The Life And Times Of The MGM Lion
The famous mascot of Metro-Goldwyn Mayer is not one lion, but five lions. These are their stories.
Slats, born at the Dublin Zoo, was MGM's first lion. He had previously appeared in the logo of the Goldwyn Pictures Corporation, where designer Howard Dietz chose the lion as a mascot as a tribute to his alma mater Columbia University and its athletic teams, the Lions. Slats was trained by Volney Phifer, Hollywood’s premier animal trainer, and the pair toured the country to promote MGM’s launch. 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.”
Jackie, aka "Leo," in a Ryan Brougham airplane modified to take him on a transcontinental flight in 1927. Photo Courtesy of San Diego Air & Space Museum Flickr Stream
Jackie was the first MGM lion to make his voice heard, thanks to the gramophone. He introduced MGM's first sound production, White Shadows in the South Seas, with a roar. The lion came from something of 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's own resume went beyond roaring in a studio logo—he also appeared in 100+ movies.
Jackie had another claim to fame. He survived 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 (pilot Martin Jenson left the cat with some snacks while he went in search of help). After all that, he earned the nickname "Leo the Lucky."
Jackie, rescued after the plane crash. Photo Courtesy of San Diego Air & Space Museum Flickr Stream
Jackie wasn't much of a looker, apparently, and trainer Melvin Koontz called him "the ugliest cat you had ever seen." He did get along well with other felines, though. One night, an alley cat and her kittens crawled into Jackie's cage for shelter, and when Koontz found them later, the kittens were dripping wet from Jackie licking them clean.
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. Through a chain of events isn't quite clear (and may even be more myth than fact), Jackie's body wound up in the hands of a Los Angeles taxidermist, who preserved his skin and then sold it to McPherson Museum in McPherson, Kansas.
Tanner (1934–1956) and George (1956–1958)
Not much is known about either of these guys. Tanner reigned through the "Golden Age Of Hollywood” and was described as MGM's “angriest” lion by Koontz because he snarled all the time. George apparently didn't make much of an impression on anyone—one of the only things you can find about him in the history books is that he had a bigger mane than the other lions.
Leo is MGM's longest-serving lion and was also the youngest at the time his roar was filmed. In addition to his appearance in the logo, he appeared in several Tarzan movies, the Tarzan television adaptation, and other films. Leo may or may not have been the lion's actual name, but after he was purchased from animal dealer Henry Treffich, the name was used by someone at the studio and stuck both there and in the public consciousness.
The lions have occasionally been spoofed at the beginnings of films, with replacements 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 and The Bob Newhart Show, a meowing Tom in Tom and Jerry, Animal in The Great Muppet Caper and a drunk lion, plus Bob and Doug McKenzie, in Strange Brew.