You must have seen Leo the lion roar hundreds of times, but what do you really know about the legendary Metro Goldwyn Mayer Lions (MGM Lions)? The original classic lion trademark of Goldwyn Pictures was designed by Howard Dietz who served as its publicist/director of advertising. The Lions, the athletic team of his alma mater Columbia University, became his inspiration in creating the lion mascot. When Goldwyn Pictures Corporation merged with Metro Pictures Corporation and Louis B. Mayer Pictures, the MGM retained the logo. Since then, there have been seven lions playing the role of “Leo the Lion” for the MGM logo.
Slats was the first lion used on all black and white MGM films that roared quietly at every opening of MGM’s silent films from 1924-1928. He was born on 1919 at the Dublin Zoo. Hollywood’s premiered animal trainer, Volney Phifer, who coached Slats became close to him during their country tour as they promote the launching of MGM. They became too close that when the lion died in 1936, Phifer buried his body at his farm. His hide is currently on display at the McPherson Museum in McPherson, Kansas.
Jackie, born in 1915, was the second lion used by MGM logo and the first lion to make his voice heard using the agramophone record. His trainer was Mel Koontz. With a roar, he introduced the first sound of MGM’s film, White Shadows in the South Seas (1928). The film won an Oscar in 1928-29 for Best Cinematography. Jackie replaced Stats on all black-and-white MGM films from 1928-1956. Also during this period, he appeared in more than one hundred films including the Tarzan movies, in addition to his MGM logo appearances. The lion is also known for surviving several accidents (including an earthquake, 2 train wrecks, a studio explosion and a sinking boat), giving him the nickname “Leo the Lucky”.
Telly (1927 to 1932)
In 1927, MGM began to experiment with two-strip color short subjects and with animated cartoons in 1930. Using two different lions, two two-strip Technicolor variations of the MGM logo were created. Between 1927 and 1932, Telly, the first lion appeared on all color MGM movies roared softly, did a louder roar, a brief pause, and then a final roar while turning his head. Telly appeared with a longer snarl with two roaring sound effects. Everything but the lion is in a green hue. Telly was featured roaring four times, rather than just thrice in the extended version of the logo at the beginning of the film “The Viking” (1928).
Coffee, the second lion, appeared on color films between 1932 and 1934, until production was switched to full three-strip Technicolor filming. His first roar was soft, but roared louder later. Coffee was featured roaring three times, rather than just twice in an extended version of the logo at the beginning of the short film People (1932).
Tanner, also trained by Mel Koontz, was used on all Technicolor MGM films and cartoons, replacing Telly and Coffee. Tanner roared wildly and was described by his trainer as the “angriest” lion because he always growls. He was the reigning lion king during the “Golden Age of Hollywood” and was the third of MGM’s longest-lived lion to be used for a total of 22 years, after Jackie (28 years) and Leo (58 years).
George was the sixth lion and was introduced in 1956 replacing Tanner and Jackie. He looked more heavily maned compared to others. His logo version would have either a black or dark brownish/grayish background, and would also appear on black and white movies. George was used in tandem with the current lions from 1957 to 1958.
For a total of 58 years, Leo has been the longest-lived out of all the lions used in the MGM logo. This logo has two different versions, the ‘extended’ version which was used from 1957 to 1960, with Leo roaring thrice; and the ‘standard’ version, his first appearance in 1957 on ‘Les Girls’ where Leo later roared twice. This version was used since 1960. Born in Burgers Zoo in the Netherlands, Arnhem he was the youngest when MGM filmed him roaring. He had replaced George and was trained by Ralph Helfer. The lion had also appeared in many productions of MGM films since 1957 including the religious epic King of Kings (1961), Fluffy (1965), and Napoleon and Samantha (1972); as well as in some TV series and commercials. He was gentle enough to be petted by a blind teenage girl in one of the episodes of the TV show, The Pet Set.
“Stylized Lion” Logo
MGM attempted to update its image in 1965, and recruited a consulting firm, Lippincott, to create a more contemporary logo, “The Stylized Lion.” The new image appeared at the front of three films in the 1960s. Leo was reinstated after the logo was discontinued. However, the MGM Records division retained the new logo which was also used on MGM film posters as a secondary logo.
MGM/UA Entertainment Co.
Following the merger of MGM and United Artists in 1981, the logo MGM/UA Entertainment Co. appeared on all films of MGM/UA (1983-1987). During this time, the original sound of the roaring lion was changed with a new stereophonic sound. The Poltergeist film shown in 1982 was the first production to use the new roaring sound.
The lions have been spoofed in several occasions in cartoons shows. In the Tom and Jerry show, Jerry roars like Leo at his mouse hole that resembles the ribbon of the MGM logo. In addition, Tom and Jerry cartoons (1963–1967) begin with a cartoon variation of the MGM logo using Tanner instead of Leo. Other cartoon characters include Mimsie the Cat the in The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show, a lion with blood-dripping fangs in The Fearless Vampire Killers of the Marx Brothers, Animal in The Great Muppet Caper, and Bob and Doug McKenzie, in Strange Brew.
MGM’s iconic roaring lion logo took a very long journey, and several different lions, to get to the one we all now know and love, Leo. MGM started to use more loquacious lions, giving us the roar when sound was introduced. The roar used now is electronically produced. In 2012, in the James Bond movie, Skyfall, the logo was redesigned and animated in three dimensional (3-D) stereo. This is the first ever in MGM’s 88-year history of having its logo produced in 3-D.