Rewatching Glen Or Glenda, the thing that struck me is what a sad, desperate, and hauntingly earnest film it is.
I remember a Senior Year road trip to 6th Street in Austin with friends. You know, to do the sort of corny shit out-of town military brat teenagers do in a town that is supposed to be the epitome of cool. Which is basically nothing because we were minors and no clubs would let us in. So we spent the evening peeking into tourist stores full of hipster junk. At one store in particular, they had campy postcards of cult movies. I was drawn to one in particular that read “I CHANGED MY SEX”.
You know, because it’s funny, I told the other guys. That’s it. Whether the infamous band trip where the ladies of the flag corp gave me a makeover on the bus was as fresh in their minds as was mine is forever lost to history. After graduation, I moved away to attend college for a Computer Science degree. With the money left from my first check from my job at the dorm cafeteria, I bought a dress and some make-up. Things got weird after that.
A few years later, I finally got around to watching Glen Or Glenda with some drag queens I performed with. We giggled and chirped because that’s what you do alongside your fellow queens appreciating terrible films ironically. I had a good time, but felt like the movie was a bit long. Even for an hour, a lot of the film just seemed to go on forever.
I’ve re-watched it again recently and yeah, it still seems way too long. It would be rad if some Youtube personality could trim the fat off of it someday. But the other thing that struck me is what a sad, desperate, and hauntingly earnest film it is.
“We were not born with wings, we were not born with wheels, but in the modern world of the day it is an accepted fact that we must have them. So we have corrected that which nature has not given us.”
Now don’t get me wrong, this movie is still campy as hell. The film opens with a clearly morphine-groggy Bela Lugosi chewing the scenery in what appears to be a Spirit Halloween going-out-of-business sale. Skeletons dangle and mad scientist stuff bubbles around him for no fathomable reason and then a thunderclap peals for a good two minutes longer than anyone could possibly take seriously. Lugosi grimaces and genuflects, watching over and seemingly judging the humdrum lives of average folk. Lamenting their complacency with routine and tradition.
It then fades into a gorgeously noir lit scene of police discovering the body of a transvestite that had committed suicide.
They learn her name is Patricia as they read a surprisingly moving plea of acceptance in the suicide note. The victim had been arrested for crossdressing multiple times, and knew the police harassment would never stop. The note ends with a plea to let her remain dressed as a woman and be known for how she lived.
In my own home state of Texas, sodomy laws remained on the books until 2003. While that didn’t necessarily translate into a whole lot of folks being arrested outright for crossdressing or gay sex (in fact, doing so is what eventually led to the laws being struck down as unconstitutional), it did lead to frequent crackdowns and imposing police presence at gay and drag bars and events all over Texas through much of my early adulthood. So I have some first-hand familiarity with this sort of police harassment, although not as extreme.
Inspector Warren, dazed by this revelation, seeks the assistance of a Dr. Alton, an expert on transvestite and transsexual issues. He wants to know what can be done for folks like Patricia to make their lives easier. Unfortunately, the idea of relaxing rigid gender roles and decriminalizing cross-dressing and homosexuality didn’t cross the desk. In the McCarthyite environment of 1953, this would practically suggest anarchy.
The role of McCarthyism on this film could explain an element that always rubbed me the wrong way: the distinctive Otherness projected on homosexuality throughout the film. Strangely enough, this didn’t extend to the possibly intersex androphilic transsexual story shoehorned in near the end to capitalize on news stories of Christine Jorgenson. It’s definitely understated, but the understanding that Anne would be marrying a husband and “learning her the part as the woman in sex” is suggested with none of the previous judgement or othering applied to earlier depicted homosexual transvestites and their desires to have sex with men.
For further context, Wood’s later masterpiece “Plan 9 From Outer Space” starred Bunny Breckenridge, a gay man who considered, and then reconsidered sex-reassignment. One could wonder whether some of the homophobic unpleasantness that blemishes the movie could have been avoided in a less-restrictive political environment.
Ya know, kinda like the environment the movie itself begs for. Throughout the film, people from various walks of life discuss their fears and misgivings of this fast-paced world where medical science can change sex. Meanwhile, scenes pan over others living seeming fruitful relatively normal lives while
crossdressing in secret.
The core of the movie centers on the title character, played by Wood, and his personal struggle over coming out to his wife about his crossdressing. In a poignant, yet downright laughably poorly framed scene, Glen’s best friend Johnny tells a tragic tale of the time his now ex-wife discovered him in a nightie and filed for divorce. As Glen continues to struggle over telling his wife about his crossdressing, he ponders this and the suicide of a fellow transvestite.
There’s also an element of hypnotic repetition to the film I hadn’t noticed before. The same stretch of highway appears multiple times as the doctor
narrates, lamenting the restrictiveness of polite society. Bela Lugosi repeats a mangled nursery rhyme and rhetorically interrogates a dragon that “eats little boys”. A newspaper bearing the headline WORLD SHOCKED OVER SEX CHANGE, another obvious nod to Jorgenson, appears in nearly every scene. A bushy-eyebrowed devil character, played with almost painfully Freudian overtones by the same actor playing Glen’s father, appears to torment the character with scenes of marital struggle and homosexual panic.
The movie offers two alternatives for folks with a gender identity mismatch, medical transition or reparative therapy with the goal of ceasing crossdressing. Maybe this message was again a product of the political climate, a misinterpretation of contemporary psychological literature or who knows what, but it leads to a poignant real-life twist. The movie ends with the implication Glen pursues the therapy to cease his crossdressing, but Wood himself continued to do so after his wife (in life and in the movie) left him and for the rest of his life until the point he eventually drank himself to death.
Over sixty years later and we still haven’t quite reached the understanding and acceptance of fluid sexualities and gender-presentation hoped for in this film. Taking into consideration the modern landscape of such, the whole thing is a lot more depressing than I remember it being.
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