The first MGM lion of the Sound Era. Image: GIFER

Of course you’re wondering about the MGM lion, because who isn’t?

Today, we’re going to take a quick look at that famous ferocious lion, but, before we do, let’s quickly delve into the MGM logo design.

The logo was created around 1916, and the design is often credited to MGM publicist Howard Dietz. Maybe Deitz designed the logo; maybe he didn’t. Some sources say it was created by Paramount art director Lionel S. Reiss, but Dietz comes to mind first because he was a publicist, after all, while Reiss, alas, was not.

Anyhoo, the logo is regal business, festooned with film-as-banners unfurling above a Greek mask, and sporting the oh-so-chic Ars Gratia Artis, (“Art for Art’s Sake”). It’s a logo meant for a king – or, in this case, king of the jungle, namely Leo, the MGM lion.

It appears our publicist pal Dietz did originate the idea of a live-action lion inside the logo. Sources say he chose the lion as a nod to his alma matter, Columbia University, home of the Columbia Lions.

The result is iconic Hollywood branding. As the site 1000 Logos says, “There is hardly a more expressive way to symbolize power, excellence, and beauty than by including a living lion in the MGM logo.”¹

The evolution of a studio logo. Image: 1000 Logos

To date, there have been seven Leo the Lions, one of whom was actually named “Leo”.

  1. Slats (1924-1928) was born in Ireland, and came to Hollywood via private zoo in California. Slats didn’t roar in his footage, which made him an anomaly in the MGM Lion Hall of Fame.
  2. Jackie (1928-1931) was born in Sudan. He became a movie star in his own right, and appeared in over 100 films. They say Leo survived two train accidents, an earthquake, and a plane crash which earned him the moniker “Leo the Lucky”.
  3. Colour “Test” Lions: Bill, Telly, and Coffee (1927-1935), were hired for animated and two-strip colour shorts.
  4. Tanner (1934-1956) was employed for all MGM three-strip Technicolor films during this period. (Many black-and-white films of this era, though, still used Jackie’s image.) He did appear in a few films, but didn’t enjoy the extensive film career of his predecessor.
  5. George (1956-1963) has a rather thin bio, but he was known for his thick, heavy mane.
  6. Leo (1957-2021) was born in Ireland, like Slats, and had the longest career of any of the lions to date. He appeared in films, television shows, and even a TV commercial.
  7. CGI Leo (2021-present). Yes, the new Leo is fake, and not even the shiny, updated MGM logo can disguise it.
Fake Leo. Image: Creative Bloq

Of course, such an iconic logo begs to parodied, and who can resist?

What about the roaring of these lions?

Jackie was the first lion to be recorded for sound, via a recording booth built around his cage. It would have been novel, in the early days of Talking Pictures, to hear an actual lion roar.

But MGM has been messing with us for several decades now in regards to Leo’s roar. In 1981, MGM audio designer Mark Mangini started modernizing the outdated Roar audio – with tigers.

“[L]ions, for all their ferocity, don’t make the most terrifying sounds when showing the majestic, teeth bared open mouth seen in the logo,” writes Mangini. “I would discover that, in fact, the sound that one would hear when a lion roars is something more akin to (to my ears) a giant yawn…. So I substituted tiger roars. They just sounded bigger and more majestic.”²

(An example of peak Hollywood, no?)

Regardless, the idea of a real (or fake) lion in the MGM logo is a brilliant concept, and its history is a worthwhile study in Hollywood studio logo design.

This post is part of The MGM Blogathon, hosted by Silver Scenes.

Sources & Further Reading

¹1000 Logos. (Retrieved June 24, 2022.) MGM Logo.
²The Vernacular, (Retrieved June 25, 2022.) The MGM Lion by Mark Mangini.

Happily blogging about old movies and using the royal "We".

58 Comment on “A Brief History of the MGM Lion

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