MGM’s Leo: The Facts and Fictions Behind the Most Famous Lion in the World

mgm-lion (Image: via Distractify)

Sit down to watch a film and chances are good that one of the first things you’ll hear is the roar of a lion. The living logo of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer is one of the most iconic images in the world, and as such, it’s built up quite a bit of mystery and folklore around these massively, undeniably beautiful creatures.

Look closely – and quickly – at the lion and you’ll notice that there are some that look a little bit different, and that’s for good reason. There’s been a few different lions that have served as the MGM logo over the years, beginning with Slats in 1917.


(Image: MGM via Wikipedia, public domain; above: Slats)

Slats was the first official MGM lion, named Leo for marketing purposes. He came from Dublin, but one thing that’s a little unclear is why MGM chose the king of the beasts for their logo. One story says that their designer, Howard Dietz, chose a lion as a nod to the mascot of his alma mater, Columbia University. Another says that it came from co-founder Marcus Loew, whose last name was associated with the German for lion. Either way, Slats went to America and he became famous.


(Image: MGM via Wikipedia; above: Jackie)

Slats retired in 1928, but died in 1936 and was buried at the home of his trainer, who was heartbroken over the big cat’s passing. Jackie took over at the face of MGM, and he’s the one that gave the logo another bit of its magic – his voice. With the advent of sound that went along with the moving pictures of film, Jackie wasn’t just a pretty face, but a big roar, too.

And actually, if you listen to his trainer, Jackie wasn’t even a pretty face – but with the list of accidents and disasters he survived (including a plane crash and two train crashes), he’s allowed to be a little less than photogenic. Ultimately, Jackie, the good-hearted lion who reportedly had a bit of a soft spot for kittens, retired in 1931 and died in 1935.


(Image: MGM via Wikipedia; above: Tanner)

Tanner took over in 1934, and turned the mantle over to George in 1956. George only lasted 2 years as the official MGM lion, and in 1957 (there’s a bit of an overlap), the MGM lion you still see at the beginning of films today was not only purchased and put into the logo, but also into film.

mgm-lion-george (Image: MGM via Wikipedia; above: George)

The lion you see at the beginning of MGM films from 1957 onward is the same lion that you’ll see if you watch the old Tarzan films. Known as Leo both officially and unofficially, you’ll get to see him do some growing up over the years. Early shots of Leo show that he’s much, much smaller than his predecessors.


(Image: MGM via Wikipedia; above: Leo)

There’s another lion that’s been something of an icon for MGM, even though he wasn’t in any of the logos. Fagan was raised by a man named Floyd Humeston, but when Humeston was drafted into the Army, he needed to find someone to watch his giant house cat while he was gone. Fagan was bounced around between shelters and circuses before MGM got wind of the story, and made Fagan a movie star in the film Fearless Fagan.

mgm-lion-fagan (Image: British Pathé via YouTube; above: Fagan)

Not surprisingly, the lions have attained something of a cult status and, much like what goes along with being a human movie star, they’ve been subject to their own reported difficulties and scandals. There’s an old urban legend that says that the original MGM lion, presumably Slats, went a bit berserk when they were trying to get him to film the clip of the logo. Rumor had it that he killed his trainer and two other people on set after the filming was finished, but it’s absolutely not true.

(Video: Titus Ellis via YouTube)

MGM’s Las Vegas casino, though, has had some difficulties with their lions. Along with the hotel and casino, the MGM Grand in Las Vegas was also home to a lion habitat. It had been for 13 years, when video was released of a male lion attacking one of its trainers inside the habitat. The trainer suffered only minor injuries, but it forced MGM to defend its practice of keeping lions in the casino habitat – which, they stressed, wasn’t their permanent home and where they only appeared for one day a week. Less than a year later, MGM announced that they were closing their lion habitat – but not because of the incident. The hotel was being remodeled, and there were no more room for the lions.

The casino lions – past and present – spent most of their time a The Cat House, an 8.5 acre desert ranch. With the closing of the MGM exhibit, The Cat House officially became a non-profit organization that allows visitors to hand feed adult lions and actually play with newborn cubs or get their picture taken with them.

mgm-lion-jackie-2 (Image: Visit McPherson)

That’s not the only place you can get up close and personal with one of the MGM lions, either – at least, if you believe the roadside attraction that claims to have the taxidermied skin and head of one of the MGM lions. The McPherson Museum in McPherson, Kansas, has a lion-skin rug (with the head attached) that they say came to Kansas from Hollywood through a local bank president. The president was gifted the rug, and while they’re not completely, 100 percent sure that he’s an MGM lion, that’s how they advertise him.

We’ve said that Jackie was the first to have his voice recorded for posterity, and there’s another urban legend that goes along with that. It’s said that he wasn’t supposed to roar, but while they were filming, two bank robbers broke into the warehouse to hide from pursuit. Jackie not only roared, but mauled one of the robbers and chased the other (who then got hit by a car) out of the building. It’s also not true, but it’s still a great story. Meanwhile, Mental Floss reports that Jackie could be the McPherson lion, but suggests this too could be an urban myth.

mgm-lion-fagan-2 (Image: British Pathé via YouTube; above: Fagan)

The MGM lion roar was, however, recently in the middle of another legal battle – the battle over whether or not sounds can be copyrighted and trademarked. In 2012, a move to copyright the lion’s roar was denied in Canadian courts, because by law, trademarks needed to have some sort of visual representation. The suit by MGM helped overturn that, though, and now there are other companies rushing to follow in MGM’s pawprints and secure the rights to their sounds.

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About the author: Debra Kelly




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