Saturday, May 4, 2019

Weiss and Wood :: When Fetishes Collide in Edward D. Wood Jr.'s, Glen or Glenda (1953)

Our latest tale of surreal lunacy begins in the deep-end of the Omigod What the Hell is Going On Here? Pool, where a grumpy old man waxes cryptically about the events which are destined to unfold from … well, someplace else. And while the credits refer to this man as The Scientist, we’ll be referring to him as The Puppet Master (Lugosi) due to his constant metaphysical string-pulling on our cast of characters. 

And as the audience struggles to follow his circular logic on this tale of the human condition, and humanity's constant search into the unknown, which has brought “startling new things to light,” but then immediately admits these new discoveries were actually old discoveries all along and just “the signs of the ages,” or whatever, we cut to a city street, and our omniscient Puppet Master starts channeling Sarte as he describes all these individuals living in their own individual worlds. Then, we hear the cries of a newborn, and then the wail of an ambulance siren. For, “One is a sign that a new life has begun, the other that a life has ended."

Cut to a small apartment, where police investigators process the crime scene of what turns out to be a suicide. And as an Inspector Warren (Talbot) reads the suicide note, turns out the victim was not a woman at all but a cross-dresser named Patrick, who preferred life as Patricia. Seems Patricia had been arrested four times for cross-dressing in public and served several jail sentences for this so-called crime. And due to this lack of understanding and persecution, Patricia decided there was no hope for her future and killed herself, ending the note with a request to be buried as Patricia, declaring, "Let my body rest in death forever, in the things I cannot wear in life."

Puzzled by all of this, and worried about a sudden spike in cross-dresser suicides, Warren checks in with a psychiatrist, Dr. Alton, for some answers. Alton (Farrell) then takes over narrator duties as he relates the tale of Glen (Wood -- though credited as Daniel Davis), whom we meet as the man dressed as a woman lingers at a shop window filled with the latest female fashions. We then flashback to Glen’s youth, where he asks to wear his sister Sheila’s dress to a Halloween party, which his mother allows over his father’s protests. But then Glen, liking how they made him feel, continued to wear his sister’s clothing on the sly until he got caught in drag by Sheila (Wood), who has shunned him ever since.

Here, Alton explains to the dubious Warren that, no, Glen was not a homosexual but a transvestite, which he explains is a male who prefers to dress in women’s clothing. Getting back to the narrative shows Glen has been hiding this secret life from his fiancee, Barbara (Fuller), fearing she will reject him outright if she ever found out about Glenda, Glen’s other self, and how he fetishizes and covets some of her clothes -- especially her Angora sweaters. Knowing full well something has been eating at him lately that he refuses to talk about, Barbara fears their suddenly strained relationship might be due to some infidelity on Glen’s part and another woman has come between them.

Of course Barbara is right but just not in the way she thinks since the “other woman” is Glenda. Here, the Puppet Master chimes back in, encouraging everybody to “Pull the string!” as a herd of superimposed buffalo stampede through the scene. (Magic 8-Ball? What was that all about?! Magic 8-Ball says, “@#%* if I know! You’re on your own, dude.” ) Anyhoo, after the Puppet Master and the bison exit, stage left, Alton continues, saying how much Glen is torn over whether to reveal his secret life to Barbara before or after their wedding. Seems the wife of his friend, John (Crafts), a fellow transvestite, left him after catching him wearing some of her clothes, which only adds even more anxiety.

Thus and so, to shed some of that anxiety, Glen goes out for a decompressing stroll as Glenda. But when she returns home, a clap of thunder causes her to collapse to the floor unconscious. Cut back to the Puppet Master, currently off his meds (-- and considering Lugosi was a narcotic addict at the time, I now realize how tasteless that joke is, sorry, everybody), as he unleashes a salvo of non-sequiturs, telling everyone to "Beware! Beware! Beware of the big, green dragon that sits on your doorstep! He eats little boys, puppy dog tails, and big, fat snails! Take care! Beware!” And what we’re to be wary of is Glen’s subconscious as this rant leads to a phantasmagorical dream sequence, where Barbara discovers his secret. This, does not go well.

Then, Barbara is trapped under a fallen tree; a tree which Glenda fails to move but Glen removes with ease. Once she’s free, we shift to their wedding day, where Glen’s best man appears to be the Devil himself (DeZita). And while the Puppet Master keeps ranting on and on about the eating habits of the dragon green, I think what Glen is really trying to show us here is how he’s damned if he does and damned if he don’t as far as Barbara is concerned when it comes to the truth about Glenda...

Far from the volatile man-mountain as portrayed in Tim Burton's bio-pic, Ed Wood (1994), by most accounts, film producer George Weiss was an unassuming and affable guy, small and stooped in stature, who had a thing for kinky titillation and domineering women. (You can actually spot him in this movie, a brief cameo, as the building super who let the police into the apartment of the decedent.)

George Weiss. 
A student of the Kroger Babb school of road-showing and square-up reels, where you could get away with just about anything as long as you presented things as being educational, Weiss and his Screen Classic Productions had already made themselves quite the reputation with a tell-all look at artificial insemination in Test Tube Babies (1948), the horrors of narcotics with The Devil's Sleep (1949), a harsh lesson of female wrestlers duped into a money-laundering scheme in Racket Girls (1951), and dirty flesh-peddlers doing dirty things in Dance Hall Racket (1953), which included an appearance by the legendary Lenny Bruce, where Weiss broke in another fledgling director by the name of Phil Tucker, who would go on to carve out his own gorilla-shaped hunk of sci-fi infamy with the awesome whackadoodlery of Robot Monster (1953).

Weiss had also churned out a couple of stag loops and feature length Nudies with the burlesque show-fueled Too Hot to Handle (1950) and Paris After Midnight (1951), where a couple of American GIs on leave in Paris wind up in a jail and spend the night recounting all the debauchery encountered in the Place Pigalle ("Pig Alley") that landed them in the clink.

And as originally intended, Weiss had wanted his next feature, I Changed My Sex, to be in the same clinical vein. But when noted transexual, Christine Jorgensen, formerly George Jorgensen Jr., whose recent, headline-grabbing sex-change operation the proposed feature was not-so-loosely based on, both refused all overtures to appear as the lead and wouldn’t sign off on any kind of publicity tour because she didn’t want to sensationalize the procedure while her parents were still alive, Weiss was forced to re-calibrate and rethink things.

Enter Edward D. Wood Jr., a writer, a wannabe film director, and a transvestite himself. As far as I know, the exact circumstances that led to Wood crossing paths with Weiss has yet to surface. But cross paths they did, leading to one of the strangest exploitation classics of all time. And with a content-reluctant Bela Lugosi tucked in Wood's back-pocket, who became far less reluctant when his then wife, Lillian, negotiated a doubling of his salary from $500 to a $1000, the tone of the project changed from a shocking exposé to full-blown melodrama about Wood’s own proclivities, which went through several title changes, ranging from I Led Two Lives, to He or She, to The Transvestite as it ran through the States Rights circus, before finally settling on its best known title, Glen or Glenda (1953).

As filming commenced for a grand total of four whole days, Weiss was soon faced with three monumental problems. First, thanks to Wood's deficit-style budgeting, the producer was forced to pre-sell the film in order to generate enough money to complete the picture. Now, what always turned out to be Wood's Achilles Heel was financing (-- and his drinking didn’t help, either); and what separated the successful independent film entrepreneur from the other one-lungers, was a business model where a majority of the profits from the distribution deal on a completed film was then used to help finance their next feature. With Wood, he was usually so far in the hole from over-selling shares and grossly underestimating costs, that whatever money was made went to paying off the last feature, leaving him nothing for the next. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. And then skip out when the bills come due.

The second obstacle Weiss faced was Wood's finished film came in well short of the required 70 minutes. To fix this, the producer stuck in about fifteen minutes worth of additional, nonsensical footage into the dream sequence, salvaged from an unfinished film of one of Weiss's other associates, W. Merle Connell -- Untamed Women (1952), The Flesh Merchant (1956). And when you watch the end results, it isn't all that difficult to see where Wood's weirdness ends and Weiss's naughtiness begins:

Looking like snippets from one of Weiss’s vintage stag reels, or one of those old Irving Klaw bondage loops, these inserts, inter-cut with reaction shots from Wood’s character and Lugosi’s, only add to the overall delirium of Glen or Glenda that supercharges the schlock into something truly unique. 

And as the dream sequence finally ends after Glen and Glenda go through the torments of hell, represented by the preening devil and mocking visages, who slander his perceived deviant behavior relentlessly, and ends with the wholesale rejection from Barbara. When Glenda wakes up, she faces herself in the mirror and removes the wig.

With that, Glen decides to tell Barbara the truth. And while she initially struggles with this revelation, Barbara decides to stand by him, removing her sweater and offering it to him as a symbolic gesture of acceptance and a promise that, together, they will work things out.

When the scene shifts back to Dr. Alton’s office, with the story essentially over, we come to Weiss’s third monumental problem with the film. Seems he had promised his distributors an exploitation film about a sex-change operation, which Wood had neglected to include. Thus and so, we get a tacked on ending, where Alton also relates the tale of Alan (Haynes), whose mother had wanted a girl so badly she decided to raise him as Anne, leading to a life of ridicule and rejection.

When Alan was drafted into World War II, he maintained his secret life as Anne, echoing both Jorgensen and Wood’s own experiences in the service; Wood as a paratrooper, who claimed he once made a combat jump wearing a brassiere and panties under his GI togs. As for Alan, wounded during combat, he first hears about the possibility of a sex-change operation while recuperating at the hospital. And once recovered and mustered out, Alan decides to go through with the trials and tribulations of the operation and finally embraces who he was supposed to be all along.

In the end, despite all those title changes and added bonus content, Glen or Glenda just never could find an audience. Too bizarre for mainstream theaters but not bizarre enough for the roadshows, Weiss couldn't get anybody to show the damnable thing and took a bath. But unlike most of his other backers, Weiss held no real animosity toward Wood over their film's box-office failure, and has nothing but nice things to say about the director in Rudolph Grey's anecdotal biography, A Nightmare of Ecstasy, but it should be noted the two never worked together again -- except when Wood bought out Weiss' unfinished film, Hellborn, and eventually turned it into The Sinister Urge (1960).

By the time Glen or Glenda was completed, with the draconian Hayes Code starting to show a few cracks in its cinematic foundation, Weiss soon chucked the educational angle and square-up reels and shifted his focus to straight-on Burlesque revues and helped pioneer the Nudies in the late 1950s. However, Weiss is probably more famous, and rightfully so, for establishing The Roughie with the lovely Audrey Campbell as Mistress Olga in White Slaves of Chinatown (1964), and the equally demented Olga's House of Shame (1964), and Olga's Girls (1964).

And, with Weiss's encouragement, this also ushered in the commando sleaze-noir of Michael and Roberta Findlay -- Take Me Naked (1966), The Touch of Her Flesh (1967), The Ultimate Degenerate (1969) and the Amero brothers -- Diary of a Swinger (1967), Lusting Hours (1967), and The Corporate Queen (1969), which helped turn those cracks in the Nation's moral codes into a full-blown breach. Add it all up, and fans of weird and offbeat and exploitative cinema everywhere owe Georgie Weiss a huge debt of gratitude, and he needs to be known more for that than just another guy Ed Wood bamboozled and left in his drunken wake.

Glen or Glenda (1953) Screen Classics / P: George Weiss / D: Edward D. Wood Jr. / W: Edward D. Wood Jr. / C: William C. Thompson / E: 'Bud' Schelling / M: Sanford H. Dickinson / S: Edward D. Wood Jr., Dolores Fuller, Bela Lugosi, Lyle Talbot, Timothy Farrell,Captain DeZita, Evelyn Wood, Tommy Haynes

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