buy ushering us into a scene of a transvestite suicide. “A life has ended” says Lugosi, his face superimposed momentarily over the shot of a dingy motel room and a young transvestite laying out primly on a single bed, his makeup and hair done perfectly. Lugosi’s face fades, and we begin another thread of Glen or Glenda:
The police and photographers enter the small, dimsal apartment, snapping shots of the dead man, displaying a somber respect for the dead. Inspector Warren (Lyle Talbott) stands over the body, considering the suicide note which describes a sad life of police arrests and public scorn due to a love of wearing women’s clothing in public. “let my body rest in death forever,” says a thin, reedy voiceover, “in the things I cannot wear in life.”
Inspector Warren, deciding he needs top-flight, professional insight into the case, visits the office of Dr. Alton, Physiologist (Timothy Farrell). The men shake hands and extend pleasantries, then Inspector Warren flops his hat on the doctor’s desk, lights up a cigar, and gets down to cases: In an effort to improve his police work, the inspector seeks insight into various unconventional sexual practices; and Dr. Alton, being a certified expert of the human condition, will offer his insights into such topics as sex transference, hermaphrodites, homosexuality, and transvestitism. The long, long discussion the two men will have will constitute the second narrative thread of the movie, with the psychologist’s voice-over providing exposition for the rest of the film (as well as an authoritative, documentary flavor). The doctor will describe several cases of varying degrees while discussing matters with the inspector, one of them being the “successful” case of a transvestite named Glen.
This scene is notable for two reasons: first, it is the most lavish and realistic interior set Edward Wood ever managed to provide: The bookcases are filled with real books, the desk and chairs actually look expensive, and the appointments, wall hangings, and details are all well done and give an air of understated sophistication (the large ashtray, into which our inspector taps his cigar ash, has an appropriate Mid-Century Modern look – meaning it looks like a space ship that is about to lift off the desk and fly to mars). Considering the pathetically meager budget of $26,000, I can only assume that Wood knew a sympathetic, actual professional psychologist that allowed him to shoot for an afternoon in his office.
Secondly, the scene is rich in Wood dialogue; that is, sentences that clunk and clatter around a bit before coming to a period; with a sentence structure that always sounds jarringly unnatural. The inspector and the doctor don’t seem to actually talk in the scene so much as give speeches to one another. There are moments in the scene when actor Lyle Talbott (one of Wood’s most experienced regulars) can actually be seen gathering his strength before launching into yet another awkward Wood discourse.
The third thread of the movie is the Case of Glen/Glenda (Ed Wood); a young transvestite who is under the doctor’s care (the film also briefly touches on the case of Alan/Anne, a more “serious case” involving a sex change, but this story smacks a bit of the aborted Jorgensen bio-pic). Glen is tormented by the thought of losing his fiancée, Barbara, whom he has not told abut his transvestitism (in an interesting side note, real-life Wood girlfriend, Delores Fuller, played Barbara without knowing about her boyfriend’s real-life transvestitism. Wood would simply give her scenes to play - and most play as simple “troubled young love” scenes - not telling her the overall story of the film. Looking back on it, Fuller still has an edge of bitterness over the film. “He put our life right up there,” she says in The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood, Jr., a documentary about the film maker, “I wanted to crawl into a hole.”).
The heart of the film, then, is the angst Glen feels about confronting Barbara with his “condition.” He truly loves Barbara, and is terrified of losing her; yet is equally unhappy about the prospect of having to give up women’s clothing for the sake of her love. He becomes the Hamlet of the transvestite, B-movie world, crushed between two impossible choices.
The doctor’s off-screen voice guides the action along with his semi-professional patter (actor Timothy Farrell, as Dr. Alton, has a voice about as comforting as a hammer drill, and his “sympathetic” observations seem more like intimidations rather than guidance. Wood found a much more suitable use for Farrell’s voice and manner a few years later in Jail Bait, where he plays the cop-killing bank robber, Vic Brady). Lugosi’s Scientist plunges the film back now and then into the bizarro zone with his omniscient threats, fake lightning, ominous observations; and snippets of nursery rhymes read as the possible tortures of the damned (just imagine Lugosi’s thick, Hungarian accent, telling all to beware of puppy dog tails, garden snails, and big green dragons, to feel the shivering oddity of the moment).
Somehow, despite the deadly earnest, black-eyed sympathy of Dr. Alton and the contemptuous rantings of Lugosi’s Scientist, Glen and Barbara manage to work things out and lead a conventional life. The doctor helps Glen to understand that all his problems stem from a drunken, abusive father and a mother who never wanted a boy in the first place (Woods own mother dressed him in girl’s clothes well into his adolescence). We are treated to a Woodsian fantasy ending where Glen is cured completely. As violins play, we see Glen coming home, dressed in business suit and tie, to a beautifully furnished home and loving wife. The fact that Ed Wood remained a committed cross-dresser, finishing his years as a penniless alcoholic in a shabby one-bedroom on Laurel Canyon, serves to give these final scenes of affluent, domestic bliss a particular melancholy.
And so lets get to the Good Stuff:
Good Stuff Pt. I: Bela Lugosi as God
Lugosi plays a part named only “Scientist” in this film, yet he is obviously God, or at least the god of Ed Wood's imagination. The god of Glen Or Glenda is a scientist experimenting with mankind, having nothing but a snide hatred for the pathetic scurrying of his creations; an omniscient being without love for mankind yet somehow bound to the disappointments of this creation.
“People,” says Lugosi as God, his voice dripping contempt, his image superimposed above a bustling, city street, “all going . . .somewhere. All with their own thoughts. Their own ideas. All with their own personalities.” He pauses, looking down over the stock footage of foot traffic – men, women, children - is mouth an inky well of rotten teeth – God as corrupt and ruined Dracula -- ready to eat mankind bones and all. He folds his hands, his eyes become narrow. “One is wrong because he does right. One is right, because he does wrong.” His face darkens, and then the Scientist commands: “Pull the string! Dance to that which one is created for!” The words sear from Lugosi, and his need to watch mankind flit about, debase itself in pointless and endless humiliations, is clear. This scientist, his sanctum littered with their bones and symbols of death, loves to watch men and women prance about like temporal puppets for his dark entertainment.
No one could have played this God of Grim Life & Death but Lugosi, who by 1953, had a heart full of pain killers, rotten love, and cynicism regarding the nobility of his fellow mortals. Listen to Lugosi’s voice in these scenes. Tell me you don’t hear God Dracula in some final afterlife of the dead, reigning over the world of forgotten nightmares – able to see but forever unseen. There are fools, or merely the profoundly disappointed, that say Lugosi was ill-used by Wood. Bullshit. These are some of the actors truest and most heartfelt moments, and Lugosi is his perfect self under Wood's loving direction.
Good Stuff Pt. II: The Nightmare of Convention
As Glen is racked with torment over his love for Barbara, he has a dream. Within this dream, Wood expresses a sheer terror of conventional society; a pure sweat-dripping horror, that few directors in film have ever set down so clearly. In particular focus are the forces that shape children as nursery rhymes are chanted by little girl voices, shrill and rich with the echo as if sung in a vast crypt. “Snips and Snails. Puppy dog tails. Ha Ha Ha. Everything Nice. Everything Nice.”
Scenes and brief images come in a well-edited montage: Wood imagines himself getting married, in suit and tie, and his best man is Satan, grinning beside the preacher (the preacher, in fact, shakes hands with The Unclean One as he approaches the alter). The temptations of the flesh float against a background of black - scenes of bondage, torture, rape and carnal ecstasy - all repersenting the soiled undergarments beneath the finery of everyday society (noticeably, in these scenes, Satan is not present; only writhing young woman and men with whips and rope. Lugosi God looks on these scenes of debauche with a sneer of disgust.).
Wood dreams himself in a conventional room, except that all is slightly ajar. Wall lamps and pictures hang crookedly, all the potted plants are dead, furniture is tipped over. Stone faced members of polite society begin to pop into the room, teachers, childhood friends, etc.; all with large, unblinking eyes. They surround Wood like ghouls, pointing their fingers at him one by one, as the girl’s voice chants, “I’m a girl, you’re not. I’m a girl. You’re a puppy dog tail!” Satan joins them, reaching for his soul (significantly, the actor playing Satan, Captain DeZita, also plays Wood's drunken, abusive father). All converge on him, turning into the dragon that eats little boys. The entire dream plays out like one of Kerouac’s amphetamine-induces riffs.
Gradually this pile of demons and monsters, all next door neighbors and classmates, are pushed off the huddled Wood by an unseen force, all gradually wander off-camera. Satan vanishes in a poof. Wood – Glenda – stands up, tall and triumphant in angora hat and sweater, towering in the room in his heels. He strides across the room like a queen as violins soar. He has decided to tell Barbara the truth about himself, unwilling to live a lie.
The Glen of the film narative is "cured," but Wood let's us in on the truth of the matter with this nightmare sequence; and his dream self is true, brave, and walks in victory after despatching his nightmares of convention.
Good Stuff Pt. III: Edward D. Wood, Jr. and the Shinning Faith of Dreams.
At some point in Ed Wood’s life, he decided he wanted to make movies and work in the movie industry; and from that point forward until the day his heart stopped, he did just that. He never stopped trying, he never looked back, and he never quit. Remember, this is a man who spit teeth into the sands of war and kept moving forward. Wood didn’t know how to quit. He just kept working and moving forward, even when (especially when) all the forces of the movie industry beat the living shit out of him and left him for dead. They could never break him, never crack his staggering optimism. He didn’t die of a broken heart; it simply burned out within his chest, ruined by alcohol and struggle.
Any attempt to turn Wood into a great film-maker is a mistake. His films are, at the least, never boring, but any effort to construct a misunderstood genius from his work is to deprive Wood of his true legacy. Alex Gordon, producer of Wood’s Bride of the Monster and a friend, once said, “Eddie couldn’t direct traffic.” This is a little severe, but true. Wood had mastery of none of a film-maker’s traditional tools. Yet his significance as an artist is profound and lasting.
In an age when film makers like Richard Cunha, Roger Corman, Bert Gordon, and Herb Cohen made great monster movies, always with an eye toward ticket sales and profits; Wood hoped for a deeper note. He made films about the degeneration of society (Jail Bait), mankind’s need and proclivity for self-destruction (Plan 9), and the persecution of society’s misfits and the oppression of convention (Glen or Glenda). It is the nobility of the effort, the reaching so far beyond the limits of grasp, that make Wood so special. He wanted to be remembered, and he died trying.
I host a movie series at a public library. Recently, as I was about to introduce a film, a young man approached me. He had a thin, reedy mustache, extremely pale skin, and a bit of a stammer. He asked me if I planned to show any Ed Wood films in the future. I said that yes, I did; and that I was a fan of the director and his work.
The hope in the young man’s eyes as he asked about Wood, and the smile I received after I declared myself a fan, is a legacy very few film-makers ever recieve. - Radiation Cinema