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Glen or Glenda: or, transvestism is PERFECTLY NORMAL
This movie turned out to be quite different from what I expected. I had heard of it for a while, and knew of it as the first film done by infamously bad writer/director Ed Wood, but I was expecting a drama about a man's struggles as a transvestite. Instead what i got was essentially a 68 minute long PSA about how people shouldn't judge men who like to dress up in women's clothing, how it was a perfectly normal deviation, bout also (somewhat contradictorily) how most transvestites can get over it with time. It was all rather strange.
It is unquestionably bad. I didn't notice any obvious flaws with the shooting like Wood's later film "Plan 9 From Outer Space" would become infamous for, instead being stunned by the sheer amount of stock footage used in the film. The most bizarre use of stock footage might be a scene where Bela Lugosi is superimposed over a shot of bison stampeding as he screams out "pull the string! Pull the STRING!" And no, this is never explained. More stock footage is used to pad out scenes where voiceovers express their opinions on transvestites. My favorite use of the stock footage, however, was how, to illustrate two separate characters' experiences at school, Wood decided to use two different parts of what is obviously the same reel of stock footage.
Bela Lugosi's role in this film also needs to be talked about. He's identified as "The Scientist" (although I've also heard him referred to as "The Puppetmaster") and he appears at the beginning, end, and throughout the film to spout off incomprehensible statements about humanity. Since there is also a more standard narrator (a psychiatrist consulted about transvestism by a police detective who's curious about it), Lugosi's occasional surreal intrusions on the movie just seem even more the weirder.He definitely seems to be having a fun time, however
Also weird is a bizarre dream sequence that takes up at least ten minutes of the very short film's running time, as our hero Glen (played by Wood himself) struggles with whether or not he should come out to his girlfriend Barbara (played by Wood's at-the-time real girlfriend Dolores Fuller) about his desire to wear women's clothing. Fair enough, but it's interspersed with random shots of people laughing at Glen, Bela Lugosi leering in an odd way, a guy dressed up like the devil who just turns up and grins at people, and unrelated shots of BDSM that appear to be in there for titillation purposes only (apparently these were inserted by the producer rather than by Wood himself). It is very surreal, and is too weird for weirdness' sake for it to work well.
Another thing that really underlines the flaw of this movie is that the Glen or Glenda story ends, and then a completely different story starts, this one about a person born male but with incomplete female parts who becomes a woman at 24. It's interesting watching this in 2010, when there's a term for people like that (intersex, rather than "pseudo-hermaphrodite," which is used in this film), as well as knowledge that intersex people and transvestites have nothing to do with one another. Apparently this was also forced on Wood by the producer, and it shows: it is almost entirely shot in stock footage, and so therefore seems incredibly lazy.
This film is bad. Almost all of the dialogue is clunky, with the detective and the psychiatrist sounding very much like they're in a PSA about how transvestites are PERFECTLY NORMAL (which I suppose was a message that needed to be spread in 1953), while Dolores Fuller's performance indicates very much that she may have been cast because she was the director's girlfriend. Only Wood himself (who wrote it after all, and was somewhat living Glen's life already) and Lugosi (who seems to be having the time of his life spouting gibberish) give performances that don't seem flat.
However, despite its badness, there's an earnestness that makes it watchable. You can tell that Wood cared very much about this subject, and he seems to be giving his all to create the best movie about transvestism ever. The fact that he fails--badly--doesn't stop the earnestness from being there.
So check it out at least once, just to have experienced it. It may not be good, but it's short and never boring.