The Pride of Tinseltown

The Pride of Tinseltown

28th January 2018 By James Ashworth

ROAR! So goes the sound that has accompanied various films for over 100 years, including films as varied as ‘The Wizard of Oz’, and all of James Bond. First used in November 1916, and designed by Howard Dietz, MGM’s lion logo has been updated multiple times over the years; first when Goldwyn Pictures became the G of MGM (standing for Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer). It has served two studios, 101 years, and countless films, in which there have been 8 individual lions, each with various incarnations. So sit back, and bask in the tail of these Big Cats.

The very first, Goldwyn only, lion doesn’t appear to have been named. Frankly, they look a bit forlorn, glancing to the left of the screen; perhaps feline a bit confused over what was actually going on. Also, being in the pre-sound era, with Goldwyn never making a talkie, and MGM’s first soundtracked film not coming about until 1928, the lion doesn’t even get to give the iconic roar!

The Goldwyn Lion was replaced by Slats, who first appeared as a still picture in 1921, and then later in video. Slats also had the distinction of becoming the first MGM Lion when the studio came into being in 1924.  Turning their head across the camera, before staring out at the screen and eventually looking away; they look a lot less sad than their predecessor, perhaps reflecting the ongoing success of the studio at the time. Slats too never made a sound, and was retired in 1928. His trainer, Volney Phifer, took Slats to his farm in New Jersey, where a lot of animals for use in New York productions were kept, where he later died in 1936. The grave can still be visited, lion under the shade of a pine tree that was planted to ‘hold down the Lion’s spirit’, in the words of Phifer. His skin may not have made it that far, however, with the McPherson museum of Kansas claiming to hold the pelt, though other sources indicate it could be that of his replacement.

Slats’ replacement came in the form of Jackie, the first Lion to actually make a sound. This was during ‘White Shadows In The South Seas’, the first MGM film with a pre-recorded soundtrack. While previous films may have had general accompanying music, played in the cinema itself, this film had its own score, as well as sound effects. Before the film itself, the lion roared for the first time; in fact three times! In total, Jackie would be used for 28 years in the role, and would also retroactively be used on rereleases of silent pictures with soundtracks, such as ‘Ben-Hur’. Outside of his work as the logo, Jackie also appeared in many other films, particularly Tarzan features, and in keeping with this and a later MGM franchise, he was the most James Bond of all the lions, burning through his nine lives.  After surviving an explosion, an earthquake, train crashes, and a shipwreck, he gained the nickname ‘Leo the Lucky’. He even survived a plane crash in Arizona, surviving on sandwiches and water left by the pilot until he was eventually rescued! This period also gave one of the earliest parodies of the logo, in the 1935 film ‘A Night at the Opera’ where the Marx Brothers gave their best roars after the lion, although sadly it was vetoed at the time.

During Jackie’s tenure, there were 3 pretenders to the MGM mascot throne. While Jackie was the lion for many animated films, with a specially animated logo, and also for black and white films (including ‘The Wizard of Oz’, which starts that way), there were 3 other lions who made up the technicolour brigade of MGM, though due to the experimental nature of colour at the time, the first two get a bit of a roar deal, and aren’t technically official. At first, technicolour consisted of two copies of the film being made, one with a red and one with a green filter. Laying one over the top of another gave colour, and various improvements were made over time. Starting in 1928 with films such as ‘The Viking’, the first technicolour film with sound, Telly the lion was used. Unfortunately, the limitations of two-strip technicolour are quite apparent during his tenure, with the odd colour gradients, and the unfocused image, not really serving as the best logo by today’s standards. Admittedly, a lion in colour must have been impressive at the time, but the overall effect is much less than that of Jackie, who was still running at the same time. From 1932, the logo was updated, using Coffee the lion. While the colour gradient had improved to give a slightly more organic feel, the image was still out of focus, and the lion no longer looked straight out of the camera. The final of the technicolour brigade, Tanner, became the first ‘official’ colour lion in 1934, with the advent of the new three strip technicolour that incorporated a blue filter. He seems the most vicious of the lions, snarling at the camera, and was known as the ‘angry’ lion by his trainer, Mel Koontz.

In 1956, both Jackie and Tanner were retired in favour of George, who gets the credit as having the shortest tenure as mascot, lasting only a year. With the biggest mane by far, he also looked oddly reminiscent of the Goldwyn Lion, just with more roaring involved. He was then replaced in 1957 by the youngest, and longest-serving Lion, named Leo, who provided the mascot with its most common name. Serving until the present day, and therefore probably the one you are most familiar with, he fought a brief threat to his dominance tooth and claw in 1965, coming in the form of the ‘Stylised Lion’, a still drawing. It only served on 3 films, most notably ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, before he was reinstated. This logo has undergone various changes throughout the years, through various mergers and acquisitions, as well as the roar itself being changed. This occurred in 1982 with the release of ‘Poltergeist’, with, strangely enough, the roar of a tiger instead, to cope with the advent of stereophonic sound, and was eventually blended together with various other roars in the mid-90’s.

After years of neglect, Leo is now looking better than ever, with his image being substantially airbrushed; something even included the digital reconstruction of his ears, so that he came out looking his best for ‘Quantum of Solace’ (better films are available). Recently, he has even crossed the Rubicon, in 2012, into 3D; the camera zooming out from his eye to reveal the logo. As probably the world’s most famous Lion, I expect him to be the mane event for at least a few years yet.