He uncovered a century of forgotten Fox movie history

On a wild ride with a chimp, Shirley MacLaine and Paul Newman star in this scene shot in a cutaway car on Fox Studio’s French Alley in 1964’s “What a Way to Go!”
On a wild ride with a chimp, Shirley MacLaine and Paul Newman star in this scene shot in a cutaway car on Fox Studio’s French Alley in 1964’s “What a Way to Go!”

Where did Betty Grable look over her shoulder – and melt a million hearts? How did Marilyn Monroe learn to walk that way? What really happened behind the gates of Hollywood’s most famous dream factory?

Michael Troyan knows. A historian from Citrus Heights and dedicated movie buff, Troyan managed to crack open a century of movie and TV lore, meticulously separating fact from legend. The results make up his comprehensive and visually stunning new book, “Twentieth Century Fox: A Century of Entertainment” (Lyons Press, 736 pages, $50).

Troyan will discuss his book and the countless stories behind it during a series of appearances at local libraries, starting Sunday at 1 p.m. at Sacramento’s Central Library.

“Every talk will be different,” Troyan said. “There’s so much to cover.”

How Troyan managed to compile a definitive history of an ever-evolving entertainment giant is an amazing accomplishment in its own right. First, he had to talk Fox into it.

“I started this project in 2010 – five years out (from Fox’s 100th anniversary in 2015),” he said. “It took them five years to decide ‘yes.’ Then, I spent two more years actually getting it done. You can’t do a book like this without the studio’s art and photos. I needed access to their archives.”

Troyan, 49, himself had worked as a studio archivist at Warner Bros. and Disney. Before his Fox project, he co-wrote “MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot” and also authored the biography, “A Rose for Mrs. Miniver: The Life of Greer Garson.”

“Unlike Disney, Fox had never done a book about its history,” Troyan said. “They did one book on costumes (‘Styling the Stars,’ co-written by Angela Cartwright), but that was it.”

Troyan also felt a personal connection with Fox. A Twentieth Century Fox movie made him a lifelong fan of filmmaking.

“I was 10 years old and saw ‘Star Wars,’ ” he said. “That’s what got me started.”

Once Fox gave his project its blessing, Troyan discovered a treasure trove of forgotten photos and movie mementos, stashed away in hundreds of file boxes for decades in studio storage. Fox archivist Jeffrey Paul Thompson became a collaborator, as did filmmaker and Hollywood historian Stephen X. Sylvester.

From candid shots of legends such as Elvis Presley and John Wayne to behind-the-scene stills of movie classics, the book features more than 1,400 photos, most of them never before published.

“I wanted to see everything and hear everything,” Troyan said. “You can read all the articles and books on a subject, but it’s not until you started interviewing people did you really get it – the full picture.”

Through scores of interviews, Troyan filled in the blanks. Actor Richard Todd told him that backlot scenes routinely had to be dubbed because the steady ka-chung of noisy nearby oil wells could be heard in the background. Shirley MacLaine shared stories of her days as a starlet, such as ushering Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev on a studio tour. Photographer Lawrence Schiller revealed the secret to Marilyn Monroe’s hip-swaying walk: She shaved an eighth-inch off the heel of her right shoe.

“This is a celebration of Fox and movie making,” he said of his book. “We covered the scandals and controversies – and there were plenty – but most of all, I wanted (the book) to be accurate.”

As a movie history detective, Troyan pieced together that full picture – from Shirley Temple to Homer Simpson. For the book, he compiled a detailed filmography of every Fox movie and TV show plus the back stories of how (and where) these moments were made. Often, details behind Fox’s most iconic images had been lost – until he started digging.

“Betty Grable’s famous pinup (from World War II) may be the most duplicated photo in history, but no one knew where it was shot,” Troyan said. “I found the building (Fox’s portrait studio) and Betty’s story behind it: That photo was an accident. It was a costume check, a wardrobe still. Somehow, it got released by the publicity department and just exploded.”

From founder William Fox to media mogul Rupert Murdoch, the studio went through several epic shake-ups and makeovers, Troyan noted. Somehow, Fox kept reinventing itself and survived.

“Now that Fox has been bought by Disney, who knows what will happen next?” Troyan said. “But the history of its first century at least has been preserved.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

Hear Hollywood history

Local author Michael Troyan will share the stories behind his new book, “Twentieth Century Fox: A Century of Entertainment” at the following free appearances:

▪ 1 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 14, Central Library, 828 I St., Sacramento

▪ 1 p.m. Jan. 20, Franklin Library, 10055 Franklin High Road, Elk Grove

▪ 5:30 p.m. Jan, 24, South Natomas Library, 2901 Truxel Road, Sacramento

▪ 2 p.m. Jan. 27, Cooledge Library, 5600 South Land Park Dr., Sacramento

▪ 6 p.m. Jan. 30, McClatchy Library, 2112 22nd St., Sacramento

▪ 6 p.m., Feb. 6, Rio Linda Library, 6724 6th St., Rio Linda

▪ 6 p.m. Feb. 13, North Highlands Library, 4235 Antelope Road, Antelope

▪ 1 p.m. Feb. 10, Orangevale Library, 8820 Greenback Lane, Orangevale

▪ 6 p.m. Feb. 21, Pocket Greenhaven Library, 7335 Gloria Drive, Sacramento

▪ 2 p.m. Feb. 24, Sylvan Oaks Library, 6700 Auburn Blvd., Citrus Heights

▪ 6 p.m. March 7, North Sacramento Library, 2109 Del Paso Blvd., Sacramento