Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Jackie The Lion

MGM recording Leo the Lion (whose real name was Jackie) roaring for its official movie title logo which was first used for MGM's first talking picture 'White Shadows in the South Seas' in 1928. Jackie was used as the MGM logo for all of their films from 1928 to 1956 and was the first lion to appear in a Technicolor film in 1932 (courtesy The John Kobal Foundation)

Here is Jackie the lion. Waiting for the command: Action!

Obedient, and well trained, neither the sound recordist nor the cameraman look in the least nervous to be so close to him. I thought about this image for a long time after I saw it in the Hollywood Unseen exhibition as I found it arresting, touching and complex. It's showing us a real event, the lion actually being filmed, to be later isolated for the MGM studio logo. Jackie is already abstracted; he's against black in a cage, away from his natural environment, a real lion that lives as a representation of all lions.

In our culture we have a fascination with big cats. Tigers and leopards can often represent sexuality, whilst lions stand for more cerebral ideas, justice, strength, courage and clemency. Individual lions are given attributes of wisdom and judgment in fiction and legend. Lions are also used as symbols of kings. This began in England in the twelfth century with Richard I, the Lion Heart. The lion becomes a model of the ideal monarch; courageous, strong, wise, merciful and magnanimous. There to symbolize royal blood and also to recognise it almost as kin. In Shakepeare's Henry IV Part 1, Falstaff says to Prince Hal, 'The lion will not touch the true Prince' (Act 2, Scene 4).
But however well trained, a real lion will remain a wild animal, and will never be tame. Yet we yearn to get close to it because it continues myths of man's natural domination over nature. In the book of Genesis, animals live in peaceful harmony in the garden of Eden. In many other cultures there are myths of lions being a friend and protector of man or specific men. Again in the Bible, the lions left Daniel unharmed after he was locked in their den with them as punishment.

We yearn for this mythical lost age when we were loved by lions, so we create and look for stories of meaningful relationships between individuals and lions. This could be why the story of Elsa, made into the film, Born Free, (James Hill, 1966) was so popular. But this film had further fictions within it. 21 different lions played the part of Elsa. And however well trained, a lion will only do so much at the behest of a film director. James Hill complained about the difficulty of working with lions on the film. "You just want the lion to sit there between Bill and Virginia for a minute and you could be a week on that".

So when we see this lion, Jackie, waiting with all this cultural meaning and significance, standing to attention for the camera, we know how powerful the MGM studio is. The people who are going to show the next feature are showing us their power and might by using this lion. The camera is going to capture and control this symbol of strength, majesty and power for us: for our entertainment. This is man in charge of nature, in control, directing.

In a minute the lion will roar. Loud enough for us to know he is a lion and be a little bit afraid. The film technicians will transform this lion into a symbol. Jackie will be inserted into an image of a wreath, and be crowned by the MGM logo. The shabby crates he stands on, the makeshift backdrop will be edited out. And in the background somewhere, in this small cage is at least one trainer, maybe a few. Perhaps they are armed with weapons in case things go wrong, out of view but in control. Jackie has to do as he's told, he's there to entertain and do his lion act. Growl, and then await further orders.

Suky Best (Foam Magazine issue #10/Stories)

This image can be seen in Hollywood Unseen, recently published by ACC Editions
www.antiquecollectorsclub.com/uk

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