Answer Man: MGM lions roar on

News-DemocratJune 15, 2013 

I just watched an MGM movie and it suddenly made me wonder: Has MGM used the same roaring lion from the beginning or have there been others? What's his/their name(s)? Why did they choose a lion? How did they teach the cat to speak those lines so well? -- D.L., of Belleville

For nearly a century now, MGM has been roaring about it movies and its beloved feline mascot.

Five beastly kings have shared the opening cinematic spotlight to help produce arguably one of the two most recognizable sound logos in the entertainment industry: the NBC chimes and that MGM roar.

It's a fascinating history that Ed Vigdor recently compiled for the studio (and I ain't lyin'), so let me try to cram in as much as I can:

School spirit: The lion was the brainstorm of Howard Dietz, a publicity executive for what was then Goldwyn Pictures Corp. A proud graduate of Columbia University, Dietz may have still been humming his old school's fight song, "Roar, Lion, Roar," when he decided to honor his alma mater by using Panthera leo as part of his company's new logo. And, to go along with the lion, Dietz is also credited with developing MGM's well-known motto, Ars Gratia Artis -- Latin for "Arts for Art's Sake."

Slats: It's probably not the name most people would use to kick off a grand tradition, but Slats became the first animal in the MGM menagerie.

Born at the Dublin Zoo, Slats was trained to roar on cue by Volney Phifer, Hollwood's premier animal trainer at the time. Slats greeted moviegoers for the first time in the 1917 Goldwyn flick "Polly of the Circus." He then survived Marcus Loew's merger of the Metro, Goldwyn and Mayer studios in 1924 to star for another four years. His first official MGM picture? "He Who Gets Slapped" -- featuring Lon Chaney Sr.

Slats finally retired in 1928 and lived his final eight years at a farm in Gillette, N.J., where Phifer boarded animals used on Broadway. A pine tree planted over his grave to "hold down the lion's spirit" reportedly still stands, but a granite marker is long gone.

Jackie: Picked to replace Slats because of his physical similarity, Jackie set a historic milestone on July 31, 1928, when his roar to open "White Shadow of the Seven Seas" became the first to be heard by an audience. (Remember, Slats worked during the silent era, and audiences had to imagine the sound when he opened his mouth.)

Born about 1915, Jackie was captured as a cub in the Nubian desert and starred in several jungle pictures before being chosen for the logo. Like Slats, he toured the world to promote MGM and was nicknamed "Leo the Lucky" as he survived two train wrecks, an earthquake, a boat sinking, a studio explosion and a plane crash.

Retiring to the Philadelphia Zoo in 1931, Jackie died four years later, but would continue to appear on all MGM black-and-white movies until 1956. You can still see him, too. His skin, made into a rug, is displayed at the McPherson (Kan.) Museum. And, of course, his roar is still part of "The Wizard of Oz."

Tanner: Often regarded as the angriest-looking beast of the bunch, Tanner started snarling his way into movie lover's hearts in 1934.

It was the year when MGM perfected its three-strip color process, and Tanner would be used on all MGM Technicolor films from 1934-1956 as well as countless cartoons from 1938-1967. His first feature film was the 1938 Nelson Eddy-Jeanette MacDonald classic "Sweethearts," MGM's first feature-length color movie.

George: In 1956, the heavily maned George became the main MGM lion for a couple of years, including in the "The Wings of Eagles" with John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara. Just why George was introduced and flamed out so quickly is unknown.

Leo: Last but certainly not least, Leo has been the MGM standard bearer since 1957. Only the brief use of a stylized, medallion logo on three movies from 1966 to 1968 (including "2001: A Space Odyssey") has interrupted his 56-year reign.

When Leo was first introduced, MGM prepared two variations -- a three-roar, 14-second spot and a two-roar, eight-second intro. Leo also holds the distinction for providing the first roar in stereo (1982's "Poltergeist") and the first in 5.1-channel surround sound in 1995.

More trivia: Periodically, a rumor will rear its head that an MGM lion once killed its trainer. Don't worry, it's merely one of those silly urban legends kept alive on the Internet.

As MGM was developing its color process, it very briefly used two unnamed lions for its first color films, but these are not considered part of the official MGM stable.

The MGM Grand in Las Vegas closed its lion habitat on Jan. 31, 2012, after a 13-year run.

And, finally, in 2007, MGM did a major overhaul of the logo's sound and picture quality, debuting the refurbished iconic logo in the James Bond movie "Quantum of Solace."

Today's trivia

Just for fun: Before what most appropriate MGM movie was Leo's three-roar introduction first heard?

Answer to Saturday's trivia: When New York newspaper editor John Peter Zenger was charged with libeling colonial Gov. William Cosby in 1734, he hired Philadelphia lawyer Alexander Hamilton to defend him. Hamilton made the audacious argument that the truth is an absolute defense against libel -- and won. It apparently soon gave rise to the expression "as sharp as a Philadelphia lawyer."

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 239-2465.

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