The Scientist (Bela Lugosi) sits in a chair in a large study filled with skeletons and laboratory equipment and begins to lecture us on a subject only he knows the meaning of. He picks up his test tubes and mixes the contents in a flask until a smoking solution is formed: the Scientist is satisfied. Then he surveys a busy street, observing all those people going somewhere with their own personalities. One of those people has just killed himself, a man dressed in women's clothing who has left a suicide note saying he couldn't face being arrested yet again for his passion in life. The police inspector (Lyle Talbot) investigating is confused and goes to a doctor to find out more... what drives a man to dress as a woman?
This nakedly personal film must have seemed very surprising to those lucky few who saw it back on its initial release, and its obvious confessional style and ludicrous logic still catches you off guard today. It was the first film written and directed by cult "Worst Director of All Time" Edward D. Wood Jr, and if he'd never directed again, and it's surprising that he did to be honest, then he would at the very least left his mark on Hollywood cinema. When the doctor asks the inspector if he's there for "Business... or pleasure?" you can tell this is no ordinary story.
But then, seeing an aged Lugosi intoning nonsense in between footage of lightning and traffic might have let you in on that information anyway - who knows what was going through his head? He must have filmed his scenes in a day, and was in the film because he was a star name, such as it was by 1953, and available, but nevertheless adds to the bizarre tone of the production, one which was already highly unusual. You can tell how personal a project it was by the fact that Wood pseudonymously plays the transvestite Glen (who periodically becomes Glenda), and it's his story which is the focus.
Glen is an apparently normal man who happens to like dressing in women's clothing, but society, as the doctor and the narrator don't miss any opportunity to inform us, will not tolerate this surely harmless fixation. Complicating matters is Glen's fiancée Barbara (Dolores Fuller, Wood's wife at the time) who isn't aware of his secret, so how can he tell her without losing her forever? The film is very careful to point out that transvestites aren't homosexuals, and the addition of a doctor character makes this distinction all the more pressing although what we're to make of the contention that cross dressing makes for happier citizens is anyone's guess.
That's not all there is to this movie, as there is always room for stock footage (an awful lot of traffic passes before our eyes, as does the occasional buffalo) and the all-important dream sequence halfway through. Part of that is patently exploitation on the request of producer George Weiss, including women ripping off their clothes, lounging in negligees and being bound in sadomasochistic set-ups, but there are also realisations of Glen's predicament, with him unable to lift a log crushing Barbara while in Glenda guise (angora sweater present and correct), but finding it easy in man's garb. This is all so obviously from the heart that the reason for the film, a prurient look at the sex change operations that were in the headlines, is allocated a swift ten minutes at the end (and most of that is World War II stock footage). There has never been a film quite like Glen or Glenda, which may be a blessing, but it's the most unfeeling of viewers who isn't on Wood's side by the end credits.
Wood's career opportunities got worse as he drifted into writing softcore porn like Orgy of the Dead, and he eventually became an alcoholic. Sadly, he died just before receiving the peculiar adulation his eccentric movies deserved. Also the author of many pulp novels.