Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Lion, the Witch, & the MGM Logo: An Irreverent History

Hello faithful readers and true believers, and welcome to my official contribution to the MGM Blogathon, being hosted by the classic film loving blog, Silver Scenes. Sure, any old blogger can write about one of the myriad of spectacular classic works of cinema that came out of the Dream Factory, or go on and on about one of those studio stars that were more common than the very stars in the heavens. Sure, anyone can contribute things like that to a blogathon such as this, but not me gang. Not me. That's just too damn easy. Instead, my contribution is all about the lion. That's right. The lion. The witch is just added to the title so I could steal from C.S. Lewis, but we may still get to the witch a bit later anyway. We'll see. For now, here she is in the Blogathon banner to your right. Anyway, without further ado, I give you (a somewhat irreverent) look at the history of the roaring MGM logo.

First, a bit of pre-history timeline stuff. Back before there even was an MGM, there was still a roaring lion logo. Well, okay, he wasn't technically roaring, since this would have been the silent era, but there was still a lion dang nab it. And he probably was roaring, at least on the inside (this original lion actually just looked around, never opening his big fat mouth) but since there was no synchronized sound at the time, we just couldn't hear said roar - if he were actually roaring (which he was not). But he was still there, just not making a sound. Oh, and his name wasn't Leo either. At least not yet. Even though, looking back on all things Metro Goldwyn Mayer, Leo is the name given collectively to all the logo lions, the real deal, the famed Leo the Lion was still decades away. Heck, the guy was still decades away from being born. But more on him in a bit. Back in the days of Goldwyn Pictures (before that Mayer guy got into the whole shebang, and retitled the studio) our fearless king of the jungle was a guy by the name of Slats. That's right kids. Slats. Not to be confused with Spats, George Raft's mobster from Some Like It Hot. This pre-Leo Panthera Leo (yeah, I used a Latin term - what's it to ya!?) was a guy named Slats. From 1917 through early 1924, Slats was the lion who adorned the Goldwyn logo. And then came 1924, and the birth of Metro Goldwyn Mayer.

In 1924, with the merger of Sam Goldwyn's picture company, Marcus Loew's Metro Pictures, and Louis B. Mayer's company, MGM was born, and with this merger, along came Slats - at least for another four years, until it was time for another lion. Slats would be forced into early retirement in 1928, and after eight years of golfing and combing the beaches with a metal detector and hurrying to get to the early bird special at the local watering hole, or whatever retired lions do (I know they were black knee socks and sandals - that's for sure), Slats passed away in 1936. You can visit his hide at the McPherson Museum in Kansas, where you can also peruse and find the skeleton of the world's biggest sloth. Don't tell PETA. Anyhoo, when Slats hit retirement age, it was time for a new lion. A new pre-Leo, Leo the Lion. That lion's name was Jackie (not a cool a names as Slats, but hey, whatchya gonna do?), and Jackie would be around from 1928, all the way through 1956. But Jackie would not be alone all those years. You see, Jackie would be relegated to just the black and white MGM movies of the era, and even those were the brunt of the cinematic world when Jackie first appeared, by the latter days of his tenure, Technicolor was all the rage over at the Dream Factory. But poor Jackie would never have anything to do with that part of the Metro world. The closest Jackie the Lion would come to the world of colour, was to be the opening cat in the sepia-tinted beginning of The Wizard of Oz (see, I knew I would get that titular witch into this story somehow). Jackie would also be used in all black and white MGM cartoons of the time.

But you shouldn't feel too bad for the mostly black and white Jackie. After all, he was a movie star as well. That's right kids, unlike Jackie's furry brothers-in-arms, this lion had a night job as well. He was a movie star, appearing in over 100 films, including most of Johnny Weismuller's Tarzan films. Jackie was also the proud guy hanging out with a rather apprehensive Greta Garbo in a famous 1926 publicity shot by photographer Don Gillum. Yeah, it's the one just above. No, Garbo doesn't look scared at all. And don't worry Greta, Jackie wouldn't hurt a fly. In fact, he was kind of thought to be a good luck charm of sorts, having survived an earthquake, a studio fire, and not one, but two train wrecks. This all gave him the nickname, Leo the Lucky. Wait, what? Now you see, this only helps to confuse the whole subject of the MGM logo. Why the hell were they calling Jackie, Leo the Lucky!? This is exactly why everyone just assumes all the lions names were Leo. Stupid studio publicity department! But I digress. To get back on track, we should probably talk a little about Jackie's contemporaneous counterparts. You know, his coloured buddies. First off, during MGM's short-lived experiments with two strip colour moviemaking, mostly in the short films and cartoon departments, the studio decided to get a new lion to use in these colour films. I guess Jackie was too busy filming some precode jungle movie at the time. Anyway, this new lion's name was Telly (still nowhere close to the coll sounds of the soundless Slats) and he lasted until 1932, only to be replaced by another new lion named Coffee. And no, he's no relation to Pam Grier's Blaxploitation heroine, Coffey. But alas, poor Coffee, he only lasted two years, until it was time to replace him in MGM's new Colour department. Yeah, poor Terry and Coffee are so thought of as red headed stepchildren, that even Wikipedia takes no mind of them. On the online know-it-all site, all the other lions, from Slats to Jackie to all the others still to be spoken of in this story, have their own special sections. Poor, hapless Terry and Coffee are forced to share one lonely paragraph on the page, and not even one with there names in the heading, just "Two-Strip Technicolor Lions (1927-1934" instead. No respect I tell ya. No respect. But let us move on, shall we?

Though the aforementioned Jackie (aka Leo the Lucky) would still be part of every black and white MGM film up to 1956, the time to bring in a new colour lion was apparently 1934. I guess neither Telly nor Coffee had what it took to cut it in the cutthroat world of studio politics. I mean, Louis B. Mayer was quite the controlling task master. Just ask John Gilbert about that one. Actually, the change was due to the new three strip Technicolor technique beginning use in the mid thirties. But I'm sure Mayer had something to do with it. Anyway, 1934 would bring Tanner to the MGM stable. Tanner would be the colour movie lion for the next 22 years, living side by side with the black and white Jackie. Tanner is probably the best known of the pre-Leo lions. Even though colour movies were rarer than black and white throughout the thirties and forties, Taner seems to be the more recognizable of the two co-existing kings of the jungle. By the by, Tanner is the one in the top pic in this post. Yeah, that's the guy. Sure, he may not have the rich history that Jackie does, nor the movie star looks of his compatriot (Tanner wasn't in over 100 movies, now was he?), but throughout the Golden Age of Hollywood, it is Tanner's full mane and rugged roaring charm that is best known. He even did some cartoon work on the side, as you can more than plainly see in the pic just above. Tanner was the Technicolor King of the MGM Jungle. But alas, poor Tanner, and poor Jackie too, for 1956 would be the end of their respective, co-existing careers. In 1956 came George the so-called widescreen lion. This guy, sporting the bushiest mane of any MGM lion (show off) would be the face of MGM for just two years, before he himself was replaced by...yup, finally...Leo the Lion.

Leo's tenure began in 1957, and is still the lion you see today on the MGM logo. So that's 57 years and counting. Of course nowadays, with all the mish-mash of media, and the sad lack of love for cinema, and all the digital hoopla that has killed off actual filmmaking (I do miss the whirrr of the projector as those 35mm prints rush through at 24 frames per second), Leo probably isn't a big a deal as he once was. What with corporate mergers and sponsors and bankruptcy court and all that post-millennial jazz. And the "voice" of a studio is not what it used to be back in the Golden Age. Back then you could easily tell a glamourous MGM picture from a dark and foreboding Warner Brothers production, or a posh Paramount picture from a smart 20th Century Fox film. Nowadays, the studios no longer really matter, and end up blending in with each other. So perhaps Leo is not that big a deal anymore (though he is and always will be to this guy), but what a long, rich history good ole Leo has had. Heck, he did get to put his paws in cement earlier this year. Needless to say, this was a newer Leo than the one originally roaring his way into movie screens in the 1950's and 1960's, but it's still an honour. But let's discuss Leo's early days in show biz. Starting out as a youngster (that is why he has such a small mane in his version of the logo), Leo would become one of the best known company logos in all the world. And guess what? Leo was a star too. Yup, just like Jackie, Leo would star in some of his own films. Perhaps not as many as Jackie, but that is Leo in the Nick Ray religious epic, King of Kings. Looking good pal. Looking good. Leo can also be seen in commercials. Yeah, Leo was kind of a media whore, but so was fellow MGM-er, Joan Crawford, so who are we to talk.

Leo did get a short break in the mid sixties. Well okay, he missed out on three films. A newly designed "stylized" lion was created, and he was used in 1966's Grand Prix, and then in 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Subject Was Roses, both from 1968. This logo, which not so incidentally, can be seen at the very end of this post, was dropped from the motion picture side of things after these three films, and has since become the logo for MGM Records, and eventually for MGM Grand Casinos as well. Meanwhile, Leo was still the king. Later on in life (as in just a few years ago) Leo's iconic image would be given the ole 3D treatment, and now this long running lion (the actual real life Leo passed on many decades ago) can live on in three dimensions and his roar in stereophonic sound. A brave new world indeed. But these seven iconic logo makers are not the only beasts to be part of the MGM logo. The Marx Brothers joined Jackie in giving a roar at the beginning of 1935's A Night at the Opera. Well, Groucho and Chico roared. Harpo just honked his horn. Chuck Jones would parody the logo as well, by replacing the usual lion with Tom of Tom and Jerry fame. Monty Python would add a croaking frog in place of Leo. Even Mary Tyler Moore would get in on the fun, as her production company, MTM Enterprises, would parody the MGM log, replacing Leo with Mimsie the adorable freakin' little kitten, who would give the world's cutest little meow at the end of shows such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show. Bob Newhart would one up that in his 1980's show, simply titled, Newhart. Mimsie would still be there, but it would be Newhart's voice dryly saying meow. The Muppets and Tiny Toon Adventures (and even Roman Polanski) would do parodies of Leo as well. MGM's long time motto (written in the filmstrips surrounding our fearless lion's pride) is Ars Gratia Artis, which is translated as Art for Art's Sake, can be seen as a way to explain the MGM lions as well. There is no real reason why a lion was chosen as the logo (original logo designer, Howard Dietz went to Columbia University, and therefore included his alma mater's mascot) other than it being Art for Art's Sake, or Ars Gratia Artis. And now, without any further ado and/or hubbub, may I present, the one, the only, Leo the Lion. You'll have to imagine the roar.

Well kids, this has been my humble contribution to Silver Scenes' MGM Blogathon. I hope it has been as informative and as fun for you to read, as it was for me to write. While I was researching for this post, I came across many a fun Leo-related photo. Since I wanted to include more pics than the post could handle above, I leave you now with some of my fave finds from the aforementioned research. First up is good ole Alfie Hitchcock having a dinner party with, I believe maybe Tanner, or a slightly older Leo (or probably a completely different lion the studio purchased in order to use as a promotional shill). This is followed by the lovely Miss Anne Francis snuggling with a playful Leo, and being a bit braver than Garbo was in her photo op. After that, we have Leo (or actually a 1980's era Leo doppelganger) playing a bit of peek-a-boo for the cameras. That's it gang. See ya 'round the web.

Oh, and I almost forgot. Here's a promised look at the so-called "stylized" lion logo that we saw in 2001, as well as on records (remember them?) and casinos everywhere. That's really it gang. See ya 'round the web.


  1. I can't decide if that image of Ann Francis is playful or terrifying!! Great post, I loved all the background details. For me, the story behind the lion, and even the lion itself, sums up so much about MGM.

  2. The first time I saw the lion at the beginning of the movie I thought he looked confused. It cracked me up.

    My son is autistic and developmentally delayed. He is also a movie buff (gets it from me). He has always had a fascination with the MGM lion. He has spent hours going through video cassettes watching the lion roar his way through different eras. Always liked to borrow "Judgment at Nuremberg" from the library because it was in a double case with two lions on the spine! Leo, or whoever, is like a family pet.

  3. I liked your post about the MGM lion a lot and I actually learned something new about MGM today from reading this post. Thank you for the informative history of the lions of MGM.

  4. Thanx for stopping by everybody. Glad to have ya aboard.

    I fell in love with that pic of Ann and Leo, the moment I came across it online. I think it is playful AND terrifying...and oddly adorable.

    It's good to have Leo (and Jackie and Tanner and Slats and so on) as a family pet. There are so so so many different versions of the lion logo, from parodies to self-satires to cartoons and homages. It's fun to try to find them all.

    Glad ya'll learned a few things about MGM's "Grand" King of the Jungle. Hope to see you around these parts again. See ya 'round the web.

  5. I always laugh at the Garbo photo as she couldn't give more of a "get me the hell away from this lion" look and vibe. I know the earlier lion(although now unsure which one) actually had no teeth. I think Hermie did some dentistry on him after he ripped out the teeth from the Abominidable (shit how do you spell that??). Anyway....The Ann Francis is seems pretty happy about getting her ear ripped off in a couple of seconds. This was quite interesting!

  6. Wait a minute! You mean that muscular fierce-looking lion of the 1930s was a "Jackie"? I hope he wasn't named after Jackie Cooper, because he didn't look anything like him. I wonder what cities Leo the Lion ( Tanner? ) stopped at on his tour. I bet there are old boxes of photographs with some kids posing beside the Leo the lion circus wagon collecting dust in the attic of a lonely farmhouse in the Midwest. Thanks Kevyn, for taking us on this ride back in the history to learn more about that familiar friend whom most of us didn't know a thing about!

  7. Glad to be part of all the fun. I'm sure Annie Francis wasn't afraid of anything. She was one tough cookie. And as for rugged Mr. Jackie, I like to think he was named after Heavyweight champ Jack Dempsy. Thanx for stopping by.

  8. I loved this post! So well done. I'm glad you illustrated the history of the MGM lion.

    "Slats" is an utterly cool name for anyone, especially lions.

  9. Thanx. It was fun researching for the post.

  10. What a very informative post! I always thought that Slats, the first lion, was a little underfed. What a skinny lion he was! The next time I watch a Tarzan movie I'll keep my eyes looking for Jackie.
    And, I believe that, even if we forget the plot of an MGM movie, we will never forget the lion!
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

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