Despite the overwhelming idiocy prevalent, I do think that we are moving forward as a society. Gay marriage was finally legalized and now people have to try and prevent another misunderstood people from getting acknowledgment from the government. But the widespread approval of Caitlyn Jenner (and immediate forgiveness of her manslaughter charge) shows that transfolks too will probably become something that the idiots of the world will just have to tolerate if they can't bother to behave like decent people. While homosexuality has had a subtle presence in film even way back during the Hays Code, non-binary and transpeople have seldom had any sort of representation.
Cue 1953 where a man known as Ed Wood Jr would release his first feature-length film. Christine Jorgensen had made headlines being one of the first transsexual women to be open about it. Hollywood producer, George Weiss, decided that he had to make a film based on this new controversial celebrity as quick as possible. Ed Wood Jr, himself a transvestite, lobbied to direct it and so came “Glen or Glenda” which may just be the first ever trans-film. Because it didn't have a wide release meant only for drive-through cinemas, they weren't restrained by the censorship of the era. It didn't get any real recognition until the 1980s when Ed Wood Jr was dubbed the worst director of all time after his death.
So, no, the movie wasn't any good. But you have to watch it, you guys, you just have to watch it. It's absolutely bonkers and will leave you with your jaw on the floor at the sheer amount of nonsensical pseudo advant garde storytelling.
To begin with, Ed hardly bothered to even acknowledge Christine Jorgensen or transsexuals in general, focusing almost primarily on his own struggles as a transvestite. He even cast himself in the starring role but went under the pseudonym Daniel Davis. If that wasn't enough he had his then girlfriend, Dolores Fuller, play the main character's fiance despite having no acting talent whatsoever. The kicker is that Dolores had no idea that her boyfriend was a transvestite before this film!
It's also well known for being one of the final roles that legendary horror actor Bela Lugosi starred in. Bela Lugosi was the actor who portrayed Dracula in the 1931 film adaptation. By this time in Lugosi's life he was about seventy years old, broke, addicted to morphine and his marriage was quickly failing. He accepted the role for a whopping one thousand dollars – no, really – and soon became good friends with Ed.
Bela Lugosi's role is probably the most notable and confusing part of the entire film. You see, he plays “the scientist.” Except that instead of doing any science, he sits in a chair and makes unrelated and awkwardly worded monologues about how irritating people are. Apparently, he's some sort of god-like figure and has an omnipresent view of the world including the main characters and creates life with some sort of chemistry set. Not that the film ever explains this. He opens the film with some strange existentialist talk and announces when the story begins. From then on, he just occasionally interrupts the film to shout a non-sequitur at the audience like a crack addicted mental patient. In the middle of the movie he inexplicably starts shouting “PULL DA STRING! PULL DA STRING!!” whilst stock footage of buffalo stampede in the background. And that's just the halfway point.
Anyways, the film starts off with Bela Lugosi beginning his narration and then we see a doctor explaining to some guy about transsexualism by narrating a story about the title character Glen. So, yes, the film essentially starts out with a narrator who tells us about another narrator who tells us about the main character. It's presented in a sort of documentary style with information just given to the audience about Glen's habits as a transvestite cut with scenes of Glen struggling to tell his fiance that he prefers wearing womens' clothing.
Did you know that hats are responsible for male-pattern baldness? Neither did I, but apparently they're so tight they cut off blood circulation to the head. Except it doesn't because that explanation makes no sense, but we're told that it must be true because seven out of ten men wear hats and seven out of ten men are bald. Knowledge is power.
We're treated to an amazing scene that explains when Glen became so enamored by womens' clothes. Glen wore his sisters dress to a Halloween party which won him first prize(?) but got used to its comfort. “Then one day,” the narration says, “it wasn't Halloween any longer.”
Halloween being a week long celebration for Glen, I guess. Then Glen's sister catches him in her clothes and she is so shocked that she stands there with her hand massaging her ear and a face like she just smelled something rancid. Glen just sort of drops his newspaper and makes a look that says, “...well this is awkward.”
The highlight of the film comes during some sort of acid trip dream sequence where Glen is haunted by people making silly faces and he has to make unenthusiastic hand gestures. During this sequence we see: the devil watching Glen get married, Bela Lugosi asking a non-existent dragon if he eats “puppy-dog tails and big fat snails,” unnerving pornographic BDSM sequences on a couch, Glen having a stroke, various women doing some sort of striptease, people making judgmental side glances, ominous finger pointing, and really cheesy music. All this leads up to a scene where Glen outs himself to his fiance and she acts like she's having a psychic vision before handing over her angora top to Glen in acceptance.
Because there had to be something about gender-reassignment surgery, another story was tacked on to the end about a person who successfully alters her sex. It hardly lasts five minutes before it goes back to Ed's character. I wish I could say this film was progressive in its depiction of gender-fluidity but it ends by suggesting that transvestism is some sort of pathological disorder that can be “cured” with therapy. While it deconstructs gender roles and humanizes people who are trans, it's still bound by the pseudoscience of the time it was made. It's progressive in some ways but still ends up being rather transphobic due to the limited information available at the time.
If I were to try to interpret this film, I would say that the entire film is about the relationship between God and patriarchal gender roles. Bela Lugosi's god-like character criticizes people for being afraid of nontraditional gender identity and watches Glen as he struggles with his masculinity. Glen wants to be masculine to gain the acceptance of his fiance, but his alter ego as Glenda makes him question who and what he is. The repeated playground rhyme about boys being made from “snips and snails and puppy-dog tails” gets repeated in reference to some sort of metaphorical dragon(?) that eats said ingredients. This dragon presumably refers to the self doubt that eats away at Glen's role as a man in the strict heteronormativity of the 50s. The “string” Lugosi keeps instructing people to pull might refer to the puppeteer like control he has over people, making them to dance for his amusement. It's when Glen deliberately fights against the societal pressures placed on him and accepts his dual identity does he finally ward off this self doubt. In front of the scientist, or God if you will, Glen comes to accept the “mistake” nature made by having him born a man. Or at least, that's how I would interpret it.
After this, Ed Wood Jr went on to make some of what would be known as the worst films of all time, most notoriously “Plan 9 From Outer Space.” I might have to go over that film some time as well. As if his career wasn't hilarious enough already, somewhere down the line he figured he would produce a number of softcore pornographic films with horror elements. “Orgy of the Dead” being the most well known of his dirty movies, it mostly consists of zombie strippers dancing in a smokey graveyard with mummies and skeletons while “The Amazing Criswell” narrates excitedly. Apparently, it was based on a book that Ed Wood Jr had written.
It ended up becoming a big influence to a few popular film directors - David Lynch in particular. Tim Burton was also quite the fan of Ed Wood Jr's works and in 1994 released a biopic about him. Burton's “Ed Wood” became one of his most underrated works having been out shined by his other films like “Edward Scissorhand” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” It even recreates scene from “Glen or Glenda” and goes over Ed's experience making it.
Luckily for everybody, most of Ed Wood Jr's films are public domain so you can find them all online for free and watch them to your heart's content. There's a genuine sincerity to his work that makes them such easy targets. It is perfect for drunken nights with friends when you need something bad to make fun of.