By Jim Buchanan
Animal stars are nothing new in America, and in the 1930s the silver screen was alight with box office draws like Rin Tin Tin and Tarzan’s sidekick Cheetah.
One animal star was better known for introducing other stars of the day: Leo the Lion of MGM fame.
In January of 1931, Sylva rolled out the red carpet for a visit from Leo.
The Jan. 22 front page of the Jackson County Journal painted a picture of a town awaiting a visit from royalty.
LEO WILL BE HERE IN PERSON
“Leo, who is known throughout the United States and foreign countries as the lion who roars the trademark of Metro Goldwyn Mayer pictures, will be in Sylva Friday morning at 10 o’clock at the Lyric Theatre, and all the children of the county are invited to come and see him as guests of the theatre.
“Leo is making a tour of the world. His personal conveyance is a huge, motorized speed truck which has been described as the most magnificent and palatial vehicle ever designed for any animal … Within the silver bars of his cage Leo’s comfort and health is assured by unbreakable glass sides three feet high and canvas drops that can be lowered in inclement weather. The decorations of the whole are red and gold to the extent that the finest circus wagon ever built would be put to shame. Two additional motor cars complete Leo’s entourage, and each of these matches the magnificence of the one in which Leo rides. One of these motors contains Leo’s business office …The third unit transports the large 57-note calliope, the largest and finest musical instrument of its kind ever constructed…”
Leo was actually the second lion used to introduce MGM films, but was the first to issue the signature MGM roar. This is understandable in that MGM was late in transferring from silent films to “talkies.”
Leo, originally named Jackie, was quite a star himself, appearing in more than 100 films. He was also a lion that led a charmed life. During his career he was literally the cat with nine lives, surviving an earthquake, a pair of train wrecks, a studio explosion and a sinking ship.
After a pilot transporting him crash-landed his plane in the Arizona desert, he was left to fend for himself in his cage for four days with some provisions left by the pilot. Thereafter he was known as Leo the Lucky.
Leo appeared in publicity photos with a number of MGM stars. Probably the most famous was the photoshoot with Greta Garbo, fresh to the United States from Sweden, which has no big cats.
The 19-year-old Garbo’s posture indicated a person much more interested in fleeing the scene than sitting still for a photographer.
Leo died of heart issues in 1936.