The film is a docudrama about cross-dressing and transsexuality, and is semi-autobiographical in nature. Wood himself was a cross-dresser, and the film is a plea for tolerance. It is widely considered one of the worst films ever. However, it has become a cult film due to its low-budget production values and idiosyncratic style.
The film begins with a narrator, called The Scientist (Bela Lugosi), making cryptic comments about humanity. He first comments that humanity's constant search for the unknown, results in startling things coming to light. But most of these "new" discoveries are actually quite old, to which he refers to as "the signs of the ages". Later, the scene turns to the streets of a city, with the narrator commenting that each human has his/her own thoughts, ideas, and personality. He makes further comments on human life, while sounds accompany some comments. The cries of a newborn baby are followed by the sirens of an ambulance. One is a sign that a new life has begun, the other that a life has ended.
This last comment starts the narrative of the film. The life which has ended is that of a transvestite named Patrick/Patricia, who has committed suicide. A scene opens with his/her corpse in a small room. Within the room is an unidentified man who opens the door to a physician, a photographer, and the police. A suicide note explains the reasons behind the suicide. Patrick/Patricia had been arrested four times for cross-dressing in public, and had spent time in prison. Since he/she would continue wearing women's clothing, subsequent arrests and imprisonment were only a matter of time. So he/she ended his/her own life and wishes to be buried with his/her women's clothing. "Let my body rest in death forever, in the things I cannot wear in life."
Inspector Warren is puzzled and wants to know more about cross-dressing. So he seeks the office of Dr. Alton, who narrates for him the story of Glen/Glenda. Glen is shown studying women's clothes in a shop window. Dr. Alton points out that men's clothes are dull and restrictive, whereas women can adorn themselves with attractive and comfortable clothing. A flashback scene reveals that a young Glen started out by asking to wear his sister's dress for a Halloween party. And he did, despite his father's protests. But he then continued wearing his sister's clothing, and Sheila (the sister) eventually caught him in the act. She shuns him afterward.
The narrative explains that Glen is a transvestite, but not a homosexual. He hides his cross-dressing from his fiancée, Barbara, fearing that she will reject him. She has no idea that certain of her clothes are fetish objects for him. When Barbara notices that something is bothering him, Glen does not have the courage to explain his secret to her. She voices her suspicion that there is another woman in his life, unaware that the woman is his feminine inner self, Glenda. The scene shifts from a speechless Glen to footage of a stampeding herd of bison, while the Scientist calls for Glen to "Pull the string". The meaning of the call is unclear, though it could be a call for opening the proverbial curtain and revealing the truth.
Alton narrates that Glen is torn between the idea of being honest with Barbara before their wedding, or waiting until after. The narrative shifts briefly from Glen's story to how society reacts to sex change operations. A conversation between two "average joes", concludes that society should be more "lenient" when it comes to people with tranvestite tendencies. The story returns to Glen, who confides in a transvestite friend of his, John, whose wife left him after catching him wearing her clothes.
Later, a scene opens with Glenda walking the city streets at night. He/she returns home in obvious anguish, when the sound of thunder causes him/her to collapse to the floor. The Scientist cryptically comments "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!" This serves as the introduction to an extended dream sequence. The dream opens with Barbara anguished at seeing Glenda. Then Barbara is depicted trapped under a tree, while the room around is in a chaotic state. Glenda fails to lift the tree and rescue Barbara. Glenda is replaced by Glen, who completes the task with ease. The dream then depicts Glen and Barbara getting married. The priest seems normal but the best man is a stereotypical devil, smiling ominously, suggesting that this marriage is damned. The dream shifts to the Scientist, who seems to speak to the unseen dragon, asking it what it eats. The voice of a little girl provides the answers in an apparently mocking tone.
The dreams continues with a strange series of vignettes. A woman is whipped by a shirtless man in a BDSM-themed vignette. Several women "flirt and partially disrobe" for an unseen audience. A woman tears apart her dress in a dramatic manner, then starts a coy striptease. The whipped woman from an earlier vignette appears alone in an autoerotic session. Her pleasure is interrupted by another woman who forcibly binds and gags her. Another woman has a similar autoerotic session and then falls asleep. As she sleeps, a predatory male approaches and rapes her, with the victim seeming partially willing by the end of it. Throughout these vignettes, the faces of Glen and the Scientist appear. They seem to be silently reacting to the various images.
The dream returns to Glen, who is haunted by sounds of mocking voices and howling winds. He is soon confronted by two spectral figures. A blackboard appears, with messages recording what the Scientist or the mocking voices said in previous scenes. A large number of spectres appear, all gazing at him with disapproval, as if serving as the jury of public opinion on his perceived deviance. The mocking voices return. The Devil and the various spectres menacingly approach Glen. Then the Devil departs, Glen turns into Glenda, and the spectres retreat. A victorious Glenda sees Barbara and approaches her, but she turns into a mocking Devil. Barbara starts appearing and disappearing, always evading Glenda's embrace. Then she starts mocking her lover. The Devil and spectres also shift to mocking Glenda. The dream sequence ends.
Glen/Glenda wakes and stares at his/her mirror reflection. He/she decides to tell Barbara the truth. She initially reacts with distress, but ultimately decides to stay with him. She offers him/her an angora sweater as a sign of acceptance. The scene effectively concludes their story.
Back in Dr. Alton's office, he starts another narrative. This one concerns another tranvestite, called Alan/Ann. He was born a boy, but his mother wanted a girl and raised him as such. His/Her father did not care either way. He/She was an outsider as a schoolboy, trying to be one of the girls and consequently rejected by schoolmates of both sexes. As a teenager, he/she self-identified as a woman. He/she was conscripted in World War II, maintaining a secret life throughout his/her military service. He/she first heard of sex change operations during the War while recovering from combat wounds in a hospital. He/she eventually did have a sex change operation, enduring the associated pains to fulfill his/her dreams. The World War II veteran becomes a "lovely young lady". Following a brief epilogue, the film ends.Ed Wood as Glen / Glenda
Timothy Farrell as Dr. Alton / Narrator
Dolores Fuller as Barbara
Bela Lugosi as Scientist
'Tommy' Haynes as Alan / Anne
Lyle Talbot as Inspector Warren
Charlie Crafts as Johnny
Conrad Brooks as Banker / Reporter / Pickup Artist / Bearded Drag
Shot in four days, the film was loosely inspired by the sex reassignment surgery of Christine Jorgensen, which made national headlines in the U.S. in 1952. Posters for the film publicize the movie as being based on Jorgensen. George Weiss, a Hollywood producer of low-budget films, commissioned a movie to exploit it. Originally Weiss made Jorgensen several offers to appear in the film, but these were turned down. Wood convinced Weiss that his own transvestism made him the perfect director despite his modest resume. Wood was given the job, but instead made a movie about transvestism.
Wood persuaded Lugosi, at the time poor and drug-addicted, to appear in the movie. Lugosi's scenes were shot at the Jack Miles Studios in Los Angeles. He was reportedly paid $5000 for the role, although some stories state the actual amount was only $1000. Lugosi is credited as "The Scientist", a character whose purpose is unclear. He acts as a sort of narrator but gives no narration relevant to the plot; that job is reserved for the film's primary narrator, Timothy Farrell.
This was the only film Wood directed but did not also produce. Wood played the eponymous character, but under the pseudonym "Daniel Davis". His then-girlfriend, Dolores Fuller, played Glen's girlfriend/fiancée Barbara. Wood later returned to Glen or Glenda in his pulp novel Killer in Drag (1963). The plot features a transvestite called Glen whose alter-ego is called Glenda. He is executed in the sequel Death of a Transvestite (1967) after a struggle for the right to go to the electric chair dressed as Glenda.
The erotic-themed vignettes were not created by Wood. They were reportedly added by producer George Weiss. He needed extra scenes to add to what he felt was an overtly -short film. While not organic parts of the narrative, they seem to tell their own tales of gender dynamics and so fit in the general themes of the film. The whipping scene suggests a Master/slave relationship. That the man is dominant and the woman submissive, seems to reflect male chauvinism. The flirtatious and striptease-themed vignettes were typical of 1950s exploitation films and grindhouse films, as was the rape scene.
The film has deleted scenes. In the theatrical trailer, included in laserdisc and DVD editions, the scene in which Fuller hands over her angora sweater, is a different take than the one in the release version — in the trailer, she tosses it to Wood in a huff, while the release version shows her handing it over more acceptingly. There is also a shot of Wood in drag, mouthing the word "Cut!"
The second part of the film, titled Alan or Anne, is much shorter, told largely through stock footage, and was made to meet the distributor's demand for a sex change film. Alan is a pseudo-hermaphrodite who fights in World War II wearing women's underwear. After his return, Alan undergoes surgery to become a woman.
Domestically, the film was limited in release, having been pre-sold to some theaters (under alternative titles such including I Led Two Lives, He or She? and I Changed My Sex). Internationally, the film was also limited, and in France and Belgium, the title was translated as Louis ou Louise and in Argentina as Yo Cambié Mi Sexo; the film had a brief screening in the Republic of China.
According to Tim Dirks, the film was one of a wave of "cheap teen movies" released for the drive-in market. They consisted of "exploitative, cheap fare created especially for them [teens] in a newly-established teen/drive-in genre."
It was denied classification by the British Board of Film Classification upon submission on February 26, 1958.
In 1980, Wood was posthumously given the accolade of 'Worst Director of All Time' at the Golden Turkey Awards, and revival of interest in his work followed. This led to Glen or Glenda being reissued in 1982. This cut included six minutes of additional footage. One of the restored scenes features Glen rejecting a pass made to him by a man. At this point, the film was reviewed seriously, and reclaimed as a radical work, by Steve Jenkins in the Monthly Film Bulletin.
The critic Leonard Maltin names Glen or Glenda as "possibly the worst movie ever made".
In 1994, Tim Burton chronicled the troubled production of Glen or Glenda in Ed Wood. The film includes re-creations of several key scenes, including Lugosi's narration and Glen's plea for his girlfriend's understanding at the end of the film. A remake of the film, entitled Glen & Glenda, was released the same year as Ed Wood and featured much the same script as the original film, as well as explicit scenes.
In the 2004 horror comedy film Seed of Chucky, main characters Chucky and Tiffany spend the duration of the film feuding over whether they should call their male child "Glen or Glenda" as he lacks genitalia.
In 2006, the distributed operating system Plan 9 from Bell Labs had a mascot, Glenda, the Plan 9 Bunny, named after Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 from Outer Space.
In 2011, the film Jack and Jill was nominated for every award at the 32nd Golden Raspberry Awards, including Worst Prequel, Remake, Ripoff or Sequel, where it was declared a Remake/Ripoff of Glen or Glenda, despite having nothing to do with the film, other than the lead actor dressed as a woman.