When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand
GLEN OR GLENDA: A New Musical

There’s one obsession I’ve long pursued, while another obsession — for decades — has followed me around. 

They finally collided.

Artwork influenced by movies has been a personal obsession:  in the days before home video, I searched eight years for a public screening of Joseph Cornell’s ROSE HOBART; I spent last Christmas Eve at the house of a friend of Ed Ruscha where I was ecstatically wow’d by her collection of his works; back in my Chicago art studio days, I once created a large intermedia work on JOHNNY GUITAR featuring a huge portrait of Joan Crawford accompanied by handcuffs and an empty liquor bottle.

The cultural anomaly that eternally dogs at my heels is the life and work of cult director Ed Wood.  Cast and crew members of Wood films, along with his serious aficionados, have waltzed in and out of my life at various interludes.  And Wood himself lived a few blocks from my Hollywood pad back in the ‘seventies.  Even his make-up man taught me in film school.

Ed Wood has once again tracked me down, but this time in the form of a musical.  Clicking on the link to Michael Penny’s GLEN OR GLENDA:  A New Musical led me on the path to a film’s redemption, a redemption far more complete and gratifying than the one attained by Glen and his two-sizes-too-small angora sweater in that movie’s final reel.

I have to admit, at first alarm bells went off in my head:  the movie GLEN OR GLENDA is a self-contained punchline, so would a work based on the film simply milk the pre-existing laughs ad nauseum

No way. 

Reworking the film through a different medium supplies the original work its missing surface and texture.  The music and theatrical tropes give a polished overlay that can prevent you from checking out when the original story gets too schizo.

The play (so far unproduced, to the best of my knowledge) employs both a projection of the original movie and a SWEENEY TODD-type chorus (as in the original Broadway play, not the Tim Burton film) that provides devilish commentary: 

Glen or Glenda, Glenda or Glen,
Sometimes the Rooster, Sometimes the Hen,
Born to be Barbie, Doomed to be Ken,
This is the Story of Glenda or Glen!

By creating a narrative arc that exists in another discipline and exterior framework, the Chorus/Ensemble finally gives authority to the conflicting/contrasting narrators’ voices (Dr. Alton, Bela Lugosi) from the film.  In the movie, Lugosi’s ineffable screen character kicks off the film and periodically comments on the action from some rarefied mytho-poetic world that’s in desperate need of housekeeping, while Timothy Farrell’s Doctor Alton explains the nitty-gritty of Transvestism to Police Inspector Warren (‘thirties Warner Brothers leading man Lyle Talbot).  [In true Ed Wood incompetency, Dr. Alton begins his explanation to Inspector Warren several screen minutes before they actually meet.]  Those narration voices and points-of-view clash like pebbles in a hi-speed blender.  Miraculously, the shrewd topping off of these conflicting voices by a musical Greek chorus doesn’t create an additional distancing from the story but instead brings something the movie GLEN OR GLENDA is sorely lacking:  Cohesion.

This doesn’t mean you have to stop appreciating GLEN OR GLENDA as a laugh-a-thon.  Instead this musical theater version (at least as presented at the creator’s website, with original music laid over the Ed Wood footage) keeps you from lapsing into viewer burn-out.  When you watch the un-doctored Wood film in its entirety, after a while there are things that you know are hilarious but by now you’ve sat through so many numbing sequences that you can only muster a smile.  Penny’s music adds that layer of transport and balm of continuity so that the ride is much smoother; the humor can be truly savored.  [Plus his lyrics upgrade the laughs with some intentional humor in the script.]

In the opposite of how Wood’s technique falls apart, everything comes together in this project.  For example, as the story unfolds, the arrangements become very bongo-heavy.  The use of bongos are so apropos since they’re of the period — and the taught percussion gives the story a solid drive in places where Wood’s talents usually stalled.

The movie GLEN OR GLENDA was supposed to be an investigation into desire, yet it’s dispassionate and withdrawn.  Penny’s version finally makes the vehicle into the Desiring Machine it was meant to be.  The urges of creation, of transubstantiation and transcendence, of deep secrets begging to be revealed have now emerged in the work. 

Michael Penny’s GLEN OR GLENDA:  The Musical project can be sampled HERE.

Doug / PoMo Joan

A SIDE NOTE:  I’ve been watching the DVD box set of the 1950s live TV drama program STUDIO ONE, which includes original on-camera commercials by former model and future consumer advocate Betty Furness demonstrating kitchen appliances.  Through the commercials, filmed over the years, you can see the changes in women’s clothing from the early to late 1950s.  It’s ironic that GLEN OR GLENDA was made in 1953, since it was shot at the nadir of attractiveness for women’s clothes.  In the STUDIO ONE commercials, Furness looks frumpy, matronly and un-dateable in the early ‘fifties, yet by 1958 she looks like a hot co-ed.  Sadly, as with everything Ed Wood touched, his filmic recording of men desiring these bulbous, awkward, unflattering ladies’ clothes adds yet one more WTF to the roster of headaches bestowed to his audiences. — DB

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