Classic Hollywood Myths

Myth: MGM’s Lion killed two robbers and his trainer

In Classic Hollywood Myths we take a look at all the myths about the Golden Age of Hollywood. What really happened? Are these ‘urban legends’ true or false? Classic Hollywood Central looks into it!

Myth: MGM’s Lion killed two robbers and his trainer

You will recognize movies that were made by studio MGM by the lion roaring in its logo before the movie starts. It is arguably one of the most famous logos in cinema history. It was created in 1916 by Howard Dietz, a publicity executive, who wanted to pay homage to his alma matter Colombia University. The school’s fight song was ‘Roar, Lion, Roar’. Rumor has it, that the studio bit off more than it could chew with its new mascot. The story goes that they were shooting the MGM logo with ‘Leo the Lion’ on a quiet day, when the studio lot was mostly empty. Two robbers came in, expecting an empty sound studio, when they were faced with the lion in the midst of filming. The lion, who was supposed to sit there silently, roared and attacked them. One of the robbers died of his injuries and the other ran into traffic and was killed by an oncoming car. The lion was so frazzled by the ordeal that he killed his trainer the next day. Alfred Hitchcock himself was supposedly the director on set.

MGM lion hitchcock

First things first: there was never just one lion to grace MGM’s logo with its presence. There were five: Slats, Jackie, Tanner, George and ‘Leo the Lion’. The story claims that it was ‘Leo the Lion’, MGM’s most famous mascot, who was responsible for these deaths. He is the current lion in the MGM logo and has been used since 1957. In 2021, a new logo made with CGI was unveiled, based on his 1957 footage. It’s unlikely that Leo ever mauled anyone, since he had a long Hollywood career after the filming of the MGM logo. He went on to appear in Kings of Kings (1961), Zebra in the Kitchen (1965), Fluffy (1965) and Napoleon and Samantha (1972). His trainer Ralph Helfer would go on to write a book about Zamba (his real name) called ‘The World’s Greatest Lion’. It tells the real-life story of a time when Helfer’s animal ranch was ravaged by floods and Zamba led many of the other animals to safety. ‘Leo the Lion’ definitely does not deserve his killer image!
We can also rule out MGM’s first lion: Slats. He was part of the logo from 1917 to 1928. After filming, he was toured around the world to signify MGM’s launch. Not something you would do with a lion who just killed three men. His trainer was still alive when Slats passed away: Slats was lovingly put to rest on his trainer’s farm in 1936.
Then came Jackie, who was in MGM’s logo on-and-off between 1928 and 1956. He was a well-known lion in Hollywood: he had already appeared in films like Ben-Hur (1925) and Flesh and the Devil (1926). He was nicknamed ‘Leo the Lucky’ because he reportedly survived two train wrecks, an earthquake, a boat sinking, an explosion and a plane crash. Like Slats, he would tour the world on behalf of MGM. After his farewell tour, he lived out the remainder of his life in Philadelphia Zoo. His life is well documented and considering all the work he did for MGM, he is also an unlikely candidate. 
Jackie had to share his reign with Tanner. Tanner was a regular at MGM. He was seen in Three Stooges shorts, Three Missing Links (1938), Hold That Lion (1948) and many more films. Another lion so professional, we can rule him out.
The last lion is George, who was only used during his two year stint from 1956 to 1958. They hired him because of his beautiful, big mane. Not much is known about him.

See the evolution of the MGM logo here:

True or False?

Probably false.

Slats, Jackie, Tanner and ‘Leo the Lion’ can be ruled out. That leaves George, who has the shortest reign of all the lions. There is no knowledge as to why he was only used for two years, yet there are no records of him mauling or killing people either. There are some wild cards: three lions whose images were used to experiment with coloring of the logo between 1927 and 1935. Their names were Bill, Telly and Coffee. Not much is known about them either.
Still, if such a horrible thing had happened on the MGM set, there should be some evidence. There are no newspaper clippings about the proposed incident, no direct quotes from people involved and there is no mention of it in MGM or classic Hollywood history books. The inclusion of Alfred Hitchcock in the myth points towards false as well: he never recorded any of the MGM lions. This part of the myth is probably based on a picture of him ‘directing’ a lion to roar. This picture was actually taken in 1958, as a promotional tool for the film North by Northwest which was distributed by MGM. ‘Leo the Lion’ had been used as the logo since 1957, so it had already been filmed and there is no mention of Hitchcock being involved whatsoever.
Though there is no way of ruling it out completely, this myth is probably false. The lion’s intimidating roar, Hollywood’s questionable work with animals and the picture of Hitchcock directing a lion seem to have culminated in the creation of this story, which would ironically make for a good movie.

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