I interviewed Ann Robinson - the star of the 1950s movie version of War of the Worlds, not the Weakest Link presenter - at the Sixth Festival of Fantastic Films in Manchester on 23rd September 1995. A short version of this appeared in SFX a couple of months later.
"George Pal had total control, and he was there on the set every day. You never met a more charming man in your entire lifetime - what a lovely gentleman. I miss him dearly. I miss both of them. Byron Haskin was a wonderful director. I think he was chosen because he had been a cinematographer, and was very experienced in science fiction, and they worked very well together. The two of them had their heads together all the time."
George Pal started off doing animation.
"Puppetoons! I grew up with them."
Did he have a lot of say in the movie’s special effects?
"Oh, he was in control of everything. He was a great artist. He did his own storyboards."
Were you familiar with the HG Wells novel before you made the film?
"I didn't read it until after the film, but it didn't seem anything like the film. Now after I've been to London, it would probably be better if I read the book again. Now I can picture everything a little better. This is my first trip to the United Kingdom, and I'm thrilled to death."
You're enjoying it here?
"Oh, I'm absolutely enthralled. It's so much fun. I don't mind being a tourist at all, and a gawker. I just walk around. They said, 'What's the first thing you want to see when you get to London?' and I said, 'I want to see Whitechapel - Jack the Ripper!'"
"No, he's not still around, but I saw Ten Bells and I'm going back there on the 30th September for the anniversary of Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes - they were both murdered that night."
So you're a bit of a Jack the Ripper fiend?
"Oh, I love it! Catherine was last seen there, in Ten Bells, before she ventured out into the night and was murdered."
What's the appeal of Jack the Ripper?
"I don't know: the mystery, the darkness, the fact that it was never solved. It's just horrifying. It's very personal, every time you hear something on the news about some poor woman being found. We had a couple of 'Jack the Rippers' in Los Angeles, mutilating women and throwing them naked onto a hillside. It was terrible. Two of them were found very close to my neighbourhood. As I was driving my children to school one day, I looked up on the hill - there was a body of a woman lying there. I couldn't believe my eyes. She was nude; he had killed her and thrown her out of a van. Horrifying, but fascinating."
So what's your personal theory on Jack the Ripper?
"I have that wonderful movie at home with Michael Caine, and I taped it. They seem to have used some process of elimination to work out that it must have been some doctor to the Queen. It was interesting how they eliminated everybody else and just added up all the facts. I don't know if it was her nephew or not, even though he did have some skills in dissecting, because he was a hunter."
Do you go to a lot of conventions?
"Yes I do, and they're so much fun because all the fans have sort of brought you alive again. After I leave here in two weeks, I'll go home and repack, and go to Chicago, and then come home and go back to New York. So I'll be back in Greenwich Village for Halloween!"
The other interesting thing on your CV is Rocky Jones - Space Ranger. That's one of those 1950s US TV series that's not known over here at all. What can you tell us about that?
"Let's see, who was in that? Richard Crane, Bobby Lydon. I played twin sisters. It was just a serial for children. We shot it in three parts so when you put all three episodes together you had a completed movie, if they wished to distribute it. I played Juliandra, Suzerainne of Herculon and her evil twin sister Noviandra, who was kept in a dungeon. She would destroy the galaxy if she were ever turned loose, and she escapes one day, of course. Absolute panic everywhere."
Was it fun to do?
"It was wonderful, wonderful because I had wonderful costumes, and things were glamorous. And when I was Noviandra I used to say I was a cross between Agnes Moorehead and John Barrymore. I did everything but snarl and twist my moustache. It was so hokey, it was wonderful!"
You're a Hollywood child, aren't you? Did you always want to go into acting?
"Yes. All my life. When I was a very small child at the matinee one time, they were having a talent contest. I was three or four years old; I couldn't dance. So I got up on the stage and I tap-danced with my right foot. I just kept tapping my right foot on the stage, and they literally took me off with a hook: ‘Get rid of that little girl!’"
So what was your first acting role?
"I was on the set of A Place in the Sun. I was an extra and George Stevens the director asked, 'Who has a Screen Actors Guild card?' and I said, 'I do!' So he said, 'Well, stand there at the door, and when Elizabeth Taylor walks through say: “Hello Angela.”' So that was my first speaking part."
You were in the 1954 film version of Dragnet, weren't you?
"The TV series came first, and it was so popular that Jack Webb made the film, his first feature-length movie. I played the part of Officer Grace Downey the police woman. The part had already been cast. My reading was a courtesy reading, because he was such a lovely man. He said, 'You've come all the way out here, Ann. It has been cast, but we would like to hear you read.' So I thought, 'What have I got to lose? It's all over with.' So I read my lines exactly like he spoke, just in a deadpan monotone, and he loved it, so he paid the other girl's contract and hired me. Her agent was furious, but she got a commission."
When you were making War of the Worlds, was there ever a sense that it shouldn't have been updated to 1950s America, but kept in Victorian Britain?
"No, because it wouldn't have sold. It just would not have been commercial. You have to have something that's recognisable. People are not recognisable, but places have to be recognisable. Of course they did have clips of Europe - the Eiffel Tower and things - but it was just much more commercial. You didn't have to go on location if you could just shoot down City Hall, LA. That was their main reason. At that time, people wanted to be frightened. The Thing had come out, The Day the Earth Stood Still had come out, and these were all frightening movies. It was just easier to do it in the United States."
"For communism? No, I don't recall that. Oddly enough, George Pal always began and ended something with The Bible. All his pictures had a religious undertone. God was always there, protecting us."
How do you feel nowadays when you see the movie?
"It's astounding how well it holds up. The only thing is: I had to laugh, because I had very very short, bright red, poodle-cut hair. That didn't look very much like a library science teacher, whatever a library science teacher is supposed to look like. They thought my hair, because of its style, would date the picture, so they put this hideous wig on me - two or three separate hairpieces. The bangs were separate, the backs were separate. They dyed the sides of my hair. Forty years later, the thing that dates the picture is my hair! And the cars - the automobiles dated the picture. Everybody's got short hair. That's the thing George Pal said to me when we had the twenty-fifth anniversary. He said, 'Ann, I made two mistakes. One, I didn't leave your hair alone. And the other one, I should have done the ending in 3D like I wanted to.’
Thanks a lot.
"Oh, one more thing that you don't know. In every George Pal picture, there's a Woody Woodpecker, and you have to find it. Because he and Walter Lanz were the best of friends. In Destination Moon, you see a big Woody Woodpecker, and in When Worlds Collide, you see it on a ball and you see it on the girl's scarf, but in War of the Worlds it's impossible to find. But I know where it is. It's in the beginning of the movie. It's there, exactly where a woodpecker would be.”
Interview originally posted 28th June 2005