A great logo is something that any company should take pride in, but one company can do more than that, given it has had a pride as its logo.
That company is of course MGM and it has had a pride of lions that have played a starring role in its logo over the years.
This is their story…
A roaring success
The famous logo of Metro-Goldwyn Mayer is not one lion, but has in fact been a whole pride of them.
In 1917, Samuel Goldwyn asked studio publicist Howard Dietz to design a logo for Goldwyn Picture Corporation. In the end Dietz chose to use a lion as the studio’s mascot, paying tribute to his alma mater, Columbia University and its athletic teams, the Lions. The specific inspiration was said to be the school’s fight song “Roar, Lion, Roar.” Deitz also wrote the motto “Ars Gratia Artis,” which is Latin, meaning “Art for Art’s Sake.”
When Goldwyn Pictures merged with Metro Pictures Corporation and Louis B. Mayer Pictures, the newly formed MGM retained the lion based logo.
Slats (1917-1928) was MGM’s first lion. He was born at the Dublin Zoo and was trained by Volney Phifer, Hollywood’s premier animal trainer of the time. The pair toured the country to promote MGM’s launch and became close. So much so that when Slats died in 1936, Phifer had the body sent to his farm and buried it there, marking the grave with a granite slab and a pine tree to “hold down the lion’s spirit.”
Telly and Coffee were briefly used in Technicolor tests, but both had short-lived careers
Jackie (1928 -1956) was the next in line and was the first MGM lion to be heard as well as seen. Jackie introduced MGM’s first sound production, White Shadows in the South Seas, with his roar.
Jackie came from an acting animal dynasty. His mother, Stubby, was part of a performance troupe, and his grandmother, Mamie, was one of the first animals to ever appear on film in the U.S. Jackie was a performer in his own right too, appearing in over 100 movies.
On one hand it is said that Jackie was unlucky. He was involved in two train wrecks, an earthquake, a boat sinking, an explosion at the studio, and a plane crash that left him stranded in the Arizona wilderness for several days. On the other hand and perhaps not surprisingly given he survived all those instances, most thought chance was on his side and he deserved his nickname “Leo the Lucky.”
Apparently Jackie wasn’t much of a looker and his trainer Melvin Koontz called him “the ugliest cat you had ever seen.” In 1931, Jackie retired from the studio and went to live at the Philadelphia Zoo. He died in February 1935 after battling a heart problem for several months.
Tanner followed Jackie and reigned through what is known as the “Golden Age of Hollywood”. Tanner was used on almost all Technicolor MGM films from 1934–1956 and the cartoons from late 1935–1958. There were one or two notable exceptions however including The Wizard of Oz (1939) which had the scenes In Oz in colour, but had the opening and closing credits (and indeed the Kansas scenes) in sepia-toned black-and-white, so they used the old black and white footage of Jackie.
Tanner was described as MGM’s “angriest” lion by Koontz because he snarled all the time.
George followed Tanner but had a relatively short lived stint and doesn’t appear to have made that much of an impression, as one of the only things that is said about him is that he had a bigger mane than the other lions.
Starting in 1957 and still going strong Leo is the not only the current lion but is MGM’s longest-serving lion. Like Jackie, Leo’s performances weren’t limited to his appearance in the logo, he appeared in several Tarzan movies, the Tarzan TV series, and other filmsas well.
Though known universally as Leo, this may or may not have been his actual name. He was purchased from an animal dealer, Henry Treffich, and it seems no-one knew what he was actually called. Leo was the name used by someone at the studio and it stuck.
In the same way that Tanner didn’t appear on all the films during his period as the mascot, Leo has sometimes been replaced.
In the late sixties there was a short lived attempt to replace the ‘live lion with a circular still graphic image of a lion known as “the stylized lion”. This logo appeared on three films including Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A space odyssey (1968). However that logo was soon dropped for MGM films and Leo was reintroduced. The stylized lion was however retained by the MGM Records division.
Other more humorous stand-ins have also made occasional appearances over the years including the Marx Brothers, a lion with blood-dripping fangs in The Fearless Vampire Killers, a croaking frog, Mimsie the Cat the in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, a meowing Tom in Tom and Jerry and Animal in The Great Muppet Caper.