Tuesday, May 30, 2017

MGM's First Star: The True Story

Slats, the first lion in his first appearance

MGM Studio was billed during the golden era as having "more stars than there are in the heavens," a not wholly unrealistic statement given their impressive stable of talent.  The one constant throughout the years, from the first, has been their logo and mascot, the roaring lion.

The lion was chosen for Goldwyn Pictures Corporation in 1916 by Howard Dietz, an ad executive, in honor of his alma mater, Columbia University, whose athletic team was known as The Lions.  Dietz also claimed that Columbia's fight song "Roar, Lion, Roar" inspired him to make the lion roar.

To represent the logo, a lion named Slats was chosen.  Slats was born in the Dublin Zoo and originally named Cairbre.  He would represent Goldwyn Pictures Corporation from 1917 until 1924.  He didn't roar but rather watched his audience pensively.

In 1924, at the end of Slats' career representing Goldwyn, Marcus Loew gained control of and merged Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures Corporation and Louis B. Mayer Pictures.  A giant was born.   The first MGM production that featured Slats was He Who Gets Slapped, starring Norma Shearer.  As he did with Goldwyn, while representing MGM, Slats did not actually roar.  It is rumored, however, that Slats' trainer, Volney Phifer, taught Slats to growl on cue, even though synchronized sound was still a few years away.

Slats would continue to appear as MGM's first official lion until 1927 and he would die in 1936, being buried on trainer Volney Phifer's property.

Jackie at work, recording his famous roar
The spotlight then shifted to a lion named Jackie, born in 1915.  Jackie was, according to his trainer Mel Koontz, the "ugliest cat you had ever seen."  Jackie would be the first lion whose roar was recorded for the movies.  His film debut was in 1928's White Shadows in the South Seas.  Because the film was silent, Jackie's roar was heard on a gramophone record.

In order to capitalize on Jackie's popularity, and to publicize MGM and its productions, MGM toured Jackie as "Leo The MGM Flying Lion" across the States.   They modified a plane to accommodate Jackie's cage in the body of the craft with tanks for milk, water and extra fuel.

Jackie's plane before 
During a flight in September of 1927, from San Diego to New York, the plane crashed in the Arizona desert.  The pilot, Martin Jensen, left Jackie in his cage with a supply of milk, water and sandwiches and went for help.  (Remember, these were the days before mobile phones.)  Four days later, Jensen was found and taken to a telephone.  He called MGM, whose main concern was Jackie.  Fortunately, Jackie was unharmed and safely rescued.  This crash, along with reported train wrecks, an earthquake and a studio explosion in which he escaped unscathed earned him the nickname "Leo the Lucky."

Jackie's plane after

When talkies became the fashion within the year, a soundstage was built around Jackie's cage in order to make the official recording for use in the intro of MGM films.  In the early years of this recording (1928 - 1933) an extended version was made in which Jackie not only roared three times but looked away and then turned back to gaze at the camera.  He would appear as the mascot in all MGM films from 1928 until 1956, including the sepia toned opening for The Wizard of Oz (1939).

Jackie was a star in his own right.  He would appear on films in over 100 features for MGM, including Johnny Weissmuller's popular Tarzan films.

Some reports claim Jackie died in 1935; others in 1952.  What is known for certain is that Jackie would appear as the MGM logo off and on for twenty-eight years.  

In 1928, MGM began experimenting with two color short subjects and animated cartoons in 1930.


Telly, the first of two lions, was used from 1928 until 1932.


Coffee, the second lion, was used from 1932 until 1934.

Tanner stepped in to his first appearance in 1934 with Star Night at the Coconut Grove, a short.  His first feature film appearance was in 1938 with Sweethearts.   He would appear in a Three Stooges short in 1947 and his roar would be a sound effect for many of MGM's features.  Tanner's logo was the most frequently used throughout the Golden Age of Hollywood; Tanner's reign would last for twenty-two years, the third longest.

Tanner the lion would be the second MGM lion used for Technicolor, from 1935 until 1956.


George was the sixth lion, the one with the shortest reign and longest mane.  He would be introduced in 1956 and would only make appearances for a year.

The seventh, and longest lasting lion, named Leo was born in the Netherlands.  Leo has appeared on the most MGM films, with his first appearance in 1957 and was the youngest to start, explaining his small mane.  He would appear in a television commercial in 1961 and on the show The Pet Set in the early 1970s, gentle enough that a blind girl could pet him.

Leo's reign has lasted sixty years and counting.

The Stylized Lion
In 1965, MGM would attempt to update its image with a more contemporary logo, dubbed "The Stylized Lion."   The contemporary logo would only appear in front of three films (Grand Prix; 2001: A Space Odyssey; and The Subject Was Roses) before MGM reverted back to Leo, although a refined version of The Stylized Lion is in use today for MGM Resorts.

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