The Life And Times Of The MGM Lion.
The famous mascot of Metro-Goldwyn Mayer is not one lion, but seven lions. These are their stories.
JACKIE (1928-1956) 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, aka “Leo,” in a Ryan Brougham airplane modified to take him on a transcontinental flight in 1927.
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 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.
COFFEE(1932-1934) MGM began experiments with two-color short subjects in 1927 and animated cartoons in 1930. Two two-strip Technicolor variations of the MGM logo were created, with two different lions being used. The first lion (referred to as “Telly”) appeared on all color MGM movies until 1932. The second lion (referred to as “Coffee”) made his debut in 1932, appearing on color films until 1934 (and 1935 for the Happy Harmonies shorts), when production was switched to full three-strip Technicolor filming. The Cat and the Fiddle (1934) had brief color sequences, but was otherwise in black-and-white (including its opening credits), so it used Jackie instead of “Coffee”. (The Cat and the Fiddle however, showed its The End title card against a Technicolor background.) An extended version of the logo featuring “Coffee” appeared in the 1932 short Wild People. This variation features the lion roaring three times, rather than just twice.
LEO (1957-PRESENT) 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 Tarzantelevision 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.
Ralph Helfer was Leo’s trainer and cared very deeply for him. Ralph started a new way of training that didn’t involve whips or chains, but was based on respect for the animal.
MGM lions at work: