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The Story of Hollywood’s Most Famous Lion

Actually, there have been five of them

Jackie, the second MGM "Leo the Lion," was recorded in 1928. (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

Leo the Lion has been the most regular star of MGM Pictures since it was founded on this day in 1924, and his roar is probably the sound most commonly associated with the studio.

It’s one of the noises most reminiscent of the Golden Age of Hollywood, when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (generally known as MGM) was one of the biggest studios around. What better symbol than a lion?  But the first MGM lion was actually named Slats, not Leo, and he didn’t roar once in the “bumper”–the technical term for the little clip that’s like a moving logo for each studio involved with a film. With the sang froid that befits movie royalty, Slats just looked around.  

That’s because Slats made his first appearance pre-sound. He was born at the Dublin Zoo and had previously appeared in the Goldwyn Pictures Corporation bumper, writes Matt Soniak for Mental Floss: ”Designer Howard Dietz chose the lion as a mascot as a tribute to his alma mater Columbia University and its athletic team, The Lions,” he writes. Volney Phifer, who was MGM’s choice animal wrangler, trained Slats. “The two became close, and 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,’” Soniak writes.

After Slats came Jackie, who Phifer also trained. Jackie’s roar, which appeared on movies between MGM’s first sound feature in 1928 (White Shadows in the South Seas) and 1956, was captured via gramophone. Jackie was also the first lion to appear in Technicolor, opening The Wizard of Oz.  

Several other lions have appeared in the MGM logo, according to Soniak: Tanner and George, followed by Leo, who has appeared in MGM’s logo from 1957 to today. In the 1980s, MGM trademarked the familiar lion’s roar, although that “sound mark” is now expired.

As Soniak notes, the MGM logo has received its share of official and unofficial spoofs, from the Marx brothers appear in the lion’s place to Mary Tyler Moore Enterprises adaptations featuring a kitten and even a tipsy lion at the start of Strange Brew. All these remixes are in line with the Latin motto that surrounds each Leo’s face in the logo: “Ars Gratia Artismeans “Art for Art’s Sake.”

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance journalist based in Toronto who focuses on technology, culture and ethics. She recently graduated from the master’s program in journalism at Ryerson University, where she served as editor-in-chief of the Spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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