Glen or Glenda / I Led Two Lives / I Changed My Sex / He or She (1953)

“Only the infinity of the depths of a man’s mind can really tell the story.”

Synopsis:
A psychiatrist (Timothy Farrell) tells a concerned policeman (Lyle Talbot) the story of two individuals struggling with gender identity: a transvestite (Ed Wood) debating how to tell his fiancee (Dolores Fuller) about his cross-dressing predilection, and a transsexual (Tommy Haynes) about to undergo surgery.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Any film fanatic who’s seen Tim Burton’s must-see biopic Ed Wood (1994) will be keenly interested to (re)visit this “utterly perverse, personal film by Edward D. Wood, Jr.”, “making his directorial debut” and starring (under a pseudonym) in the title role. Originally intended to capitalize on the notoriety of Christine Jorgensen (whose story as the first widely known recipient of a sex change operation was later filmed as a “straight” biopic), Ed Wood saw the film as an opportunity to simultaneously address his own gender-bending predilection: transvestism. As Peary notes, “the picture’s treatment of [this issue] is serious and sensitive”, with Wood daring to “defend transvestites, saying that if allowed to wear women’s clothing they’ll be credits to their communities and government”. Peary argues that “one must be impressed by this film for the very reason that it takes a stand on a subject that surely was in 1953 not even acceptable enough to be considered controversial”.

He also points out that “Wood dares to incorporate footage that was obviously influenced by surrealists and experimental filmmakers”, noting that it’s “no matter that this footage is absolutely ridiculous”, given that “it shows Wood had an imagination”. Indeed, the surreal dream sequence occurring midway through the film is actually filled with such genuinely provocative imagery that, at the very least, you’ll sit up and pay attention — thus giving credence to the theory (espoused by some of Wood’s cult fans) that he may have been more of a maverick (amateur) auteur than merely the “bad director” he’s so frequently dismissed as. Meanwhile, those who’ve seen Ed Wood (or read about Glen or Glenda‘s production history) will know that Bela Lugosi was cast simply because of his name and his friendship with Wood, who wanted to provide him with some work. However, his role here is truly limited to that of an “absurd narrator” (“Pull the string! Pull the string!”); as Peary puts it, “Who knows what he is talking about?”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A truly groundbreaking look at a taboo subject
  • The impressively surreal dream sequence

Must See?
Yes, as one of Ed Wood’s most infamous cult films.

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One Response to “Glen or Glenda / I Led Two Lives / I Changed My Sex / He or She (1953)”

  1. A no-brainer must as a cult classic.

    ‘GOG’ starts out with such a lilting theme, you’d think you were about to see a Capra movie. (The score, thereafter and throughout, will be highly inventive, often intense, never less than effective.) We are then ‘warned’ on-screen that “no punches have been pulled” in the story we’re about to see. And we’re reminded: “You are society…JUDGE YE NOT…”

    How can ya not like this picture from the get-go?

    And who greets us first?: Bela! He welcomes us warmly with his opening speech, there in his comfy chair. Boy, did Ed luck out! Bela’s not half-bad, as he continues along in his puppetmaster way. (Strangely enough, I understand what Bela says throughout.) Then…Bela exits. We move on to a conversation between a policeman and a psychiatrist which gets a little overly clinical in an earnest yet somewhat chuckle-worthy way:

    Doctor: Let’s get our story straight. You’re referring to the suicide of the transvestite?
    Policeman: If that’s the word you men of medical science use for a man who wears women’s clothing…yes.
    Doctor: Yes, in cold technical language, that’s the word – as unfriendly and vicious as it may sound. However, in actuality, it’s not an unfriendly word, nor is it vicious when you know the people to whom it pertains.

    …uh…”vicious”?

    We’re then returned, intriguingly, to Bela, intriguingly lit. He moves us into the, uh, thrust of the picture: “The story is begun.”

    And it sure is! We see Ed Wood walking in downtown Hollywood…dressed as a woman. He stops in front of a dress shop, and seems to long for ‘the latest thing’ on the mannequin in the window…as the voice of the shrink reminds us: “One might say…’There, but for the grace of God, go I.'”

    Just so it’s clear…I’m being a good society member. Wood is obviously doing something very brave here. It’s just…how he does it. Which mostly has to do with tone. Oh, and sometimes Wood’s, uh, way with words. Oh, right – and his general presentation of the piece. Still, he actually makes some interesting and valid points (note what he says when he bids us to look at life from another viewpoint, and “go native”). Still, camp reigns supreme when we’re back to tone and presentation.

    Which, of course, brings us to the extended dream and fantasy sequences. Why exactly is Satan at Ed’s wedding ceremony? What’s with the slight foray into s&m? And who is that Marilyn Monroe wannabe?! (Society member, YOU decide! But judge NOT!)

    The main thing about ‘GOG’ is that it does have a lot on its (semi-crazed) mind. And it’s endlessly entertaining. Near the end (oh, and in here we get some particularly delicious if generally hilarious discussion of various sexual leanings), there’s suddenly a parallel tale which augments the main story in its plea for understanding.

    Like various psychologically oriented films of the period, ‘GOG’ strongly encourages communicating with the person ‘suffering’, using nothing but love (and, if necessary, your angora sweater) in order to break through barriers.

    Yes, it’s largely high camp – with a difference: you’ll also be touched somehow. And you may also feel, as Wood would like you to feel, like a better person.

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