I’ve never read the book of War of the Worlds, but the Mercury Theatre on the Air version is a total sausage fest. Despite having four women who were regular cast members on the show, adapter Howard Koch created literally no female characters. Every single character with actual lines is male. Blessedly, the 1953 movie not only gave us a female character who was a driving part of the plot, they gave us a female character who was, if not equal with the male characters, at least respected as an intellectual. What’s even more surprising is that the actress who played her is still alive.
Ann Robinson actually got her start in the film industry as a stuntwoman for Shelley Winters. Winters was appearing in Frenchie, a loose adaptation of Destry Rides Again. Robinson had been riding horses since she was three and was hired to do the riding for Winters. This gave way to a minor career in Westerns in a series of mostly uncredited roles. The first time she was credited, she was third-billed in an obscure pro-refugee film called The Glass Wall, about a Displaced Person from World War II seeking to prove his legal right to citizenship in the United States.
That same year, she was Sylvia Van Buren, a USC library science instructor. Admittedly, she’s not a lot of help in an alien invasion—few Martians were ever defeated by a sound argument about the relative merits of Library of Congress versus Dewey Decimal classification. Still, she is a repository of knowledge, even if she’s also intended to prove that the movie is more pro-religion than the original book was. And to be someone for Dr. Clayton Forrester (yes, the MST3K character is named after him) to pine after, of course.
The role of women in mid-century science fiction movies is often thankless. Most of them are there to scream and get into trouble. Heels may be broken. Dresses will almost certainly be torn. It’s frustrating and exhausting. That Robinson is given at least something to do puts her in a category above most of the other actresses in this sort of movie. She’s maybe not the most exciting character in the movie, and she does mostly exist for Forrester to pine after, but at least she’s accepted as being intelligent. Even if she’s also sentimental and religious and so forth, which Wells wouldn’t have been thrilled with.
While Robinson has never had the biggest career, she’s at least still in theory working. Wikipedia says she retired from acting after the Spielberg War of the Worlds, in which she had a minor role, but she’s had two credits since then. One, if I’m seeing things correctly, is an animated film also featuring one of her sons. She had two with Mexican matador Jaime Bravo; one son, Jaime A. Bravo, Jr., is a sports TV director, and the other, Estefan A. Bravo, is an actor. Still, she’s almost certainly the last surviving cast member of the film; all things considered, it wouldn’t even be surprising if any child extras had died by now.